The hit musical Hamilton has many memorable moments. One of my favorites is the moment when the title character first meets his colleague (and later, nemesis), Aaron Burr, who says, “Let me offer you some free advice.”
“Talk less,” Burr says. “Smile more.”
It’s a great character moment for the two characters. It reflects Burr’s slippery politician ways and foreshadows one of Hamilton’s fatal flaws (among many), especially as Burr adds, “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”
Writers, beware. Not so much of death by dueling politicians, though that’s always something to look out for. But I think Burr’s advice can be revised slightly for working writers today:
Talk less. Write more.
I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but it bears repeating. Sometimes a writer needs to learn to “talk less” and “write more.”
For example, people may occasionally ask, “You’re a writer? What are you writing?” Amazingly, many folks are intensely interested in the writing life because, well, it’s so glamorous and profitable. Right? And you may be tempted to launch into a summation of your work-in-progress, at least until your listener’s eyes glaze over.
Or you may be part of a writers group or critique circle where you’re encouraged to discuss your works-in-progress. Or you may attend a book club or writers conference where you feel freed and affirmed to talk about your writing with others who understand you.
Cool. But beware.
Early in my life as a professional writer, I enjoyed speaking honestly, straightforwardly, even expansively, about my current writing project. I wouldn’t just offer a quick “elevator speech,” so to speak, but would speak in detail about the trails I was following and techniques I was trying. It was fun and easy.
But upon arriving back at my writing desk, I would often spin my wheels. An idea that had previously seemed inspired had somehow soured. A scene or chapter I had been excited to write suddenly bored me. It took much time and effort to ramp up my enthusiasm and creativity. It was frustrating, nearly debilitating, to discover that I had lost enthusiasm and focus for my project. It was as if I had betrayed my muse. Or as if I had a limited supply of inspiration that didn’t want to be written once I had already talked it out.
That may have never happened to you. You may be much more of an “external processor” than I am, and talking through your work-in-progress may not spend or steal your brilliance; or you may just have far more resources as a writer than I do. But I learned the hard way that, speaking only for myself, as Aaron Burr (or Lin Manuel-Miranda) might put it, “Fools who run their mouths off wind up defeated.” I had to protect my enthusiasm and creativity like a Continental soldier keeping his powder dry. I had to learn to “talk less” and “write more.”
“Opera non verba”;
old son, that should be understood,
for life is a mazurka,
and dance-floor’s made of wax-slick wood.
Of your footwork to not brag,
get out there, show how it’s done,
‘tween your lips a burning fag,
on your hip a loaded gun.
Wear your shades and Millwall shirt,
let Doc Martens guard your feet,
and be the one who brings the hurt
without skipping a single beat.
Let your deeds speak in your place,
then vanish, silent, not a trace.
‘fag;’ is UK slang for a cigarette, and Millwall is home to those who invented football hooliganism. That lot even got into fights with police horses.
Andrew, our world would be so drab and colorless without your input. Thank you for your wit, wisdom, artistry, and perseverance.
Grace, peace and prayers always.
Judith, I am so honoured…thank you for this, and most especially for your prayers.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes! I do love getting to a conference once a year (well, I used to) and when we need help brainstorming or fixing a piece, my critique partner and I talk. But in general, talking about a manuscript does seem to suck the life from it. Thanks for the reminder, Bob.
Yes, such a good post, Bob.
I totally agree with this. One of the things that helps me is instead of focusing on myself and my so called “image as a future best-selling author” and defending that, I simply work on my books for the furtherance of the gospel, using practical situations in life to point others to Christ. When people ask me, “What are you working on,” I have to say the title, yes. But instead of saying the words “I” or “my” or “me” most, what I focus on is the Lord, and the message He has for each person that reads the book. From then on, I focus the attention on the readers when explaining my books, all surrounding the influence of the Spirit on them. Because hey, it may be my pen. But it is ALL His Power! He gets ALL the Glory! 🙂
Too much talking steals from the writing. Priorities first. That’s how I see it. 🙂 🙂
Kathy Sheldon Davis
I wonder if this translates well into other artistic expressions. Would whitewashing a fence drain a painter’s desire to perfect his masterpiece? I dunno.
When preparing a special meal for my family I won’t abort my efforts because I had to take a break to eat a sandwich and now don’t feel like cooking. It’s got to get done, and done well enough not to make anyone sick.
Hopefully my muse is never deflated because my writing turns a reader’s stomach.
I’m beginning to wonder if your advice to talk less and write more also applies to marketing our books. I’m considering spending less time on what I can’t control, namely whether my novels will sell or not, and more time making sure that I write excellent books, whether or not they sell. This thought comes from the experience of getting a starred review, and best indie book of the month from Kirkus, along with laudatory critiques from sources I respect , but very very small sales. If I doubled my marketing effort, I doubt it would improve sales.
I’ve noticed the same thing, Bob. When I talk about my book project, and it’s met with enthusiasm, perhaps my brain signals that the reward has already been met, so there’s little reason to continue. Or, as you point out, I’m depleting my creative reserves. I’ll talk less and save it for print.
Such good advice. This sounds like me to a tee. :O Thank you! Putting this into action, immediately.
Ah, Bob, you have hit the nail on the proverbial head.
I’m such a “written word nut” that I don’t like Zoom or phone calls. If you want to get to me, write it down. If it isn’t written, I don’t know it.
However, I belong to a writers critique group that keeps asking me about WIP. And I find that when I talk about it, I lose the momentum—exactly as you described.
Wise words from a friend. Thank you.
Kathryn from NZ
I’m sure I’ve read in the past about this price you’ve described, for talking to others about the doing too much before doing the doing. But it might have been in relation to making a fitness goal.
It’s definitely a real thing – it was as if we’ve unintentionally transferred the responsibility or accountability for our goal onto others when we shared it with them. Perhaps subconsciously looking for their approval because of our intentions and then falling flat in defeat when we’re back to facing our obstacle on our own.
I’m grateful for the reminder to keep the talking about future goals to myself and stay on track with them. Bless ya heaps.
OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU
Thanks Bob, I’ve always felt the need to ‘talk less’ in my subconscious. The check is always there. I truly believe that a wip like a seedling should be kept secret and guarded until it is ‘out and strong’, If not, there might be the temptation to dilute it with other people’s inputs, considerations and other ideas away from the original. And when this happens, it all looks alien to the writer and some writers abandon their wip or lose their enthusiasm . Tx for mentioning this post. It makes me feel less guilty when I don’t share fully my wip from prying ears and eyes. Thanks and God bless you!
Been there. Done that.
Thanks for the advice. As a new writer, I always enjoy discussing what I’m working on with anyone who will listen. And especially those who will offer constructive feedback. Maybe I need to talk less and write more!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Points well taken, Bob!