When Do You Stop Creating?

“The heart apparently doesn’t stop that easily.”

– Haruki Murakami,
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

To keep going isn’t always the answer. 

While perseverance is certainly essential for you as an artist, it’s just as important for you to know when to call it quits — because success isn’t all about winning — it’s also about quitting the right things. 

So here’s when it might be better for you to close the book and work on a different project : when you feel your work turning stale. 

The Simpsons are currently at their 32nd season. In hindsight, that seems like an admirable feat. But not for fans of the show. Because only the first 10 seasons were good. They were their Golden Age. The rest is, as fans have regarded, “Zombie Simpsons”. 

The Golden Age episodes had so much depth in them — the lines, the jokes, the character development were so well-thought out, and the writers put a great deal of attention to the smallest details. They were brilliantly funny, satirically thought-provoking, and even heartbreaking at times. The writers approached the episodes like craftsmen, and there was no way around that. 

Taking Homer for example, there used to be believable human traits in his character. He could be an idiot, but he is also caring and sweet, and he loves his family more than anything in the world. He could be an annoyance to the people around him, but he never does anything out of meanness.

After 10 seasons, it seemed as though the writers had nothing left to say, but kept going anyway. Instead of relating to timeless themes and human nature as they did before, they have written in one cheap joke after another and chased ephemeral trends. Instead of portraying Homer as a character with a heart, they turned him into a senseless moron, one-upping his stupidity, episode after episode. 

It’s no different from Francis Ford Coppola’s mistake in making The Godfather Part III. There was no real reason to elongate Michael Corleone’s saga further, because the story had reached its most satisfying conclusion in Part II. Michael gained power at the expense of losing everything that actually mattered to him. To make another sequel meant reiterating the same points, because as Coppola himself said, “you’ve shown all your tricks”.

Now, contrast that with Seinfeld, which ended after 9 seasons even though they were at the peak of their ratings.

As Jason Alexander, who played the character George Constanza, said, “We all thought that the show could continue to be funny..The writers were always really good and they would find these amazing guest people to come in all the time. So there was a constant flow of a new sense of humor. And we thought funny is not the obstacle here.”

“The obstacle was that — after 9 seasons ― the audience could more or less anticipate how any of these characters would react in any given situation,” he said. “There was nothing new we could do to these characters and still have it be ‘Seinfeld.’..“The mutual thought was, ‘Why don’t we tuck it in before the audience says this kid’s been up too long,’”

Jerry Seinfeld was offered $5 million an episode to keep the show going. But he turned the offer down. Why? Because he knew better than just doing it for the money. 

“We’ve all seen a million athletes where you say, ‘I wish they didn’t do those last two years,’” he said in an interview with New York Times. “For me, this is all about timing. My life is all about timing. As a comedian, my sense of timing is everything.”

“I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we’ve been doing it on for years,” he elaborated. “I wanted the end to be from a point of strength. I wanted the end to be graceful.”

There’s no shame in quitting, as long as it’s the right thing. If you’re dragging your feet to work — or if it stops being an inspired play and instead becomes a chore, consider hitting the brakes and starting anew on a different direction. 

Every work has an end, so you’d might as well let it be a graceful one. 

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