Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Abbott

The A/B Test

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, there’s a profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Farhad Manjoo, who describes how the founder of Facebook is coming to terms with his role in the world in the aftermath of last year’s election. I find myself thinking about Zuckerberg a lot these days, arguably even more than I use Facebook itself. We just missed overlapping in college, and with one possible exception, which I’ll mention later, he’s the most influential figure to emerge from those ranks in the last two decades. Manjoo depicts him as an intensely private man obliged to walk a fine line in public, leading him to be absurdly cautious about what he says: “When I asked if he had chatted with Obama about the former president’s critique of Facebook, Zuckerberg paused for several seconds, nearly to the point of awkwardness, before answering that he had.” Zuckerberg is trying to figure out what he believes—and how to act—under conditions of enormous scrutiny, but he also has more resources at his disposal than just about anyone else in history. Here’s the passage in the article that stuck with me the most:

The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition, or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth…This ideal runs so deep that the people who make News Feed often have to put aside their own notions of what’s best. “One of the things we’ve all learned over the years is that our intuition can be wrong a fair amount of the time,” John Hegeman, the vice president of product management and a News Feed team member, told me. “There are things you don’t expect will happen. And we learn a lot from that process: Why didn’t that happen, and what might that mean?”

Reading this, I began to reflect on how rarely we actually test our intuitions. I’ve spoken a lot on this blog about the role of intuitive thinking in the arts and sciences, mostly because it doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves, but there’s also no guarantee that intuition will steer us in the right direction. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has devoted his career to showing how we tend to overvalue our gut reactions, particularly if we’ve been fortunate enough to be right in the past, and the study of human irrationality has become a rich avenue of research in the social sciences, which are often undermined by poor hunches of their own. It may not even be a matter of right or wrong. An intuitive choice may be better or worse than the alternative, but for the most part, we’ll never know. One of the quirks of Silicon Valley culture is that it claims to base everything on raw data, but it’s often in the service of notions that are outlandish, untested, and easy to misrepresent. Facebook comes closer than any company in existence to the ideal of an endless A/B test, in which the user base is randomly divided into two or more groups to see which approaches are the most effective. It’s the best lab ever developed for testing our hunches about human behavior. (Most controversially, Facebook modified the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to adjust the number of positive or negative posts, in order to gauge the emotional impact, and it has conducted similar tests on voter turnout.) And it shouldn’t surprise us if many of our intuitions turn out to be mistaken. If anything, we should expect them to be right about half the time—and if we can nudge that percentage just a little bit upward, in theory, it should give us a significant competitive advantage.

So what good is intuition, anyway? I like to start with William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who once passed a choreographer holding his head in his hands while the dancers stood around doing nothing. When Abbott asked what was wrong, the choreographer said that he couldn’t figure out what to do next. Abbott shot back: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.” Intuition, as I’ve argued before, is mostly about taking you from zero ideas to one idea, which you can then start to refine. John W. Campbell makes much the same argument in what might be his single best editorial, “The Value of Panic,” which begins with a maxim from the Harvard professor Wayne Batteau: “In total ignorance, try anything. Then you won’t be so ignorant.” Campbell argues that this provides an evolutionary rationale for panic, in which an animal acts “in a manner entirely different from the normal behavior patterns of the organism.” He continues:

Given: An organism with N characteristic behavior modes available. Given: An environmental situation which cannot be solved by any of the N available behavior modes, but which must be solved immediately if the organism is to survive. Logical conclusion: The organism will inevitably die. But…if we introduce Panic, allowing the organism to generate a purely random behavior mode not a member of the N modes characteristically available?

Campbell concludes: “When the probability of survival is zero on the basis of all known factors—it’s time to throw in an unknown.” In extreme situations, the result is panic; under less intense circumstances, it’s a blind hunch. You can even see them as points on a spectrum, the purpose of which is to provide us with a random action or idea that can then be revised into something better, assuming that we survive for long enough. But sometimes the animal just gets eaten.

