Bravery Test: Writing, Bob Ross, and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Can Bob Ross help break your writer’s block?

It happened in almost every episode of The Joy of Painting, the PBS show featuring soft-spoken, be-fro’d landscapes painter Bob Ross:
The “bravery test.”

Watching the soothing reruns on Netflix in the small hours of the morning, bleary and feeding or rocking an infant, or swaying on my feet as I scrubbed and sanitized a medium-sized regiment of plastic Dr. Brown’s bottle parts (if you know, you know), I would find myself lulled into the rhythm of his on-camera painting: listing off the oil paints on his palette, slapping the bejesus out of the paintbrushes he used, gentle chatter about happy accidents and happy little clouds and swipes of alizarin crimson or pthalo green across canvas.

And then the moment would come: Without warning, Bob’s brush would visit the raw umber corner of the palette, and the “bravery test” would begin. Where there was an open view of a sunlit pond, there appeared, bang in the middle, a thick, brown or purple stripe. For a moment, the painting would go from beautiful to confusing (even ugly! Sorry, Bob!). The sudden blotch of dark color had obliterated several inches of beautifully painted sunset, or seascape, or misty sunrise.

Bob Ross screencap
How will it ever recover? I wondered aloud about a TV program likely filmed sometime in 1994.

Passing the bravery test was always the same: Bob sacrificed several square inches of beautiful scenery to get a focal point – that brown stripe became a detailed, close-up study of a pine tree, or a fence post in the middle of a valley, or a mountain cabin. There’s always a chance, with a bravery test, that the focal object won’t work: It might be too large, the wrong color, in the wrong spot, or painted unskillfully.

But without it, the painting never gets finished.

From Sunk Cost Fallacy to Bravery Test

Now, you know about the bravery test. But have you heard of the sunk cost fallacy?

It’s basically the inverse of Bob Ross’s bravery test. It’s that thing you do when you’ve invested time, energy or money (or all three) into something, and you force it forward even when it becomes disadvantageous to do so. From the Lifehacker article linked above:

“[L]et’s say you buy tickets to a concert. On the day of the event, you catch a cold. Even though you are sick, you decide to go to the concert because otherwise “you would have wasted your money”.
Boom! You just fell for the sunk cost fallacy.

Avoiding adding a focal point to an already-beautiful painting (because what if it ruined the the work? All that time and material wasted! Better not finish it!) freezes you in place.

Sound familiar?

Sounds a lot like writer’s block, doesn’t it?

Using the Bravery Test to Break Writer’s Block

Let’s get back to that bravery test idea for a second. If the sunk cost fallacy is holding on to the stuff you’ve invested in even when it actively works against you, the bravery test is embracing the idea that some – a lot, actually – of what you’ll invest yourself in during the creative process will be scrapped, papered over, moved into the “Someday” file, or plain ol’ deleted.

Writer’s block, in my experience, feels like taking a wrong turn down a road that you’re pretty sure – but not certain – is a dead end, and flat-out refusing to turn around, because after all, I’ve come all this way. Hit the end of the road and boom, blocked.

But sometimes, it’s painful to turn around. Turning around involves throwing weeks or months of work away. None of us is getting any younger. Instead of writers, we become goldpanners, searching the banks of words for any shiny nugget we can hold up as proof we should keep the whole muddy mess. And we find… a lot. That’s the problem. There’s a lot of damn good writing down the wrong-turn road, right? That’s why you can’t get rid of it.

I deleted a 40,000-word failed NaNo project once I found a few serious foundational flaws that required serious rewrites. I get it. It’s awful.

A Final Thought for When Deleting Is Hard

Remember Bob Ross, and his beautiful sunlit pond, his glorious snowy mountains? That’s still there, under the brown slash of the bravery test, necessary expenses in the pursuit of a finished landscape, but you, the viewer, will forget about it the second he scrapes the palette knife over it, revealing tree bark in raw sienna relief, where once there was just a flat strip of Van Dyke brown.

Magic. Except it isn’t.

Bob Ross (did you know he was a USAF drill sergeant? Yes, I’m serious) understood that one of the byproducts of art is the kind of invisible effort that lays beneath the finished product. An essential but expedient part of the process that, like your wrong-turn words, must disappear once they’ve served their purpose (“No! Not this way! Go that way!”).

Deletion is one of the doors you’ll walk through (unless you’re very, very lucky) as you move toward your finished writing.

Stuck? Time for the bravery test.

What’s the largest number of words you’ve ever deleted at one time? Can you top my 40,000? Let me know in the comments.