David Mamet, Fairy Godmother

I don’t get enough advice. Maybe it’s because I spent years actively ignoring it? This year I was hoping for some good advice, and still am! No matter how well you’re doing, there’s always a sense that you’re dogging it, and there’s some bit of wisdom that will push you through the membrane of the day-to-day to untold fabulousness. A foolish thought to carry around with you, but there it is. However, while waiting for my fairy godmother to clobber me with a toaster, calendar 2012 was a year that I kept going back to the greatest advice I ever got: Never open your mouth until you know the shot.

It is an extraordinarily useful bit of prescription, in dealings both personal and business. Obviously, it deals with being circumspect, with keeping confidence. If you aspire to being a person who other people confide in, then the trick of that is not betraying those confidences. Everyone loves a good bit of gossip (in fact, entire industries are run on it), but if you are a person that discloses such tawdry business, then people will not share it with you anymore. Hence, keep your mouth shut. This applies to your loved ones and personal affinity groups, and to whatever career you find yourself in. I personally am employed in the legal end of the greater entertainment industry, where this sentiment is not just a good idea but rather the law, and of the few insanely interesting things I may or may not know about people who may or may not be famous, I can’t tell you any of them. That is why my company gets paid.

But it’s not just a recipe for being closed-mouthed (and this is why I kept coming back to it this year)—it’s also staggeringly apt as an instruction when you are in the process of learning things you do not know. When in a situation that you desire to acquire a skill, be it snaking a clogged sink or writing a novel of certain American greatness, shut your fool mouth. Find someone that knows this skill, plop yourself down, and don’t speak. Consider the skill the shot that you do not know. Do not betray ignorance or eagerness. Stop thinking of yourself entirely. Just plop. And after a fashion of keeping your mouth shut, you will find that you are actually paying attention, and whether through instruction or plain observation, you have just tricked yourself into learning.

The origin of this, as you may have guessed, is not from an mentor or parental type. It is a line from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and it’s spoken by the character Ricky Roma (played in the 1992 movie by Al Pacino) to the character John Williamson (played by Kevin Spacey). The set-up is that the hot-shot salesman Roma is trying to sweet-talk a cold-foot customer by assuring him that the deposit check hadn’t been put in the bank, and office manager Williamson, misjudging the bluff, assures the client that it had been deposited. (It hadn’t.) So Williamson gets dressed down, in a not unfamous monologue, and that line is the second-to-last, followed by, “You fucking child.” “You never open your mouth unless you know what the shot is,” is the actual line of dialogue. I shortened it. It’s prettier and more portable, and I guess I have an unconscious prejudice against the dangling participle. And I prefer until over unless because I like to think of the shot as a thing that will be known and not might not be known.

Of course it’s a bit troublesome, the current Dennis-Millerization of David Mamet notwithstanding, taking a line from a play, a line spoken by a character who is a prototypical asshole, and ascribing use to it. As in, that’s the best I can do? And I didn’t get it from the movie. A couple years before the movie, I was in a largely reverse-gender production of the play in college. I played Williamson, so the girl that played Roma, a Chicagoan adept at swearing, hissed the line at me repeatedly through a month’s rehearsal and the handful of productions. It sunk in. Ridiculous? It’s done me well; I’ll take it.

The act of writing this is naturally a contravention of the rule. I am decidedly not keeping my mouth shut, and I do not pretend to know the shot. But the best advice is unasked for, it falls in your lap and you wonder what it is. Sometimes it takes a good long time for it to evince itself, or for you to realize what a gift you’ve been given. Sometimes you actually have took one in the face from a toaster wielded by the fairy godmother. You just didn’t know it at the time.


Previously in series: How To Be A Good Author


Also by this author: What It Cost Eight Women Writers To Make It In New York


Brent Cox is all over the Internet.