When is the Work Complete?

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

How do you know when a creative work is complete? If you are a painter, a novelist, a screenplay writer, how do you know when your work is ready for the public? If you are an entrepreneur writing a business plan, how do you know when it’s time to take action?

Some of history’s greatest minds found this question difficult to answer. The composer Anton Bruckner revised several of his symphonies, leaving no clear indication of which was the “official” version. Henry James, late in life, published revisions of his earlier fiction as the so-called “New York Editions.” Even George Lucas revised his original Star Wars trilogy, frustrating many fans. Musicians sometimes record different arrangements of their own songs; for example, one of my favorite singers, John Mellencamp, recorded different arrangements of several of his songs in 1999 for an album called Rough Harvest.

As a photography enthusiast, I’ve tried to recreate photographs in the hope of getting to a “better” version. For example, I took the photograph on the left below in New York City with a “point-and-shoot” digital camera, then tried to create a higher-resolution version (on the right) when I returned two years later with a digital SLR. I still prefer the earlier version.IMGP1709per2rev

It’s generally accepted that creative impulses are improved with revisions and editing. Novelists work with editors before publishing their work. Painters often sketch works before undertaking an actual painting. Musicians often record multiple takes of a song during recording sessions.

How do we select a “final” version of a work? Do we even need to?  With physical objects, it seems more relevant – it would be awkward, at best, to tell an art collector they purchased the “wrong” version of a painting.  In digital media, though, text, music, and images all seem easy enough to update at minimal expense.  Does that imply the digital work is less significant?  Or is this simply emblematic of a generational change in consumption and evaluation of creative works?  This gets into larger questions of ownership and equality of access.

As if often the case in discussions of creativity, there are more questions than clear answers.  But give it some thought as you work through your own creative process.  Does a work even need to be complete in the conventional sense, and if so, when do you reach that point?

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