On Writing: The Best Time to Shut Up Is Usually Always

I’ve been talking about writing a lot with other writers. It’s one of the things I do now. Unfortunately, we don’t have Members Only jackets. Yet. Anyway, in one of these conversations, we were talking candidly about whether you read and pay attention to the reviews of your work after it goes into publication. Of course I do. I imagine it would be impossible to not do that and while I know there are creators that can pull that off, I don’t have that kind of self-control. Yet. Maybe it will come with the Members Only jacket. One of the creators talked about the difficulty of not clarifying or reassuring fans that don’t understand or connect with something. Just give me a little longer. You can imagine how easy it would be to say that, how satisfying it would be. But he doesn’t tell them that and he’s right. Your work must speak for itself. You can’t obstruct that, at least not forever and not without consequences.

It wasn’t too long ago that if I asked a friend to read something I wrote and tell me what he or she thought about it, I would see the overwhelmed primal fear of a caged wild animal in their eyes. That’s always a tough question for your friends but for my friends, it was particularly worrisome because I had an earned reputation for arguing with them about what they thought. It was my writing after all and I couldn’t have them read it wrong. You can imagine that this didn’t work out well. It was no good for my friendships or for my writing. I’ve worked really hard on overcoming this problem and my secret is to shut the fuck up. I’m not always successful but when I am, it’s always better. I hear more. I learn more. I don’t make my friends angry. High-fives and funky dancing all around, you guys.

There are a lot of times when you need to speak up in life but there are a lot more times when you need to shut up. When you’re a creator, you need to learn to shut up so that you can really connect with readers and critics without your pride or your insecurity blasting out of your big idiot mouth (or big idiot Twitter fingers) and getting in the way. As a member of a community – writing, comics, social – you need to learn to shut up so others can talk and so you can give yourself time to learn and think things through.

I get to see a lot of creators fail at just shutting the fuck up with my work and research for Bleeding Cool. I see respected writers and artists brashly weigh in on topics they don’t know enough about or toss out a quip or a barb without thinking through what the response might be. I’m usually sympathetic but it’s hard not to roll your eyes. I’ve been there. I’ve been trolled by the trolliest of trolls for my contributions to the site and I have sniped back at them and I’ve also made the difficult but wiser choice not to engage. I’m rarely proud that I told off Captain Trollface McTrollerton afterwards but I often regret it.

This isn’t about censorship. It’s just about  strategically shutting the fuck up. If you have something to say about politics or religion or a hot topic of the day, by all means express yourself. I advocate standing up for yourself and your causes. I’m not suggesting you whitewash your point of view or compromise anything. I’m suggesting that you know what you’re going to say and you think about how it’s going to play out. There are the things you want to say and there are the things you want people to hear and those things have a bad habit of being really far apart. Just because you shut the fuck up first does not mean you won’t speak up later. In my experience, the things you say after not saying something at first, are usually more valuable.

The best stories make you think and encourage you to argue about them, what they mean, what they should mean. Those stories work because the author isn’t intruding and neither is the text. The story itself is shutting the fuck up. The best things that you’ll write in your opus will be in the words you omit. It’s easier to throw everything and the kitchen sink into your story. It’s harder to focus, refine, trim and shape and shut the fuck up. The space you leave in your writing is the space where other stories are created. You can write one story or you can write an infinite story that’s a little bit different for every reader. A little bit of ambiguity, a hint of vague, these things can be the catalysts for imagination for writers and for readers.

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