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Keep Your Mouth Shut and Write

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

August 2011

"Even if you’re writing science fiction, your deepest themes and issues have a way of entering the aliens:. . ."

Honestly, this isn’t me talking to you. It’s the chapter heading of a funny and informative book How to Become A Famous Writer Before You’re Dead (Three River Press, 2007) by Aril Gore. Heard of him, anyone? I hope he lives long enough to make this title a fact in his life. He got the idea from a much higher source—Henry Miller, who wrote, “When one is trying to do something beyond his known powers it is useless to seek the approval of friends. Friends are at their best in moments of defeat.”

Well, I wouldn’t be so cynical about my friends, but there is a Mount Everest of difference between reading your work to your BBF and reading it at a fine writer’s workshop. The difference is that the friend can know more about your topic than a reader who doesn’t know you, especially if you’re writing anything that remotely has to do with your life. And really, all writing does. Even if you’re writing science fiction, your deepest themes and issues have a way of entering the aliens: sibling rivalry, abandonment, wanting a parent’s approval, etc. So what the friend might be doing as he’s applauding you (if you’re lucky enough to have a friend like that) is filling in his own material from what he knows about you. Maybe you haven’t really nailed what you wanted to write. It might not contain the “who, what, when, where, and why” that someone who doesn’t know you needs to find out in the writing in order to respond emotionally.

Also, friends tend to want to keep you just the way they’ve known you and are comfortable with you. Years ago, I used to write comic pieces for a local paper and a friend (no longer) said, “You’re good at writing these small things.” Ahem!

"Friends and family might not be astute readers. They don’t know what to listen for."

Friends and family might not be astute readers. They don’t know what to listen for. Have you thrown in useless adjectives and adverbs instead of doing the work of showing? Do your characters tromp noisily into a room rather than describe that they are wearing backless clogs that clop against the wooden floor? Is the girl who resembles your sister merely described as pretty or does she have eyes as blue as Delft china and hair that is the color of wheat and tumbles down her back? In other words, is your work specific or general?

Good writer’s workshops and classes are often a mercy to your friends and family. When I began writing, I used to chase people with my work. “Will you listen to this?" I'd plead. "It will only take a few minutes.” People closest to me began to run as soon as they saw me rustling my pages at them.

Worse than reading your work to family and friends is talking about your work to them. I had a friend (had) who, at the age of forty, left a prestigious job in advertising to write the great American screenplay. His parents were so supportive that they allowed him to live in their finished attic, fed him, and clothed him during this time. Every time I saw him, he would trot along beside me, telling me the whole story of his new screen play. I locked my jaws against my yawns. His parents, real troupers, not only listened to the scope of the screenplay that he never actually set down on paper, they also repeated the story to anyone else who would listen: the clerk in the supermarket checkout, the trapped postal worker, our rabbi. It was no surprise to me that my former friend never actually wrote the screenplay because he blathered too much about it. Unless you’re belting out rap or participating in a poetry slam, you have to have your words on the page. The air leaks from them when they are spoken, particularly over and over again.

I couldn’t watch what happened to my friend. He went gray within a year and hobbled his ankle by continuing to play a schoolyard game of basketball after the ankle was already injured. He couldn't date because he was embarrassed to say, "I live in a room over my parents' garage and I can only take you out for coffee if you buy your own cup.

"If you want to be a writer and already have a life, keep it."

If you want to be a writer and already have a life, keep it. It’s the busiest people who end up getting the most done. The days I leave for writing wax on before me as I scoop peanut butter straight from the jar into my mouth. But the days that I have to fit my writing in, even if I have to be up until two a.m. (it’s one a.m. right now) is the day when I am jotting down stanzas on napkins, working out intricate plot twists on the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station. Those days are the days I keep my mouth shut and write.

“Stories get scared off very easily,” Ariel Gore says. “So we have to keep our mouths shut to protect them.”

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/