Creativity: How do you know when a project is finished?

How do you know you have said what you wish to say?

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One of my piano students asked me this question some time ago: how do you know when a project is finished? I thought it was an excellent question, and also a very difficult one. To my knowledge, I have never been overtly taught this, nor have I heard a definite answer from history. Truthfully, I wonder if anyone can know the answer. Perhaps this is simply one of the great mysteries of creativity that will remain for the entirety of time? Nonetheless, I do love puzzles, and this appears to be one of the most interesting puzzles of all.

The answer I gave him (after much thought) was this: it is finished when your instincts tell you it is finished. By itself, this was a useless answer. Connected to the concept of language, however, it makes more sense. With spoken language, the have the concept of a sentence. We know a sentence is complete when we have expressed the thought we wished to express in a manner comprehensible by our listener. I will extrapolate from this concept.

Any story can be summarized in one sentence. When I write a story, there comes a point at which I distill the entire story into a single statement. This is my one-sentence summary (this is a great piece of advice I received here.) If the essential elements of the story cannot be reduced to this level, then the story is likely too complicated and needs to be paired down.

Any essay can be similarly reduced. Many a student will recall the concept of a thesis statement. This statement distills the entire paper into a single sentence, encapsulating the core argument and goal of the piece.

In both cases, the entirety of the piece may be expanded from this first sentence. It is the “seed” from which the rest of the writing grows. Therefore, the piece may be said to be finished when the ideas put forth in the summary are fully developed without any extraneous material. In short: it is finished when the author has said what he needs to say, no more and no less.

How does this apply to music? Let us explore this using the same concept. The musical analogue of a sentence is the melody. It is both complete sentence and main character. Can a musical composition be distilled into a single melody? If so, how? I would argue based on personal observation that the answer is “yes.” In fact, this appears to occur whether or not the composer has so planned it. One of the most famous melodies in all of history is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Nearly everyone can hum, sing, whistle, or even play, this melody. Even those lacking any musical training of any kind are likely to instantly recognize it, and it is nearly impossible to forget it once heard for the first time. It is a very short and simple tune. By itself, it constitutes a complete musical thought.

What many do not realize is its use in a much larger musical composition: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The entire composition is roughly an hour and a half long and makes use of numerous other melodies and moods. These ideas are developed in ingenious ways, and the core idea of Ode to Joy is not even introduced until the final movement. In this sense, the symphony could perhaps be interpreted as a struggle to find joy amidst difficulty. This, Beethoven achieves with aplomb.

This, however, does not completely answer the question. Written language is concrete. It depicts clear images and emotions that do not vary from person to person. It is highly specific. If I say the word “cup,” for example, nearly everyone will imagine a cup. Of course, they may imagine different types or sizes of cups, but they will all fundamentally imagine the same device. If I wish to plant a more specific image in their minds, I can describe it with increasing precision until, theoretically, all imagine exactly the same object.

With music, this is nearly impossible. Music is not a language attuned for specificity. It deals less with the concrete, and more with the abstract; the emotional, rather than the logical. Its grammar rules are less defined (if one may even call them “rules”) and images evoked will vary wildly from listener to listener. In fact, without a title or program notes, two listeners could imagine completely different images. Using Ode to Joy as an example: if two people listen to it without knowing its title, they will likely both say, “It made me feel happy,” or, “It sounds exuberant!” However, when asked for a specific image, one might say, “It reminded me of the day I got married. That was such a joyful occasion!” and the other, “I saw an image of people dancing and smiling.” Both describe the same emotion, but completely different images evoked by and associated with it.

And yet, the melody will have achieved its intended result. It will have depicted and evoked joy. It need not be specific, because it relies on the human imagination to “fill in this gap.” In this manner, it is a most efficient language. And in languages both spoken and musical, the answer to the first question is the same: the project is finished when the author has said what he wishes to say in a manner that is understood by his audience.

This begs the question, “How does one know if he has said it well enough?” Consider the example of an ancient artifact, excavated by an archaeologist. At some point, he has the entire artifact in his possession. He may have begun with mere pieces, but in the end, they have been glued together in a manner that makes the object appear like new. At this point, it could be considered finished. In a sense, however, it could always be dusted off just a little more, or made just a bit shinier, or have some aspect of its beauty made slightly more obvious. In other words: the archaeologist has put all of the pieces together. He has a clay pot. There is nothing he may add to it that will significantly change its aesthetic or function. He may dust it off more or polish it more, but the digging, assembly, and essential cleaning have been completed.

