Let’s recap the past two days. On Tuesday, I wrote about how impossible it is to know how good we are at any specific thing, and how elite performance, by definition, is unavailable to almost all of us. And then on Wednesday, I wrote about how difficult it is to either offer or receive feedback on the quality of our work.
So where does that leave us? (Aside from it being Thursday.)
Thing one. These little essays are written for my own website, but they’re automatically linked to also become posts on my LinkedIn account. And LinkedIn, because it’s built for busy professionals who can’t waste a minute (except on LinkedIn), conveniently labels all of my posts by estimated reading time. “6 min read,” yesterday’s was deemed. We know enough to provide the executive summary for our giant analytical documents, because the executives have to get their talking points about our crisis and move on to the next.
Using the algorithm that seems to drive the LinkedIn estimator, we’re looking at reading 200 words per minute. That’s pretty fast, business reading rather than the immersive, engaging reading that might slow you a little. (As Sven Birkets once wrote, Everything here ultimately originates in the private self—that of the dreamy fellow with an open book in his lap. Dreamy fellows aren’t moving at 200wpm.) So let’s estimate that my fiction might be read at a more leisurely 150wpm. That means my last novel would ask 600 minutes of your attention—ten hours.
That’s a big ask.
Go to a great museum, spend the day. If they open at ten and close at six, that’s eight hours. Six if you have lunch and spend time in the gift shop. And over those six hours, you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of pieces, and you’ll average way less than a minute apiece with them. You’ll review the wall of paintings, choose the two or three that slow you down, spend five minutes with each of those, and then walk into the next gallery.
Here’s a test. Get a kitchen timer and set it for five minutes. And look at one painting on your computer monitor for the full five minutes. It’s a LONG time, isn’t it?
And I’ve asked you for ten hours.
It’s just an unreasonable request, in our era of three-minute YouTube videos that now seem like an eternity in the face of ten-second TikToks. Who’s got time? I think this is behind our fetish for flash fiction: character-conflict-explosion-resolution-NEXT! Give me 250 words and be done with it. We’re amending our unreasonable art form to meet the demands of our tweeted, soundbite age.
This weekend, I’ll be writing in preparation for a ten-minute play event put on by our local theater company. Can you do Death of a Salesman in ten minutes? Hamilton? The Ferryman? No. You put two or three people into one scene and that’s all you get. And that limits the kinds of themes you can write about. The producer of the Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit said that he was interested in writing a seven-episode miniseries because if it had been a two-hour movie, the only question in people’s minds would have been “does she beat the Russian guy?” It would have been a sports movie, Rocky with less muscles. But in six hours, they had time to explore her obsessions, and the obsessive communities who take her in.
In ten minutes, you’d have five material exchanges in the middle of one chess match, and a little dialogue over the top of it.
Thing two. When Nora and I make dinner for friends, we usually spend most of the afternoon prepping, for an evening that lasts three or four hours. The ratio of creation to enjoyment is about one to one, and Nora and I get to participate directly in that enjoyment. It’s a rapid, balanced payback.
Books aren’t like that. That book that I’m asking a reader to spend ten hours with cost me thousands. And the response from that reader back to me, if there is one, will be consumed in seconds. Thousands of hours out, seconds back.
We absolutely have to write for ourselves, if it’s going to be worth our time doing at all. The payback ratio makes absolutely no sense otherwise. The work itself has to be gratifying; that’s the payback that matters, and that balances itself out. The thousands of hours of creation must be each be its own reward.
So let’s think about today’s vocabulary word: asymptote. An asymptote is a value that a mathematical function endlessly approaches but never quite reaches. Visually, it looks like this:
The curve never reaches the asymptote of zero, but gets endlessly and infinitely closer to it.
So how close can we get to zero feedback before the work no longer makes emotional sense? Or conversely, if we endlessly approach zero feedback, why not just accept zero, write the thing and put it away to start another without ever giving it away at all? If we write for ourselves, let’s just leave it there and call it good.
Thing three. Of course, we can’t do that. Each entry in this blog is an engaging writing task, and teaches me a little more about what and how I think. Even these little essays could be written and filed away in a folder on my hard drive. But I don’t do that. I format them, post them to my website, and cross-post them to LinkedIn. I must believe that the work has some external benefit. And if faith is belief in the absence of evidence, then my writing is as close to an act of faith as I’ve come in decades.