DO NOT TALK OR WRITE ABOUT YOUR CURRENT PROJECT
Drop into any writing group online and there are numerous posts by writers saying things like, “Need help!” “What do you think of this…” and “Is this ____ any good?” followed by a thousand or more words explaining their novel, short story, play, screenplay or any current project. Go to a writing group with new writers and your ear is talked-off as they pour-out their stories. When this happens to me, I want to pinch their lips closed, look directly in their eyes and say, “Shut Up!”
Writing is a scary, complicated, fragile process better left to its own devices; when you talk about an idea not fully formed, you change it or worse.
I’m not alone in this. If you read advice from successful writers, shutting-up is second only to putting your butt in the chair and writing.
To illustrate my point, ever notice you never see “Need Help” posts from journalists or other working writers? I can’t imagine a New York Times reporter posting in a writing group, “What do you think of this lead?” Or Stephen King posting, “Is this plot believable?” (That one makes me laugh.) Why do you think this is? It’s because they know.
The fortitude to sit in a chair and spend hours creating an imaginary world with imagery people using only words requires a lot of physical, creative and psychological energy. When a story is building inside you, the energy required to bring it to life is generated at the same time by your need to tell it. Think of it as a dam storing water to generate electricity. The water is collected until it is needed. Released at regular, controlled intervals it provide reliable power and is replanished naturally. Remember I am referring to the energy to create and not creativity itself.
Talking about a project puts holes in the dam. This can cause it to burst and drown the writer and the story. The writer is left with no energy and must rebuild the dam. It is a lot harder to rebuild a destroyed dam than to build it initially. You have to clean up the debris of the old damn and, if this happens to many times, the damage cannot be repaired. Where do you think the energy to rebuild comes from? Hint: It’s often stolen from other parts of your life or provided by caffeine, alcohol or other drugs.
Talking about an unfinished project lets the water escape in large, uncontrolled bursts removing the tension that drives a writer to tell a story; in other words; talking about it diminishes the need to sit and write it.
Enter The Internet
Keeping silent about one’s work was difficult enough pre-internet, but now… I cringe every time I read a well-crafted post with an interesting story in a writer’s group because I know the world has lost another story to the ether. When I think of the billions of stories floating in the ether released like balloons by their authors, I cry for the written word.
Writers often know, or think they know, when they write something brilliant. And the desire to share it is strong; it’s what makes us writers. The internet makes it easy. Instant validation of brilliance is an intoxicating and additive, writer feel-good drug. RESIST!!! Like all drugs it is a lie with nasty consequences.
Although the idea may be brilliant, you may not have found the best way to communicate it. You may see or feel things not yet on the page. If you put it out there alone and it receives negative feedback or gets the big ol’ HUH? That brilliant idea is popped before it ever lived. And you have frivolously expended the energy to bring it to life. Occasionally, if you keep notes as I sometimes do, you can resurrect the story, but it’s rare.
If you believe that idea or scene is so good you MUST share it now, think how wonderful the entire book or play will be when it’s complete?
How Do I Stop Myself?
Not talking about the most important thing in our lives is difficult and requires discipline and practice. Most writers, contrary to the stereotype, are very social. They love people. The intricacies of human nature are our stock and trade. But it is imperative you learn to control the impulse for immediate validation.
Here are some strategies I use to shut-up:
- Avoid telling people you are a writer. If they don’t know you are a writer, they can’t ask you about your work.
- Prepare a truthful, but vague answer to this question, “What are you working on?” Do not include details and then re-direct the conversation. This will satisfy most non-writers because they really don’t want to know. The only thing more boring than listening to the plot of a book is listening to the plot of a book not yet written. Do not try to wing this one. Once the water starts pouring forth it is hard to stop. Here are some lines I use (they are also go for the dreaded, “What do you write?” if you accidentally mention you are a writer.)
“A story about a girl who saves her father. Wow, this honey mustard sauce is good, try it.”
