Haunted by Unfinished Projects? Fight Back

Do you have unfinished projects niggling at your mind, calling on you to finish them, crying out that they have been abandoned unfairly, and inspiring guilt?

If you do, you have a problem. You need to finish those projects or banish them and throw out the guilty feelings.

I generate a lot of unfinished projects. I need to dig into a project before I know if it is worth finishing. Sometimes, three pages of writing is enough for me to see if an idea has enough power to justify development. Sometimes, it takes longer. In either case, I explore many more projects than I finish.

For projects that I explore but chose not to pursue for conscious reasons putting them aside has no downside. I can just set them to rest.

For these projects, I use a variation of The Scanner′s Finnish described by Barbara Sher in her book Refuse to Choose. The Scanner′s Finnish involves gathering up all the parts of the project, wrapping them up, and labelling them with the project, the original goal of the project, the stage at which the project was stopped, and next steps should the project ever be picked up again. My variation is simply to put everything in a box or a binder and put it away. If I know I am abandoning a particular project for good reason, I have no issues about letting it go.

But, there are projects that get dropped and haunt me. What about them?

I know that if they are haunting me, there is something truly unfinished about them and I must find a way to finish them.

I have three projects that are haunting me at the moment:

  • a play I was collaborating on, but the collaboration fell apart
  • a play retelling Jean Racine′s Phaedra from Phaedra′s perspective
  • a horror novel involving a take on vampires that harkens back to early myths

Each of these was begun years ago, each was dropped for reasons that had more to do with my lack of discipline than with anything intrinsic to the project, and each was founded on ideas that still appeal to me. These projects haunt me.

And I am fighting back.

These three projects are all optional now. Working on them is unnecessary creating in the words of Todd Henry of Accidental Creative.

I am busy at the moment, so I need some pressure to force myself to make time for unnecessary creating in my day. Spurred on by some friends, I have taken up a new challenge: Script Frenzy. Script Frenzy is the April script writing challenge issued by the folks who bring us NaNoWriMo every September. The Script Frenzy challenge is 100 pages in 30 days. I don′t expect to meet that goal. My personal goal for April is to get a bad first draft of at least one of those unfinished plays written.

Strangely enough, now that I am writing this play again, I am excited to work on it.  The guilt is gone. Finishing this draft should keep this demon at bay.  Then, it will be on to revision to banish it for good.

Do you have unfinished projects haunting you? How do you banish those demons?


About Kate Arms-Roberts


Posted on April 5, 2011, in This Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Unfinished projects? Me?

    You are an inspiration for hitting the creative ghosts head-on. Thanks! You’ve moved me to drop two old “projects” that have literally been waiting for years.

    Let me go check my list of new projects. Ooops. No more time to respond to blogs, now.

    Playful blessings,
    Stan aka @muz4now

  2. Christine Fonseca

    I needed this today and yes, I have MANY unfinished projects and they do haunt me!

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Thanks for letting me know this meant something to you. May you find some ways to banish that haunting.

  3. Don’t creatives always have more great (?) ideas than time to create them? I sure do.

    Confession time — my unfinished project is a feature story based on my iCivility work. I’ve neglected that Twitter feed for weeks now, and most certainly haven’t focused on the story. I have done a heck of a lot of other things during that time, but still…

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I had started to wonder what was going on with iCivility, but I had noticed that you were doing lots of other things. My post on irregular output seems relevant here. There can be a fine line between dropping something and focusing on something else for a bit.

      The projects that haunt me are usually ones that I have invested a lot of time into, but not finished. The guilty feelings start when I realize I have inadvertently moved from focusing on something else to dropping it completely.

      For me, it comes down to Roberts Heinlein’s second rule of writing success: Finish what you start. The projects that haunt me are the ones I start, but don’t finish or otherwise put away for good reason.

      If I don’t do anything with an idea other than write it in my journal and say “not right now,” it doesn’t haunt me the way a partially completed project does, even if I keep circling back to it in my spare time.

  4. I think there’s instantly a shift in our thinking and feeling when we make a decision either way – to pick the project up again, or to box it up and let it go.

    The worse case is where we have a dozen projects that are still in limbo – we perceive them still as “current”, so we still have that investment in them, emotionally and mentally, but we’re not actually working on them, so have the subsequent guilt that that tends to produce.

    If we can decide one way or other and take action, it alleviates both of these.

    I agree with Patrick above about having more creative ideas than we will ever be able to develop. I think once we stop fighting that, accept we can only effectively work on one project at any one time, and also trust that our best ideas will always come back to us, it goes a long way to help us become more contented and focused artists. : )

    Interesting post!

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Your assessment that making a decision changes our feelings rings true to me. The projects that haunt me are the ones I am unwilling to decide to let go of, but am not actually giving any energy to. The ones in limbo.

  5. Am I haunted? Oh, yes. I agree with Patrick R. above. It seems there are way more ideas than time. I’m working on that, though. Weeding out the unnecessary.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Deciding where to put our energy when we have lots of ideas can be tough.

      Good luck, and come back and tell us how you are doing.


  6. Using the Scanner’s Finish, or variation thereof, is a nice touch. I’ve recently read Refuse to Choose… probably should get my own copy… thanks for the idea!

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I go back to “Refuse to Choose” every so often when I find that I have let all my interests spin out of control or I realize that I am feeling trapped. The other book I like for that purpose is “The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One” by Margaret Lobenstine

  7. Carolyn Solares

    Funny timing of you post. I am currently dusting off a creative u-turn, a manuscript that I had written 18 months ago (and edited and rewritten….) But somehow that time has given this project time to incubate, so I can now finish it and publish. Thanks for sharing your experience. Looking forward to reading your play.

  8. Kate Arms-Roberts

    I hope the incubation has given you good perspective.

    Sometimes time is a great thing.

    How did you know it was time to pick it back up?


  9. Kate Arms-Roberts

    Glad to have been a nudge.

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