I have a big old wire wastebasket which I never empty in which I put things that I think I might work more on, and over a number of years it’s got chock full of beginnings, false starts, some might say—failures perhaps—but I’ve made a book of them, or what-you-might-call a book, of sixty-four examples of this nameless genre of writing…
In previous posts (“The Nature of Inspiration (I)” and “The Nature of Inspiration (II)”), I’ve spoken about some important steps in my personal journey toward a steady source of creative inspiration. Recently I have become aware of another influence that has contributed to that inspiration: unfinished work.
Seeming dead ends, staircases and roads to nowhere…this landscape of things begun but not completed does not give most of us a happy feeling. Often we slink shamefacedly past these pieces, which peek out of the corners of our studios and workshops, and feel a twinge of conscience as we sneak a look at them. We think they represent personal failures; we believe them to be evidence of our character flaws. We hate being reminded that such half-finished efforts exist, and that we were responsible for making them. And yet we often keep them, painful as they are to us. We even refuse to throw them away. Why? Do we feel guilty? Do we hope that some day we will take them up and finish them, and thus redeem ourselves? Or do we have other reasons for saving unfinished work?
The late Spencer Holst, a writer whom I had the good fortune to count as a friend, created a very unusual relationship with his unfinished and discarded stories. Like almost all artists, he had unfinished work. However, unlike most artists, he faced these fragments bravely. Spencer rarely threw anything out; he saved nearly all of his false starts. Short or long, sentence or paragraph, they stayed in his old-fashioned wire wastebasket. Eventually, at least half a dozen times, he assembled these discards into literary collages that were neither short story nor book, but a surrealistic blend of both. Each of them is an apparent chain of non sequiturs, like unrelated beads on a common string (one of these collages is titled “Charlie Morrow’s Bracelet”). Yet somehow, each time, Spencer managed to create a satisfying whole by bringing together these odd bits and pieces of prose.
Spencer Holst’s collages of re-purposed writings have stimulated my imagination many times over the years, if only in an indirect sense. And now, more directly, Spencer’s example has inspired me to face my unfinished artwork directly and without the usual feeling of being nagged by things left undone. When free of this feeling, I saw that unfinished work can serve as landmarks to guide one in changing course. Things undone promise the continuity and abundance of creative sources. To those receptive to its teachings, the incomplete is a school that instructs them as no other could. As mistakes aid their own correction, the unfinished helps to complete the work that will follow it.