When my father-in-law, Jack Fischer, was editor-in-chief of Harper’s, he spent long weekends barricaded in his study while he finished a new essay for the magazine’s misnamed series, “The Easy Chair.” No job was ever less easy, he said, than good writing, a task he attacked with the moralistic stringency of George Orwell. When I joined the family, he repressed his dismay (who let this brooding, hirsute poet in?) and took occasion to offer me advice, usually couched in terse metaphors. His favorite was Never draw to an inside straight.
In poker, if you hold 5-6-8-9, you need the 7 (the “inside” card) to make a straight. But—if you plan your next move on a wild hope, on the rare chance of drawing the 7, rather than pursuing a statistically plausible strategy, you will almost always fail. Applied to writing this meant: be cautious, be modest in ambition, don’t be foolish.
Such advice helps to forestall failure without risking great success, and for this reason I have often done my best to ignore it, although I have returned to it just as often, chastened and ready to lower expectations. But the world would be poorer if we were all ruled by restraint. If Lorrie Moore had listened to everyone who told her, “You’re good at short stories, but forget about the novel,” she would never have written her great book, A Gate at the Stairs—would never have hit that abundant jackpot—and we would all be less rich.
There is something to be said for abandonment and risk. For drawing to an inside straight.
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