#1 Writing Rule: Do Not Judge

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeWriting Adventures in Shanghai
By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

To be honest, when I first arrive in Mumbai, India, the only thing I can think is “How the hell am I going to write about this place?” It is hot, stinky, poor, dusty, and loud…brutal to the senses. Cars, cows, motorbikes, stray dogs, and people jam the roads. Though I didn’t think it possible, car horns are used even more often here than in Shanghai. Beggars grab at me when I pass. Taxi drivers cheat me.

For the first few days I’m pissed that I’m here at all. I remember my week in Bali back in May and I curse the gods who landed me here for a few weeks instead of that lush, quiet, tropical paradise.

But then, in the middle of a rather impressive curse that starts with an “f” and plows forward with practiced gusto, I remember my #1 rule: Do not judge.

Why?

Because standing in judgment is a big, fat waste of time. As writers, it’s our job to explore, consider, examine, uncover, reveal, and share, and over the years, I’ve learned that whenever I stand around grumbling and criticizing (most often about something I don’t yet understand), inevitably I miss the magic…of a place or a person or an experience.

With this in mind, I stop cursing. I repeat my #1 rule in my head. Then I breathe and look around Mumbai with fresh eyes.

I see now that the dusty, filthy streets are filled with gorgeous women in saris, women who, unlike many of us westerners back in the United States, do not shy away from color. In fact, they celebrate it. Their saris are hot pink, aquamarine, sunshine yellow, cobalt blue, and wild combinations of all colors.

I see that although there are thousands of feral dogs living on the streets, many people are kind and generous to them, sharing biscuits and a bit of shade.

With these and other observations in hand, I see that Mumbai—like most places on Earth—is complex and layered and worth trying to understand. It is ugly and beautiful, harsh and welcoming.

Now keep in mind, I’m not asking you to spit-shine your stories or to write only about the happy, positive aspects of life. But I am asking that when you find yourself with a less than ideal assignment (and you will) that you stay open and withhold judgment. Perhaps you’ll have to interview a curmudgeonly old codger who coughs and spits and growls in answer to your well thought-out questions. Or maybe you’ll land in a place, like Mumbai, that challenges your spirit. When you do, stay open. Withhold judgment. Learn as much as you can about your subject, look at it with fresh eyes, and once you’ve explored deeply enough, go to your writing honestly.

Ready?

Good.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

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1 Response to “#1 Writing Rule: Do Not Judge”


  1. 1 Cheryl Snell October 5, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    My husband was raised in Mumbai. I enjoyed reading about your reactions to India, and your very good advice when dealing with difference.


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