Life, Personal Development

Finishing Stuff

In thinking about all the projects I’ve started over the years – anything from essays, to musical compositions, to house cleaning efforts, to travel plans – I wonder if there’s a common reason why some of them got done and others didn’t.

The projects I have in mind are my own solo projects – efforts that I undertook by myself – but to understand why these projects succeeded or failed, it’s helpful to consider why a group project might succeed or fail.

When a whole team of people succeeds or fails at achieving a goal and you want to figure out why, you can look at how well they got along, how motivated they were, how clearly they understood their mission, and so on, but perhaps the first question to ask is whether they had a good leader or project manager. Was there someone on the team who took it as their primary responsibility to steer the project to completion? And how skillful was this person in a managerial capacity, whether they called themselves a manager or not?

When you undertake a solo project, of course, you play many roles at once: you’re the person who comes up with the ideas, you’re the person who edits and refines the ideas, you’re the person who executes the ideas, and you’re the person who makes sure that all of these things happen within the time and resource constraints at hand. But you might not put the same effort into each of these roles.

What I realize in considering the history of my solo projects is that there have been some where I accepted the responsibility of “project manager” from the get-go and others where I avoided it. Some projects literally started with my thinking “I’ve got to get this done – how can I get it done?” and others started with my thinking “Let’s explore some possibilities and see how it all turns out.” I’m going to venture to say that the projects where I took on the responsibility of “project manager” are the ones that succeeded, and the ones where I avoided that responsibility… you guessed it. But all of this can be phrased in a way that doesn’t use the term “project manager” at all.

The projects that got finished are the ones where I made finishing a priority from the outset. They’re the ones where I started thinking about how to finish from the very moment I began work. They’re the ones where I constantly returned to the goal of finishing at each step, weighing any choice I might make according to whether it would move me closer to finishing, or further away.

The projects that got abandoned are the ones where I didn’t make an early commitment to finishing. They’re the ones where I started out with a goal like exploring or experimenting or testing the waters, but not necessarily finishing. They’re the ones where I assumed that if I just spent enough time and put in enough effort and gathered enough material, finishing would happen naturally. They’re the ones where I didn’t become concerned with finishing until late in the game, and even then, my commitment was conditional, not absolute: “I’ll finish this if…”

The difference boils down to an active versus a passive view of finishing.

The active view is that you’ve got to work at finishing all the time. Finishing is part of the project, it’s one of the things you grapple with, just like you grapple with the project’s content – the sentences in the essay, the notes in the musical composition. If you’re making art, then finishing is part of the art. A way to finish is part of what you’re creating.

The passive view is that finishing comes about naturally once you’ve put in sufficient time and effort. Finishing isn’t something that you consider or worry about per se; rather, it’s the end state that you reach as a matter of course. If you simply work hard enough on the content of the project, eventually you’ll finish.

Here are some thought patterns and behaviors that typically arise when you take an active view of finishing:

You remain open to the possibility that you’ve already finished. You periodically ask “Can I release this right now, just as it is?” If you can’t release it right now, then what can you do right now so that if you had to release it tomorrow, it would be releasable?

You try to get simple things out of the way as early as possible. For example, if you need a title and you can choose it now, you choose it now.

When you hit a roadblock, you don’t stop or use this as an excuse to slow down; either you keep trying to overcome the roadblock or you shift to working on some other part of the project that’s not blocked.

You always try to make things easier for yourself. You constantly ask “How can I set myself up for success?” rather than asking “How can I identify obstacles that will provide a good justification for why I couldn’t succeed?”

When you experience doubt or anxiety, you take it as your job as a creator or a doer to overcome this. If you’re worried about your abilities or about the project’s worthiness, you realize that this worry is an obstacle to finishing, just like any other obstacle, and it’s your mission to get past whatever obstacles come up, including those of the mind, using whatever tools you have available. Finding ways to diffuse or defang your anxieties, rather than giving them more airtime and a chance to grow, is part of what you signed up for when you signed up to finish. Finding ways to stay motivated — to tap into available sources of optimism — is part of the duty you assumed.

It can seem mystifying how the same person can be so effective in completing one project but so ineffective in completing another. But the mystery recedes if you look at the strength of that person’s commitment to finishing. If they were committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably spent time throughout the project managing themselves: taking stock of their progress and re-calibrating their efforts to give themselves the best chance of reaching the goal. If they weren’t really committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably didn’t do any of that until the project had already gone on for a while, maybe spiraling out of control. In both cases, they may have worked very, very hard — it might have felt to them that they were doing their absolute best, working as hard they possibly could. It’s just that in one case, the work was aimed at finishing and in the other case, it wasn’t.

