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Make Bold Choices

Sunday, 19. June 2022 21:56

In actor training we stress making choices, encouraging actors to make bold choices.  While it would seem that making choices is basic to creating anything, but this does not seem to be the case. Evidently making conscious choices during the creative process is not intuitive to everyone who takes up an art. To many beginning actors, this seems to be a foreign process; they make no choices at all, particularly not strong ones. This has led me to wonder whether the same is true for other arts and artists as well.

Most of us come to art because of a natural aptitude. It’s something we don’t think about very much; we just do it. We draw; we paint; we photograph; we act—all because it’s an easy thing for us to do. Then we get to the point where we are no longer progressing and we make a decision to continue as we are or to get some training to help us get better. Training comes in lots of formats: it may be formal classes, or it may be a self-directed course of study, or it may simply be a disorganized study of the work of masters. Still we may not be making conscious choices in our work, and, of course, making no choices is really making choices, probably weak ones.

But what about flow, some may be asking. Surely, in flow, we are working almost subconsciously. That is true, and I am, as most of you know, a great proponent of flow and a great believer in the contributions of the subconscious to the creative process. However, I have also observed the differences between actors who make decisively bold choices and those who do not—or even between work done by the same actor before and after making conscious choices. The difference is remarkable, and the work is always better after strong choices are made. This phenomenon is also observable in other arts, for example, making strong choices almost always means the difference between a good photograph and a mere snapshot. Drawings made with a conscious choice are invariably better than off-hand sketches.

It is as if the conscious choices that the artist makes serve as a foundation for the subconscious work and mixed-conscious work that follows during the process of creation.

But what about those projects that just seem to evolve? The idea appears out of the air and is then turned into preliminary notes which then develop into a full-blown project. How does this idea of conscious choices come into play with them? My suggestion would be that at some point in the process, if we want to make the project all it can be, that we stop and look at what we’ve done so far and make some conscious choices about where the project should be going. These will provide a strong foundation for the project, ensuring a strong finished project.

It may be that that making bold choices is already a part of our process that we don’t fully acknowledge, or perhaps we call that part of the process by another name. Regardless, it would be well to examine our process and verify that this happens early on in the creative journey. As in the case of the young actors noted above, our work will only benefit,

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Is the First Idea the Best?

Sunday, 5. June 2022 22:28

Last week I was discussing an issue with a set piece with the scene designer of a show I am directing. Actually, it was more of him thinking out loud. Finally he said, “The first idea is always the best, isn’t it?” I agreed, knowing that this was not necessarily the case. In this particular instance, he had considered many alternatives; then we brainstormed some more. He returned to his first idea as the best choice; it was more a matter of picking the best rather than returning to the first.

Many teachers and students say that in taking a test, your first answer is usually your best.

Regardless of this anecdotal evidence, an even larger number of writers say that the idea of your first idea being your best is not true, Helly Douglas, among others, has written an article on “Why Your First Idea is Never Your Best: Developing Amazing Writing Ideas.” Another explanation is provided in “The scientific reason why your first idea is rarely your best one.” The notion that the first test response is the best is refuted in “Myth: It’s Better to Stick to Your First Impulse Than Go Back and Change Multiple Choice Test Answers,” which appears on the Association for Psychological Science web site.

However, the notion that our first ideas are our best ones persists. Roger Waters for example, in Pink Floyd: the making of The Dark Side of the Moon, says that the first take is usually the best take. It is much the same idea. However, it did not prevent the band from doing multiple takes of pieces that make up their albums. I have often found that in headshot sessions, the first shot of a particular pose is often better than those that follow; still I shoot more than one.

Given these contradictions, how should we proceed in our day-to-day artistic pursuits? Much the way the scene designer in the first paragraph actually proceeded: take the first idea, then consider alternatives, perhaps develop one or two of these concepts and see where it leads. We may find that our first idea was, in fact, the best alternative; however, we may find that something radically different is a better choice. At first glance, this looks like a long drawn-out process. It isn’t really. Our minds work very rapidly, and once we hit on an idea, most of us find that it blossoms almost automatically, sometimes reforming itself almost instantaneously. If we take a moment—or even longer—to examine each iteration of the idea as it evolves, we will discover which will work the best.

