Finishing the Hat

Recently, I listened to an NPR Fresh Air interview with the composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim.  Sondheim has recently published a new book called Finishing the Hat – it’s a compilation of stories about his life’s work (his lyrics, his music) and how the various scores and songs came to be.  The book’s title, “Finishing the Hat”, is also the name of a song in the musical Sunday in the Park with George – one that I’m particularly fond of.  In the song, the lead character (Georges Seurat) is talking about the charge, the sparkle, the satisfaction he gets from painting.  I can’t remember the exact lyric, but he sings about “finishing the hat” worn by one of the characters in the painting (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) …that the hat is there now (where there wasn’t one before).  So the idea of “finishing the hat” becomes a metaphor for the feeling of joy that comes from finishing a work of art.

In the interview Sondheim relates that feeling to his own process of writing songs for theater; about that thing that happens when you sit down to create and you loose yourself in the process. Hours go by and you haven’t been aware of the time passing – you’re so intensely focused on what you are doing. And when you finish, there is that feeling of complete satisfaction that swamps you.  He went on to connect to a biological basis for the feeling, referring to “that little squirt of dopamine”.  The pleasure of it.  Not only, that it is done, but it is there.  To look at (or hear, in his case) and admire.  I just loved that idea – and couldn’t help but connect it to media acts of creation.

When I’m editing a video, or building a new wiki site, or figuring out how to do a visual representation of a concept using a new online drawing tool, I am completely absorbed.  I regularly loose track of the clock and am surprised to look up and discover how much time has passed.  I get irritated by the need to stop and eat or answer the phone.  When I recently created a simple structure in the virtual world of Second Life – platforms, sign posts, walls, and objects just so – I experienced that same immersive absorption.  And how satisfying to walk my avatar around the results of my labor.  Voila.  I had created an environment.  A persistent place.  A setting that was just to my liking and suited for the very purpose I had intended.  It was enormously satisfying to finish that hat.

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