Tuesday, May 3, 2016


re-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 then say “I didn’t have time to write the whole story.” At which point he would tell us the rest of the story.

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: the 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, apparently. In a 1958 Paris Review interview, 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 regarding 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.” 

I've decided that 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 and essays.

I’m not talkin’.

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


  1. Thanks for this, Lynn. In my limited experience, I think not talking about a poem or story when you are ready to write is correct. I will talk with someone about some detail when I'm having difficulty forming an idea, but I reach a point where I suddenly realize I need to capture the ideas generated on paper or I'll lose them and the energy to flesh them out. I do think the energy in the story gets drained in the speaking of it.

    Perhaps that's why, in a sparsely settled state like Wyoming, you have so many good poets? There's no one around to talk to, so you just write? And maybe poets are more fortunate that we are fewer, so don't have someone near at hand to talk to. Everyone wants to write a novel some day and is thrilled to discuss writing yours. Now I'll shut up and write.

    1. You are right about it boiling down to energy. A poem, a story, an essay, has an energy to it. And if we fiddle around and don't point that energy to the page, it kind of dissipates. As for Wyoming's wide open spaces and small population resulting in less spewing by writers? Maybe in the past. Now we have the internet :-)

      Thanks for checking in.

  2. I totally agree Lynn-- Over the years I have 'lost' several pretty good stories -- lost the impetus to actually write it after the joy and fun of sharing with folks. Thanks for the reminder. June Read/NC

    1. Thank YOU for reading and commenting. Maybe some of those "lost" stories will come back after a long silence :-)


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