Postscript

Should you commit to finishing every project? What if you’re not sure the project’s a good one? What if you’re just trying something out to see if it might be worth pursuing? What if it’s a hopeless project that you’d be best to get away from? What if it’s a delightful project that you wish would never end?

You don’t have to finish every project you start, and you probably shouldn’t. Quitting can be virtuous. If you didn’t finish a project, be kind to yourself about it; don’t second-guess the choice.

But I bet you’ll learn more from the projects you finish. In my own experience, even if the project is just a private experiment, and even if I feel at the midway point that I’ve already learned what I wanted to learn, I usually learn more if I push across the finish line. Often there are things I can only learn if I’ve created a complete product to look back on — a complete essay or a complete piece of music — no matter whether it’s good.

I’ve started writing this essay a bunch of times over the years but my earlier attempts never got beyond rough drafts. Since I didn’t finish them I didn’t publish them on my blog or elsewhere, and eventually I lost track of them. It’s probably true that those incomplete efforts — where I jotted down some notes and began to sort out my thoughts — were educational in some way. But I know I’ll take away the most from this attempt, the first one I committed to finishing.

Music

Canon #4, Topaz – Revised

Here is a major revision of my Canon #4, Topaz, a piece I had initially finished on December 20, 2014:

What is the piece about?

On a technical front, the piece explores what you can do with a long descending chromatic line in the context of a canon. Ever since 2014, I’ve thought of Canon 4 as my “Descending Chromatic Line Piece” because it has continued to be my only canon that features such a line — a sequence of quarter notes descending in half steps — so prominently. On a stylistic front, the piece reminds me of a Bach canon more than many of my other efforts, though it makes no claim of being in the authentic style of Bach, and I’m sure it contains much that deviates from the master’s style. I don’t ever set out to “write like Bach.” I do set out to write music that gives me a hint of the same pleasure that I experience when I listen to Bach. This is one case where I felt I had been successful in creating for myself a pathway to experiencing that pleasure. On an emotive front, I’ve always liked the sense of forward drive in this piece, the propulsion.

What did I do to the piece and why?

I found myself wishing that the original piece from 2014 were a little longer and that the ending were less abrupt. My approach to writing canons has been that I only “say” what I’m ready to say at the time. I try to keep it short and sweet. But sometimes, in retrospect, what seemed appropriately short now seems too short.

Over the years, I had made a few attempts to add material and write a longer ending, but I couldn’t come up with anything that matched what was already there, so I left the piece alone. But recently it occurred to me that a natural way to extend a canon that features a descending chromatic line would be to introduce a new section that features an ascending one. So now the piece has an ABA structure, with the A section featuring a descending line and the B section featuring an ascending one. There’s also a new ending.

How did I do it?

To create the new B section of this piece, I wondered if I would have to write it completely from scratch. The answer was, mercifully, no! I decided to try an experiment which usually doesn’t work for a tonal piece — I made a chromatic mirror inversion of the whole A section. That basically means reflecting all the notes across a horizontal axis so the whole piece is turned upside down, with all of the note-to-note distances preserved exactly. (It’s a laborious process to do this by hand, but software helps out.) This often gives usable results for non-tonal music, especially music that uses symmetric scales like the whole-tone scale or the octatonic/diminished scale — see my piece Birdsong, which uses chromatic mirror inversion everywhere — but for tonal music employing standard major/minor scales it often produces something incoherent. In this particular case though, the result made sense. The long descending chromatic line turned into a long ascending chromatic line, as expected. What surprised me was that the rest of the material accompanying and surrounding the chromatic line also remained intelligible, though not fully “ready to go.” I spent some time revising it, allowing myself to deviate more extensively from strict imitation than I would have done back in 2014, when strictness was more of a priority for me.

As for the ending, the perennial challenge is how to bring the motion of the canon to a stop in a way that is in character with the rest of the piece, but different enough that it can be recognized as an ending, not a continuation; terse enough that it doesn’t sound like fluff in contrast to the tight counterpoint that preceded it, but long enough that it lets you down gently, with some preparation and grace. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of writing canons or any music that’s intricate and dense. To make it harder, I find that endings are an area where my opinions or reactions occasionally lack the stability that I can depend on elsewhere. Generally, what sounded like good counterpoint in 2014 still sounds like good counterpoint to me today in 2021, but what felt like a satisfying ending may not still feel that way; often it does, but sometimes I’m inspired to undertake a revision like the current one, looking for a new ending that hopefully combines logic with some pleasing whimsicality.

How can I hear the new and old versions side by side?

The new version of Canon 4 is here (or use the player at the top of this post); the old version is here. You can also read about my other recent adventures in revision, including my efforts on Canon 18 and Canon 22.