Tuesday, October 21, 2014


post by Lynn

Sshhh! Don’t talk about it.

I was in a memoir writing group once with a fellow who wrote really good stuff during the free writes, in response to writing prompts. Afterwards, he’d read out loud what he had written and say “I didn’t have time to write the whole story.” Then he would proceed to tell us the rest of it.

We always told him to write the story, that it was a good story and he could publish it if he wrote it all down. But somehow, he never did. He had lots of stories started, but he didn’t finish them. Or maybe, in his head, he had finished them, because he had told us the whole story.

Maybe this is why so many writers don’t share their first drafts with anyone or talk about their works-in-progress.

Margaret Atwood flat-out said, “I never talk about books I’m writing.” Ray Bradbury said, “Don’t talk about it. Write.”

Never? Don’t talk about any aspect of writing? Really?

Marshall J. Cook, in Freeing Your Creativity:A Writer’s Guide, says it’s a matter of order. 

“In the idea-gathering stage, you should let everybody know what you’re working on. They’ll contribute materials for the mental composting that helps you develop possibilities… as the idea gets ready to take specific shape and form, you must protect it from the corrosive effect your words could have on it. Your imp wants to tell the story… and does so strictly for the joy of the telling. If you let it blab the story now, the imp may lose all interest in telling it again, on paper, later. … Your first telling will likely be your best telling in terms of the richness of your invention. Save that first telling for putting words on paper."

Oh, it’s a two part deal, is it?

1. Part One: gathering and composting phase. Feel free to throw it out to your friends that you are working on a story that deals with shamans, or guinea pigs, or Stonehenge, or whatever. Let them give you the benefit of their knowledge and experience with those things. You might learn something, get a lead, or find out that unbeknownst to you your good friend has a fetish about rodents that, frankly, you wish you hadn’t learned about.

2. Part Two: the story unfolds. This part should happen in two places: in your head and on the page. Nothing should come out of your mouth.

Ernest Hemingway also divided it in two, in a 1958 Paris Review interview, when he told George Plimpton:
“Though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing."

There is a lot of good discussion on this anti-discussion topic on the web, like in this New York Times article: “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” by Mark Slouka. And this one by Steven Pressfield titled, “Don’t Talk About It.”

But personally I think Robert Frost said it best and briefest:

“Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second.” 

As for me, I’ll discuss writing—the art and craft of it—as much as you want. And if you have any good information on rattlesnakes, let me know. But don’t ask me about my stories.

I’m not talkin’.

So, maybe this no-talking thing is a bunch of hooey. What do you think? Go over your stories with a friend or clam up?


  1. Lynn, I think you are right on track with your post on not talking about your story. Some years ago, when I was struggling with the emotions of a war I had been part of some 30 years earlier, I wrote a memoir about my experiences for my son who had asked about them. I had not talked of the events I put into the book because Vietnam Vets were shunned when we came back and I was too timid to try later.

    I spent a year writing that memoir, telling and retelling the events, as I remember them, and as I wrote and revised, I remembered details I'd forgotten, so each event grew during the revision process, coming closer to my memory of them. I'm sure that had I talked then through with others, the "upstairs faucet" to use Hemingway's metaphor, would have been without pressure because of the "fire hydrant" in the yard.

    One of the advantages to being solitary during the writing is that you have no one to "spill the beans" to. I find myself having to capture a lot of what will be a poem in prose first, in the form of a journal entry or free writing exercise, because I can write it down faster, capture the emotions, the event, the details. When I'm writing poetry, I find myself worrying about line breaks and rhythms, often losing details along the way.

    Great article that has reminded me of two things I already knew. The first, not to talk through a story first but to get it written down. The second, how come I have to keep relearning these things? Guess my mind gets so excited about the beauty of nature around me that I lose track of the more mundane, but important, things in life.

    I'll send you good stuff on brother prairie rattler in an email.


  2. Just posted to your blog, and proved I'm not a robot by typing in the number that came up, a great number, 1936, the year I was born. How weird is that?

    1. That is Twilight Zone-ish!

      Thanks for your comments. I, too, have noticed that I have to keep relearning lessons, but it seems like each time there's something additional, a bit more depth, so I guess I'll forgive myself for being slow :-)

  3. I tend to agree with Hemingway on this.There are parts that can be shared without damage being done, and other parts that are vulnerable and fragile and cannot be exposed to the world yet. I'm working on a novel and I've been follow the advice of Stephen King which is when writing the first draft, the door is closed. No one sees it but you. Second draft is where you get feedback.

  4. I agree: no talking. In my experience those who talk about their work in great detail get all the charge they need out of the process by having someone view them as a "writer" and really don't have to actually write. Even in the best writers groups, it's better to not talk about what you meant or where you're going with the work. Talk bleeds off energy.

    1. "Talk bleeds off energy" is now written up and posted by my computer screen. Thanks for that!

