The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience
In memory of Maj. R. David Witchey, who fell from the sky and forgot to get up.
We have all done something that worked really well then discovered that the next time we tried it, we failed miserably.
As a child growing up in a small town, I dreamed of learning to hang glide. Once I was out of the house, I bought myself lessons. At the time, I lived in Idaho. Hang gliding was everything I hoped it would be. The instructor was sharp, and I knew I was in good hands. We flew tandem until he felt I had a handle on the “kite.” Then, I had to go through a sequence of practice and validation under supervision until I could be certified to fly solo. That process started on a short hill that allowed me to just get my feet off the ground but not go high enough to be dangerous. I demonstrated straight flight and landings before I graduated to a higher hill. On that hill, I had to show I could manage a launch, a left turn, a right turn, and return to center and a landing. Check. The next hill was higher and dropped off a lot faster. I don’t remember what I was supposed to learn there, but it was the last stop before I could take a kite out unsupervised.
The first day on that hill was glorious. Idaho clear blue skies, a stiff breeze but not a wind. The breeze came in toward the hill and hit the wall and rose in an updraft. I was about to feel my first lift into a soaring situation.
I launched. The updraft took me up like a dandelion puff blown by a child. I was a bird! God, it was wonderful! Ah. I remember now. I was supposed to show I could turn and follow the ridge line, turn away and follow it again, then make my way to the landing zone. So, I did. I pulled the control bar in a bit to bring my nose down and get some speed to make my turn. I followed the ridge a little, turned away, the followed it again. I had to keep pulling the bar in to keep from being swept upward, and part of me wanted to just let the kite go higher to feel the sheer joy of it. Since I was being trained, I followed the program. I landed safely. It was one of the more triumphant moments of my life up to that moment. Hey, I was only 19.
A week later, I returned to the same hill. The weather was a bit different, but not much. The kite was the same. The program was the same. If I did the flight successfully two more times, I’d be on my own.
So, I strapped in, lifted the kite, and launched.
For some reason, I started to sink immediately. Instinct made me push the bar out to lift the nose and gain altitude. Instead, I stalled. The kite twisted on its center and did a wing over. I plummeted toward the hill face.
The keel, the point, of the hang glider hit hard rock. The kite crumpled. My harness yanked at my chest. My helmet hit something and bounced off. Then, silence. Dead silence. Not even the sound of a breeze in the grass, and at that moment I understood what I had done wrong. The weather was a little different. I expected the updraft. No breeze. No updraft. When I started to sink, I pushed for altitude that my mind and body told me should be there.
Physics is a bitch. Gravity always wins.
My instructor clambered down the slope to me at great personal risk. I climbed out of the wreckage. He grabbed my shoulders and yelled, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”
I looked at the mess I had made and said, “I broke the kite.”
He said, “Fuck the kite! Are you all right?”
Did I say that I had a good instructor? I had just destroyed his training rig and split his helmet almost in two. Remember the helmet bounce? Completely destroyed the helmet. His concern was for my well being. I did not have to pay a dime for his equipment. Good man. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a lineman for the phone company in Idaho. In case the universe ever brings him to these words, THANK YOU!
Now, here’s the thing. I had a powerful, good experience. The emotional impact was huge. The joy was very high. I wanted that experience again. I wanted it a lot. My mind and body remembered every detail of that experience and did everything right to have that experience again. However, conditions had changed. Failure was inevitable.
The cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience works like this. We seek a result. Let’s say we send a hundred stories out to magazines and one of them wins an award and pulls a big cash prize. Three more sell. The rest garner rejections.
It’s only natural to look very closely at the one that won the prize and money to see what we did that we should do again. We would probably look at the other two as well.
Suppose we discover that each story had an unrequited love element, a female protagonist with red hair, and a mountain resort.
So, we write more stories with unrequited love, female redheads, and mountain resorts because we think, “Yeah. We’ve got it dialed in.”
So, we send out a hundred stories, but we only sell one.
Well, that one should have the best details for allowing us to sell more since we already did the love, femred, and mountain bit. The analysis shows that the story didn’t just happen on a mountain resort. It happened during ski season at the mountain resort.
So, now we write stories that have love, femreds, winter ski resorts.
And we don’t sell any.
In the same way that physics is a bitch, underlying principles of story are a bitch. Trial-and-error is biased in favor of the cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience. In the same way making all the same moves in the hang glider resulted in a crash, isolating the apparent patterns of success from successive successful stories will result in a crash.