His apprehension of this, of course, requires that he see the object clearly. He must have a good objective sense of the intended finished product and its effect on a viewer. This is a skill that is developed over time, and it appears to be one of the last to blossom. The simplest way in which to develop it is to put distance between oneself and the project after completion. The creator may take several days, weeks, or even months, to work on a different project. After this period has elapsed, he re-examines the first project. My composition teacher was fond of calling this “letting the pie cool after baking it.”

Another way (though the two methods do not exclude one another) is to simply hire an editor. It has been said, “You cannot edit your own work.” I tend to believe that this is true, though with some minor caveats. The editor has no emotional attachment to the project, and can therefore be objective. The best editors understand the creative process and are not only competent to identify errors in grammar, spelling, and the like, but are masters of knowing a creator’s intentions. Rather than simply deleting a section that does not work, they will tell the author that it is unclear and perhaps make suggestions. This way, the creator preserves his voice and ideas in a way that is still understandable to his audience.

When the process is complete, how does one know that the project is truly finished? How does one know that there is not one more spot to be shined, one more spell-check to be run, or one more chord to adjust? How does one know that it will have exactly the intended effect on the audience?

One can make no guarantee. At some point, one must simply press “Publish”, or present the artwork, or complete the composition. Reinvestigating the work years later may reveal yet more room for improvement; this is good, as it means one’s artistic instincts are improving! This does not necessarily mean that one’s previous creations are “trash,” but simply that newer material may be better. And this is one of the artist’s lifelong battles: the persistent struggle for unattainable perfection. Perfection may be compared to the speed of light, in that one may approach it infinitely, but never reach it.

Carrying the analogy further: all humans carry “baggage,” and all subatomic particles carry mass. The only particle to move at lightspeed is the photon, which carries no mass. Perhaps, then, the only way for an artist to achieve perfection is to be, inherently, perfect? This, we will never achieve in this life, but our works need not be perfect to be beautiful.

Creativity: What the Process Actually Looks Like (for Me)

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A common belief appears to exist regarding composers, and it is best described through an image inscribed in the memories of many. The image consists of a composer hunched over his desk. His wild gray hair betrays a chaotic mental state and evokes an image of the “tortured genius.” His deepest emotions, thoughts, and desires pour out through the ink as he weaves melody, harmony, and rhythm into a musical letter from soul to soul. The musical symbols fly onto the page without any apparent effort, carrying the creator as if he lives in a waking dream.

This image is one of the most pervasive myths in the history of musical composition. While it is possible to compose in such a manner (and some have done so), it seems that many new creators become discouraged when this process does not work for them. In truth, the process of creation is far more complex, chaotic, and multi-layered. What, then, is a more accurate depiction of the process? Is it even possible to describe it, or will it remain ever a mystery? In the hope of clarifying it for others (or perhaps encouraging fellow creators who worry that they are “not doing it right”), I will attempt to describe how it works for me.

Writing a piece of music in the manner of writing a letter (from beginning to end) is normally one of the final stages of the process. For me, the creative process appears more like this:

  1. The “big picture.” The creator decides the type of project he wishes to create. This could be his own decision, or it could be decided by the client. (For example, a filmmaker may ask the composer to score a documentary film about eagles; the director may tell the composer to go for a “sweeping orchestral sound” to evoke the grandeur of these majestic creatures.)
  2. “Brainstorming” (or, as I call it, “digging in the dirt”). I attempt to find the “emotional core” of the piece and to “get in character” like an actor. Initial ideas usually flow from this. I develop these ideas with an attitude of curiosity. These ideas need not be in a particular order, or even make sense immediately. They need only be discovered. (Notice that I did not say “created.” In a sense, the ideas already exist, but are buried beneath a good deal of clutter and must be “dusted off.”)
  3. The ideas begin to coalesce. The shape of the piece takes form, and the positions of the smaller ideas within the whole become more obvious. The initial plan for the project may need to be revised at this point; this is a good sign! It means the ideas have life. The creator should always allow the ideas “room to breathe.” N.B. At any of these stages, the ideas may only be written in cursory form. For music, they may be only leadsheets (melodies with chords written above them). The ideas do not “look like much” at this stage. After all, they have only recently been “excavated”.
  4. Refinement. The ideas are expanded, experimented with, reorchestrated, and tested in a variety of ways. Some are thrown out, others may be given more import. More detailed sketches of the harmony may be added, counterpoint may be added, more specific colors might be specified, and generally, the ideas become more detailed. In a sense, each idea becomes its own “little composition”.
  5. Orchestration. This part of the process moves quickly and fluently because it has already been “prepped” by the previous stages. This most resembles writing a letter because it may be done from beginning to end (by this stage, the order in which the ideas are presented has already been made clear). I rarely deal with “writer’s block” at this stage because it has already been dealt with earlier (if I do hit a block at this stage, it likely means that a previous stage was neglected or not sufficiently “fleshed out”). At this point, the project is already finished, and I am only arranging it (assigning each instrument its role).
  6. Editing. I allow the project to “sit” for a while and then return to it, making small changes. Once this has been done, the project is complete.

