Picasso, Perfectionism, and Knowing When to Quit

I don’t know if this story is true or not, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

Towards the end of his life, Pablo Picasso started getting on the bad side of all the local art museums. What happened was he’d see his work on display and realize with dismay that one of the paintings wasn’t quite perfect. So he’d wait until the museum closed for the night, gather up his painting gear, and break in. He’d put some finishing touches on the painting until he felt like it was as good as it needed to be, and then he’d go home.

He didn’t just do this once, either. He kept on sneaking in and painting over his own work.

Needless to say, it put the museums in an awkward place. I mean, how do you tell someone to stop messing with the exhibits when the guy is vandalizing his own work?

Whether the story is true or not, it’s always resonated me. Here’s one of the greatest artists of all time looking at some of his best work of all time, and all he can think is, “Man, I wish I’d done that differently.”

I’m no Picasso, especially when it comes to painting (I once did so poorly on a painting assignment that my art teacher thought I’d spilled paint on the canvas) but I see some of the same concepts in my writing. Whether it’s a blog that I slapped together in an hour or a novel that I spent two years polishing, I can’t go back and reread anything I’ve done after I put it out for others to read. If I do, I’ll start second-guessing my word order, or wondering if a sentence was totally necessary, or thinking that maybe I should have added another subplot, or…

There’s always something else I can tweak.

Even after I’ve taken care of every grammatical error, every missing word, and every typo, there’s going to be something that I think might be just a little stronger if I made a simple change. The more I realize this, the more paralyzing the whole process of editing becomes. For blogs, it’s not such a big deal, since the philosophy is more to get something out there than to achieve any sort of literary excellence. But as I move into the editing phase for my next book, I find myself asking a simple question.

How do I know when this is done?

As a self-published author, the pressure is even bigger. I don’t have a publisher to tell me to make a couple more changes or to give me the green light. I’m the one who has to pull the trigger.

One of my favorite creatives is a graphic novelist named Doug TenNapel. He once said something along the lines of “I’d rather publish a ton of really good stories than one perfect one,” and I tend to agree with him. Theoretically, I could spend the rest of my life perfecting this new book, editing it and improving it as I honed my craft as a writer. Hopefully, I’d end up with one heck of a novel by the time I die, but I want to tell more stories than that. The other extreme is to do absolutely zero polish on everything I do and throw stuff out there as I get it done. I’d have a huge volume of work, but no quality, which actually sounds worse than the “single incredible novel” concept. So there’s a balance in there.

Somewhere.

But how do I know when this is done?

Songwriter Michael Gungor mentioned in a blog that the best guide he’s found for knowing when something is done is waiting for the moment when you can’t think of anything else that will make you love the piece more. I think this is a great place to start. It still leaves things open and a little vague, but it provides some nice direction.

Creatives: How do you finally decide you’re done with a project?

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One thought on “Picasso, Perfectionism, and Knowing When to Quit

  1. As a recovering perfectionist, this resonates with me. More often, though, the struggle wasn’t over a creative project with no firm ending point, but with school assignments. Those were DUE, and often the deadline was the merciful (if grueling) stopping point. My struggle was to stop before the 8am class time so that I could actually sleep. Health and time restraints finally taught me that no assignment was worth killing myself.
    But it’s interesting to think of it from a self-propelled standpoint, where you are essentially your own task-master. Good thoughts, Taylor.

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