Why you’re not required to complete the work

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Wouldn’t it make writing easier if you knew you were not required to complete the work?

I was listening to a 2005 radio interview last week with the late Harold Bloom who died Oct 14 at the age of 89. A famous American literary critic, Yale University professor and prolific author who wrote more than 40 books, Bloom was a vocal defender of the Western ‘canon.’ I recall being introduced to his writing when I studied Shakespeare in English 100.

Since then, I have discovered reasons not to put Bloom on a pedestal — he was known among students to have been a philanderer and would have undoubtedly been ‘outed’ by the #MeToo movement had he been younger, and he decried both feminism, and, for goodness sake, Harry Potter.

But a specific comment Bloom made in the radio interview captured my attention favourably. He said, “I was thinking of that extraordinary little work called the Pirkei Avot in Hebrew….Take the single statement that means the most to me by Rabbi Tarphon  ‘You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’ ” (at 8:26 to 9:02 in the recording.)

That profound piece of advice resonated with me so greatly, I emailed a friend of mine, who is Jewish, for more information. Who was Rabbi Tarphon? And what is the Pirkei Avot?

Rabbi Tarphon (also spelled Tarfon) was a member of the third generation of the Mishnah sages, who lived in the Second Century (CE). The Pirkei Avot which translates in English to “Teachings of the Fathers,” is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims passed down from Moses onwards.

I appreciate the one-two punch of Rabbi Tarphon’s aphorism. And I think it applies, in particular, to writers. Let’s look at his statement, one point at a time.

You are not required to complete the work… 

The italicization of the word ‘complete’ is mine, but surely that is the point Tarphon intended to emphasize. It’s a gigantic ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card! You don’t actually have to finish your work.

Here’s the issue I’ve found with many of the writers who hire me. They focus almost immediately on the publication process. How do they find a publishing house? An agent? Get their work into bookstores or peer-reviewed journals etc. etc. They are worried about so many steps down the road that they can’t concentrate on the present moment. You know, the time when they should be writing…

I always think their attitude is a bit like beginning skiers focusing immediately on the Olympics. Or business school students planning for when they’re going to be CEOs. Yes, these things might happen. And they won’t occur without planning and dedication. But doesn’t it make more sense to focus on doing the work before you concentrate on the big payoff?

Also, writing is a creative enterprise (yes, even non-fiction; yes, even academic work) requiring not only a letting go of expectations but also a willingness to take chances and risks. If you’re focusing only on completing the work, you’re going to have a hard time doing either one of those things.

But if you aren’t required to complete the work, then phew! maybe you’ll actually be able to do it.

Then comes the punch…

But neither are you free to desist from it 

Turns out the statement is not such a gigantic ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. You still need to write. You still need to do the work. The only freedom is that you don’t have to finish it.

But isn’t that freedom enough? In preparing to write this post, I spoke with a friend of mine who has occasional difficulty with completion. Here’s her advice, which she received from a more senior writing friend who was a poet and an editor: “Don’t think about when you’re going to finish your work.” he advised. “Instead, focus on the next time you’re going to start it. If you start enough times, eventually, you’ll finish.”

Writing is a mind game. If you think you aren’t going to be able to do it, you won’t. If your goals are too ambitious, you will likely fail. If you think only of the finished product — the published work — you’re going to have a harder time convincing yourself to put your butt in a chair to write.

Instead of beginning with the final goal in mind, begin by seeing yourself as a writer. This is a person who shows up, day after relentless day, and puts words on the page. You don’t need to finish those words (although you might). Instead, you just need to write.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help writers identify the best time of day to write. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Are you prepared to write without fretting over completion? Why or why not? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/19  will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!