Friday, August 7, 2015

Do writers talk too much?

Writers talk too much.
Lillian Hellman

So was Lillian Hellman right? Do writers talk too much? More specifically, do they talk too much about their own works in progress?

Aldous Huxley
Jon Winokur collects quotations on that subject from several writers in his book Writers on Writing. "I've never discussed my writing with others much, but I don't believe it can do any harm," Aldous Huxley said. "I don't think that there's any risk that ideas or materials will evaporate."

Others writers think talking about their work could, in fact, do harm.

"I have a superstition that if I talk about plot, it's like letting sand out of a hole in the bottom of a bag," Shirley Hazzard said.

Norman Mailer expressed a similar idea: "I just think it's bad to talk about one's present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension."

David Wallechinsky put it this way: "It's not that anybody will steal your idea but that all that energy that goes into the writing of your story will be dissipated."

Angus Wilson said, "I don't care to talk about a novel I'm doing because if I communicate the magic spell, even in an abbreviated form, it loses its force for me. Once you have talk, the act of communication has been made."

I understand what these writers are saying. It's like possessing a choice bit of gossip and feeling compelled to tell somebody, anybody, about it. If you do share the gossip, even if it's to a total stranger, that compulsion to tell the story lessens. For writers, that loss of compulsion could be fatal.

Ernest Hemingway said the same thing more succinctly, "You lose it if you talk about it."

John Steinbeck admitted he talked too much about his work and said if he would "keep my big mouth shut about work, there would probably be a good deal more work done."

The acknowledgments sometimes found at the end of novels can offer clues as to how much the authors talk about their work before it's completed. To be sure, most acknowledgements just thank family and friends for their patience and support during the writing process or those people who have answered the authors' questions or their editors and publishers. Yet sometimes writers indicate they have talked about their work with others or even allowed others to read it before it was finished.

For example, Stephen H. Foreman, author of Watching Gideon, thanks Ellen Stern and Peter Stern "for early reads and constant encouragement." Amulya Malladi, author of The Sound of Language, thanks a journalist, Eva Arnvig, for reading her manuscript "in record time" and sharing her knowledge of Afghanistan and Denmark.

Some writers may even benefit from talking about their work. It may give them ideas or insights that will make their books stronger, or at least give them insight into how their stories will be received. Yet I suspect most writers are reluctant to say too much about what they are working on, and I think they are wise to stay silent.

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