The idea of refinement, revision, or testing is inseparable from intuition, and Zuckerberg has been granted the most powerful tool imaginable for asking hard questions and getting quantifiable answers. What he does with it is another matter entirely. But it’s also worth looking at his only peer from college who could conceivably challenge him in terms of global influence. On paper, Mark Zuckerberg and Jared Kushner have remarkable similarities. Both are young Jewish men—although Kushner is more observant—who were born less than four years and sixty miles apart. Kushner, whose acceptance to Harvard was so manifestly the result of his family’s wealth that it became a case study in a book on the subject, was a member of the final clubs that Zuckerberg badly wanted to join, or so Aaron Sorkin would have us believe. Both ended up as unlikely media magnates of a very different kind: Kushner, like Charles Foster Kane, took over a New York newspaper from a man named Carter. Yet their approaches to their newfound positions couldn’t be more different. Kushner has been called “a shadow secretary of state” whose portfolio includes Mexico, China, the Middle East, and the reorganization of the federal government, but it feels like one long improvisation, on the apparent assumption that he can wing it and succeed where so many others have failed. As Bruce Bartlett writes in the New York Times, without a staff, Kushner “is just a dilettante meddling in matters he lacks the depth or the resources to grasp,” and we may not have a chance to recover if his intuitions are wrong. In other words, he resembles his father-in-law, as Frank Bruni notes:

I’m told by insiders that when Trump’s long-shot campaign led to victory, he and Kushner became convinced not only that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about America, but that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about the two of them.

Zuckerberg and Kushner’s lives ran roughly in parallel for a long time, but now they’re diverging at a point at which they almost seem to be offering us two alternate versions of the future, like an A/B test with only one possible outcome. Neither is wholly positive, but that doesn’t make the choice any less stark. And if you think this sounds farfetched, bookmark this post, and read it again in about six years.

Good ideas, bad ideas, no ideas

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George Abbott

Over the course of a working life, a writer repeatedly finds himself confronting the same two cognitive leaps. The first is going from having no ideas to having one idea; the second is going from a bad idea to a good idea. Both are daunting in their own ways, but the first is infinitely more frightening. When you’re staring at a blank page without any notion of how to proceed, the process of getting a single idea can feel like climbing Everest. And I’m not even referring to ideas on the largest scale, the story premises and major plot elements that are generally cheaper and easier to invent than they look. I’m talking about the tiny stuff: what one character says to another when they enter a restaurant, what they should order when they sit down, even how to get them into the restaurant in the first place. These tiny details aren’t glamorous, but they’re the lifeblood of fiction, and each one represents a decision—which is to say an idea—on the part of the author. When writing is going well, you can get a cascade of ideas, each one following quickly from the next. But in order to enter that zone, the number of ideas you have has to be at least one more than zero. And that jump from zero to one can feel like it spans quite an abyss.

At the same time, it’s important not to settle for the first idea you have, and one of the hardest parts of being a writer is finding the willingness to honestly scrutinize and weigh those initial ideas on their own merits. Still, the chasm extending between zero ideas and that first, tenuous hint of a notion is so vast that even bad ideas deserve to be celebrated. Going from nothing to a workable idea is rarely a matter of one moment of insight—although it does happen occasionally, and a writer learns to treasure those moments of inspiration when they come. More often, it’s a slow, iterative, evolutionary process, with one bad idea leading to others that are slightly less awful, until you’ve finally got something that works. And those early bad ideas are infinitely better than nothing, simply because they exist. I never tire of quoting William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who found the choreographer for one of his shows seated in the theater with his head in his hands, the dancers waiting around for instructions. “I can’t figure out what they should do next,” the choreographer said. “Well, have them do something!” Abbott replied. “That way we’ll have something to change.”

