Don’t Talk a Book Away; Just Write


Maybe the best piece of advice anyone has given me on the writing life came from Shelby Foote, the great Civil War narrative historian. He was the dad of a childhood friend, and the first writer I ever met growing up in Memphis. I had no appreciation for the amazing work he was doing then, but years later I interviewed him for a magazine article up in his study at his home on East Parkway.

What he said was: Never talk about a work in progress. “Great wuuuuuhhks,” he declared in his custardy Delta drawl, “are written under presshuhhh.” He stroked his amazing bardic beard and puffed away on his pipe for a while. A book project, he suggested, was a like a pressure cooker. If you constantly let off the steam a little bit at a time, the pressure would never build and the thing would never get hot enough to cook.

If you went around telling people all about your story, say, at cocktail parties or dinners, you would “talk the book out” a little at a time until all the psychic energy needed to finish it would dissipate and there’d be nothing left. “If you tell people, ‘I’m fixin’ to work on this problem, and then I’m gonna start writing this thing or that thing’—well, you’ve talked it right on out. That book will never get written! And even if it does, it won’t be any good.”

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Hampton Sides is the author of the narrative histories Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and Hellhound on His Trail. He is now at work on a book about an early American attempt on the North Pole set in the 1880s.


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