We are very clear that the analysis and subsequent attempts to create results must include expansive experimentation based on principles rather than emotional impressions of success or failure. I call that playful experimentation (a.k.a., practice).
One of my favorite quotes about success comes from the German flying ace Manfred Von Richthofen. “Success flourishes only in perseverance — ceaseless, restless perseverance.” For me, the perseverance part is not so difficult. I’m more-or-less built for it. Adding the ceaseless, restless part is the important bit to me. The ceaseless, restless bit means that I must constantly test my world and my boundaries. I suppose that’s why I have never really settled into a genre. Instead, I have bent genres and searched for how one informs another. I have assumed, sometimes incorrectly, that each genre has its own tricks and techniques to teach me. I have assumed that experimentation across genres would bring me insights and techniques that could not be had as long as I returned to the same hill where I had success and attempted to fly in exactly the same way as when I had that success.
To beat the fallacy of cyclic deteriorating personal experience, apply the principle of unsupervised play.
In fact, to keep writing from getting stale, I recommend many of the techniques used by children. In another essay, I describe the parallel play process, which in turn came from the restless, ceaseless experimentation with words and tales and forms and processes.
Playful experimentation requires several things adults are often in short supply of. First, it requires the ability to completely divorce oneself from any sense of risk. That is, the story a writer is playing with must not be under deadline. It must not be part of an expectation of material or pride success. It must not be for this magazine, that anthology, to that publisher. Playful experimentation requires the worry-free mindset of a child exploring a newly discovered, vacant field. The writer must be able dash there, and there, and over there while also pausing to pick up a stick to slash at weeds or turn into the spear of Ajax or into a rifle or crutch.
Second, it requires a sense of whimsy combined with a desire to understand. To approach writing as a thing of rigid process is not playful. To get to a space of discovery, the writer must be willing to do things that seem stupid in the moment but then, unexpectedly, force the subconscious to step in to create a pattern that becomes the discovery.
Third, it requires an idea of what can be done. Forcing the hang glider to go up without an updraft does not work. The principles of aerodynamics and gravity do not allow it. So, seeking out the principles that govern the reader’s internalization of experiences triggered by the words on the page is critical to creating combinations of playfulness that reveal new ideas and effects.
For example, most writers know that stories generally create emotional changes in characters by stressing those characters through conflict. It is a universal principle of stories. Some writers I know argue that without it, the text is not a story and falls to the category of mere personal essay or memoir. I would argue that few personal essays or memoirs are not stories. I would also argue that most, if not all, powerful personal essays and memoirs revolve around some core conflict.
I digress. Taking the underlying principle of conflict, one approach to ceaseless, restless experimentation is to employ the principle in an experiment of randomness. Pick a handful of silly things and try to employ the principle of conflict while connecting the silly things.
Personally, I often pick a principle, roll a set of ten-sided dice several times to come up with three or more random, four-digit numbers, then find those numbers on a long list of observations, objects, insights, and thoughts that I keep. I put those randomly selected elements at the top of a page then write as fast as I can in an effort to execute the principle. The randomness of the objects forces the subconscious to attempt to create a pattern connection between the objects. The chosen principle forces a construct that will either succeed or break. Either way, something is gained from the effort. Sometimes, seeing a failure unfold reveals new patterns, new methods of allowing the reader to see or feel the moment on the page. Sometimes, seeing the experiment succeed within the structure of the principle results in new understanding and skill in the execution of the principle.
Worst case for the above experiment is that the writer has fun and the brain is given a set of patterns (principles) to which it becomes tuned and to which it begins to, or continues to, adapt.
The important piece from the above is not the process. The important piece is that principle combined with play is a type of practice that keeps writing fresh and keeps the writer on a path of discovery that deadline-driven work, paid-for work, pride-driven work cannot provide. Mindfulness of underlying principles combined with playful experimentation results in discovery.
Had I considered the principle of aerodynamics and approached the day with a less rigid focus on succeeding with the defined exercise, I might have had more fun and been more inclined to discover what I could do on that day and in the days to come.
A week later, I did go back and fly again. I did it because I had decided to quit flying because I could not trust my ADHD brain to focus on all the conditions that allow a person to fly safely. Going back one more time was my way of proving to myself I was not quitting out of fear. Rather, I wanted to quit to stay alive.