I learned things
This year I learned that finishing a personal project you’re doing just for yourself is impossible. Irrespective of what it is you’re making and in what medium, it’s impossible to really know what you want and separate it from what you want to want. It’s impossible to set “deadlines” if they’re not real, that is, imposed by an external authority. It’s impossible to start something and, given enough time and input, not have it grow and evolve into something else entirely. It’s impossible to avoid scope creep.
Some context: I didn’t publish anything on Obvious Bicycle for the last six months because I’ve been busy writing an essay since March. It’s a piece about music (similar to this one), but it’s not meant for this blog, and so I told myself I’d start writing here again just as soon as I got done with it. Easy peasy.
I thought that piece would take a month or so to write, but I’ve now been at it for nine months, it’s running at 17,000 words (no joke), and is completely out of my control. I used to lie and tell myself that I’d be done with it first by the end of September, then October, and then November, but I eventually learned my lesson. Now I know that it’ll be done when it’s done, whether that’s a month or a decade from now. I’ll keep chipping away at it bits at a time.
I finally understand what the phrase “it’ll take as long as it takes” means.
I generally don’t enjoy writing meta-posts about the process of writing itself or about learning “lessons” from things on this blog (urgh), but exceptions must be made. I learned some weird and valuable stuff from my never-ending-essay.
1. There’s a better possible version of everything that has ever existed, like, ever
The poet Paul Valéry once said that poems are only abandoned, never finished. I’m realizing that every project has a point where the creator, no matter how unsatisfied, has to stop iterating and decide to put what they’ve made out into the world. And it’s always a compromise, because they know every little flaw about the thing they’re making, what about it can and should be improved. They know all the ideas they haven’t had a chance to try out yet, all the features that are yet to be added. There’s always more to do.
Writing my music piece, every time I thought I was happy with a paragraph, I’d read it again in a few weeks and think of something to add to it. Every section in it that I thought was good enough turned out to be not good enough - given enough time, there were always, always some changes I could think of to make it better. Not a single sentence survived its first-draft stage. Will the piece ever reach a point where I’m perfectly happy with every single thing in it, or do I just have to abandon it and call it quits at some point? Yes.
And if a simple writeup can be iterated and reworked so frequently, I can’t imagine how complex, big budget projects even work. I can’t imagine how film directors must feel watching their own movies, once the dust of production settles. They must hate it, noticing every flaw and every other choice they wanted to make differently but couldn’t due to budget or time constraints.
Of course, even this very blog post has better versions that I could continue working towards - I just had to say screw it and hit Publish at one point. It’d be ironic if I never finished the essay about not being able to finish projects.
2. You should make a deadline for your projects so that you’ll actually finish them, but you shouldn’t really, because only then will they grow into something you want, but then you might never finish them in the first place, so who the hell knows what you should do
Deadlines are great. Anyone who has ever gotten anything done did so because the work was expected from them by a certain date, and not finishing it by then would have consequences.
But there’s another side to it: for any project of your own, where no one’s really expecting anything, if you simply continue working on it as long as it feels right, it will evolve into something you wouldn’t - and couldn’t - have imagined when you started, in the best possible way. It’ll be unrecognizable from version zero. That’s one reason it’s worth working on something for a long time.
But at some point, if you want said project to be useful and/or seen by the world in any way, you have to stop improoving it and put it out there. Otherwise you’ll end up working on it till eternity with no rewards for your labor. This is what I’m doing now, for better or (mostly) for worse. But where is that “some point”? Nobody knows. If I had the answers I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.
So the whole thing is basically a push and pull between saying “let’s keep iterating” and saying “this is good enough, let’s ship it”. This is exactly why any product in tech comes out in versions - it’s never perfect, you’re just never done working on it, so you release it in stable chunks and continue iterating. But the same is not possible with art, with paintings and albums and plays - once it’s out, it’s out. So how do directors and writers and musicians decide when something is release-ready? Nobody knows. The answer to that question might be the very definition of having good taste.
3. If you’re doing it, it’s for you
One of my favourite sayings is that “if you’re reading it, it’s for you.” Meaning that the things you willingly consume aren’t a coincidence. But I’d go one step further and say that if you’re doing something, then it’s definitely for you, no matter how uncool it is. It’s who you are.
If I’d been someone cooler than I am, I would’ve spent all this time writing a guitar riff or dirt biking in the desert or something, but instead I wrote an essay on my laptop that I don’t really wanna show anyone. This was an extremely dumb use of my time, and it won’t help me in my career or make me money or get me clout. But I did it anyway, and the best reason for continuing to do it was that I was already doing it in the first place. So it goes.
4. You don’t know what you really think till you write about it
So this piece I’m writing is about a topic that requires zero research or further reading. It’s literally me writing about my favourite albums just for the sake of it. So of all things in the world, I should’ve known what I was gonna say, right? Right?!
This was a topic where I thought I knew what I thought, and all I had to do was write said thoughts down. But that’s not how writing works. It’s not a tool to express what you already perfectly know, but rather a tool to find out what you know by writing down what you think you know. It’s not just a medium of communication, it’s a medium of self-discovery. It’s magic.
Said Ray Bradbury:
"If you can’t read and write, you can’t think. Your thoughts are dispersed if you don’t know how to read and write. You’ve got to be able to look at your thoughts on paper and discover what a fool you were."
A fool indeed. Every time I re-read something I’d written in that piece, I got a more accurate assessment of what I wanted to say and was amazed at how I had not conveyed that at all. It was miraculous, honestly, how big the gap was between a) what I thought I thought about a topic, b) what I actually thought about the topic, and c) what I wrote down about the topic. All the rewrites were simply attempts at bridging that gap.
And if this was true for a topic I’m into and spend a lot of time thinking about with no effort, I can’t imagine how shitty my thought process is for all the other issues of the world, like politics and AI and why Manchester United is doing so badly right now. Sure, I have (often strong) opinions on these issues, but how well thought out are these opinions if I haven’t written about them, really? We’re all such fools, we don’t even know it - if we did, we wouldn’t be. Mark Twain knew:
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
My boy Bertrand Russel once wrote what is literally my favourite sentence in the English language, which pretty much nails what I’ve been trying to say here but way more succinctly and poetically:
“Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise, and everything precise is so remote from everything that we normally think, that you cannot for a moment suppose that is what we really mean when we say what we think.”
The more you write, the more you realize how universally true this sentence is. It’s depressing how lossy all our attempts at communication are, written or otherwise.
5. If it exists, it’s a miracle
I now understand why construction projects can go billions of dollars over budget, why movies can take decades to produce, why novels take years to write. I don’t judge these as failures anymore. I understand why GTA 6 has taken so long. I forgive you, Rockstar Games.
Because if writing a stupid essay that requires zero research, zero external coordination, and zero dollars, only my time and focus, is this difficult to finish, I’m astounded that anything ever gets done in the world in the first place, and that too well.
Finishing anything is a miracle in and of itself. A huge shoutout to anyone who’s ever done anything to completion at all.
Thanks for reading! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my blog.