The reader may notice that the title of this article is Writing is like orchestrating. Further, they may ask, “What does any of this have to do with writing?” The answer:


Many writers say, “I do not like writing. I like having written.” They describe the process as laborious, difficult, and emotionally intense. At times, it can be; I have experienced this myself. Sometimes, this cannot be avoided and a creator must simply “push through it.”

However, this usually occurs because I am trying to perform multiple tasks at once rather than separating them. For me, the actual writing of the story from beginning to end is the penultimate stage, not the beginning. Beginning a story in this way would be akin to starting a musical composition with a full conductor’s score, all instruments arrayed in front of me, all colors available, engraving needing to be perfect, and all other elements neatly aligned. Some can do this. I have even worked this way at times. However, it is usually too much for me to handle all at once and does not allow me to focus on the essential elements early in the process. I find that, at this stage, I must focus only on the emotional core of the project: the main characters, the setting, the size and scope of the project. I may sketch details as they occur to me (and they do), but I will almost never focus on them. It is too early to dust off a piece of the relic when there is so much of it left to discover! For writing the process looks something like this:

  1. “Big picture.” Am I writing a novel? A short story? A blog post?
  2. Sketching. What is the story about? What about my characters, settings, and main ideas?
  3. Large-scale plot. Plot ideas come together. Threads become clear. Character interactions become apparent. I now have a large-scale outline of the project, though it may have significant gaps.
  4. Scene list and synopsis. Order of the story is refined, gaps are identified and filled in. Unnecessary scenes are deleted or interpolated into other scenes. After this, a detailed synopsis is written for each scene. These can be multiple paragraphs. Further revisions are made as I go. Each scene is essentially a “little story” in its own right.
  5. Writing. The story is written from beginning to end, one scene at a time. At this stage, it flows naturally and is generally easy (or at least, not as laborious as it may have otherwise been). The process has been broken into its component parts and completed step by step, layer by layer, before the writing begins. The writing, in fact, is one of the final stages. Revisions and refinements can still happen at this stage.
  6. Editing. The project is set aside for a time, edited by me afterwards, and then sent to another editor.

At this point, the following chart may be helpful for comparing the two creative processes:

Big picture (symphony, overture, film score, etc.)Big picture (novel, short story, article, etc.)
Initial ideas (“spark,” emotional core of the piece)Initial ideas (“spark,” main ideas in the story)
Random sketching (exploration of initial ideas, searching for other ideas)Freewriting (exploration of initial ideas, searching for other ideas)
Themes (melodies)Characters/setting (motivations, goals, personalities, etc.)
Form/structure (sonata, rondo, ternary, etc.)Plot (order of the story, character interactions, etc.)
Refinements (harmony, bass, counterpoint, etc.)Scene list (detailed synopsis of each scene)
Orchestration (colors, instrumentation, playability, ranges, etc.)Writing (voice, flow, turn-of-phrase, readability, grammar/spelling, etc.)
Final edits/revisions/refinementsFinal edits/revisions/refinements
Engraving/paginationPagination/cover art (my wife draws the cover art)
Cooldown (let project sit for a while)Cooldown (send project to editor)
Final editFinal edit (editor sends it back to me)

To me, the similarities between the two processes are remarkable. Perhaps this is because they are both expressing a story, but simply doing so with different languages. It is also remarkable to notice the amount of work that can be put into even a simple project. My short stories scarcely take more than 45 minutes to read, yet each one takes roughly a month to create!

I believe this explains why I must carefully plot every detail of a story before I write. If I begin by simply writing, I end up attempting multiple thought processes at once and participating in a slow, laborious process. It would be akin to digging up a completed large artifact, rather than smaller pieces that are later glued together. The “layered” approach allows me to enjoy the beauty within each piece, and all the more as they are brought together.

Is creating difficult for you? Do you find it laborious? Try separating its layers. Sometimes, creating one layer at a time is the best way to keep the project easy and retain the joy of creation. And if creation is to be our work, should we not take joy in it?