The Business of Unfinishing

Ah, end of the spring semester! All of my finals are complete, the grades are good, and I can stop pulling my hair out with the stress of it all…at least, for a month or two. (The last, of course, is hyperbole, as I haven’t really much hair to pull. But you get the idea.)

Theoretically, this means that there’s no reason for me to not write and post. Still, the weather is nice enough to invoke an appreciative expletive or two, so we’ll see. As per usual, I will attempt to spend the academia-free summer trying to draft and revise some poems, and maybe get a real start on the chapbook I’ve been planning for a while now. This is my goal. However, this depends entirely on my ability to not be distracted by Shirtless Jogger Season, which has been known to create significant diversion. Maybe I ought to just train myself to see them with the word “Write!!” emblazoned across their bare chests… but which nipple, then, to dot the i? Alas, the Adonises of the jogging path will have to wait until I get some work done.

Recently, I’ve come to discover that I have a wealth of unfinished poetry. And by ‘come to discover’, what I really mean is that I’m confronting the fact that I tend to put off finishing most pieces. Everything is in a constant state of revision. It’s easier to count the number of poems that I consider to be complete than it is to tally the ones that still need work. These works-in-progress exist in states from thinly tamed chaos to near-completion, with no predictable end in sight for any.

There are several reasons for this, most having to do with my own unique combination of cowardice, OCD, and procrastination. (To be clear, I don’t mean that I have been officially diagnosed with OCD. What I refer to here is the loosely defined affliction of Fuckwithit Syndrome, in which I just can’t leave well enough alone. It is my understanding that this is common among creative types, potentially manifesting in early childhood as a desire to poke things and/or siblings with sticks or fingers. A large number of such children fall into artistry as early adults, with surely an equal percentage tumbling into science. Preliminary data suggests that neural misrouting of the Fuckwithit urge may lead one into government administrative services and/or unhealthy ventures in proctology.)

In order to get over this consistent unfinishing, I’ve decided it would be a good exercise to list all the specific reasons my work exists in a continual state of revision. I think that if I can put it in writing, it might be easier to manage that aspect of authorial impotence. So:

THE REASONS I DON’T FINISH POEMS.

1. I am a die-hard revisionist. In my own writing, I firmly believe that nothing comes out right the first time and that I have a responsibility to refine everything. Naturally, this poses certain obstacles. In continually trying to better my initial effort, it is rare that I feel a poem has reached a state of self-contained harmony.

2. I like a poem too much to leave it alone… or, in some cases, to mess with it. Every so often I’ll write something so inspired that it stuns me (in other words, it feels like someone else wrote it). When that happens I feel one of two ways: either I will just stare at it, afraid to work on it and potentially ruin it, or I will immediately begin working on new drafts to exploit the poetic gold. While the second option is more likely to yield progress and potential completion, it also can have the result of producing more drafts that I can reasonably assess. Case in point: “Paper Lantern,” a poem I started over a year ago, which now exists in more than 27 variations.

3. I’m a coward. Finishing a poem means that I have no reason not to let other people read it.

4. I don’t trust my own judgment. In earlier years, I’ve jumped the gun when it comes to determining whether a poem is truly done, and I’ve let people read and/or print them. Unfortunately, this means I have some poems running amok in the world that cause me to cringe in shame. On a technical level, I know that such poems are evidence of growth and a chance to appreciate how far I’ve come. On a personal level, however, they’re proof positive that I have tremendous potential to write badly. Sigh.

5. Unfinished poems have all the potential in the world. The second they’re done, you can’t play around in them anymore. So I draw it out.

While all of these reasons are compelling, at this point they hinder more than they help. It’s high time I put on my big girl pants and made a more concentrated effort to complete things. And once they’re complete, I need to ask for outside feedback, weigh the results, and then act accordingly. In other words, I need to do the things I tell everyone else to do. Practice what I preach, as they say.

Then, and only then, am I allowed to chase down the shirtless joggers.

(It’s going to be a long summer.)

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