This is not to suggest that this is merely a passive activity. Each of us has their own process and methodology. Ideas sometimes pop into mind, but they must be evaluated and perhaps massaged and developed before they can become a full-blown project. And that preliminary process may or may not better the original idea, but it certainly can facilitate moving only our best ideas forward.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the idea that turns into a project was the first idea or the fifteenth. What matters is that we have a way to advance our best ideas and let the lesser ones either support those best ones or fall by the wayside.

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Just Start

Sunday, 22. May 2022 22:20

One of the things that makes creatives creative is the abundance of imagination. We can hardly close our eyes without seeing images, stories, ideas; then we open our ideas and they disappear as quickly as they came. Often they come in the twilight as we are drifting to sleep, in dreams, in daydreams, when we are bored. Those of us who are lucky or who have enough foresight or who have enough discipline will quickly make notes to record these images, ideas, and stories. For others of us, they just disappear.

What do those of us who manage to get these products of the imagination down on paper or into a computer or tablet do with the list once we have it? Often the answer is “very little;” it turns into a list of potential projects, and there it sits. These potential projects often remain potential and are never really realized as projects. Is it just procrastination or some other reason?

For some, it is our working methodology: we hesitate to try to actualize potential projects because we cannot see the end of the project, so we think we don’t know how to begin. That is, we need to know the outcome before we begin the project. Unfortunately, most of our imaginations do not produce project ideas and images fully developed; it is up to us to take the snippets we dream and develop them.

This cannot happen unless we actually pick up the brush or pen or camera, or keyboard or chisel and actually make a start, trusting in ourselves to develop the project wherever the material takes us. That’s the hard part: beginning the journey of creation without knowing either the location of the end or what the end actually is.

But it’s how we have to do it—if we are ever to create anything. It’s the trusting the process that’s difficult. Many of us think that we will only get as far as we do when we put the thoughts into our potential projects list. And maybe that will happen, but what is more likely to happen is that in actually beginning the project, new insights will develop. We will begin to see where the material might go and we will choose which of the branches to follow, and then even more ideas will develop and we will see further down the path of development. And then finally we will be able to see the end. The realization of the project becomes about discovery.

And the good news is that, at any point in this discovery process, we can go back over what we have already done and edit it, making it better, more meaningful, more stimulating, more engaging. Of course, the edits will alter the course of the project, and thus the final outcome.

But what if development stalls? What if the discovery process fails before we reach the end? We do the same things we do when any project stalls: we examine the project to see if it’s really a failure, we salvage what we can, and we deal with it.

We are still in a better position than if we were waiting around to begin—because we have done something. As basketball and hockey fans will quickly tell you, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The quote is most often attributed to Wayne Gretzky, but regardless of who originally said it, it applies. No matter how creative we are, we cannot realize a project unless we actually start on it.

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Art Can Do That

Sunday, 8. May 2022 23:36

At one point in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, the main character, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who is on a train headed to New York City opens a book and begins to read, “trying to forget who he is and where he is and what he’s doing for a little while.”  He succeeds. Books can do that. Books can take us into worlds that are fantastic or realistic or horrible or joyous or curious or delightful or romantic or…. When we read, particularly when we read fiction, we become completely lost to ourselves; our surroundings seem to cease to be. We ourselves seem to completely disappear, overtaken by action and characters and ideas in the world of the book. And that, very often, is completely wonderful.

The same sort of thing happens with plays and movies. We find our surroundings fade as we focus on the stage of screen, and fade further as we become interested in the characters and their behaviors that we find there. Then as the film or play progresses, we begin to disappear as our whole attention is focused on the characters’ development and the unfolding plot. And once again we have been removed from out every-day existence in our every-day world and immersed in a fantasy or a war or a mystery or an intrigue radically unlike our own lives.

