No creative work emerges finished. Preliminary work is rough, and often bears little resemblance to the polished, completed product released to the public.
Mozart would often start a piece, set it aside, and then pick it back up months or years later. Musicologist Ulrich Konrad called these beginnings “departure points … a delineation of intellectual places to which Mozart could return as necessary.” Each field has different names to describe preliminary creative work. In writing, a preliminary work is called a “draft.” In recording arts and software, preliminary work is called a “demo” and often used to demonstrate the artist’s or group’s capabilities and the work’s possibilities. In visual art, preliminary work is called a “sketch,” and used to assist in making the final work.
Preliminary work is not optional, and every version of preliminary work is crucial for improving the work we’re making. This stage is far too early to demand perfection; it’s best to keep expectations low, to refrain from self-criticism, and to support psychological safety (the feeling that it’s okay to make mistakes) to allow every single detail of the idea to flow out.
One of the most fascinating properties of the creative process is, every version of a piece of work can be seen as preliminary work. While you can finish different versions and variations of a project, there doesn’t have to be a final sense of completion. Pablo Picasso said, “If it were possible … there would never be a ‘finished’ canvas but just different states of a single painting.” And here’s W. H. Auden paraphrasing a line of Paul Valéry’s: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
Dacoury Natche and his collaborators worked on the song “Time” on Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20 album for nearly two years. Natche said there are multiple versions of the song, including one that sounds more like a party, and another that sounds more like a live version. He was willing to commit that time because the song held potential. He described his mindset: “Let’s just try as many versions as we can because I know this song feels like something special.”
Our goal here is to practice not worrying about whether or not something is perfect. Instead, it’s about creating one version of a project that will likely either be improved upon in the future or serve as inspiration for something else. The key is to cultivate the commitment and conviction to declare that something is done, for now.
“Anything you do is basically a demo until it comes out, or it’s present,” said Dacoury Natche. “Sometimes even if it comes out, it still can be a demo.” It’s fitting that Natche brings this up, since iterating on final products often takes place in music through remixes, samples, and covers.
It might sound counterintuitive, or even painful or scary, to your inner craftsperson to complete work in so little time that it doesn’t feel ready. That’s the whole point. Your judgment of your work may not reflect how somebody else interprets or experiences it. It’s fine to know something that you made isn’t your best, and still declare this version of it complete—or to release it to the world. The work that resonates with the most people may not be the one that you declare to be the best; still, it can make an impact on people.
This prompt requires that you focus on starting something and finishing a version of it. Think of everything you make as a demo, a sketch, or a draft. Remove all ideas of expectations and goals, and focus simply on the process and taking a draft to a state where you declare it finished and acceptable as a working version. With every end comes a new beginning. It’s only by finishing a preliminary version of your work imperfectly, that you can start a new one.