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In Defense of the Unfinished Project

In my family, I’m known as the finisher of projects. My mother has given me a number of projects—some started before I was born!—and I’ve finished many of them for her. I have a reputation for getting things done, for being cunning and not even attempting something until I’ve made a plan for its execution and completion. And, comparatively speaking, I may have earned that reputation.

Image by Suzy Hazelwood via StockSnap

But I don’t feel like much of a finisher. I’m working in my craft room right now (at least until the weather gets warmer and/or sunnier, so I can work in my preferred home office, which is my porch), and I’m surrounded by unfinished projects: a half-knitted wool sock, some quilt squares that need to be joined into a quilt top, my freakin’ wedding dress (yeah, I should get on that…), a crocheted blanket I’ve been working on on-and-off for literal years… At some level it feels like reminders that I’m a failure. And that’s not even touching the digital record, which is filled with false starts on novels that I can’t even remember what they were about, half-written fragments, abandoned research ideas that I swear I’ll get back to eventually…

But I’m sure most of us have at least some of these things, these projects that we’re sure we’ll finish eventually if we ever remember to get around to them. And I think we have to view these unfinished projects as something akin to rejection letters.

That may not sound hopeful, so let me explain about rejection letters: rejection letters are not a condemnation. They are, in fact, badges of honor. They say “You did a thing! I tried! You put something out there!” That may be cold consolation, of course, and of course rejection letters can indicate that there’s something flawed in your approach, but they can also indicate that while you made an attempt, it just wasn’t the right time or audience or direction. But how would you have known if you didn’t try?

The unfinished project is similar. The unfinished project says “This was not the right combination of circumstances, motivation, and skill for this project.” But you couldn’t have known until you tried. Sometimes what was needed was a clear timeline with a deadline. Sometimes what was needed was a different design. Sometimes what was needed was simply the knowledge that you just don’t do well with that particular approach (I have learned, through many unfinished projects, that I’m just bad at knitting and not a really great crocheter either. Doesn’t really stop me from trying my hand at it almost perennially).

But the unfinished project doesn’t just tell you about the shortcomings. It tells you that you tried something. It tells you that you dreamed something. It’s real evidence that you’re doing things. Just like the rejection letter, it speaks to possibility, and it speaks to your efforts. Did you maybe bite off more than you could chew? Probably. Turns out knitting socks is hard, for instance. But did you also learn something about yourself and other people? Yes.

Each unfinished project fills me with more respect for the finishers of similar projects. Each unfinished project, even when I feel ashamed about it, fills me also with understanding of my own limitations, which means finishing another project will be easier. Every false start means I’m one step closer to a real start.

Many people are afraid to start. They look at projects—be they novels, hand-knitted sweaters, or whatever it is—and think “I could never do that.” But they don’t know that for sure, because they haven’t actually and earnestly tried.

The unfinished project says, “I could do that, but maybe I can’t do that right now. But at least I know why.”

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