William Goldman

So how do you get from zero to one? I could give you a list of the various brainstorming tricks I’ve written about in the past—use randomness, take a walk or a shower, look for a combination of two existing ideas, and most of all give it time—but there’s a larger point that needs to be made. Works about writing, including this blog, love to lay down rules of craft, but at the risk of obscuring their larger purpose: most rules of craft are designed to ease the passage from zero ideas to one idea. Once you’ve figured out the subset of rules that you find personally useful, you’re no longer starting entirely from scratch, however much it may feel that way each morning. You already know, for instance, that you want to structure your plot as a sequence of clear objectives; that a story is ultimately about what the protagonist wants from moment to moment; that you want to establish the initial problem as soon as possible; that these points are best expressed in the form of concrete images and actions; and so on. All at once, you have a better sense of the kind of idea you’re trying to find, and that in itself makes the hunt for that elusive X all the more manageable.

These rules also come in handy when you’re trying to turn a bad idea into a good idea, if only because they give you a set of objective standards for telling the difference. And the routines you’ve established are even more important. Taken in isolation, these habits are mechanical, even simpleminded: write every day, revise only after the entire manuscript is finished, cut at least ten percent from the final draft. Really, though, they’re all just a means of keeping you at your desk until those early bad ideas have transformed into something good. The rough draft of a chapter often comes down to the systematic working out of a few bad ideas, and it’s only once the entire scene is complete that you can figure out how you should have approached it in the first place, or at least have the perspective required to cut away that material that doesn’t work. At its core, writing boils down to the process of going from zero ideas to one idea, good or bad, and then living with that idea and all of its successors until they’ve evolved into something you like. Both steps are crucial, and both come with their own network of strategies that allow a writer to do it once, then do it again and again. It’s never easy. But it’s often enough just to know that it’s possible.

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2014 at 9:40 am

Posted in Writing

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A spoonful of sugar

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Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

Whenever I’m mired in the current stage of a writing project, I like to console myself with the illusion that it gets better from here. Coming up with an initial idea may be hard, I think, but research is always a real pleasure. Then when the research stage actually arrives, and I’m buried in books and agonizingly aware that there’s never going to be enough time to get through all the material at hand, I remind myself that I love outlining. Of course, when the time comes to create an outline and I’m racking my brain to make the action unfold in a logical way, I find myself longing to start the actual writing, which in reality is the hardest part of all. Revision, at least, is always fun—until it isn’t, at which point it becomes a nightmare. In short, it’s all hard. I wouldn’t be here in the first place if I didn’t derive satisfaction from the tough problems that every stage presents, but there are times when I curse the writing life and everything in it. When that happens, I try to fall back on a handful of tricks to keep myself going. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Break up the pain into manageable steps. Possibly the best piece of creative advice I’ve ever heard comes from David Mamet, who writes:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

This is exactly right, and in particular, it’s a compelling argument—one that I haven’t seen elsewhere—for making an outline. Outlines, I’ve found, aren’t a means of planning so much as a way of hacking the writing process so that it unfolds in stages. An outline is really a dispatch from the past to your future self, bequeathing you a page or two of plot points so you don’t need to worry about the story on top of everything else you have on your mind that morning. Sufficient unto the writing day is the evil thereof.

Walter Murch

2. Remember that you don’t need to solve every problem right now. This is the single greatest obstacle that trips up most aspiring writers. In its worst form, it turns into the desire to perfect every sentence and paragraph before moving on to the next, which has ruined more writing careers than alcohol. More subtly, it’s the nagging feeling, from which even established writers suffer, that you should fix all the issues in the outline before moving on to the next step. Whenever I start to tear out my hair over an intractable problem, I remember the sage advice of the great Walter Murch:

Each stage leaves a residue of unsolved problems for the next stage—partly because the particular dilemma you’re facing cannot be solved in terms of the medium you’re working in right then…You do not want to be asking for the gods’ help at every stage.

