Underpromise, Overdeliver

by | Nov 26, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

My dad turned 75 today. It took me awhile to think of the right gift for him, but finally I decided to give him a gift I’ve given him before, only in much greater quantity: I’m making him a year’s supply of ragù bolognese. The sauce is on the stove now in a truly giant stock pot that he gave us because he had so few occasions to use it. I’m also planning to include a gift certificate to a local Italian grocery that sells excellent fresh pasta. While I love making fresh pasta, it’s a bit of a process, and I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep. 

Underpromise, overdeliver. At age 40, I’m just starting to absorb this advice that my father has tried for many years to impart to me. It’s hard! I tend to overcommit, to spool out too far in what I imagine I can do and give. How much lovelier, though, to project a soft, modest light onto the path ahead, revealing just enough to avoid the gnarls and thorns of the next few steps. One foot in front of the other, until you end up much further along than you said you would, or thought you could. 

How would a writer follow this advice, to underpromise and overdeliver?

I’m reminded of this quotation from Michael Ondaatje: 

The writer was a tumbler. If not, then a tinker, carrying a hundred pots and pans and bits of linoleum and wires and falconer’s hoods and pencils and…you carried them around for years and gradually fit them into a small, modest book. The art of packing.

A small, modest book may not sound much like overdelivering, but I can think of a few small, modest books that have changed how I think of things and do things: On Religion by John D. Caputo, The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler (one of the clumsiest titles for one of the finest books, imo). The smallness and modesty of the book itself is the underpromising; the overdelivery is in the luminous sentences that put words to something you’ve always thought, or that shatter conventional wisdom or a explode a binary we take for granted with a deft turn of phrase. 

I’m reminded, too, of one of my father’s favorite writers, John Steinbeck, who underpromises with his lackluster opening lines (“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California”) and then overdelivers with the roiling conflict of one American family that reveals the human drama. As the Salinas River “winds and twists up the center” of the Gabilan and Santa Lucia Mountains, so does Steinbeck’s prose wind and twist with the quiet force of water through rock. 

Prompt

Underpromise. Put less pressure on your opening. Write your way through to the next bit and the next and the next, one foot in front of the other until you’ve got your whole modest draft. Put less pressure on what your piece of writing will be. Check your ambitions, whether for length or brilliance or publication. The writing itself will teach you something. 

Overdeliver. With time, give all your ambition free rein. Yes, your materials may be slight, and it may take way too long to fit them into your small, modest book or story or poem or essay, but you’ve got to surrender everything. Give it all away. Bet everything.