Facing Your Project UFOs

projects in studio

For many of us, the term UFO conjures images of disk-shaped alien space craft with blinking lights and eerie music, but for creative makers, we have a different use for this acronym—Un-Finished Object.  A creative UFO is a different critter from the other acronym WIPs, or Works In Progress.  A WIP is something you’re actively working on—you know where you’re going, and you have some momentum.  But for project UFOs, well, there might actually be some mystery and eerie music involved.

If you are a prolifically creative person, like me, you have your share of both WIPs and UFOs in your collection. I once had a student ask me how many different pieces I had in progress at the moment, so I started running through the inventory in my head like I was going down an invisible checklist.  When I reached 35, I decided to call it quits.  That was just getting too daunting or depressing, or a little of both!

It’s not that I don’t finish work (my binder of itemized gallery inventory sold or for sale is a testament to my prolific finishing as well), I just often have too many new ideas that start new projects all the time.  My family is very gracious about accommodating my plethora and diversity of projects, and I’m grateful that our farm’s pets live with Kara in the old farmhouse!  Projects are, quite literally, everywhere at our house and in the Fiber Loft of Farmstead Creamery, which has been converted to my virtual classroom and project kit manufactory.

In the recent virtual instructor’s retreat hosted by North House Folk School, lead instructor Laura Ricketts shared about her quarantine adventure of facing her UFOs.  She asked, “Have you ever gathered them all up, put them into one room, and looked at them?  It’s quit the accountability exercise!  You should try it.”  Admittedly, she is a knitter, so her projects likely could be herded into one room, but it did paint quite the picture in my mind of what that might look like with my own work.

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on my own practice of rebuilding momentum in the creative process and wanted to assemble some tips and tricks for transforming project UFOs into accomplishments you can celebrate.  Let’s break down what turns a WIP into a UFO as well as ways to disrupt that cycle transform languishing projects into completed objects.

First, it’s helpful to acknowledge that the creative process is cyclical.  Enthusiasm for a piece will naturally ebb and flow, and this is not related to laziness (though we might project this self-image onto the work).  Enthusiasm for a piece tends to be in the early phases (think of this as your honeymoon with your project) that gradually fades as the “grind” of the work towards completion sets in.  That fading can cause us to set down a project and simply not pick it back up again.

This is where I hear my students lament that they have to finish a piece in class or it never gets finished at all—they need the accountability of the group setting to carry them through the grind to the finish line.  If you see yourself in that statement, find a few friends who also feel this way and set up an accountability group.  Zoom together and work on your pieces, so you have designated time for your WIPs—encouraging each other and celebrating the wins along the way.  This can also be a great way to guide you through bumps if you can help each other troubleshoot problems that arise in your work.

The bumps that appear on the journey of creating are another way that WIPs get derailed.  You’ve put it in and taken it out so many times, you’re frustrated, the directions make no sense, you can’t see a way forward, and the project goes in the bag and into the closet.  And it’s still there.  You know it’s there.  Know it’s there and being ignored doesn’t help your sense of ability because you gave up on it.  You gave up on the project because you couldn’t make it work and that feels like (whether you’re ready to openly admit it or not) you’ve given up on a little part of yourself.  This cycle goes round and round until it feels insurmountable to ever get back on that horse again.  I’ve been there!  Stop, take a breath, and step outside that gnawing circle for a minute.

seahorse progress detailFirst, be kind to yourself.  All creatives hit snags.  Instead of this piece being a tool for inflicting emotional pain, see it as an invitation to find an ally to help you through the sticking point.  Or you could see it as project archaeology, a window into a former you.  What’s going on in this bag?  What was happening here, and how can I restore it?  If that project has been languishing for quite some time, it may take some deciphering to figure out where you were.  Be curious about it, rather than judgmental, and see about picking up the pieces.

For me, setting up real deadlines can be very helpful.  Not deadlines with myself because those can easily be re-negotiated, but deadlines that involve others.  For instance, I might decide to finish something from the UFO stack so that it can be a gift for someone else by a certain time (Christmas, a birthday, Mother’s Day).  That urgency gives me enough umph to overcome the inertia that holds me back from getting motivated.  I’m accountable to that deadline now, so it’s time to get working.  I once submitted a large tapestry for a juried show.  That tapestry wasn’t finished yet.  I had hit a bump technically with the work and let it set for months.  Now I had to get off my butt and get it done!  The piece was not selected for the exhibition, but the tapestry is now complete and beautiful.

