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SHUT UP

Do you have killer creative ideas? Excellent, we love you. But keep them to yourself please. Years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a convocation at which Ray Bradbury, perhaps my favorite writer of all time, spoke. Apart from being a sweet man and quickly climbing the ranks on my list of people who I wish could be my grandpa, he offered some great advice. He told us all that perhaps the best advice he could give us as writers was to shut up. He told us to keep our ideas to ourselves.

Recently I was reading a collection of short stories from Henry Kuttner. I was pleased to find that Bradbury had written the foreword. Usually I skip forwards because they more often than not offer useless opinion and commentary. But, being as Bradbury had written this one, I decided to read it. Bradbury wrote about his friendship with Kuttner. He looked to Kuttner as a mentor. Bradbury stated that he used to blab on and on about his great ideas for stories to anyone who would listen. One day Kuttner told him to shut up. Kuttner didn’t express this in the sense of don’t collaborate or don’t share your ideas with friends who can offer valuable insights and opinions. Kuttner meant stop talking and start writing. Let us read what you have produced, not hear about what you are going to produce.

In my line of work, I run into many creative people. For the most part, I love them. I love to hear about their ideas and projects. However, some particularly long-winded creative tend to set off my big talker alarm. When it’s all fluff and no substance, when it’s all flap about this great project and future accomplishments that are going to blow my mind, the bells begin to ring.

One telltale sign of a big talker is when he starts dropping names of people I’ve never heard of who work in Los Angeles or, even worse, Hollywood—as if merely working in SoCal brings some kind of credibility. This happens so often that we’ve talked about putting a Los Angeles/Hollywood swear jar in the office and making offenders pay a dollar for every offense.

Big talkers are usually only good at one thing: talking. They don’t seem to realize that every incomplete project they open up and flap about, every project that they tout from the rooftops that doesn’t get finished chips away at their credibility. Soon, big talkers find themselves standing on a pile of shards, nails, and broken splinters from soapboxes bygone.

Bradbury and Kuttner’s advice, shut up, means let your works speak for you. Blow the flames onto great ideas then get down into the trenches and put in the hours it takes to build those smoldering sparks into wonderful creative works, bombs, bonfires, conflagration of wowing art and accomplishment. Then stand aside and when people see your FINISHED project and ask, “Man, that’s cool, did you do this?” you can smile and say, “yes, I did.”

Shut up means leave tracks of projects behind. Don’t pontificate about your creative future. If you produce good work, you don’t need to tout yourself as the god of creativity. You can even afford to look at the work of your creative peers and pat them on their backs, praising them for their accomplishments. Because you have a great book of work in your history, you can afford to have a creative high self-esteem. With that self-esteem, you don’t need to boast; you only need to do.

Here are a few rules to help you shut up:

  1. Never talk about a creative project with anyone unless you are well on your way to completing it, unless you are sincerely looking for constructive input.
  2. Should someone try to ask you about your creative projects, kindly deflect the conversation back on them. Find out what they are doing and take yourself out of the picture.
  3. Never, ever, ever, ever fish for compliments. Just put your work out there and let it stand.
  4. Memorize this phrase: I’m working on it, but I don’t want to show it to anyone until it’s done. This is all that you need to say about your creative works in progress.
  5. Detach yourself from your work. When you complete a project, act as if it came into being on its own. Sure, you can be excited about your project. But be excited about it on it’s own terms, for the sake of the project, not for the sake of boasting about yourself. Being proud of a project should feel more like being proud of your child or of a friend’s accomplishment.
  6. When you complete a project, cut it loose and move on to the next project. Leave creative tracks.

I have to admit, when I first heard Ray Bradbury’s advice to shut up, I didn’t quite get it. I thought he might be warning me not to expose my ideas to thieves. But I’ve learned that idea theft isn’t much of a problem. Most people never see their own ideas through, much less yours. Besides, if you are truly creative, good ideas come cheap. It’s deploying them that costs.

It took years of hanging out with creative people and hearing them talk to understand what Bradbury meant. There are those who have true passion in their projects and talk about them like proud parents. Then there are those who fix on themselves and just talk because they like hearing themselves sound off. Creative people who fit into this latter category usually don’t produce much but consonants and syllables, and their words quickly trail off into the feedback void of disinterest.

In short, next time you are tempted to eloquently disclose the greatness of your next project or of the project you are planning to finish, remember two words: SHUT UP.

4 Comments

  1. Posted June 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    In the wise words of a great band’s song title “talk-action=shit”(the brian jonestown massacre)We need a lot more do and a lot less talk. From everyone. I enjoyed your article much. Thank you.

  2. Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article. I’m a fan of Bradbury as well. I find it’s difficult to talk about creativity with non-creative people. Most don’t understand why I’m unwilling to talk about or share my work in progress with them.

    • Posted July 18, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you on this one, Dave. Mostly for me it’s a function of not wanting to be known as the guy who talks about all of his projects but never finishes them.

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