Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Choice And The Writer

I remember hearing a routine once from comedian Howie Mandel where he talked about driving along on an Interstate highway. His bit was about how he related to the traffic around him. He noted that everyone who drove faster than him was a maniac while everyone who drove slower than him was a 'grandpa.' That's silly and yet completely understandable, isn't it?

How boring it would be to live in a world where everyone thought and acted and behaved exactly like us, and yet we have this innate amazement that anyone behaves in any way different than we do.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the differences between people. I think I allow for it more than most because I'm so aware of it, and yet even I fall prey to this very behavior even knowing how strange the impulse is.

The same holds true for writers and how they choose to think and process and react and operate. A recent blog post by SF author Nancy Kress talks about a book by Barry Schwartz entitled THE PARADOX OF CHOICE in which he makes an interesting case: (1)Americans rate ourselves as being less happy than we were in the past, and are less happy than many other cultures. (2)Americans have far more choices available to us now than we did in the past. He looks at the number and variety of choices available to us versus our ultimate satisfaction with the choices we actually make. But getting back to my initial statement, people are different, and we don't all react the same way in this examination of choices and subsequent satisfaction.

Scwartz divides people into two broad groups, which he calls "maximizers" and "sufficers." The former are the people who want the best choice possible. They research, they shop around a lot, they continue looking even after they find something that meets their criteria. After all, there might be something better out there somewhere! These people often end up with better "goods" than most people, but less happiness with those choices. They regret, they experience "buyer's remorse," they think about the road not taken.

The "sufficers," on the other hand, just want something "good enough." They shop around less than maximizers. When they find something that meets their broad criteria, they choose it, commit to it, and don't think any more about the other possibilities. Although this group may end up with goods objectively not as snazzy as the first group's, and although they still can become stressed by the process of choosing, on the whole they are happier than maximizers.

As I read all this, the application of it to writing fiction came to mind. I have had "maximizer" students, who agonize over every word choice in their manuscripts, endlessly revise, and are not happy with the finished story, even if they sell it. They compare their careers to others (a classic maximizer trait), and are frustrated or disappointed. These people don't seem to enjoy writing very much. Meanwhile, other students of mine, although willing to work hard and revise as necessary, can sense when a story is "good enough." They can accept with equanimity that they will never be Tolstoy. These people seem to enjoy writing more and, I've noticed, they publish more, too.


image by pareeerica, http://www.flickr.com/photos/8078381@N03/

Reading the post and working through those thoughts in my head, I have questions. As a writer, are you a maximizer or a sufficer? Is that hard-coded into you, or is it something that can change? And is that change something that can only happen to us, or is it something we can affect ourselves? Having read this and thought about it, will that knowledge change anything? If you know you have maximizer tendencies, will you make an effort to change? If so, why? If not, why not?

These are the things I think about sometimes, although only as long as it is pleasurable to do so. At some point in time, I realize that not knowing everything about everything will have to suffice.

And I'm ok with that. ;)
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