The scary thing isn’t starting but finishing but also starting

Have you guys realized that the word start has ART in it?!


I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard to talk about our pet projects out loud. And by that I mean our favorites, the ones we guard a little carefully– not the pet eggs we’re hoping to raise for the state fair “who has the best hens” competition. Although those could certainly count too. I wouldn’t want to not count my chickens before they hatch.


My second year of grad school, I was teaching for the first time, and had a workshop assignment to write a poem a day for the whole semester, and was taking a full load of classes, and I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), wherein you write 50,000 words in a month (November). I was 42,000 words in at Thanksgiving and had a week left– in other words, I was right on target and would have easily finished. I mentioned the project to my parents, who asked what the word vomit “novel” was about, and as I explained its loose plot line, they asked a few gentle, curious questions, and I realized how many problems there were with it– how many holes left to fill, how many major wrong turns I had taken along the way– all of which I already knew, it just sounded so much worse when said out loud and the whole idea so much more hopelessly silly when said in front of others.

And despite knowing that I had written 42,000 words in three weeks and that no one emerges with a finished draft of a novel, and that I had gone in knowing the point was just to finish, only that— I gave up. Entirely and completely. The project and my own hubris overwhelmed me, and I felt embarrassed that other people knew I was doing this foolish, pointless thing (although thousands of people do it each year and I think it’s great, and always results in something— “but for other people, not for me,” goes the little voice in my head, “wah wah”). I didn’t write the last 8,000 words. I haven’t looked at it since. I can’t bear to. I’m somehow convinced that every single sentence I wrote for it was complete and total shit, and that the whole thing will reveal what a fraud I am to pretend I know how to write even the simplest of emails. House of cards.

Sometimes we don’t talk about our projects because we’re afraid of what they’ll look like when held up to the light. Sometimes we can’t talk about them to specific people because we know those people will chime in, and we know those people’s chimes are valuable but also, maybe, dangerous– a little bit out of tune with our own, or perhaps just so loud we’ll be unable to tune them out, or maybe they’re really lovely tunes in harmony with our own but that’ll make it hard to disentangle when we see what they could bring (and this was my project dammit) or they do play your tune and are eagerly enthusiastic and sweet and lovely about it and overwhelming with their beautiful thoughts and coherent vision and you start to think oh it sounds so good when she does it I should just give it to her she’ll do it so much better than me.

And have you ever given away a project easily– talked about it carelessly, to someone who doesn’t take the time to listen, or lives in a different universe, or dismisses it or you, or who then repeats it loosely? Oh, it’s like when you were a child, and you had a new beloved toy, and you were so eager to show it that you gave it to the first person you saw, and they broke it, and it was your fault for not taking better care of something that deserved to be tended a bit more closely, at least for a time.

Sometimes we don’t talk about our projects because they exist, whole and perfect in our minds, and the minute we try to articulate them, we realize how crumbly or slippery they are, we hear how raspy our own sentences sound, and the project gets scared and skitters off into a dark corner of your mind and can’t be coaxed out again, and instead of emerging a whole if shadowy animal, it throws tufts of mangy fur and bits of toenails in your direction.

Sometimes we can’t talk about our projects because we’re afraid of what we’ll look like when held up to the light.

It’s hard to talk about our projects because talking about them always, in some way, even in a tiny safe contained one, reveals talking about what we want. What we hope for our art, which is what we hope for ourselves.

I don’t have a good ending for this post. Because yes, there’s something to going quiet and letting things solidify in our minds before parading them about. Yes, there’s something wholesome and nurturing about talking about projects with the right people at the right time. Yes, there’s something necessary about the changes that occur when a project begins to exist in the real world rather than the initial fabricated vision. All art is about learning, each time and with each draft and each undertaking, how to move the end result a bit closer to the thing we originally saw in our minds. Yes, there’s something about taking notes, or drawing sketches, or writing lists, or creating graphs or boards to guide us along the way so we don’t stray too far from the path once we start wandering in the fields.

But at some point, it’s just time to start. And let it get messy. And ugly. Like that painting, hanging framed in my parents’ kitchen, right below my sister’s Jackson Pollack rainbow art, that I did that looks like some red blurs and a splotch of green surrounding a huge brown blob of poop.

I think it was supposed to be a social commentary on our narrow definitions of beauty. And poop. And Mr. Potato Head in a teal tutu attempting to ride a terrified rare red sea turtle.