Music transports us in slightly different ways. When we read or watch movies or plays, our bodies are passive, however, in the presence of music, our bodies very often are moving to the rhythm of the music, whether that movement is tapping our feet, moving our hands to the beat, or giving our whole body over the musical experience. Regardless, we still have many of the same responses. Our self-awareness is diminished; our thoughts turn from ourselves and our every-day worries to a complete oneness with the music. There may be visual aspects as well as aural to complete our engagement with the performance, so that all of our senses are completely focused on the event.

But how about arts that are more static, such as paintings, photography, and sculpture? We find that much the same thing can happen. We can get lost in a piece of static art just as surely and completely as we can in a more dynamic piece. Whether it’s the use of color or line that engrosses us or the composition or the detail, each piece of visual or plastic art has its own appeal, and many pieces have such an appeal that we need to spend some time with them. It’s why galleries and museums have strategically placed benches—so we can be comfortable while we are contemplating the work on display. It’s quite easy for many of us to become so absorbed in a photograph or sculpture or painting or drawing that we momentarily lose the use of our unoccupied senses and even become temporarily detached from our immediate environment.

It’s one of the undeniable appeals of art: the facility for involving us completely, for taking us, at least temporarily, out of ourselves. Most of us appreciate a respite from our everyday lives, no matter how pleasant or rewarding our actual lives may be, and art provides not only an escape but completely engaging experience that often returns us to the real world more enriched than when we left it.

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Narrow Your Focus

Sunday, 24. April 2022 22:26

We in educational theatre teach actors not to generalize. There are no generalized actions, emotions, or situations. Everything must be specific: the given circumstances must be specific, and the actors’ responses to those circumstances must be specific as well; this sometimes gives rise to some very specific emotions which are tied to the situation being acted.

It occurs to me that this need for specificity is required in other arts as well. It would be beyond difficult to compose generalized music, or to create a generalized dance. In other arts the difficulty may not be quite so obvious. For example, many are the authors who begin generalized written works only to find out that such are not only difficult, but generally uninteresting. The same holds true for any work of art. Artists need to know not only what they are trying to say, but must decide very specific aspects of that subject. To say that one is writing a play about business in America is a very nebulous thing; to say that one is writing a play about the machinations that go on in a real estate sales operation is a much more specific and practical thing that is far more likely to result in a significant, compelling dramatic work.

The same is true, of course, of painting or photography or poetry. To be really viable, the work of art, and thus the artist, must be very specific, very focused. It is only through the explicit that we can say the things that actually need to be said—without generating a generalized work that, even if well-reasoned, will fail to hold the audience.

But what if artists want to tackle large subjects? How should they handle that? The answer is to narrow their focus, hone in on specific aspects of the topic they want to broach, and by creating detailed and focused work, reflecting the larger topic. For example, can there be any stronger anti-war statement than an artwork which depicts specifics of human suffering as the result of war? Can there be a stronger indictment of unethical business practices than a work which portrays the human cost of such practices?

Not only can focusing on specifics make the work stronger, it can aid the artist in creating the work. Many times, one of the problems of the artist is having too much material to deal with, particularly when trying to tackle a big subject. Focusing on one specific aspect of the subject can help the artist limit the subject matter so that it is easier to deal with; the artist can focus on a singular part of the overall topic instead of trying to deal with a massive subject area that defies organization.

Concentrating on one aspect of a subject can also keep the artist on track in terms of realizing the project. The artist can check the relevancy of parts of the project as they are assembled, thus preventing digressions and irrelevancies.

So instead of wandering aimlessly around a topic or area of concern, artists who narrow their focus have a much greater likelihood of producing really concentrated, meaningful art than those who do not. It is certainly something to consider as we contemplate our upcoming projects.

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The Art is Not the Artist

Sunday, 10. April 2022 23:32

Serendipitously, in the middle of a conversation about “terrible people” making good art, I received a text telling me that playwright director David Mamet was/is a supporter of Donald Trump. Evidently, Mamet had done an interview with Bill Maher, and his political leanings, of which I had known for some time, came as a surprise to many people. Clearly, one of these was the person texting me, who is an outspoken liberal, and who was using this discovery to put Mamet into the category of “terrible people,” or at the very least, “terribly misguided people.”

