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,

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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  1. Wow. Lots to think about here. In life in general, I think I'm a sufficer. I'm sure I carry those tendencies over into my writing, but a latent perfectionism probably nudges me across the line into maximizing sometimes. Very interesting.

  2. I have to agree with Katie. I think there is a blurry area in between the two. Knowing when to let go, is one thing. Working hard to make sure the manuscript is well written, another. I think I'm more of a Sufficer, but I hope that I don't just settle for "good enough."

  3. While I would say I'm definitely a sufficer, I do want to make sure, at least with my writing, that it's as good as it can be. I'm always looking for one more critique that'll tell me I'm at a point where it's as good as I can get it, even though in the back of my mind, that's fully up to personal taste and it'll probably never be perfect.

    Great points to think about, even outside of writing.

  4. I'm a sufficer, with maximizer tendencies. Sometimes I do shop for that perfect word, that perfect turn of phrase, but most of the time I grab what fits and keep on typing.

    Interesting post. Thanks, Johne!

  5. Whew. I was beginning to think this post was a bomb. ;)

  6. I am pretty sure I am a maximizer. Is it hardwired? Can I be fixed? I force myself to let go, because I mentally understand that there has to come a point where you compromise perfection with expediency (and perfection is impossible anyway) but can I get over my strong tendency to frustration and disappointment?

  7. I confess that I am a maximizer and I sure do hope it can be changed!

    Really, writing has helped me to learn to release the need for everything to be perfect and that 'good enough' is sometimes OK. But I do still struggle with the tendency to compare my work to others and either declare it better or a total waste. Not really a healthy perspective, especially since writing is so subjective. But I am working on it!

  8. I try to be a sufficer in the first draft (this takes practice) then a maximiser in the edits and then finish as a sufficer in the end ;)
    Not always easy.

  9. I'm at peace with "This isn't perfect, and not exactly what I wanted to say, but it's the best I can do at this time. Next!"

    Scott Nicholson
    Drummer Boy

  10. I gave this a lot of thought, and realize I go through different phases, swinging between both sufficer and maximizer during my writing, depending on my mood. I like Lynda Young's comment, and plan on trying to focus on one trait or the other at different stages of the manuscript.

  11. I think there's wisdom in knowing what should be practically perfect and when something is good enough. It's the knack of knowing when to keep plugging and when to kiss something and send it off into the world.

    Like this post. I couldn't figure how to end this post. I finally decided that the relevant stuff was in there and slated it for publication, where it has, apparently, done its good work. Sometimes 'good enough' is as perfect as it needs to be.