Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Tyranny of Choice

If you search the web for "tyranny of choice", you'll find articles explaining how having too many choices is a recipe for disaster.  It causes us to have difficulty making decisions, to often make poor decisions when we finally make them, and even when we (accidentally?) make a good decision, to make ourselves miserable and depressed by second-guessing our choice.  Some advocate choosing anything that's just good enough in these hyper-optioned situations.

When it comes to choice, more is not better.

I experienced something a bit different today.  I've had a rough week, and I decided that instead of plowing ahead with my normally scheduled reading (which would be some of Edith Wharton's novels), I'd like to tame my stress by reading something more exciting and interesting -- something escapist.  [Not that I'm knocking Edith W. -- but I just came off a few weeks of Chekov.]  I rearranged my morning errands to include a trip to my public library, and I decided I'd get "The Life of Pi", by Yann Patel.  No, it's not a book about mathematics, although the pi reference is what caught my attention -- Pi is the protagonist's name.  Anyway, I went to the library and they had 16 or 17 copies -- all currently checked-out, except for a set of 10 which were off-limits as they were in a kit-bag for a book group to use.  So I left the library empty-handed.

3 or 4 hours later I did think of another book I was in the mood for, and I went back to the library again.  I grabbed the single shelved copy, and went home happy.

I know -- you're thinking, "What a lucky guy he is that there were two acceptable books, and at least one of them was checked-in!" right? 

How many (hundreds of) thousands of volumes were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me to fall in love with them?  I didn't care.  I wanted the book I'd come for, and no other book would do.  Normally I'll read anything that's printed in English, but this time I'd made my choice and let it tyrannize me.

As writers, we face choices with multitudes of options all the time.  From "What should happen next?" to "What's the best word to describe how this couple moves past the bench by the lake in the park?"  We must choose.  We can't freeze or dawdle too long; there are too many choices to be made: we'd never finish.  But we can't settle for just good enough, either.  Our writing has to be far above that level to succeed in telling our story.  And, as my experience at the library today reminded me, we certainly can't let a choice (premature or otherwise) tyrannize us and blind us to the presence of all the other options.


  1. I have the same problem. With too many options I end up always wishing I'd done something different. I switch over only to realize there was a good reason I did it the first way.

    However, when I have too few options (and mind you, too few can be quite a lot for me), I blow through all of them and become bored. I want more options to play with, more combinations to discover.

    So, in the end, I prefer a nearly endless list of options.

    As far as tyrannizing myself, I often pick a path only to find out that no one ever takes that path because it's not very good. I usually stick it out to find out for myself. I like being different.

  2. Hi John!
    As writers we also must choose whether to go with a tried and true cliche or spend the time to create our own intriguing combination of words. Sometimes when there are so many ways to say the same thing, we're tempted to pick one rather than take it a step further.

    Oh...and regarding reading choices...go romance!