“Stuff that interests me and stuff that pisses me off.”
“I’m blogging about writing.”
“Read my blog.”
- Most writers will not ask the above question. If they do, watch-out. It is usually because they want to tell you their brilliant ideas and won’t really be listening as you release your brilliant balloons into the ether never to be seen again. Do not fall into the mutual aid trap of idea killing. Make them read this post.
- When you are out with people and the topic comes around to something similar to your work and you are about to release your balloons, comment on the weather, get out of the situation, go home and write. You are ready. Try not to be rude.
- Same as above except stuff food in your mouth or take a big gulp of hot coffee.
- You finished a very satisfying scene and are riding the high of accomplishment; this is a dangerous time. Turn off the computer, hide your phone and put your tablet out of reach. This is not the time to go to your favorite writer’s site and “help” other writers. Walk your dog, listen to music, go to bed, read, outline the next chapter; do anything other than go online.
- Write a blog so you can immediately share some writing, but do not post a work-in-progress or about a work-in-progress unless you are writing it to post. A blog fills the need to be read and is useful in deflecting the dreaded, “What are you working on?” (See number 2.)
Time to Talk
There does come a time in the life of your project where you must talk about it. In fact, you will need to talk so much you will get sick of it. But that’s for another post.
I just finished this post and feel it is the most brilliant blog post I have ever written. I want to post it now! But I schedule my posts, so I can’t do this. I know I will read it tomorrow and realize it is riddled with typos, missing words, wrong words and incomplete thoughts. It will post 3 days from now. I’m going to walk my dogs now.
8 responses to “Shut-Up and Write It!”
Donald Marguiles gives this advice through his mentor character in his play “Collected Stories.” I have just begun down the path of playwriting and have taken this to heart though it is hard for me not to talk out things with my best friend with whom I share all things theater and intellectual. We talk about some of my research but not play concept or character. It feels lonely but it does keep a fire of need for expression burning.
I need to write the companion piece to this which is about when it’s time talk about it.
Nicki, it occurred to me as I was editing that I could have been more helpful in my reply. It is hard to keep quite because it seems like you can’t share the one thing you live for. That’s not true. You can talk about plays you read and plays you seen. I used to do it all the time with my friends. Bad plays were the best. It is so easy to understand how to do it right when you see it done wrong.
There is only a certain stage that you shouldn’t talk about your work. It needs to be fully formed the way you want it before you talk about it. Once you are in the revision stage, you need to talk about it and get feedback. What I usually do is have three projects going each in a different stage. That way I do have stuff to talk about. I have found that I have so many other theatre related things to talk to my theatre friends about that I’m in least danger talking out a story when I’m with them.
And if you ever find yourself with out a topic, here’s a good one that forces you to examine play structure. Who’s the main character of “Guys and Dolls?” Is it Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Sarah Brown or Adelaide? Don’t let any of them cop-out with the group protagonist answer either. (It’s never a groups protagonist) I’ve had a running discussion on this with a group of my theatre friends for over 20 years.
Look at what you know a main character must do in a show and look at what each character in Guys and Dolls does. It’s an eye opener as to why the show works.
[…] If any of the things mentioned in the previous paragraph cause you to spend hours online arguing about rights, trademarks or possible lawsuits–get rid of them. Writers often use this as a way to get people to read a synopsis of their story and say what they think. I call it “sneaky feedback.” See Shut Up and Write It. […]
This is funny. I feel like I have totally mastered the art of shutting up, and I need to talk about it more. I virtually never tell anyone I’m a writer. I’m going to be doing a reading of a story at the publuc library, and I had to refer to myself as an author, and that felt SO WEIRD!
That is excellent! You see, you have work out there. Sitting-up is a good thing.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I could not agree more. I’m old enough to remember when there was no internet and always a temptation to “share”. But it was clear to be that the energy would dissipate in proportion to how much I talked about my idea. I’m actually more fond of waiting til I have a first draft and (very) selectively sharing it.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I do the same thing.