Should You Discuss Your Work in Progress?

I recently learned a lesson about a serious need to shut up. I’m 52 years old and my whole life people who have my best interests at heart have told me not to have a big mouth when it comes to announcing my ambitions, wishes, projects, or loves.

I wish I had listened sooner, better, or at all. I wish, particularly, that I had NOT said anything to anybody about the fact that I am editing a collection titled Make Mine a Double: A Celebration of Women and Drink.

Why do you want everybody to know your business? This is what I grew up hearing from everybody in my Sicilian family in Sheepshead Bay. Maybe it wasn’t the absolute finest counsel to give a kid who wants to grow up to be a writer. But after all they didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do because I actually TOOK their advice– and from an early age kept my business to myself.

If I revealed my ambitions, it was to a school teacher or to a girlfriend from the block who could be trusted not to tell. As I grew up, if I didn’t talk about my work around my family it was not out of a desire to hide from them but because (although they cared deeply about me), they couldn’t care less about my job.

After I got tenure, for example, and started teaching two mornings a week, my Aunt Josephine asked why I was only working part-time. Aunt Josie, I explained, this schedule is terrific because it gives me time to do research. Her sotto-voce response? You know, honey, you could waitress those other days and nobody would have to know.

But because life has been kind to me as writer and editor in recent years, I’d been feeling a little easier about the sense of beneficent balance in the universe. This profound mistake lead to a chat at a New York literary luncheon with a prominent and an avuncular editor and author.

I was merrily gabbing about for the collection and, in the refrain so often heard wafting from editors’ sides of the table, complaining about the intricacies of distribution, when the author wondered, eyes flickering with mischief, If I’d heard that an editor from a trade magazine was doing the same thing? Complaining about distribution? I asked, reaching for yet another deviled egg. No, doing a collection about women and alchohol.

With my mouth half-open and the egg poised, like a paprika-covered spaceship, between my thumb and index finger, I paused. It could be worse, I mumbled.

He said nothing and kept smiling. The more the better, right? Actually, this is what I’ve always believed.
When Ph.D. students ask for advice about whether to deliver a paper based on their research at a national conference, afraid someone will steal their ideas I inevitably reassure them. I explain that there’s no need for lost sleep because:

1. Even on the same topic or work of literature, critical perspectives differ so dramatically that there is little danger of consequential overlap;

2. It can be exciting and inspiring to find allies who share your passion for a topic;
and (drum roll, please)

3. You should only HAVE such a brilliant idea that everybody wants to do what you’re doing.
This last statement, however, is rarely said out loud.

Did I take my own advice? You bet. Am I saying somebody shoplifted my idea? Not on your life: lots of people can have similar ambitions for a book.

Am I heartily aware of the fact that I have queued up behind countless numbers of other editors in the great conga-line that is publishing? Yes.

Should I have shut up, kept my head down, and stayed under the radar? Maybe.

Why do you want everybody to know your business? my aunts would ask. Because my enthusiasm gets the better of me–and because I figure that if this writing and editing thing doesn’t work out, I might be able to waitress the other days.

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