impossible pants

In college, I wrote and directed a few plays. In one of these masterworks of modern literature, the main character loses his belt and, in a moment of intense distraction that follows, accidentally lets his pants fall to the ground. This happens, in theory, for comedic effect.

When I wrote the scene, I didn't give the mechanics of the pants-dropping much thought. It happened all the time in Looney Tunes which, looking back, constituted my primary source of dramatic inspiration. However, this little piece of vaudeville turned out to be more difficult to stage than to animate.

"David," one professor, an accomplished and experienced theater professional, told me during a heated production meeting. "You simply won't be able to achieve this effect! Don't you see? If there were a good way to get pants to fall down on stage, people would be doing it all the time."

Tell me: what were your discussions with college professors like? Because this was what my discussions with college professors were like.

(I'll add that this professor was also my academic advisor. He believed that there were many things I would be unable to accomplish, at school and in life. Dropping pants on stage was only one of them.)

It was a tense meeting—the whole theater department was at the table, and it was on me to respond to this feedback cogently. With three years of undergrad theater behind me, I had no real clue what was or wasn't feasible on a stage in terms of pants or anything else. But I felt confident that we could make those trousers drop as planned. Ingenuity would prevail. So, dismissing the skeptic, I assured everyone I'd figure it out. And, eventually, I invented a solution that successfully lowered those pants in a flash to reveal a pair of oversized boxers chosen, less successfully, for comedic effect. Our wardrobe malfunction functioned properly at every performance.

Pulling off the pants gag wasn't my greatest creative accomplishment to date, was it? Could it have been? I suppose so. That's something.

In any case, I think of those pants and that argument all the time. In my work, I often tell authors what is or isn't going to work in my opinion. What will and won't attract book agents and editors. What might or might not convince or compel readers. As with the traveling pants, there is no objective source of truth to consult before the action. There is no manual, no book of right and wrong. In the creative arena, you simply have to do a thing to know for sure whether it works. But you can't try every thing. You must choose. That's where I help, by weighing in. It's never my call to make, of course, but telling an author "maybe" is worse than useless. I'm there to cast a vote, as quickly and decisively as possible.

In retrospect, I suppose my professor was trying to steer me away from an idea that would soak up valuable production time and distract me from other, better sight-gags.

Pretty sure he hated me and wanted me to fail. Still, benefit of the doubt.

Deciding what's possible and what isn't, when to push forward and when to cut bait, is the most important part of the creative process. Most authors struggle with judging the comparative merits of different ideas. They get lost. This indecision is the source of every creative logjam. Writer's block, as just one example, usually isn't a lack of ideas but the inability or unwillingness to sign off on one of the ideas you have in mind. To say no to most so you can say yes to one. If you keep hesitating to push the ball forward for fear of rolling in the wrong direction, you end up at a standstill.

Working at Amazon Publishing, I learned the management principle "disagree and commit." Veteran Amazonians, in my experience, tend to quote principles like these in inverse proportion to the degree they abide by them—see Moldawer's Law—but in essence, this is a powerful little nugget of advice. When presented with an idea, a direction forward, go ahead and offer your thoughts. Say your piece. But then pick a direction and start moving forward. You can't consider all possible directions, let alone choose more than one. Set a timer if you have to.  

The important thing isn't to get every creative decision right. With the right execution, even the worst book idea can succeed, and vice versa. What matters is to recognize once you've deliberated to the extent that time allows, make the best call you can, and follow through with a vengeance. Better to write the wrong book in a timely fashion than write no book at all. Books can be fixed. Blank pages stay that way.

As for the impossible pants, I won't share the stage magic I devised in this open forum. If my discovery were to become public, people would start doing it all the time.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.