On Finishing What We Start, and Other Writerly Myths

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I often joke with friends that if you don’t finish what you start, you’ll end up with a trail of half-eaten sandwiches around the house.

I don’t remember where I first heard this analogy for unfinished work, but it’s such a vivid image that it’s stuck with me all these years. Can you imagine how messy your home would be if every discarded idea lay on the floor, cluttering up your space?

I know for me, it would mean trudging through mounds of detritus, some tiny specks of dust, some true dust bunnies. Others would be larger, mean and angry, like broken furniture, all sharp and crooked, just waiting to catch my leg and leave a deep gash.

We don’t want that.

So I’m careful with what I entertain. When I have what I think is a solid idea, I open a Scrivener file, give it a title, and create a book journal. This journal is important: I use it to explain what the thought is about and why I’m writing it down. Manifestation is a powerful thing—I don’t do this unless I feel like the idea has real legs. I save this new project to a folder called—quite originally, I might add—Ideas. Every once in a while, I run through them. A good 75% of the time, when revisited, the idea has faded away. Which tells me it wasn’t that good to start with. The ones that are still as vivid and exciting as the day I put them in the file, those are the ones that I think long and hard about starting.

Because if I start a story, I finish it. I refuse to allow myself to abandon a project once it’s underway.
 

That sounds harsh, I’m sure. That I’m lashing my Muse to the prow of the ship and heading into dark waters with hurricane warnings ahead. And yes, sometimes, that’s how starting feels to me. A journey into the heart of darkness, with no idea of whether what lies ahead will be good, bad, or something in between.

But when I sit down to write a story, be it a short or a novel, I do so with a commitment to finish paramount in my mind.

Starting is hard. Finishing, though, is sometimes much, much more difficult.

I’ve been planning this blog for several days. I didn’t want to start it until I had a solid hour ahead in which I knew I could get it drafted. Today was the day. In one of those odd universe-timed moments, a friend wrote me right before I started with a question. She’s been balls to the wall on deadline for the biggest book of her career. All she’s wanted for weeks is to Get. It. Done. Already.

And today, the day she’s going to finish, she woke up and had the most jarring thought—that she didn’t want to let it go.

This, I believe, is why finishing is so hard.

Her emotion is one I am intimately familiar with. Every time I’m nearing the end of a story, I have the same sensation. For days, months, even years, in some cases, all I’ve wanted it to get the book done and off my plate. But when the moment presents itself, suddenly finishing doesn’t feel good. It feels too big. Too scary.

Finishing means your work will no longer be your own. To me, that’s a thousand times scarier than starting.

I believe this is why so many ideas are abandoned. Because when you finish, you have to let your work out into the world, where it will be judged. We’re writers, and this is a subjective industry. Some people will love your story. Some will hate it. That’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is to not let the beast slay you before you’ve even put the food in its maw.

All well and good, JT, you say. So tell me how to finish.

You just do.

You throw away your fear, you swallow the bile that rises at the thought of someone else reading your words, and you finish. And I don’t mean just putting an ending together and calling it done. You’ve spent all this time creating a brilliant story, why would you rush and throw something together so you can type The End? You won’t be happy, and neither will your Muse, and she won’t hesitate to let you know it.

No. Never that. You must be brave. You are a hunter. You must march deliberately into the darkness, your torch held high, and tap into your reckless abandon. That is the bait for the monster you must slay. Because all endings are monsters, and they do not like confidence, or excitement, or serenity.

When you find that perfect (or not so perfect) ending and wrestle it onto the page, crushing the biggest monster of all, two things will happen.

1 — You will have the incredible satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best (which is the psychological component you must overcome when finishing, because I heard the voice in the back of your mind say—But if this is my best, and people don’t like it, I will shrivel up and die in a corner—to which I say, bosh, no you won’t).

2 — You will experience something I like to call “creative satisfaction.”

Creative satisfaction is elusive and shy. She won’t come when called, and she will never show up willingly. She only pokes out her head when you’ve exhausted yourself, a balm for your wounds. She nestles next to you like a loving cat, tells you how fabulous you are for being brave, and gives you a sweet kiss on the forehead, one you’ll feel when the next new idea comes along. Real creative satisfaction fills you up, and gives you the strength to do it all over again.

But if you don’t finish, and finish strong, you’ll never find her.

Finish what you start. Find that ritual that tells the world you’re finishing (mine is donning my ragged old Harvard T-shirt. When I have it on, that’s a signal to the universe that today is finishing day—and I do it for every project!) and just get it done. Because I know you can do it, and do it well.

Write hard, my friends.