  5. As I become a more experienced writer I listen less and less to other comments. I learn more about the sensibilities of groups and individuals. Having been through a lot of writers' groups and writing types, oh, and yes, being blessed or cursed with little patience, I figure out what works and doesn't work for me.

    Often my not sharing has less to do with me and more to do with "Is it ready for someone to read?" I don't mean that I suffer angst from changing every little word but I refer to giving a piece even a second or third look to make it more of what I want.

    We have different definitions of first versus second drafts. I may have five drafts before I think it’s ready to trot out and then consider it the truly “second” serious look.

    I agree with Tina about explaining what we “mean” as writers. The piece has to stand on its own since we are not going to follow it around.

    At the same time, some readers (also writers) cannot believe a piece due to their preconceptions. I once had a piece about Rock Springs in the 1980s read by two people at the same workshop. One believed it and told me how I could make it better. To the second person, it was fantastical science fiction – never could happen. I chose to follow the former’s advice.

    All of my writing experiences contribute to my body of knowledge and to learning how each event, small or large, can make me a better writer. Some days are gourmet buffets. Some days provide basic cafeteria sustenance.

    1. I like your comment about defining drafts--only the writer knows when she/he is ready to go public and seek input--when it's time to talk. Thanks for joining in on the conversation.

  6. Everyone's different. Some people need to talk about their writing, if only to make sure their friends shame them into finishing it. Others keep mum. Like everything else in writing, there are no rules.

    I don't talk about works in progress much, unless I get stuck. Then I call on my secret weapon: the Plot Monkey, a.k.a. my husband. I tell him what's going wrong in the story, and he plays with the plot until he comes up with a solution. When I'm bogged down by problems and details, he gives me a fresh take.

    I also have a couple of trusted writer friends who read the first 50 pages once I've got them in readable shape. They tell me if I'm on the right track, if my characters are likable, and if the story makes them want to read on. Generally, that's al the outside input I get until my editor sees it.

    Other than that, I don't talk much about what I'm writing. But I'm with you, Lynn - I'll talk endlessly about the craft of writing to anyone who will listen. Coffee dates with friends to talk about writing energize me, and teaching workshops brings back the excitement of discovering all the tips and tricks that make a story stronger.

    The problem is that talking about writing can become a distraction from actually doing the work. It's easy to join a group, critique everyone else's work, volunteer, and generally stay busy while your own work languishes on your dusty desk.

    1. I smiled with recognition at your last paragraph. Thanks for the reminder that a writer writes, first and foremost. See the quote from Jane Yolen below--I think she's on the same page as you are regarding when/whether to talk about your stories. Everyone is different, as you say, and everyone is different at different times, as Jane says. Sheesh! Who am I today? :-)

    2. Hmmm... a previous comment seems to be lost in cyberspace. Oh, well. What I did was quote Jane Yolen, from her book Take Joy: A Book for Writers... "I think there are two kinds of writers. Those who can talk about a project and by doing so begin to get a handle on it, and those who need to keep it secret to protect themselves from talking away all the good stuff.

      Sometimes I am one, sometimes I am the other."

  7. I appreciate this good post, Lynn. It reminds me of my writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg, who endearingly tells her students to "Shut up and write." She not only believes we should not talk about what we are writing, but thinks we should talk a whole lot less and put more of our thoughts on paper.

    Natalie most often teaches silent writing retreats, where except for teacher presentations, book discussions and reading aloud in the classroom, from waking to sleeping, there is no talking during meals or free time. It is such a relief!

    In her book, "The True Secret of Writing," Natalie has a small chapter on silence. She writes: "Behind writing, behind words is no words. We need to know about that place. It gives us a larger perspective from which to handle language." And also, "Silence can be a door to listening, which is one of the great cornerstones to writing --and also to eventual peace and reconciliation within you and in this world."

    I have found these things to be true and they work for me. I think it is the same idea behind some writer's fellowships, residencies and retreats. You get away to a quiet place where you can focus on your writing without distraction. We can't all get away like that. But, many of us could spend a day in silence … to just "shut up and write."

    1. Ah, yes. Natalie sort of wrote the book (several of them, in fact) on the "be quiet and write" idea, didn't she? Which reminds me, I need to reread one or two of her books. It's been a while. Thank you for sharing those quotes. Now I need to shut up and go write.

  8. It probably varies by person, and really disciplined people can most likely talk about their writing at any stage without it affecting their actually writing it down. Me, not so much, so I'm going to take the "no talking" rule to heart for myself.

  9. It is a fine line to be sure. I like the idea of the separation of gathering and composting from talking the rest of the story. Bring a draft. Take in the response of trusted readers. Go home and in reflection and revision see what to do with that response. Come back to your trusted readers with a revision. And so on!

    1. Yeah, I see what you're saying. I'm thinking I need to talk with my critique group about bringing in revisions. Too often it's a one-shot deal, and you don't necessarily get feedback on the next draft. Thanks for the comment!


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