Or, in the words that William Goldman attributes to the theatrical producer George Abbott: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”

3. A spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. The best way I’ve found of getting through the hell of the writing process is to surround it with things that I like. Drugs and alcohol are probably the wrong answer—I don’t think you should write drunk, even if you edit sober—but there’s nothing wrong with a little caffeine. In theory, an artist should be able to work anywhere, but I’ve always done my best writing in pleasant surroundings, usually at home, with a comfortable chair and good natural light. My office is my favorite room in the house, and I’ll often go in there to hang out with my books and reading lamp only to find that I’ve gotten some work done in the meantime. This is also a big reason why I often start the day by reading a page or two of an author I admire: it’s aspirational and a little superstitious, but it’s also a tiny jolt of pleasure that gets me through the hours of work to come. It may not sound like much. But when you’re talking about something as taxing as the writing life, the little things go a long way.

Written by nevalalee

August 5, 2013 at 8:45 am

The importance of the wrong answer

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You can define the first draft of a novel in all kinds of ways, but what it ultimately is, when you get right down to it, is a series of wrong answers. These can range from a poorly chosen word in a single sentence to an entire subplot that needs to be cut, but big or small, when something changes between the rough and final draft, it means that your initial impulse to use the word “quotidian” rather than “daily,” say, or to send Paul to the dockyards at the end of the third chapter rather than the fifth, was wrong. In fact, nearly every word you type in a first draft will need to be either discarded as unworkable or revised in ways that you can’t foresee. And yet this is far from a waste of time. Because it’s only by going through one or more wrong answers that you have any hope of finding the right one.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I go through the current draft of City of Exiles in preparation for final delivery to my publisher. This novel has already undergone at least four or five extensive revisions that spared nothing, including the title, and yet when I look at it now, almost a year after I started, I still see plenty of things I want to change. The numbers speak for themselves: the rough draft of this novel had something like 2,500 paragraphs, nearly all of which will be substantially revised or cut in the final version. That’s 2,500 wrong answers. But there’s no way around it. Writing a novel, or any extended work of narrative, isn’t about executing a perfect plan: it’s more like an endless process of guess and check.

There are all kinds of ways to picture this. You can think of a rough draft, as I’ve said before, as a kind of sketch for a novel, which will end up repeatedly erased and redrawn. You can think of the path to a novel as less a straight line than a slalom, with many detours and overcorrections on the way to your destination. Or you can think of it in terms of Thomas Edison, who knew a thousand ways not to make a light bulb. But my own favorite expression of this principle comes courtesy of William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, quoted here before, in a story about the legendary Broadway producer George Abbott. Faced with a choreographer who couldn’t figure out what to have the dancers do next, Abbott responded with a line that has been jangling through my head ever since:

“Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”

When in doubt, write something, even if it might be wrong. Because the desire to get things right the first time can be especially dangerous for writers. I know many aspiring novelists who are obsessed with getting each paragraph right before moving on to the next, and as a result, they’ve never produced more than a handful of chapters. Or take the case of a friend of mine who was hired to ghostwrite a children’s book for a wealthy executive. (It was about an elephant working in advertising.) It sounded like fun, but the two of them spent over a year obsessing over the first three chapters, going back and forth with endless revisions, until my friend finally quit, burnt out by the experience. And the book, as far as I know, remains unfinished. Which is a shame. Because in fiction, the only truly wrong answer is one that isn’t written at all.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2011 at 10:25 am

“Well, have them do something!”

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One of the great breaks of my career came in 1960, when I was among those called in to doctor a musical in very deep trouble, Tenderloin. The show eventually was not a success. But the experience was profound.

George Abbott, the legitimately legendary Broadway figure, was the director of the show—he was closing in on seventy-five during our months together and hotter than ever…He was coming from backstage during rehearsals, and as he crossed the stage into the auditorium he noticed a dozen dancers were just standing there. The choreographer sat in the audience alone, his head in his hands.

“What’s going on?” Mr. Abbott asked him.

The choreographer looked at Mr. Abbott, shook his head. “I can’t figure out what they should do next.”

Mr. Abbott never stopped moving. He jumped the three feet from the stage into the aisle. “Well, have them do something!” Mr. Abbott said. “That way we’ll have something to change.”

William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?

Written by nevalalee

March 19, 2011 at 9:58 am

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