On Saturday, I finished a poetry project that I started in February. Not a poem, mind you, but a long-term project. I thought I would talk a little bit about project completion.
There is an odd thing about goals, activities, projects, etc. The self-help brigade would tell you that you should basically take a certain level of joy in any accomplishment. To an extent, I agree. If you write out a to do list one day that is ten items long and you accomplish eight of them, you should probably pat yourself on the back that you were that productive. On the other hand, if you walk away completing two of those items, and neither was the most important, it’s hard to justify feeling accomplished.
As a young, idealistic man, poetry was this thorn in my side. I like poetry. I like reading poetry. I like writing poetry. I just was never too sure that it was much of an accomplishment to write a poem. Sure if it turned out good then I was happy with it, but it seemed to be appealing to the wrong part of my mode of operation. They were easy victories, and I’m not one for easy victories.
I wrote a blog post at the beginning of the year about how I wrote a poem every day in 2010. This stemmed from an odd desire to do a poetry project that was worth accomplishing; something that wasn’t an easy victory. I was actually pretty disappointed after years of trying to accomplish the poem a day thing, I finally did it, and I felt that too much of it was hurried and not thought out. It was worth it because I wrote some very good stuff, but as a ratio of good and bad, the majority of it was bad.
I think there is middle ground for accomplishment. On one side I don’t get much satisfaction from spending some time one evening on writing a poem. On the other side, working at something for a full year makes the accomplishment feel anticlimactic if I even get that far. The intervening time from start to finish starts feeing tedious. The middle ground seems to be where it is.
I have a goal this year to write 2,190 pages (about 1,277500 words). As a long term goal, I’m having the worst time with it. The day to day writing doesn’t ever seem important enough, and the whole year seems like too much to truly accomplish. It tends to cause me distraction. I start to think in terms of what I could be doing rather that what I should be doing.
In February, I conceived of an idea, and I’m not sure why I couldn’t ignore it. It involved poetry, and I’m not sure that if I had told anyone what I intended to do that anyone would have got it. Having completed it, I’m still not sure anyone will get it. Let’s try it.
The project is comprised of well over 100 poems, and ended up being about 24,000 words. The project is very abstract and is loosely based around a concept. The concept? Well, I read an article a number of years ago about Trent Reznor. It seems he had a dog that fell to its death from a balcony. There was a quote from one of his fans that Trent Reznor wrote great music when he was depressed, so hopefully this incident would turn into a great album.
Now, I’m sure you’re sitting there right now saying, “So you wrote 24,000 words about Trent Reznor’s dog?”
No. You miss the point. Probably because the point wasn’t clear.
The truth is that the concept had more to do with having something taken away. We all function day to day in a strange ballet of gain and loss. It’s so commonplace that a lot of times we don’t even notice it. I wrote two poems, and some notes in February, and then I didn’t return to the project for two months. The idea wasn’t clear enough in my head, I guess.
I finally returned to it in April, and once I finally got moving on it again, I started getting a clearer idea of what I wanted it to be. It was around that time that I remembered that article about the dog, and I realized that that was the concept that I was trying to relate. The truth is that I don’t create very well when I’m not happy. I don’t create well when I’m happy. I create well when I’m leveled out emotionally. It always seemed to me that Trent Reznor’s non-empathetic fan misunderstood that because Reznor often writes about the darker points of his life. Maybe Reznor does create better when he’s depressed. I don’t know. The important point of the statement though was that the fan felt that Reznor’s loss was the fans’ gain. And that was the concept I was trying to get straight in my head.
When you have something taken away, no matter how big or how small, what are the implications? In examining years of life, you can get a lot of mileage out of something like that. 24,000 words worth.
The trick here was working out a clear end point. I’m not sure I really needed to stop when I did. I bet I could keep going if I tried, but I had to have a point where enough was enough. This came from brainstorming a lot and working out some very basic points like how long to spend on what subjects and so forth. I kept writing to avoid getting stuck in planning mode, but I started planning further and further ahead. In the end, I dealt with seven basic sections of thought, and limited them with a fixed, though somewhat arbitrary, number of poems to deal with each section.
I spent portions of my evenings looking through the different notes and working out the key phrases of the poems, and then I would spend a few hours here or there writing the poems based on the notes that were there. It made it somewhat easy to fly through some of them because the important parts were done, and I just had to work out the flow. That’s when it became more of an exercise in stream of consciousness. I would perhaps have 10 to 20 lines out of what would end up being 30 to 40 lines long, so it was just a question of filling in the blanks.
I think that compared to the poem a day thing last year, this project worked out better. Rather than rushing something each day whether I had anything good to write or not, I instead wrote at the pace I needed to write so that not too many of them were particularly bad. The worst thing I can say about the whole project is that it’s abstract in a way that I’m not sure the theme is clear at all without explanation, but in my defense, I’ve read classic poetry, and it isn’t always all that clear either. But I think that the act of brainstorming ideas, and then writing a poem each day, made an invaluable contribution to my work over the last few months, because it required a lot of the same type of work.
I think that what prompted me to share this is that I found it odd that something so comparatively small seemed like more of an accomplishment to me. I think it’s partially because it turned out better. I also think that it showed me an unfortunate side of my personality. I simply work better when I take a bunch of smaller parts and build them into a complete whole. It means that I will probably always tend to take longer on each project than I should. I never seem to work on the same project for very many days in a row. The main thing for me is to keep going back to each project frequently whether I get a lot done or not, because I don’t have the focus to start something and keep at it until it’s finished, nor do I have the focus to finish something if I ignore it for too long.