Pick Any Two

Speed vs. Spin vs. Control — find your balance

There’s an old saying in building design—you can have a building fast, you can have a building cheap, and you can have a building good. Pick any two.

This formulation has been repeated across many fields. I heard it at Duke, for instance, about student success—you can get good grades, have a good social life, and get enough sleep…Pick two. It seems to be impossible to optimize for everything simultaneously. That simple insight has made uncountable millions of dollars in consulting fees for business gurus who conduct cost-benefit analyses. Costs and benefits are always paired (and we’ve usually resolved that dilemma by maximizing the benefits to ownership and shunting most of the costs onto the workers or the people who live next to the factory or the mine or in another country or in the future). Any political policy decision can be picked at because it does 86% great things and 14% bad things, and we’re only going to hear about the bad things from the noise machine. But the fact is that every decision we make requires us to think carefully about the good and the bad, and then revisit that over and over as we start to see the empirical facts of its impacts and not merely our imperfect and delusional forecasts.


I was put in mind of this by an email with a friend yesterday. She sent me a Margaret Atwood quote: Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it. And that’s true, but only partly true. And the reason it’s partial is that the “act of writing” is a lot of different and only mildly related acts, each of which optimizes toward different benefits and offers different costs.

Here’s another quote about writing, from the theater artist Kaneza Schaal: There was theater that I wanted to see that I wasn’t seeing, and I was tired of complaining about what I was seeing. So at some point I was like, “I guess I need to make some stuff.” That’s the origin moment, the spur to action that has no relationship at all to any audience beyond oneself. I’m not seeing the story I want to see or the book I want to read or the song I want to listen to, so I have to make it myself. That’s not a hopeful position. It’s more an exasperated position, an obsessive position. We’re scratching an itch that no one else has been able to reach.

Then we get underway with it, fretting every day for a couple of weeks that we’re wasting time, that there isn’t really a story there, blah blah blah. But what we’re actually doing is laying out the kindling. It only looks like pine cones and wood chips; what it really is, is the stuff that’ll catch and let us put the big wood in there later on. It feels futile until the moment it’s not.

Once the fire’s lit, though, we get the daily pleasure of watching the flames and feeling the warmth. Another log, and another log, and another. It just works, and we feel…well, I was going to say that we feel competent, but that’s not right, really. We don’t feel anything. We’re lost to flow, just watching the story. It’s like we’ve got the exclusive months-in-advance preview of a book we’ve never seen before. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten ready for bed and said to Nora, “Something just happened today. The story went a really different direction than I expected, and I have no idea yet what’s coming next.” The story tells you, if you let it.

There comes a point about 85% of the way in when, for the first time, you spot the finish line. You know how this bird is going to land. You still have to be vigilant about the wind currents and the glide path, you can’t get sloppy, but you know that this story will have a conclusion that feels right. And once that conclusion’s reached, you roll up to the hangar, and run through your post-flight checklist, walking it all again from front to back to make sure the story’s intact, tightening and replacing any loose bits you discover on your tour.

None of this work of writing has any concern for external readers at all. It is a bespoke novel, written exactly and only for its author. And it’s at this moment, once the story has safely arrived, that represents the hinge to not merely different aspects of “the act of writing,” but a whole different family of acts. The novel, once innocent and isolated, now asks to be introduced to the world. You want the best for it, but you can’t protect it from bullying and being ignored in gym class. You have no control over what happens to this story once it’s appeared. You introduce it around, sent application packages and letters or recommendation to agents and editors, but those institutions will or won’t accept the story and you’ll never know why, usually will never hear back at all.

The last couple of things I’ve written, I’ve worked up a page layout and a cover design and sent it off for a small-edition printing that I then give to friends. (And here I offer my recommendation for Mixam, a printer that’s been remarkably accommodating and affordable. I’ve done print runs as small as thirty copies, and their staff has worked with me on layout issues and done terrific quality work. And even at thirty copies, no cost advantages that come with high volume, I can still get them printed and delivered to the porch for barely six dollars a book.) It feels good to share my stories with some readers, storytelling at the retail rather than wholesale level. Like being back around the campfire.

Maybe you share it with a writing group, a workshop, a conference, where each participant tries to drag the story into their own circle of allegiance. It could be more like this, or like that, or like the other. Writers are writers for a reason, after all; give them characters and a setting and a problem, and they’ll listen to their own inner voices and the story will suggest itself differently to every one.

Let’s say you get a publisher, a contract. Your agent and your editor now want your book to become their book, because they need to sell it and they track the market far more closely than you. The book, because it’s now an economic as well as a literary object, also enters the world of commerce, selling or not selling copies to meet a publisher’s expectation. The book market provides a sharp upward curve followed by an equally sharp downward curve, the book achieving most of the work it will ever do in the world within the first two months of its public life. It becomes an annual royalty statement of disappointment

Then the book enters the world of commentary, with professionals and (innumerable) amateurs offering their judgment, their stars, their thumbs oriented upward or down. For my most recent book, the Amazon rating is 4.5, Goodreads is 4.01, 3.50 on LibraryThing, each site with reviews covering the full range from best thing ever to unmitigated trash. (“For a seemingly smart guy, Childress has written a stupid book. It’s full of useful facts & stats, so it’s good research fodder but his analysis is so simple-minded that you almost feel sorry for him.”) Some magazine and newspaper writers get in on the act as well, using your book to make their point. Writers are writers for a reason, after all.

And all of those reviews and stars from the last paragraph now become part of your sales team as the book goes forward, their interpretations becoming far more expansive than the press’ marketing materials. The collective word count of the reviews of my last book is greater than the book itself, which was relatively short. Imagine a poor little book like Gatsby, its 47,094 words having been completely overshadowed by the hundreds of thousands of bad student essays about it, Jay Gatsby now fixed in mind for millions of people as Leonardo DiCaprio.

No, this “act of writing” is a vast number of things, each bearing little enough relation to the others. So let’s go back to our original formulation. You can write because you need the story. You can write because you want to please your friends. You can write because you want to be acclaimed and/or rich. And I really don’t think you’re going to get all three.

So the question of optimization becomes individual. What is the cost and benefit analysis that makes this work even remotely reasonable? Margaret Atwood and Stephen King would answer that question differently than I would, and differently from each other as well. “The writing life” is a sham concept, covering hundreds of thousands of unique stories. And as storytellers, we ought to find the uniqueness comforting. We are strange characters, all of us, doing what we do for reasons invisible to others and often enough opaque to ourselves. And that’s what makes characters interesting.