For some, deadlines are toxic and not useful.  I recently read an article that spoke to procrastination not being laziness but a deep attachment to success and productivity as representative of self-worth.  In this situation, the thought of a piece being finished, judged, and deemed poorly made would be so personally crushing that putting off finishing it becomes the favored option.  If you find yourself in this scenario, again, please be kind to yourself.  Every creative makes flops and flubs.  That’s part of experimenting and growing.  Your creation is not you.  It is an expression wrought by your time and attention, but you and your self-worth exist regardless of what you have or haven’t created.

Some pieces, however, have different emotional reasons for not being finished.  We are not static—we change as we grow and experience life.  What once spoke to us now seems flat or reminds us of a former self no longer meaningful.  Sometimes that means that an unfinished piece needs to discover a new life, reworked into something else, or it might serve as an invitation to unpack the emotions ensnaring the abandoned darling.  Sometimes we just find ourselves blocked creatively, unable to put a finger on why.

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way offers some useful journal prompts in her section on breaking down blocks.  The most seismic of these in my own practice was completing the sentence, “What do I gain by not…..” and then answering it for yourself.

the lady's face in progressReturning to that large tapestry piece, not only had I hit a technical bump (weaving the intricate challenge of the lady’s face), but I was also emotionally entangled.  Doing the work of sitting with this writing exercise helped me see that this piece at the time represented what felt like my last connection to my grad school self—a happier, more care-free me that wasn’t embroiled in my then current situation of broken friendships, lack of creative kinship, and host of adult responsibilities.  Finishing it became symbolic of officially ending that flourishing chapter and closing that book forever.  Being able to write this out made the ghost real and yet fully that—just a ghost.  Grad school was over, whether this piece designed during that time was finished or not.  The association was just a perception, and emotionally I gained nothing by allowing it to remain uncompleted.

Doing the work of breaking through that block, studying what I needed to study to gain technical acumen, and giving myself the real deadline of the exhibition submission turned the UFO into a WIP and then a finished piece.  I cried as I cut it off the loom.  A part of me in that moment grew up and felt immensely accomplished.  It’s a catharsis that returns (albeit usually in smaller doses) as other UFOs in my stash work through this transformation to completion.

Where to start?  Give them some air and some sunshine.  Fist, pick one that’s less daunting—that really is pretty close to completion already, or one that still speaks to you.  Pull it out of the closet, the bin, the bag, the drawer, and let it enjoy your living space.  Let the stagnant smell air out, and (most importantly) make yourself look at it.  It’s easier to pass up working on something that is an ordeal (even a tiny ordeal) to get to.  For me, I even make it a habit to lug it around with me everywhere I go, if it’s a small enough piece.  If the project is omnipresent, then I really have no excuse if I find myself in a situation with time on my hands.  Even small amounts of time add up.

Another important set in this process is unlearning unhelpful ways of thinking.  Here are some toxic notions to let go about finishing projects:

“I won’t start a new project until I get this one done.”

Working in strict series is not mindful of the creative process, which is cyclical.  It’s a sure-fire way to block yourself creatively.  Our brains need the spark of novelty, and starting a new project may be the umph we need in that moment.  Your mind can handle more than one project at once, trust me.  Creative variety never hurt anyone.

“I’ll wait until I feel like it.”

Oh boy, then you’ll be waiting a long time!  Experienced creatives know that waiting for inspiration or motivation to arrive gets nowhere.  Instead, start some good habits around making.  This might be a good place for the group of friends that meet (safely) to work on projects or designating some wind-down time in the evening or early in the morning before the day starts specifically for WIPs.

“I don’t have enough time right now.”

The dream that somehow you’ll suddenly have a large chunk of time appear for a project is…well…probably just a dream.  If you do want to tackle some of your UFOs, then it’s about making time.  Pandemic quarantine has certainly been an invitation for new time management!  Christine, a fellow artist has taken up that challenge and has been excavating the bins of UFOs in her basement and systematically finishing them.  She posts the completed project pictures on her Facebook page, for all of us to adore and compliment.  I’m sure she enjoys the social connection her journey of finishing has created, and she has likely inspired others as well with her “Finishing Fridays” theme.

Clearing out some of your creative UFOs can be exhilarating!  Just like how clearing out the clutter in a room can help you feel free and at ease, reworking those abandoned projects and enjoying them in their completed form can help your own sense of ease and accomplishment.  Amidst the grinding, dulling apathy that is settling in from this long pandemic, challenging yourself to face off with some of your project UFOs might be just the right creative medicine at this time.  Besides, what do you have to gain by not…?

cranes tapestry progress