Talk Is Cheap

I love to talk but when it comes to writing I've learned that you can talk a story out before you’ve finished–or even started–writing. Some talking is good because it helps formulate your thinking but it can go too far.

When I was younger I talked because I was anxious, talked because silence was terrifying. But I come from a family of conversationalists. My twin sister loves to talk. My old man was a champion talker. He talked instead of working. (Maybe that is why Fran Lebovitz turns me off.)

I got to thinking about talking when I read this piece on James Agee by John Updike, a review of “Letters of James Agee to Father Flye”:

Alcohol—which appears in the first Harvard letters (“On the whole, an occasional alcoholic bender satisfies me fairly well”) and figures in almost every letter thereafter—was Agee’s faithful ally in his “enormously strong drive, on a universally broad front, toward self-destruction.” But I think his real vice, as a writer, was talk. “I seem, and regret it and hate myself for it, to be able to say many more things I want to in talking than in writing.” He describes his life at Harvard as “an average of 3.5 hours sleep per night; 2 or 3 meals per day. Rest of the time: work, or time spent with friends. About 3 nights a week I’ve talked all night. . . .” And near the end of his life, in Hollywood: “I’ve spent probably 30 or 50 evenings talking alone most of the night with Chaplin, and he has talked very openly and intimately.” And what are these letters but a flow of talk that nothing but total fatigue could staunch? “The trouble is, of course, that I’d like to write you a pretty indefinitely long letter, and talk about everything under the sun we would talk about, if we could see each other. And we’d probably talk five or six hundred pages…”

He simply preferred conversation to composition. The private game of translating life into language, or fitting words to things, did not sufficiently fascinate him. His eloquence naturally dispersed itself in spurts of interest and jets of opinion. In these letters, the extended, “serious” projects he wishes he could get to—narrative poems in an “amphibious style,” “impressionistic” histories of the United States, an intricately parodic life of Jesus, a symphony of interchangeable slang, a novel on the atom bomb—have about them the grandiose, gassy quality of talk. They are the kind of books, rife with Great Ideas, that a Time reviewer would judge “important.” The poignant fact about Agee is that he was not badly suited to working for Henry Luce.