What The Silence Said

For some reason I have recently come across a number of lists of mistakes writers must never make if they ever hope to be published. All my life I have avoided such lists. Not that most of what can be found within them isn’t true, but my inevitable response seems to be, “Do I do that? No, I don’t do that—do I?”

It is a strangely unanswerable question for the writer himself, and reminds me of something Mother Theresa said when she was invited to an anti-war march, “I’ll never do that, but if you have a pro-peace march, I’ll be there.”

It is impossible to live your life in the negative. You cannot simply move away from one thing, you must also move toward another. I have found that if I am trying to break myself of a bad habit, whether in writing or just in life, the habit is broken much quicker if I replace it was something else. In other words, I remind myself to show in my writing, I never remind myself not to tell.

It is a subtle difference, but it’s worth observing. You always have to do something, even if that something is doing nothing. All of the habits I’ve broken were born out of a desire for something better. I used to swear too much because it felt more honest; I used to smoke because it gave me something to do besides think poorly of myself.

If you’re not sure what to use to fill the void your bad habit used occupy, try this: stop doing what you had been doing, become quiet, and observe the silence that follows. Within it you will find the authentic desire you were in-authentically meeting. Then, just as in writing when you listen to the current of your story and match scenes and characters and words to it, match a new authentic action to your desire. But listen carefully. Silence may require patience, but in my experience, it always tells the truth.

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