All too often, people start projects with grand ambitions, only to later find themselves unable to finish. Seeing their expectations crumble, what follows next is a series of despair, doubt and often, even shame.
After finding themselves in a similar situation with their own lingering projects, writers Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton came together to create “Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.”
In what could easily be described as a guide to procrastinating — something we’ve all been guilty of at one point — their book brings readers through a step-by-step process of reigniting and, eventually, completing that stalled creative project.
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“It’s a practical approach to finishing work,” says Tennis. “There’s people to deal with things like starvation and bad relationships. There’s self-help people who will help you learn to sell more cars or make more money or dress better, but the one thing I felt that I wanted to do in the world was to help people finish projects.”
Tennis and Morton walk us through some of the key elements of their approach.
Set realistic goals
“Mapping out specific times for a project, and then sitting down to work seems to really clear away distractions,” explains Tennis. “It’s a simple approach, but it works.” The key word, however, is “realistic.” Telling yourself you’re going to finish your novel this month may sound great, but more often than not, you know it’s not going to happen. By mapping out discrete and precise times for a task you want to accomplish, however, you come away every week as a winner. Even better, doing this repeatedly strengthens your capacity to make a plan and stick to it, explains Tennis. “Exercising it makes it stronger, and eventually, you master it.”
Establish a support system
It’s called the “buddy system.” You probably followed it in kindergarten, but this time it’s different. “It’s pretty adult,” says Tennis. The approach is simple: By linking up with a partner and checking in with them occasionally regarding the progress of your work, you create a system of encouragement and accountability. Of course, there are also other benefits. “It’s a boost to not think of yourself as this lonely creature who’s trying this impossible thing,” says Morton. “There are other lonely creatures trying this impossible thing, too. You’re both in the club together.”
For support in a writers’ group, it’s best not to read each other’s work, explain Morton and Tennis. In fact, in many ways, sharing can be detrimental to a writer’s progress. “The Finishing School” method instead involves simply discussing what was accomplished rather than the perceived success of the content itself. “We found that focusing it not on the quality of work leveled the playing field,” says Morton. “When we sit down to write, we are actually equals. The problems of somebody who has ever written something before who is struggling with trying to finish are identical to the problems of someone who is an accomplished writer and still can’t get that thing done.”
For many, falling off track with creative projects can leave them feeling down and ashamed. Even worse, according to Morton, people naturally tend to denigrate the things they do. The key to rebuilding self esteem lies in gradually developing evidence of their progress. “In reality, if every week you finish something and take your work seriously, then, brick-by-brick, you get rid of shame,” says Morton. “If you continue to wrestle with it, and you continue to make progress, then you can hold your head up high as a creative person because in the end, you’re getting it done.”