Thanks to college students willing to undergo a variety of tests and challenges, (without knowing the real purpose), for the price of a pitcher of beer, researchers have collected volumes of data about human behavior.
I don’t remember why I requested the library book, “Sidetracked: Why our Decisions get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan,” by Francesca Gino, but it arrived this week. Packed with research, much of it conducted on college campuses, it tells us why we make bad decisions.
Even though I’m no better a decision maker for having skimmed this book, one study paralleled a situation I experienced a few days earlier.
I’d been moping for a week about the novel I’m writing. I’d tell myself it’s boring, the protagonist is one-dimensional, it will end up like a book I just finished in which cardboard characters accomplish impossible feats in one week, while I wasted several hours reading about them.
What I’m describing is a phase every first-time novelist goes through. Fortunately, I’ve enjoyed the benefits of working with small groups of classmates who’ve studied together and critiqued each others’ draft scenes for nearly two years. Not only are my classmates helpful in pointing out that a scene could benefit from more tension and snappier dialogue, but they empathize with the author as well.
You may have heard of “flash fiction,” a story in less than three hundred words. Well that’s nothing compared to the flash therapy session I underwent last week, in which colleagues identified my problem and the solution within seconds. “Sidetracked” calls it having too narrow a focus. The solution? “Zoom out.”
In “Sidetracked,” Gino uses a Chinese parable to preface the research on this topic. Every day a woman carried two pots to a stream to collect water. One of the pots had a crack and lost half of its water over the course of the woman’s walk home. After a year and a half, the pot with a crack mourned its failures and shared its feelings with the water carrier. The woman said he was aware of the pot’s crack and for this reason had planted flower seeds along the path. When the water spilled she’d have beautiful flowers for her table. “By focusing too narrowly on its flaw, the cracked pot missed the fact that it was doing something of value. Or, in the common idiom, the cracked pot missed the forest for the trees.” Not a new idea but one we need to remind ourselves of from time to time.
I recognized this as my problem and have stopped accusing my characters of being wooden, knowing they will deepen with each new draft.
May college students continue to volunteer to show their foibles and behave like people of every age, so they can afford their beer and the rest of us can learn.