A friend was becoming famous.

He was, like most of my friends, a writer, and his writing was appearing in more and more prestigious places and gaining more and more attention. He deserved success. I can say that now. But I couldn’t say it then. What I could say instead—what I did say, to myself, over and over and over and over and over and over—was that he was getting by on his charm.

And he was! He was getting by on his considerable talent, too. But: He was also getting by on his charm. Which is what I continued telling myself, and telling and telling and telling and telling and telling myself, until at last, one afternoon, in the floating dust-mote silence of my office, I had a moment of clarity.

“Shut the fuck up and write,” I said. Out loud. I was a little startled, both by the clarity of the moment and by the sound of my voice.

And then I did it. I shut the fuck up and wrote.

The fault hadn’t been my increasingly successful friend’s. It hadn’t been the editors’ and readers’ who were growing into a chorus of acclaim. The fault for my not writing enough, let alone not writing well enough, was mine.

I repeated this anecdote to a journalist friend a few weeks later, and then a few weeks later he told me that he, in turn, had offered my advice to the writing staff of the magazine at which he was editor-in-chief.

Advice? I hadn’t conceived of my moment of clarity as advice, except for myself. I hadn’t offered it to my friend as an example of advice that might apply to anyone else. I’d seen it simply as a way to save my sanity and restore my work ethic within the confines of one deceptively quiet office.

But since then—since that conversation with my journalist friend—I have come to see it as writerly advice. Sometimes I offer it to my students. Once I offered it from the podium during a Goddard faculty reading. Always I offer it to myself (though, thankfully, no longer out loud). And now I offer it to you, dear writer: Pay attention to what’s on the page—your page; the rest is noise.

*   *   *

Image: Weird Tales Magazine, November 1941.

Quiet in There
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Richard Panek

A Guggenheim Fellow in science writing, Richard Panek is most recently the author of The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, which won the 2012 Science Communication award from the American Institute of Physics, and the co-author, with Temple Grandin, of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, a New York Times best-seller and the recipient of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 2013. He also wrote the National Geographic giant-format movie Robots 3D, now playing in museum theaters across the country. His educational and professional background is in both journalism and fiction, disciplines he combines in trying to illuminate the history and philosophy of science even for readers who, like himself before he begins his research, would know little or nothing about the topic at hand.

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