Tell me about your book and what gave you the idea to write it.
Shut Up & Write! grew out of my years of mentoring writers at Redbird Studio, the writing center I founded in Milwaukee in 1993 and directed for nearly 20 years. One of my most popular classes, Shut Up & Write! attracted students from all over the United States and as far away as Australia and South Africa. The class was known for making writing accessible, and for giving pros as well as beginners ideas they can use to make the process easier. Students asked me to write the book, and when I said I was too busy, they said – you guessed it – Shut Up and Write!
It's full of tips and stories and examples of crafty things like bringing characters to life, writing vivid scenes, structuring fiction and non-fiction, managing point of view, and getting published. It's been called wise, funny, sweet, sad, bossy and inspiring. It's my legacy. It's whatever helped so many of my students (I call them friends) get their together words so they can be read and appreciated.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I got a lot of encouragement to write when I was a kid, but I couldn't imagine making a living at it. I ended up working as a Girl Friday, moving from business to business, making the boss look good, getting a tiny raise and moving on to the next place. When I was forty, I went back to school, got serious about writing, and put the whole package together to earn a nice living as a writer. Lessons learned: No experience is wasted. And it's never too late.
What types of writing do you prefer, and why?
I like to write essays and creative nonfiction, and read historical fiction. The core of reality makes me feel as if I'm on solid ground, and learning something. I'm also fascinated with propaganda, with the ways symbolism and placement can affect a mind. One day I'll study more about that.
What's the toughest part about being a writer and how do you get past it?
For me, the toughest part is the first draft. I have to chain myself to the keyboard to make it happen. And to be perfectly honest, I've never found a lasting solution to this. There's a chapter in my book about how to keep going when the going gets tough. I truly earned the right to write that.
What is your marketing plan?
I was lucky that by the time I wrote Shut Up & Write! I knew a lot of people who were excited about the book. I also had a large web presence and experience doing presentations. I'm still always a step behind what I know I should do – it took me weeks, for instance, to get this written, even though it was high on the list of things I wanted to do.
Where can people learn more about you and your work?
I'm pretty google-able. But the best public access to information about me is my website (which is also a blog): www.redbirdstudio.com. Facebook is another good connection.
What are your views on self-publishing versus traditional publishing?
I have high regard for self-published authors, especially those who work hard and do a good job. The industry is shifting so quickly that it's hard to stay on top of things, but there are also more opportunities for those who are willing to move with it. A well written, well presented, well marketed book really does have a chance – even if the traditional publishers don't like it.
Any tips for new writers hoping to write nonfiction?
In her review of my book, the editor/publisher of the Writer magazine said, "Bridges devotes several chapter to writing fiction, and she has devised effective exercises for developing characters, narrative drive, scenes and tone. I applaud her for tackling – in her section on nonfiction – what is probably the most common mistake editors face: unorganized material. You do the research, get all this great information, but how do you organize it? Bridges suggests an 'alligator outline,' which looks like a sentence diagram but includes key information such as your readers, message and main points." The most important tip I have for new and experienced writers of nonfiction is to be sure you have your ducks in a row.
Excerpt from Shut Up & Write! Chapter One: OH, YES YOU CAN
(Okay to cut after "Commitment")
Myths about Writers
I think most of our barriers stem from myths we believe about writers—that they put fingers on the keyboard and words roll out, easily and quickly. The Muse wakes them in the morning. They are prolific and naturally, massively, talented.
Of all the myths about writers, the most defeating is the belief that you need to have natural talent, that the ability to write is a mystical gift given to a few lucky people who live in the sunlight, no hard work needed—that you either get the gift or not, and if not, you may as well forget about trying. But when you think about it, we all know plenty of people who are talented and clever and still do not achieve their goals. They want to write (or dance or play the violin), but they never really make it happen.
