Sunday, May 2, 2021

Fallacies of Cost

One of my goals this year is to be more productive. Productive in a creative sense, a “let's make a bunch of shit so we can see what works” sense. Overall it's been going pretty well. I've published some work, made real progress on queries and submissions, and worked out a new process for revising that got me through a backlog of rough drafts.

Yet the actual daily work of writing still presents all the same challenges. Sometimes it goes well and I write something that works, and other times what I'm writing feels like total garbage. In those cases, when I'm sure the work sucks, writing feels about as much fun as performing tedious dental surgery on myself with a chisel.

Lately I've been thinking about why that is. One answer is the intoxicating effects of a new beginning. When the work's going badly and you have a great new idea, few things feel as good as saying "fuck it" and opening a blank doc. 

But I don't think the impulse to quit is just about the high of the new. I think it also comes from bad thinking.

The Little Kia That Couldn't

There's something called the “sunk cost fallacy” that helps explain why people throw good money after bad. Here's an example from my early twenties:

One of my first cars was a silver Kia Rio. It was ugly and small, but I loved that little car, right up until the engine started stalling out every time I got on the road. I didn't know anything about cars, so I asked around at work and somebody recommended I try his mechanic. The guy called me a couple days after I dropped off the car gave me his best diagnosis. The price to fix it? An astronomical (to me) $500.

But what could I do? I needed that car. So I said yes, okay, go ahead. But after I picked the car up it started stalling again. I drove the car back and the mechanic took another look. This time, he said, he knew what it was. But it would cost another $500.

I wish I could say I stopped here and went to get a second opinion, but I didn't. I let him try again, then a third time, and finally a fourth. After each round with the mechanic my thinking more irrational. I'd sunk all the money I had, a couple thousand dollars, into fixing this stupid car. I couldn't give up on it now—not if the next repair might be the one to finally fix the problem and make it all worthwhile.

Reader, it never got fixed. When I finally told my dad about it and he took the car for drive, he came back and called it a “death trap.” The mechanic had done something wonky with the engine so that whenever it started to stall the engine would rev up to compensate. But since it was stalling when I hit the brakes, any time I needed to stop the engine would try to go faster. It was a complete mess. The car was unfixable. I should have cut my losses much sooner.

This is the sunk cost fallacy. I believed, against all odds, that if I just kept putting money into the car I'd eventually recoup what I lost. The harsh reality, though, is that sometimes what we invest is just gone.

So what does this have to do with writing?

The Fallacy of Prospective Cost

When it comes to writing, or really any creative endeavor, I think writers and artists are sometimes guilty of what could be considered the mirror image of “sunk cost fallacy.” Instead of doubling down on a bad investment, we misjudge the investment we have yet to make and prematurely declare it a waste.

Here's what I mean. The last week or so I've been working on a short story about a kid who goes to stay with his cousins. His parents are getting divorced, and while they clear out the house they've decided to send him away. The kid might be more broken up about this, but he's positive that he's actually adopted. So, after borrowing Dad's emergency credit card and ordering a 23andMe DNA kit online, he's decided to prove his hypothesis by testing himself and his cousins.

That's an okay premise, right? There's enough meat on those bones to build out a story. But after chipping away at it for a week I had no idea where it was supposed to be going. What was the actual plot​​? What was it all building toward?

I couldn't help but think I was coming up short, especially while reading the well-crafted work in 12 Short Stories and Their Making. (If you ever want to feel bad about your writing, compare your unfinished first draft to another writer's published work. That'll do the trick.) When I considered my own story, meandering and aimless with no end in sight, I hated the thought of investing even more time in an obvious failure. Better to cut my losses and move on to something new, right?

That's what I'm calling the “prospective cost fallacy.” It's the mistaken belief that you have enough information to deem a project a failure, and thus unworthy of a further investment of time. Nine times out of ten, I would argue, a writer just can't know based on an unfinished draft. That's why you can't just give up.

In my case, I committed that fallacy on a daily basis, but chipped away at the story anyway. Then, finally,  I hit a turning point: A scene in which the narrator starts to see what's really going on. The story's real pain, it's real driving force, and it's real chance for change. The story had finally revealed itself, and all that chipping away had paid off.

More often than not, these moments present themselves if you keep at it. You just can't always know when or how. I think that's why writers like Neil Gaiman repeat so often that you have to finish your stories. If they fail, at least let them fail whole. You can learn something from that. If they fail unfinished, you won't learn very much, except how to give up when you shouldn't.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...