Guest Post Friday: In Which a Mysterious Stranger Visits

Back at it, after a moderate absence. This is a post from an anonymous friend and fellow writer, about whom I can tell you no more, as this person is an enigma wrapped in a brilliant mystery. This is worth reading – no matter who you are, what you do, or what kind of day you’re having.

Serenity through Iron-Fisted Control

By M. Stranger

I have a number of times in my life had cause to be reminded of wisdom of the Serenity Prayer, though I can only ever remember the Calvin and Hobbes version, which I like better anyway, so I’ll quote that instead and trust that you’ll remember the real one:
“[Grant me] the strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can’t, and the incapacity to tell the difference.”

I went to graduate school for engineering, finishing some years back after a fairly lengthy and sometimes painful program. Along with the ordinary difficulties of getting a PhD in a technical field, I had an advisor who was difficult to get along with: she always had one student that she really liked, and treated the others as pests. One of my fellow pests described her management style as “all stick, no carrot.” Another demoralized student became fond of repeating that old saw, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” which admittedly doesn’t say much until I mention that this fellow had been a Luftwaffe drill instructor. For my own part, I preferred to say that she praised with faint damnation. It was all the worse for seeing a small number of students treated very well, and to hear them insist that she (and invariably they called her by her first name, while the rest of us called her “Professor”) was very easy to get along with, really, why we just had lunch… You get the picture. I don’t mean to say that she was deliberately cruel to her students, or even a bad person, but that she was (as is regrettably common in academia) that awful combination of a maladept and inattentive manager with the confidence and manners of a talented engineer.

If I can chuckle at it all now, there were periods then of grinding misery. Having so much of one’s life and self-worth in the hands of someone who doesn’t really care all that much can be brutal. At one particularly low point I displayed uncharacteristic self-awareness and got myself a therapist. We talked about a lot of things, but one thing she said stuck with me: the path through these things is to focus on those things that I can control. I could not control my advisor, only my reaction to her. I could not control the past, including arguments and the decision to work for this advisor, only what I did from then on out. There are dragons who are not slain, only accommodated.

I can’t say it solved all my problems, but it resonated with me. You see, my particular field of engineering was control theory: the science of feedback. I had been trained to think in terms of control signals, positive and negative feedback, and in general making an electrical or mechanical system do what you want it to. The idea of applying this to the problems of my life appealed to me. I began to look at things in terms of what I could do, and what I couldn’t, and if I was occasionally (hah!) told to do things I couldn’t do, then I did my best, recognized it as my best and tried to treat the opprobrium like so much thunder and rain: unpleasant, but uncontrollable. Dear reader, I graduated.

Fast-forward some years to my time at Viable Paradise. I’d had some small success at writing fiction again after giving it up in grad school; I’d quickly realized that the world of professional fiction was full of pitfalls, and that my work was not as good as I thought it was. I heard there some familiar advice: when planning your goals, focus on what you can control.

Just like my advisor, you can’t control your readers and you can’t control your editors. You can’t control the people who nominate and vote for awards. It feels a little unfair: these are the people who have so much say over whether you achieve your goals, whether they be getting a story published (or at least getting a personalized rejection), landing that great agent, or winning that Hugo that would go so nicely on that shelf by the window. And when you’ve been grinding away for a few years without achieving any of those things, it can become all the worse to see people for whom these things appear to come easily (though really, they almost never do) and who all of a sudden seem very cool and casual about it all: editors are so easy to get along with, really, why I just had lunch with one…

Part of the problem is that the resolution to focus on what we can control is only part of getting to that state of serenity. If you feel that you’re not writing enough, you can define a goal that you can directly control, like finishing more stories or writing more words. But let’s be honest, those can feel like fake kindergarten goals sometimes. We know what we’re really after, and it hurts when we don’t get it. And worse, we feel like we can sort of control it: at the very least, we seem able to torpedo our chances, which is a KIND of control, right? Really, we need to feel like we’re doing everything we can; the whole serenity prayer really boils down to that third part: the wisdom/inability to tell the difference. I think I can offer some insight into that.

