Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

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Progress on Progress

Preparation for the boys' Halloween costumes, October 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to make a list entitled “Things That Are Screaming At Me Because I Haven’t Made More Progress On Them”.

It was a long list. I made it because I was wound up to 90, and braindumping the contents of my writhing mind seemed preferable to sitting there like a spare brick. I gave my monsters free rein; they were not kind.

I think my monsters don’t really believe in progress.


In their opinion, there are two acceptable states for a project:

  1. conceived, but not started (hence still existing in its Platonic ideal state);
  2. finished, perfectly.

The part in the middle, where I’m actually doing the work, makes them deeply uncomfortable. It’s like a wobbly rope bridge over the Chasm of Failure.

So every time I have an idea, they say, “Wait … is this really the best approach? Do we have exactly the right materials? Shouldn’t we research a bit more first? Maybe someone else has already done it better. Listen, let’s just hang back for a while, OK?” And quite often, I listen to them for ages before shutting my eyes, gritting my teeth, and jumping in.

And then, every time I work on a project I’ve managed to begin, the cacophony strikes up: “Why isn’t this done already? Why haven’t we got further by now? Why aren’t we there yet? And why do we always take so long?”

These are the whys of fear and frustration, obviously, not the whys of curiosity. (Read Havi Brooks on the two kinds of why – she nails it.) No matter how much progress I make, it isn’t enough, because it should have been finished ages ago.

Finished is safe. Progress is risky.

There’s a third dimension too, I now realise, which is that as I draw near to the completion of a project, the monsters start to panic, because it’s … just … never going to measure up to that original, perfect inspiration.

“Wait!” they exclaim. “You can’t be planning to leave it like this! It’s not finished! Not properly! Remember what you were going to do? This isn’t half what it could have been – in fact, should have been. Lookit. Tell you what. Why don’t you put it away in a drawer for a year or two, and maybe when you come back to it you’ll have become the person this project deserves, and you’ll be able to do it justice.”

The results of all these emotional gymnastics? Shame. Aversion. Avoidance. Resistance. Paralysis.

Thanks, monsters.

So anyway, I wrote my list.

I posted it in Havi’s Kitchen Table forum (because I’d be stupid not to). And a bunch of lovely Tablers wrote beautiful, supportive insightful comments, which were just what I needed. They told me about their own unfinished projects – some of which had been lying around for even longer than mine. They recommended books and online resources and tips to help with the stuckness. They sent me virtual alcohol. It was all good.

One comment that really unlocked things for me came from the wonderful Fi Bowman.

First, she suggested that I send the monsters off to play with her own goblin horde and make lists

very long lists of all the ways in which both of us are wrong, useless, unreliable, hopeless and doomed to never get anything done.

Brilliant.

And second, she waved her magic wand. Whoosh!

There. Look at that!

Your unfinished projects have now been turned into Works In Progress. All creative people have Works In Progress. It positively proves how very creative you are.

Oh, and the ones you started and then abandoned and realio trulio don’t feel like finishing? They’re now officially Samples. Again, it is important to have lots of Samples as evidence of your creative explorations, even the ones that are not worth taking to a Resolved Conclusion.

So now, instead of a list of Unfinished Things Aaaarrrrgggghhh, I have works in progress. Which everyone has, and which are nothing to be ashamed of, yes? (I don’t know why I’d never noticed before that whereas I have no problem whatsoever with other people having giant piles of WIPs, my having them was somehow shameful.) And I have samples, which is kind of a new thing for me.

Embroidery with metal (sample made at a workshop with Anne Small)

This, for instance, is a sample of embroidery with metal, which I made at the Knitting and Stitching Show on Sunday, at a workshop with Anne Small. (She’s part of the Small Chat group, and made some of the sculptural fabric pieces that so impressed me on the Friday, but she’s also done a lot of work in metal.)

Ever since I brought it home, I’ve been fretting in a background kind of way, about what I’ll do with it. How I’ll justify the time I spent on it, or something. But recasting it in my mind as a sample helps enormously.

Anne Small had several notebooks with her at the class, full of samples. Clearly not finished pieces, clearly just for practice. And equally clearly, legitimate work to be doing.

And if she can do it, so can I. Right, monsters?

Monsters: Mmff.

Progress! I think.

7 comments to Progress on Progress

  • Ailbhe

    Oh, I like this. I’m not allowed to have works in progress either, and have applied the crafty equivalent of shoving the bills into the back of a drawer to them. Perhaps it’s time to open it and see what’s really in there.

  • Kirsty Hall

    Ah, samples is a good word – I call mine ‘test pieces’.

  • It is a very beautiful sample.

    I have also been experimenting with just starting things (without much of a plan) and seeing where they go. Finished a quilt in pretty quick time this summer on that principle. It started as an experiment in putting fabrics together that I would normally feel uncomfortable about.

  • That Fi is a smart woman. And yay for Works in Progress. I agree that sounds much more satisfactory than the Great Undone (which is what I tend to call my WIPs).

    And, ooooh, sample of embroidery with metal. This I like!

  • Samples, what a cool word! I’ve been calling mine “experiments” and they often lead to unexpectedly fun projects. Great post!

  • We keep having the same monsters. But I haven’t tried talking to mine yet.

    However, I believe my WIP monster allows me have a couple of pieces in progress. It’s the having too many and the ones that haven’t progressed in a long time that are the problem. But neither can I undo them or chuck them out because of the magical all-the-time-and-energy-and-motivation-in-the-world time that’s just round the corner.

  • leannich

    @Ailbhe: Ha! Yes, do that. I’d love to see what you have in there.

    @Kirsty: I wonder why “test pieces” feels so much scarier to me than “samples”? Probably just the connotations of “test”.

    @JoVE: I’m delighted to hear about unplanned experimentation leading to a finished object. My monsters don’t believe in that either (surprise, surprise).

    @Lisa: The Great Undone has a very … late-Victorian ring to it, I find. Snowy wastes, sort of thing.

    @Tammy: I’m really liking “samples”. It has purpose, without needing to prove anything. Or something.

    @Mollydot: Ah, yes, that magical time is also around all my corners. Slippery bugger.

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