What It Takes to Write Well
In the studio, there are three, fourteen-foot-long shelves full of books written by Redbird writers and friends. I know and love the authors of these books, and here’s what I can tell you about them. They work hard. They are interesting people who lead the same kind of lives as the rest of us and have the same problems. The difference is that they do what it takes. And what it takes is:
One of the books on that shelf belongs to Doug Jacobson. Doug is a businessman, husband, dad, and grandfather. He obviously has a few things to do with his time, but he had an idea for a World War II novel, did heavy research, and gave it a try. When I read the manuscript, I took him at his word that he really wanted my opinion and said, “Are you willing to put two more years into this?”
He took a deep breath, pulled out his checkbook, and registered to attend the Shut Up & Write! workshop. He reminded me of that conversation a few years—and a few rewrites—later, when he stood in Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Milwaukee signing copies of his debut novel, Night of Flames.
There is nothing more important than commitment. It beats out talent, brains, and friends in high places—all of which you can have and waste. In order to write, you have to put your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard and make words until you have a long string of them, then you rewrite, then you edit.
There’s no point in wondering if you are a writer or talking about what you are going to write—you just have to do it. You have to commit to the process. Commitment makes you hold on, learn what you need to learn, put in the hours, and try again. And the best thing about it is that it’s not a gift. It’s something you can get for yourself.
This isn’t egotism. When egotists ask for feedback, they listen for compliments and dismiss critiques. If they don’t hear high praise, they’ll walk out of the writing group and complain about the other participants. When confident writers ask for feedback, they listen for ideas they can use. They know they own the writing; it is theirs to adjust or improve or keep just the way it is. They own the good and the bad of it. That’s confidence.
It takes courage to write with the kind of gut-level honesty that makes for good writing. When you write deeply, it makes you vulnerable. You don’t know for sure what people will say about you or your writing, so it takes courage to put it out there. This does get a little easier with experience, but the truth is, if you are a writer who cares—which is the very best kind—you may always be a little nervous when you write and when you open those pages to others. You just do it anyway. That’s courage.
If I had only one rule to live by, it would be this: Write to communicate, not to impress. My bulging file on the topic of communication contains a dog-eared poster:
Jesus said to them: “Who do you say that I am?”
And they replied: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being; the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationship.”
And Jesus said: “What???”
I’m with Jesus on this one. I hate it when people try to sound fancy. I see strength in plain, simple language. In an essay that appeared in Ms. Magazine, Alice Walker describes her mother as a woman “with a look that could make you sit down.” Nine simple words, that’s all, and you not only see Walker’s mother, you hear yourself saying, “Yes, ma’am.”
My big sister used to play the violin, or thought she did. Mostly she chased me around the house making horrid screechy noises. One night she had a dream that I died and they buried me in her violin, my little face barely visible behind the strings. That freaked her out enough to make her quit playing.
To play well, my sister would have had to study—the sounds, the music, how to tuck her chin and draw the bow. You don’t just pick up a violin and make good music. You don’t just pick up a pen and make good writing. There’s no way around it; you have to practice. You have to study the craft.
You Are Never Too Young, Never Too Old
Alice Raymond was raised in an orphanage. When she was in third grade, she wrote a story, and a boy in her class grabbed her paper and read it, out loud, to the other kids. They laughed, and she never wrote again until she was in her eighties.
The first time she read one of her pieces to me, she read so shyly I could hardly hear her. Two years later, with a lot of encouragement and pushing, she stood on a stage and read to an audience of 250 enthusiastic fans. When the applause died down, she turned to me and said, “This is the best day of my life!”
Alice kept writing and sold every copy printed of a small, handmade book of stories and poems about her life. When she died, at eighty-seven, I had the honor of reading her poem, “The Rogue,” at the service celebrating her life.
Oh. Yes. You. Can.
If you really want to write, you can do it. You can close your email, open a blank page, and put some words on it. You can take a notebook with you to the coffee shop, the doctor’s office, the football game. You can learn the skills you need, and you can see your words in print.
Oh. Yes. You. Can.
Judy Bridges is the founder of Redbird Studio writing center in Milwaukee, WI, and author of the award winning book, Shut Up & Write! She lives, teaches and writes in Wisconsin. Her next book is a collection of essays about her life and family titled, You Drive, You're too Drunk to Sing.