In control theory, you’re presented with a system that has variables: A car has, say, its speed, position, acceleration, and orientation. A writing career has variables, too: words written, chapters written, stories completed, stories submitted, stories sold, awards won, readers-who-you-made-cry, etc. Some of these things you can plainly control, some of them you plainly can’t. And some of them feel like you ought to have some control over, but don’t see how.

There are two complementary concepts here. Controllability, you probably have a pretty good handle on already. I can’t directly control my car’s position. (Trust me, if you’d ever seen me try to parallel park…) I can only directly affect the engine torque, via the gas pedal, which on a good road controls acceleration, which in turn controls velocity. Velocity plus orientation determines position. At any point in the chain, you can lose control on everything after, such as when hitting the gas on an ice patch. In the same way, stories sold depends on stories submitted, depends on stories completed, depends on words written, depends on getting your butt in that chair and typing. While we can’t completely control some things, then, we can crudely affect them — at the very least we can avoid yanking the steering wheel in the wrong direction. The farther along that chain we want to control, the harder it is.

But there is a second concept that does not get as much attention: observability. Just as we can’t control all variables equally well, we can’t see all variables equally well. I can’t directly control my car’s position, but I can observe it, and by seeing the effects of pushing the gas and steering the wheel I can learn and internalize a process by which I first learn to intuitively control my velocity. With enough practice at that, it can feel like I’m directly controlling position. It’s the combination of controllability and observability that allows for a feedback loop and actual control.

The danger to the writer is that observability is not the same as controllability. Duotrope is dangerous in this regard: we can see response times and how our own stories seem to stack up, but there’s no real feedback loop there, only watching. It looks observable, and so feels controllable. But while editors’ responses are (partly) observable, they are not nearly as controllable as we think, and readers’ responses are frequently neither controllable nor observable.

There are four categories, then, of variables in our writing careers:
1) The things we can both observe and control;
2) The things we can observe, but not control;
3) The things we can control, but not observe;
4) The things we can neither observe nor control.

Looking at our careers in terms of those variables that are observable, controllable, both, and neither can be a way of understanding what’s going on as you progress through your career, and for evaluating the kind of goals to set. Getting awards is clearly out as a goal: the end result is not controllable, and the intermediate steps (getting recommended for nominations, whether any given reader had a bad day before picking up your book, etc) are neither observable nor controllable. You’re probably happier if you think of awards as basically random events. But we should maybe also reconsider that Google Alert on our names: ramping up our ability to observe may only make us miserable. Observability and controllability are not in themselves constant: Coming out of Viable Paradise, I hit a bit of a slump because I could all of a sudden see many things that were wrong with my stories, but not a way to fix them. Controllability, to some extent, can catch up, but from what I hear from more experienced writers, it never quite does. (Which reminds me: talking to those writers about their careers and experiences can be a way of indirectly observing your own, but beware if it leads you to believe that you should therefore be able to follow in their footsteps!)

When it comes to setting goals, I would argue that we are happiest when our goals focus on those variables in the first group. Being able to not only directly plot our paths but gauge how far along we are, is important. Finding ways to move things from the third group into the first expands our options: joining a critique group, for example, helps you make observable variables that otherwise aren’t: “Is this funny to someone other than me?” “Will readers think this ending is a cheat?”

All this is not meant as advice; rather, it’s a toolkit. These are the mental tools that I try to use when I’m thinking about my career and my goals. They help me identify those things I can see and control, and they help me figure out what more I need in order to see or control more aspects of my writing. Finally, they’re useful when evaluating other peoples’ advice, so that when people tell you that you need to join a critique group or get your butt in the chair, you can see that those things are meant to address observability of some of the intangibles of your writing, or increased control over number of words written. Put that way, it’s easier to decide whether those things are actually going to be useful for you in achieving the goals you set.