East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Fear of finishing, part 2

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And let’s admit it, it is fitting that a post about the endless reworking / rewriting / tweaking / revising we do to our work in order to push the finish line as far as possible should have a second part.
I mean, the first was not quite finished, right?

Well, here is where I talk about academia, roleplaying games, and “the funny incidents that happen when you try and make your living as a writer” (remember? this was the topic of the comic book I was told to start posting instead of these useless words I am putting on my blog and nobody reads anyway).

But on to the fear of finishing.

The most tragic case of this sort of endless procrastination I ever saw was from a colleague back in university, that actually spent twenty years working on his magnum opus – a research that was supposed to “change the face of the field” the moment it was published: new methods, new data, new interpretations, a whole new paradigm.

The work was never good enough for publication, so he never got around to publish it. For twenty years.
Twenty years he spent endlessly tweaking, rewriting and revising his work.
The real cause for this anxiety, I believe, and the consequent procrastination, was what in roleplaying games is called “shark syndrome”.

In roleplaying games, we speak of “shark syndrome” when the players start believing (who knows, maybe with good reason) that the game master is out to kill their characters no matter what.
They feel like people adrift in the ocean, as they see the fin of a shark circling them and then disappear beneath the surface. They know it’s out there, they know it will get them, they just don’t know how and when.

It can be argued that a game like The Call of Cthulhu is so much about the shark syndrome that players actually don’t care anymore, but we’ll leave this for another post (see? this thing will never be finished!)

In academia – and indeed in publishing (and blogging, and podcasting… you name it) – the shark syndrome comes from the fact that you know there’s people out there that are just waiting for you to raise your head to give you a good whack.

Now, the Japanese say “出る釘は打たれる”, that is “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” – and that’s often the problem.
Do not rock the boat, do not attract undue attention, do not upset the status quo…
A lot of people hate what you are doing just because you are doing it.
It’s a weird mental thing.
And that can cause a sort of shark syndrome – a frisson of pure unadulterated fear when you are about to hit “publish” that has nothing to do with taking chances, and a lot to do with public non-asked-for hostility.
Shark syndrome.

In academia it can get worse, because what you are doing it might steal the limelight from someone else – maybe you are a young and rampant researcher and what you are researching will cause the work of some well-established, old and powerful colleague to lose favor.
And they might end up being the referees on your publication.

Hence, the shark syndrome.
Hence, that colleague that waited twenty years to publish his work that would have changed the face of the field – and when he finally got ready (basically his wife held a gun to his head and said “Publish that fracking paper!!”)… well, the face of the field had changed already, and his magnum opus was no longer a cutting-edge, innovative new take, but basically a collection of ideas that had been done, debated and accepted over the course of a generation.

Bottom line – there comes a moment when you need to take stock of this fear. As a very personal example: I toyed with the idea of opening a Patreon account for two years before I actually did.
The fact that when I first mentioned the eventuality some “colleagues” spend a few moments of their precious time on their social media to describe me as a “panhandler” and a “beggar” made me waste at least one year – one year I could have spent setting up my Patreon page and doing things with my fans… that were there for me when I finally did it.
But before that, there was the fear of being lampooned publicly.
Shark syndrome.

It has to go.
There comes a moment when we need to say, that’s it – now I can go public with this. It0’s finished.

Which is something my current client seems to have some problems with: I was just informed he has rewritten the first 200 pages of the first draft he had approved, and on which I was doing my second draft.
We’re back at square one.
We’ll never see the end of this fracking tunnel.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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