There is a quote that’s attributed to Abraham Lincoln by some and Mark Twain by others. Regrettably, we don’t know who actually said it. Still, there is a punchy sort of wisdom to it that’s hard to dispute. It goes like this:
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.
The picture above echos a similar sentiment. If you can’t say something worth saying, keep quiet. Silence is better than foolishness, lies, nonsense or filler. Better, in other words, than bullshit.
I have three thoughts on this as it relates to writing.
1. All first drafts are shitty. First drafts are rarely gems. More often, they are sloppy and crude, but they are also private. Very few people are going to parade their first drafts around like proud parents, and the few who do are badly in need of a true friend to pull them aside and quietly say, “No. We don’t show that to people. Put that away…” Writing crap is simply a part of the writing process. I don’t know of any writer that can help it, famous or not. Truman Capote is credited as saying, “Good writing is rewriting.” I’m inclined to agree.
You can’t apply the silence-is-better-than-bullshit principle to first drafts or you’d never write another first draft again. My first drafts are full of holes–characters are inconsistent; sub-themes (and sometimes the main theme) are all over the map; the dialogue often sucks; and, perhaps worst of all in terms of end result, first drafts are learning experiences for me as the writer. I don’t really know where things are headed in the first draft. That’s when I find out.
All that to say, first drafts (or anything you write just for yourself, like a journal) are exempt from this rule.
2. Everyone has something to say that is worth saying. I think this point is pivotal, or else I end up sounding like an ass in the next point. (Generally, I try to avoid sounding like an ass. It pisses Vye off.) No matter who you are or what your perspective on life is, there is some message you are meant to speak. Once you discover that message, once you know what it is, speak it without apology.
Everyone may not be crazy about your message. Some may even call it bullshit. However, if you know it’s a message that resonates with you, then it’s not bullshit no matter what anyone else says. It’s your message and you are most yourself when you’re speaking it.
3. Say things that are worth saying; the rest of the time, shut the hell up and listen. My experience is that most of us like the sound of our own voices, even in print. As a result, sometimes we say things that deviate from the important. We sputter nonsense and fluff because we want to be saying something and we haven’t put in the hard work to figure out what is worth saying.
Let me reiterated the first two points: It takes work to find your message. The things you ramble to yourself and your close friends during that period are okay, even if they aren’t particularly amazing. But there is a message (or more likely, messages) you are meant to deliver. When you find one of those, speak it loudly and clearly and without a hint of embarrassment.
When you aren’t sure what to say, or when you’re certain that anything you speak will be (at best) a shot in the dark and (at worst) an outright lie, keep quiet. Take those opportunities to listen to others who are speaking and learn from them. Grow. Allow your own voice to form itself. A balanced life, whether you’re a writer or not, should be made up of times when you speak and times when you listen. Make sure you’re doing both, and try to time them well.
Silence is better than bullshit. When you speak, make your words count. Say the things only you can say that are worth saying.