Of course, the judgement that anyone is a terrible anything is subjective. It depends first on the judge’s point of view. To some, a person’s political leanings make them terrible. For others, it’s their behavior. Equally subjective is the definition of what constitutes terrible beliefs or actions. Third is the assumption that the judge has the “correct” view of what is right and wrong, what is desirable and what is not. And fourth, of course, is another assumption: that the judge has all the information on the subject at hand.

Once we’ve gotten past the subjective areas of such judgement, the question of the proper response comes up. We all know that one of the most frequent responses is the knee-jerk response to “cancel” the individual in question. For example, in the case of Mamet, a number of commenters to the Tweet said that they could no longer watch his films or plays because of this new knowledge. Some even said that this knowledge changed the meaning of his work which was created long before his political views shifted to the right.

We incorporated this “new” information into our conversation and continued. We discussed instances where really excellent art was produced by people that most would consider “terrible.” The facts of the artist’s life did not really impact the art work itself. In fact, in most instances, the personal proclivities were not apparent in the work at all. The conclusion was that it is probably better to try to separate the art and the artist, and that while neither of us would condone nor excuse bad behavior, once the art was created, it was no longer part of the artist. Therefore, it should be evaluated on its own merits rather than as an appendage to the “terrible person” who created it.

Separating the art and the artist is, of course, easier to do with artists who produce physical artifacts: plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, film. In the case of actors and performers, the separation is much more difficult, since the artifact and the artist are inseparable. Additionally, there seems to be a difference between artists who integrate their bad behavior with the work process, and those whose objectionable conduct happens away from the creative process.

It also seems that society is much more likely to forgive transgressions if the artist involved is dead. Also it seems that the further removed in time society is from the artist and the transgression, the easier it is to overlook terrible behavior. It turns out that a number of revered past artists were terrible by many standards, and society, which is quick to cancel contemporary artists who exhibit bad behavior, simply looks the other way in hindsight.

This is not a simple issue. It must take into account the art, the artist, current society, as well as the observer/judge’s own beliefs and biases. There may be no right answer. I am convinced, however, that the art and the artist are not the same and that to judge one in terms of the other is to do both a great disservice. And even after we separate the art and the artist, we must respond to both; how we do that is up to each individual and depends on who we are and how we relate to both the artist and what they create.

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When Artistic Growth Stops

Sunday, 27. March 2022 22:55

One of the things that seldom comes up in discussions of art and creativity is the growth of the artist. And that’s a bit surprising given that growth is absolutely necessary for an artist, and a lack of growth may well end an art career.

There are a number of reasons that artists fail to grow. One may be that they simply run out of new ideas. Another is that they may find themselves repeating work they have already done. Yet another is that the conditions under which they work suppress growth. A fourth is that some event in the artist’s private life impacts the artistic side of their life in a negative manner. Certainly burnout is a cause of lack of growth. And, of course, there are other reasons, and combinations of reasons.

Then there is the problem of what actually constitutes “artistic growth.” A number of Internet articles discuss artistic growth, but what they are really discussing is the development of artistic skill in children, which is not useful in this context. And then there is the issue of different artists and theorists defining “artistic growth” in different ways. Bryan Mark Taylor says that growth comes from practicing rather than performing. Willa Cather says that artistic growth is a “refining of the sense of truthfulness.” I have often said that I never did a project from which I didn’t learn something, and thought for a long time that that was an indicator of artistic growth; I have since come to think of it as more than that, but I am convinced that learning is a component.

Lack of artistic growth can be very frustrating to artists. Some say it feels like writer’s block except that it continues over multiple projects. This frustration can be compounded by a growing lack of interest in the work as well as a growing lack of confidence. And that leads to a downward spiral for artists. So then the question becomes how to maintain artistic growth. One suggestion that I give to my students—for other reasons—is to find something in each project that piques your interest: some emotion to explore, some technique to resolve, some springboard for research. This often works for individual projects, but what about a larger problem that spans different projects?

