On my desktop, I have a lot of stories I’ve worked with that I’m really happy with– stories that I’ve edited, revised, and reworked until they were extremely polished. But I also have a lot of stories that didn’t make it that far. Sometimes, I stop working on certain projects when they’re not going that well or when they don’t go as planned. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that when it comes to writing, knowing when to be persistent is oftentimes just as important as knowing when to quit.
A passage in Rebecca Goldstein’s brilliant novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, where Lucinda Mandelbaum is explaining escalation games, illustrates this point beautifully:
Take the simplest escalation game, the dollar auction. Two or more people bid on a dollar. Each bid has to be higher than the last, and the highest bid gets the dollar– just like a regular auction– but, crucially, the lower bidders have to pay whatever their last bid was, even though they get nothing. Given these rules, the bidding will quickly go up to a dollar, with the last bidder having bid ninety-nine cents. Will it stop there? No, because the ninety-nine-cent bidder will have to pay ninety-nine cents and get nothing for it. So he rationally bids a dollar and a cent, so he’ll lose only a dollar, so he’ll lose only a cent rather than a dollar, which is outbid by a dollar and two cents, and so on. What happens in the dollar auction is that people will bid five dollars, ten, fifteen dollars, just to get a dollar in return. In fact, once you get a dollar auction started, there’s no rational way for it to end, since the cost to either player of bowing out will be high, and the marginal cost of raising his bid is just a penny. So it’s rational to keep bidding, a penny at a time, even though this leads to an irrational result.
So many things in life are governed by simple escalation games and the balance between investment and return on investment. Working on a short story, in that sense, is also an escalation game. The more time, energy, and love you invest in it, the harder it is to quit.
This excerpt reminded me that when it comes to escalation games, it’s easy to get caught in an irrational loop. It’s easy to continue investing in a story that isn’t actually working out that well, since you’ve already invested so much to begin with. Joyce Carol Oates said, “I don’t like to push forward with a story or novel unless it seems to me that the prose is strong enough to be permanent.” That’s what I’m trying to do with my own writing.
It may seem like quitting a story is at odds with being a persistent writer, but actually, persistence and quitting go hand in hand. Being able to tell when something isn’t worth investing more time in is a valuable skill; it allows you to analyze and learn from your mistakes and become a better writer. It prevents you from getting caught in a loop, where your incremental rational investments could lead to irrational results. Most importantly, letting go of what isn’t working gives you time and energy to be persistent and write something that does work.