Death By A Million Brands Of Toothpaste

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-04-16 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

Early last year I wrote about creativity and the toothpaste paradox, the latter being the cognitive breakdown many of us experience when we go into the toothpaste aisle at the store and can't choose between the umpity-dozen-zillion different varieties of the stuff presented there. It's all the funnier (for some definitions of funny) when you realize the vast majority of toothpastes have virtually no difference in terms of their efficacy; it's almost all marketing and picayune personal preferences.

Choice paralysis is, as you can guess, a major issue in creative work. Because you have complete control over what you put into a story, that can manifest as being stranded between too many choices, and you end up in a Toothpaste Meltdown, goggling at the screen and drooling into your keys.

I remember reading about how poor George R. R. Martin ended up in a Toothpaste Meltdown of his very own when writing one of the later Game Of Thrones* books. Scenes got moved around, taken out, put back in as dream sequences, and so on. Through all of his talk about the work, I got the impression his central problem was simply that he'd bitten off far more than he could chew, let alone swallow, and wasn't about to lose face by gobbing it all back out into his napkin. This indecision was just the largest and most chronic symptom of not having constrained the story properly in its conceptual phases. I long felt Martin could have saved himself a lot of agony by telling one of the through-lines for his story from beginning to end in a book, or even a couple of books, and then used other books to tell other throughlines from other points of view, a la Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. (I tell myself maybe the ultimate legacy of those lamentable books will be to teach people what not to do, although we might have to suffer through an entire generation of failed GoT clones first. But I digress.)

That said, telling people to just pick something and stick with it isn't the best advice. When someone can't decide if a character should go north or east, or whether they should be allowed to live or die, the problem isn't really indecisiveness on the part of the creator. The problem seems more an inability to grasp the overall implications of this choice vs. that one, and thus not be able to understand why one would want to pick A over B, C, or even X.

Choices made in a story shape what kind of story it is. If you purport to tell a story about heroism, it's generally self-defeating to have all the good guys get killed for nothing despite their best efforts. Yes, even if you want to use that to make a point about how nothing comes without sacrifice. The least you could with such a thing is, say, have someone else carry on the torch for the departed, someone who now knows what these things cost and perhaps has some idea how to avoid paying so dearly.

Any decision about what to put in or leave out, or what fork in the road to take, is best framed by asking: What kind of story am I telling here, and is this decision going to support that or go against it? (Neutral is okay, too; we just need to be able to say if that's so.) No author can develop this skill automatically, but you have to make yourself conscious of it.

Stephen Downes talks often about the contrast between choice and agency/autonomy. It's not choice if you're choosing between a double dozen varieties of toothpaste whose differences are all cosmetic. What matters is whether or not you can make choices that actually make differences — and most importantly, whether or not you have the power to construct new choices, both for yourself and others. And another dimension of this, a corollary to all of it, is to know what the significance of one's choices actually are.

What matters with a story is not simply being able to make up one's mind about what to have happen, or what to leave in or what to take out, but about developing the consciousness for how those choices shape the material, and refining that consciousness with each new work finished. I strongly suspect some authors start out with a more intuitive and functional grasp of this than others, but all authors owe it to awaken themselves to this.

yes, I know the series is really named A Song Of Ice And Fire; get thee a life.

Tags: creativity storytelling