Keep Mum and Write On

When I was working on my novel (which, I’ll admit, took an incredibly long time), I made the mistake of sharing that information with people around me. As the weeks, months, and (yes) years passed I alternately worked on/shelved/suffered over my work in progress. I also discovered that, nearly as painful as the stalled work itself, were the well-meaning comments by others asking about the plot, characters and (worst of all) my progress. My answers alternated between spontaneous tears, evasive tactics and genuinely mean defensiveness-turned-aggression.

Blank Slate Press published my novel, Dancing With Gravity, in 2011. My book won some prizes; it also broke my heart. My novel taught me how to write a novel. The publishing process itself taught me other valuable lessons too. I also learned (or hope I have) that nothing substitutes for the writing itself. And that’s between the writer and the page…not anyone else. The last thing a struggling writer needs is an outside source wondering about the work. I assure you, most writers do plenty of that without any help.

And for another take on the writer’s dilemma, I’m enclosing the link to a New York Times piece, “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” by Mark Slouka I think you’ll enjoy. Here’s the link

Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

And here’s a copy of the text:

AUGUST 24, 2013, 3:06 PM
Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

No stage of the writing process — not the editor’s first response to the manuscript, not
the review gauntlet — is as fraught for writers as those first few months of uncertainty:
that miserable time when we think, believe, know with absolute assurance that we’ve
found the key to the novel in our heads, though maybe, probably, definitely not.
Want to lose a friend who’s a writer? Ask her, a month in, how it’s going. Better still, ask
her to describe what she’s working on. She’ll try, because she has to (“Well, it’s about this
friendship between these two, um, friends . . . ”) all the while listening to the magic
leaking out of the balloon, and she’ll hate you for it.

If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in
embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately,
because we’re writers, a k a bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to
share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.

Why? Because we’re unsure — about very nearly everything. Because in our hearts we’re
only as good as our last paragraph, and if the new book isn’t going anywhere, maybe
we’re no good at all. Because we’re running on faith and fumes. In the early stages, before
that magic moment when the voice of the story begins to speak, we want — no, crave —
validation, someone on the outside who will say, preferably with godlike authority and
timbre: “It’s brilliant. You’re on the right track. Just keep going.”

The problem, of course, is that our inner critic, the I. C., is whispering in our ear that
we’re not even remotely on the right track — that we’re blundering around in the
wilderness, in fact. Yet we still try to bully him into submission by recruiting allies from
among our friends. If they confirm that yes, indeed, that first page of “The Something or
Other” is immortal and they’d rather open a vein than be denied the knowledge of what
happens next, maybe I. C. will shut up. It rarely works. Nine times out of 10 (the
exception guarantees a bad book) the I. C. will be rubbing our nose in the truth before the
week is out: the work is as bad as we suspected it was. And the loyal recruit, having
foolishly interfered in this lost cause, will be collateral damage.

Think of the situation as a mouse trap baited with appeals to a friend’s decency, or one of
those Chinese finger-trapping sleeves. There’s your writer, emerging from his study,
sending out sticky little signals: “A good day today,” he’ll say, pouring himself a cup of
coffee; or, “I think I might be on to something”; or, “I’m quite excited.” What’s the
spouse, parent, colleague or long-suffering agent supposed to do?

Let’s just say this is not one of those win-win situations. If the well-meaning colleague
doesn’t ask, she risks seeming unsupportive; ask, and she suffers the consequences: every
syllable of her response will be studied and sifted with forensic care, every attempt at
encouragement grimly accepted or politely dismissed, every stab at honesty received like
a lance through the heart. Within minutes the writer will be conjuring subtexts out of thin
air, divining intention, whipping up context; he’ll misread, unerringly. This will be
entertaining in its own way, but it won’t be pretty.

Which leaves the unsuspecting participant only two possible pre-emptive moves, neither
particularly strong. The first is to play for time, to say something along the lines of “I’d
love to hear about the book, but I don’t want you to talk about it until you’re ready.”
Chances are it won’t work, but at least this way the blame is on the writer: the colleague
counseled caution; the author hanged himself of his own volition. Another is to
adamantly refuse to hear a word until the writer stops asking, at which point the coast is
clear. A third might be to cultivate the company of cowboys — illiterate ones — and be

One might wonder why — besides their own pathetic need for reassurance — writers
would ask others’ opinions at all. It’s an interesting question; the answer comes down to
which writer you ask. Though it may be a failing on my part — the sign of an overweening
ego, or a fragile one — I’ve never understood writers who workshop their stuff with their
50 best friends, then rewrite in view of their criticisms.

Writing, I figure, at least any writing worth reading, isn’t done by committee, and though
I haven’t always been strong enough to live by this precept, I’ll stand by it nonetheless:
Your vision is your own, for better or worse.

These reminders should be on the wall above my desk: 1. Trust a few, necessary voices. 2.
Try, as much as possible, to avoid torturing these brave souls with your own insecurities.
3. Shut up and write.

Mark Slouka is an essayist and the author, most recently, of the novel “Brewster.”
Don’t Ask What I’m Writing –…
2 of 2 8/25/13 10:44 AM

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