Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Paradox of Choice

A clockwork urge

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I haven’t always been a fan of the novels of Martin Amis, but I’ve long admired his work as a critic, and the publication next week of his new collection The Rub of Time feels like a major event. For every insufferable turn of phrase—the sort that made his father Kingsley Amis lament his son’s “terrible compulsive vividness” and his “constant demonstrating of his command of English”—we get an insight like this, from an essay on Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange:

The day-to-day business of writing a novel often seems to consist of nothing but decisions—decisions, decisions, decisions. Should this paragraph go here? Or should it go there? Can that chunk of exposition be diversified by dialogue? At what point does this information need to be revealed? Ought I to use a different adjective and a different adverb in that sentence? Or no adverb and no adjective? Comma or semicolon? Colon or dash? And so on.

This gets to the heart of writing in a way that only a true novelist could manage, not just in its description of the daily grind, which can seem endless, but the implication that readers don’t fully appreciate the work involved. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. After reading a dismissive or critical note on something I’ve written, I often want to ask: “Don’t they appreciate all those choices I made?”

Of course, it isn’t the reader’s job to admire an author’s choices—although Amis’s own style occasionally seems designed to inspire nothing else. (In a book like Time’s Arrow, the act of continuous appreciation becomes exhausting after just a few pages.) For most authors, though, the process of making choices has to remain a source of private satisfaction, or, at best, a secret that we share with other writers. Revealingly, Amis’s soliloquy on “decisions, decisions, decisions” feels less like a commentary on A Clockwork Orange in particular than like something he just felt like getting off his chest. He continues:

These decisions are minor, clearly enough, and they are processed more or less rationally by the conscious mind. All the major decisions, by contrast, have been reached before you sit down at your desk; and they involve not a moment’s thought. The major decisions are inherent in the original frisson—in the enabling throb or whisper (a whisper that says, Here is a novel you may be able to write). Very mysteriously, it is the unconscious mind that does the heavy lifting. No one knows how it happens.

After evoking that mystery, Amis simply moves on, even though the question he poses is central to writing, or any creative activity. How do the intuitive choices that we make before the work begins inform the decisions that follow for months or years afterward?

In some ways, this is also a question about life itself, in which we spend much of our energy sorting through the unforeseen implications of choices that we made without much thought at the time. You might think that novelists have more control over the books that they write than over their own lives, but that isn’t necessarily true. In both cases, they’re doing the best with what they have, and the question of how much of it is free will and how much is out of their hands must necessarily remain unresolved. Much of the craft of writing lies in making such decisions more bearable. Some of it consists of self-imposed rules that guide your choices in the right direction. Occasionally, it lies in sensibly reducing the number of choices that you can make at any one time. A while back, I wrote a post on Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, in which he notes that shoppers are often happier when their options are constrained. It can be more satisfying to choose between two or three different pairs of jeans than fifty, even though the latter naturally increases your odds of finding one that you like. What matters isn’t the richness of options at your disposal, but your comfort with the process of making choices itself, and sometimes you actually benefit from reducing your range of possible action. That’s part of the reason why constraints are so important in art. Once you choose a form, a subject, or a set of arbitrary limits, you paradoxically free yourself from having to consider all of the possible paths. The subset that remains may not be any better than the alternative, but it will keep you from going insane.

And what Amis calls “the unconscious mind” can also be shaped by experience. Most writers have more ideas than they ever end up using, and it’s only through firsthand knowledge of your own strengths that you can discriminate between “the enabling throb or whisper” that will go somewhere and one that will lead you into a dead end. Afterward, it’s a matter of entrusting yourself to the logic of what the poet John Ciardi described so beautifully:

Nothing in a good poem happens by accident; every word, every comma, every variant spelling must enter as an act of the poet’s choice. A poem is a machine for making choices. The mark of a good poet is the refusal to make easy or cheap choices. The better the poet, the greater the demands he makes upon himself, and the higher he sets his level of choice. Thus, a good poem is not only an act of mind but an act of devotion to mind. The poet who chooses cheaply or lazily is guilty of aesthetic acedia, and he is lost thereby. The poet who spares nothing in his search for the most demanding choices is shaping a human attention that offers itself as a high—and joyful—example to all readers of mind and devotion.

