Finishing poems is hard. You can always do more to make sure that metaphor is complete, the rhythm is just right, and the ending line packs a punch. Some poets leave their work moldering at the bottom of a drawer, unfinished for years. Some people even, I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors, procrastinate their book projects. Some people let fear stop them from submitting.
I know this doesn’t apply to any of you, of course, but perhaps you can pass this article along to your friends.
It all seems harmless at first, like dancing with strangers and not giving them your number, leaving laundry on the floor, or failing to vacuum sand off the car seat. You are an artist, not a careerist, correct? You care about the creativity, not the glory of publication; you live for the moment, not the applause. I write today to warn you of the consequences. It is not just that you’ll miss your opportunity for fame and glory, or that you risk having a stack of papers so thick that rats will start to nest in them. The real danger of leaving too much work unfinished is that it saps your creative energy.
This usually happens for me at the end of a class session. I start work on a new writing prompt, and then, whamo! My creative juice drains right out of me. My head closes for business. My heart folds its arms and starts holding its breath until its face turns blue. I start to think about all the poems I’ve started but not finished, the poems I’ve finished but not submitted and the food leftover in the fridge.
It’s as if my muse is saying to me, “Why should I give you any more ideas, when you aren’t done with the ones I’ve given you? Why should I make you the messenger for brilliance when you can’t even be bothered to send the messages out?” She’s right, of course. Like produce that’s been on the counter too long, my unfinished work is starting to attract flies.
Creativity is a process, like gardening or baking. It’s there to meet specific needs, and it only does so by having a specific beginning, middle, and end. Think of your writing desk as a garden. The world brings you seeds – feelings, memories, experiences, stimuli. You plant, water, protect it from rabbits, and after a time, it blossoms and turns to delicious fruits and vegetables. Leave that fruit just sitting there though, and the branches get heavy. The food rots; sustenance vanishes; vermin invade. I mean, consider what would happen if every poet you loved suddenly stopped publishing, and what a famine that would bring to your land!
That is why, at the end of every season, I practice several ending rituals to keep me accountable to finishing my work. Sometimes this is easy, because I feel that great work is waiting for me. Sometimes my insecure voices make it more challenging. In either case, these ending rituals force me to face my work, put it in order, and make important choices about how to proceed, be it submission or deletion. Only after the grove has been tended to can we start preparations for the next.
My rituals come in three specific stages.
Clean Your Whole House
During the harry and buzz of the writing season, my time preoccupied with generating new poems, giving feedback, making prompts, creating the glorious hullaballoo of our workshops, stacks of paper seem to grow spontaneously on tables or behind my bookshelves. The refrigerator fills up with different varieties of cheese I haven’t have time to cook, and I realize the cats are using abandoned lemon seeds as cat toys.
So, I turn off my computer and turn on a podcast. I empty the fridge of disintegrating food, wash it, cook it, and put it in Tupperware. I put my car keys where I can find them, open the neglected mail, file the four-month-old insurance forms and throw out the thrift-store shirt I promised myself I would wear and didn’t. The cleansing of my home gets the cosmic circulation flowing again, clears my head, picks up my mood and keeps the cats from choking.
All during the season I am a wild wordsmith, slashing and burning through the language, churning out metaphors, letting my long freaky vocabulary flag fly. It’s quite a rush of limitless possibilities. The process of creating is like having a big ol’ yard sale in my prefrontal cortex.
Then begins the clean-up. Just like organizing the closets and fridge, “creative deleting” is the process of ridding yourself of things you don’t need so you’re free of distractions going forward. My writing storage “system” involves three folders, cleverly called “Waiting 1,” which holds my most recent drafts, still smoldering with hot brain juice, “Waiting 2” for drafts I’m actively working on, and “Waiting 3,” that stores the work I consider complete.
The first week after classes end, I take a morning to read through the months of drafts in Waiting 1, without editing or moving them forward in any way. I carve through until it’s completely empty, the work with merit dropped into Waiting 2, and the rest sent off to that Recycling Bin in the sky. The following day I dive into Waiting 2, now full up with the previous day’s juicy possibilities, and separate which pieces I’ll continue to edit, take to classes, and show to friends and which are, as they say in the vernacular, soup. The contents of Waiting 3 then grow, waiting their turn to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
By combing through these digital receptacles once per season, I ensure that my best writing gets regularly sifted to the top and that my craft is evolving and deepening year after year. I’ve sorted my personal slush pile, loaded my submission gun with new ammunition, and made sure to reward myself with a glass of wine, some focaccia bread and a well-deserved trip to the beach.
This one’s my favorite. The Poetry Salon’s final class reading (or any other reading, really) is a great way to give yourself a deadline, and provides a forum to celebrate your work and declare to family and friends that you have something ready to share. Whether or not the writing winds up winning a Pulitzer Prize, you can affirm that you gave your new poem its due in some way. Just reading to a room of receptive poets is itself an act of completion, and you can run your victory lap right there at the party with food, wine, and the joy of witnessing the simultaneous act completion of your fellow classmates.
Sharing is an important ending ritual. Like the end of summer camp, it’s about letting go, or, if you’ve been home all season, it’s about going back. The butterfly has to leave the cocoon. The fruit has to fall from the tree. The poem has to be sent out to the world, or else what was all that gestating for?
At times when I get stumped in my writing, I may not have completed an integral part in the natural cycle, which is to let my poems live, to let them graduate. So that’s when I put on my brave, big girl pants and look into that folder called Waiting 3 where my poems look up at me like my cats, begging for attention. I read them out loud. I take out a word. I put a word back, and eventually pick one of my babies to speak out loud to an audience or curry a submission editor’s favor at a journal.
Submitting itself is a kind of completion that contains its own distinct process, but, for me, submitting is less about getting published than about letting it go. It is about saying that I am done with that phase of the creative journey; that I believe in it. I like it enough to want to share it, to let it stand on its own two lines, rather than hiding behind the apron strings of my desk.
Some of those keep coming back year after year before they eventually find a home, or before I decide to let them go permanently. Either way, when I finally set them free from that 3rd folder, I feel I have completed my job as a parent. Only then can I feel clear enough to let new birth happen. Only then can I wave goodbye, close the door, and go back to the winter projects inside.
And now to you, my writing community, I ask, what ending rituals do you have? What helps you feel complete with a project? A class? A season? How do you finish your work and find your way back inside?