Caleb Vaughn-Jones, writing for the blog, The Future Muse offers some suggestions in two posts: “Artistic Growth: The Journey to Artistic Fulfillment” and “3 Tips for Creating Original Music.”  There are other suggestions as well: Look for inspiration outside normal channels. Get involved in a workshop either physically or virtually. Talk with colleagues about what they are doing and what they are getting out of it; again, this can be physical or virtual. Read a book that you’ve put off reading. (I have not found creativity self-help books very useful, but you may.) Take a sabbatical. Pick a radically different kind of project. Try a project in a different venue. Do a project in a different medium. If you are working for a company or a school, consider another place of employment. And there are certainly other approaches. Some of these are extreme, but extreme measures may be called for, depending on how important the creation of art is to the particular artist; the alternative is to stagnate artistically.

The main thing is to break whatever patternw are causing the lack of growth. Since lack of artistic growth bridges multiple projects, there will be patterns, although it may take a bit of time to suss them out. Then if becomes a matter of picking the solution, or combination of solutions, that works best for the particular artist involved. Lack of artistic growth is not a simple problem and may not only take some time to acknowledge it, but require a variety of approaches for a solution.

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When You Don’t Like the Art You Make

Sunday, 13. March 2022 22:46

It happens. Sometimes we make art that we don’t really like. This happens for a number of reasons. The work was a consignment piece; we made the work because it was on the schedule; the work didn’t turn out the way we expected; the reasons go on and on. But it feels strange to have made something and realize that you really don’t like it.

So then what do you do? There are a number of choices: you can destroy the piece, if it’s physical. You can rework the piece if there is sufficient time. You can put the piece into the world, but take your name off of it. You can call it a failure (even if it’s not really) and learn from the experience. Or you can recognize that you cannot love everything you make, let it go, and move on to the next project.

This happened to me recently. I directed a show, a musical, and it turned out to be not one of my favorites. There were a couple of reasons: one was the structure of the play; it was more a concert with narrative inserts than a real play, and it was not a show that I would have voluntarily gone to see had someone else staged it—not to my taste. But it was on the schedule and so I directed it. And it was successful. The intended audience showed up and—judging from their reaction—thoroughly enjoyed the show. And through it all, I nodded, and smiled, and said “thank you” when people told me how good it was.

And it was a good show. We worked the script to capitalize on its strengths and minimize its shortcomings. The musical direction was excellent, as was the band. Choreography, though minimal, was exactly what was necessary. The performers were precisely what the script needed to bring it to life. It was simply not to my taste. A valuable lesson I learned long ago from a visiting professor of English literature was to be able to distinguish between art that was good and art that I simply didn’t like. I learned that my liking or not liking a piece of art had no bearing on whether the art was good. That is determined by standards outside of individual likes and dislikes. So despite it being not to my taste, I did the best job directing that I could do, and even came to like certain parts of the show.

Like all artists, I would like to love everything I produce; however, it doesn’t seem possible, particularly when there are so many considerations in determining what projects one works on. So I think that if we are artisans as well as artists, we do pretty much what I did, or tried to do: make the project the best we possibly can. Put it out into the world. Accept whatever the reaction happens to be. Move on to the next project. Maybe it will be one that we can love.

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The Sensitivity Police

Sunday, 27. February 2022 21:53

A while back I sent out a non-fiction book I was working on to readers to gather some feedback. Most of the feedback was extremely useful and supportive. One reader questioned some of my work on the grounds that if I were to publish the book as written, some of it would offend the target audience. Since the reviewer was a high school teacher of grades 11 and 12, I listened: the target audience was college freshmen and sophomores or at least people of that age. While some of her comments rankled, after some conversations I saw her point. She was “in the trenches” with the precise students who would become my audience, so her insights into their ways of thinking and responding were quite useful. I modified a number of sentences in the book based on her input. Some I left alone; to change them would have been to completely change who I am. Those parts that I changed certainly modified who I “am,” but did not significantly alter the content; more extreme changes would have completely altered the content and the voice of the author.

I did not mind making the alterations; the edits had purpose, and that purpose served to broaden the prospective readership; they were, to my mind, practical.