Every work of art is a machine for making choices. Sometimes it operates fairly smoothly. Occasionally it breaks down. But it all justifies itself in those rare moments of flow in which it seems to go like clockwork.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2018 at 8:44 am

The paradox of choice

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McDonald's Menu

If there’s one argument that this blog has made from the very beginning, it’s the importance of constraints in the creative process. An artist who doesn’t impose any limitations on his work usually finds himself paralyzed by the range of freedoms at his disposal: when you can write about anything, you often end up writing about nothing. Every project begins with an arbitrary choice—of premise, of theme, of style—that might be no better or worse than any number of other alternatives, and equally arbitrary decisions are made at every stage of the game. Constraints are a way of controlling our universe of choices, and if this facilitates the creative process, it isn’t hard to understand why. They force us to find ingenious ways of circumventing the rules; they turn an undefined problem into a particular puzzle to solve; they give us a path to follow, rather than a blank map that could take us in any direction and winds up leading nowhere. It’s possible, even inevitable, that there are better answers than the ones we’ve chosen in our first random stabs at making a pattern. But we’re unlikely to find them unless we lay down that initial, haphazard set of conditions.

This is all common sense—at least after you’ve tackled a creative problem for any amount of time. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play. When psychologists talk about the paradox of choice, they begin with the perfectly accurate premise that a variety of choices is a good thing. To take an example from the work of Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, if a store offers fifty styles of jeans rather than two, it increases the odds that shoppers will find a pair they like. Similarly, if you multiply your range of choices as a writer, you’re objectively more likely to find a solution that works. In theory, anyway. What really matters, though, isn’t the richness of options at your disposal, but your comfort with the process of making choices itself. As Schwartz writes:

More [choice] requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.

Without a doubt, having more options enables us, most of the time, to achieve better objective outcomes. Again, having fifty styles of jeans as opposed to two increases the likelihood that customers will find a pair that fits. But the subjective outcome may be that shoppers will feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied.

Women's jeans

Similarly, restaurant menu engineers have found that more than seven options per category leave customers feeling overwhelmed and confused. And while writing a novel might not seem to have much in common with ordering lunch or trying on a pair of jeans, the same principle applies. When you have two or three creative options, the outcome may not be any better than when you have fifty alternatives: indeed, we should expect that it will be objectively worse. But that matters less, in the long run, than how we feel about the choice we’ve made. If we’re happy with it—even if it’s the wrong one—we’re more likely to move on to the next decision; if we’re dissatisfied—even if it was relatively strong—we’ll worry and fret about it, which consumes energy that would be better used in pushing forward. And you see this in writing all the time. When an author refuses to continue to the next paragraph until the one he’s writing is “perfect,” what he’s really saying is that he wants to go through all the options at hand until he arrives at the best of the lot. The result may well be a glittering string of sentences. But for most writers, it’s exhausting, and it’s an attitude that can lead to a year of work with only a handful of fragments to show for it. A writer who prudently restricts his choices will at least have a finished manuscript. It may not be perfect, but it exists.

In that light, constraints look less like a way of enabling creativity than like a strategy for managing the author’s emotions, allowing him to see the project through to the end. And we shouldn’t minimize how important this is. Taken in the aggregate, the choices that a writer makes are absolutely critical—a work of art is nothing more than the sum of the artist’s decisions—but any particular choice probably isn’t. A writer soon learns that any given decision he makes, whether on the level of the word, the paragraph, or the scene, isn’t likely to remain in its original form for long: it’s revised, rethought, or cut as the overall draft evolves. The number of sentences that survive unchanged from first pass to last is minimal or nonexistent. This reduces the significance of any single choice, while drastically raising the importance of the process of making choices in general. What counts, in the end, is that the writer continues to make choices, including ones that affect the ones he’s made before, until the work as a whole has been adequately shaped. Maintaining that level of focus and commitment over the period of time required by any meaningful project demands a considerable amount of psychological self-care. A few judicious constraints may or may not result in better work. But they’re likely to keep you happy.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2015 at 9:53 am

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