This is not necessarily the case with other authors’ experiences with readers, particularly “sensitivity readers.” For example, Kate Clanchy detailed her experience with sensitivity readers for her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me in her essay “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature;” it was not a happy one:

They [sensitivity readers] have of course special areas of expertise — Islam, blackness, disability — but these emerge through inference, not announcement. Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2). Others have grander ambitions: paragraphs, sub-sections and even entire chapters should be revised. Still others focus on issues around the presentation of the book. One suggests the authors of endorsements containing the words “love” and “humanity” might want to “rethink their stance”. To add to the cacophony, the Readers contradict each other freely, even praising and disparaging the same passages.

Clanchy is not the only writer to have trouble with sensitivity readers. Consider the experience of Ryan Holiday or the findings of Zoe Dubno. While many writers consider sensitivity readers acceptable, perhaps even desirable, for children’s or young adult works, they find these same readers anathema for adult work.  Clanchy, for example, says that since her book was meant for an adult audience, “Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas. I don’t, for example, agree with my Readers that the references to looks, attraction and sexuality in my book should be removed in case readers are hurt by a metaphor as a child might plausibly be.”

This does not stop publishers from employing them. There is a great concern with “online outrage,” which can, if fact, affect the bottom line. And, from a publishing viewpoint, that’s what it’s all about. From an artistic viewpoint, it’s another thing entirely. Art, some say, is supposed to challenge and disturb. This applies not only to written art, but to painting, photography, sculpture, dance, and any other art you can name. Making art acceptable to everyone, will certainly broaden your audience, and should, theoretically, help your sales. But does it make your work better? Are those really sales that you want, or would you rather retain some vestige of your artistic integrity and identity?

Category:Aesthetics, Audience | Comment (0) | Author:

Unfinished Projects

Sunday, 13. February 2022 17:27

We all have them: unfinished projects cluttering our hard drives, taking up valuable physical storage space, stacked in the corner, piled on shelves, heaped in closets. Whether it’s incomplete canvasses, photography projects, incomplete stories or essays, unfinished musical compositions, or partially-realized sculptures, they all take up some sort of space and add clutter to our creative lives. As we begin to think about moving forward in the year, perhaps it’s time to address the issue of unfinished projects.

They exist for any number of reasons: in some cases, we simply ran dry or hit a wall, and decided to set them aside until we could have a new outlook. In other cases, we lost interest. In yet other cases, newer projects claimed our attention and we more or less forgot these that we left by the wayside. Whatever the reason, we left these projects uncompleted, but kept all the materials, “just in case…”

I am not suggesting that we need to complete all our unfinished projects or throw them out, but rather that we should review them—to determine which are still viable and which should be consigned to the trash. Actually, there are more gradations to our evaluation than just those two. We might review our incomplete projects and decide they go in one of several categories:

  • Finish this. Whatever has caused the incomplete nature of this project is no longer valid, or whatever has caused the lack of completion is no longer effective. We can see a path to the accomplishment of this project, so we should put in in the queue of projects scheduled for completion.
  • It needs more work. This type of project is not yet ready for full development, but might be put into a category of those that we work on in between other projects. Adding a little here, editing a little there, continuing the project, but not in full active mode.
  • Save the embryo. This project started with a solid idea, but the reasons it is incomplete far outweigh the good idea. The best thing that can be done is to salvage the idea and perhaps install it in another project that does not have the attendant problems; this will allow us to discard all the extraneous material, and, in effect, begin again.
  • Not yet. The idea is still solid, but the block to completion still exists. We can see where this project wanted to go and realize that the reason it has not gone forward is still valid and standing in the way of completion. This project goes back into storage for a time.
  • What was I thinking? This project was simply a bad idea from the outset and stopped for a reason, and whether the reason is still valid or not, the project itself is not worth the effort it would take to revive it. We can see if any of the pieces can be salvaged and perhaps recycled into other projects, either existing or future. The rest can be eliminated, allowing us to reclaim the storage space the project is taking up.

What we might do this year, and perhaps annually, is review our unfinished projects, categorizing them as noted above or according to whatever scheme we find useful. In this way we can reclaim both good ideas that just need further work, and space that could be put to better use. And we can unclutter our creative environment.

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