I must have dreamt something extraordinary last night. I woke with the phrase “Kill your darlings” running around my stress-and-caffeine-addled mind. Writers should recognize the phrase as some of the most common advice in editing one’s work. What it means, for those unfamiliar with it, is that if you run across a conspicuously beautiful passage in your work — a darling — don’t simply consider it for removal, just remove it. To fall in love with your work, even parts of it, should be thought of, according to that nugget, as lethal.
But kill them? What a luscious, in appropriate thing to say. So 1800s. But
Being the curious chap I am, I decided to research its origin. According to Steven Wright’s [no. not the comedian.] article, Don’t Kill Your Darlings, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who actually said more than a century ago,
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
Oof. Murder them? Rough treatment. Further reading reveals that Arty had a bit of a beef with folks of the surname Darling, thus the choice of both murder and darling. There’s a Peter Pan connection, but that’s not the point of this post.
So now that we know, what do we think about it? Far from me, a Thomas, not to initially doubt all that’s said to me, at least a little. Should we or shouldn’t we (ahem) murder these precious pieces of prose?
Steven Wright [still not the comedian] argues that Quiller-Couch was full of crap and wrote that bit of timeless advice in a place where writers couldn’t exactly trust other writers, that showing another your work would likely bring not only harsh but inaccurate and spiteful criticism. Putting myself in his shoes at that time, I’d probably have the urge to remove any passages that could justify someone poking fun at me. I’d love to know how much that played into his statement. Wright then lightly argues that one should keep their beautiful pieces where they are, that if you like them they’re good.
The other side argues that, more often than not, anything conspicuous inherently means the work is uneven. If you’ve got a beautiful piece, the whole work had better be beautiful. Then, following that logic, who wants to read prose that is beautiful from beginning to end? To do so risks — OMG — poetry. And no one wants that, right? Right?
I tend to be in the second camp myself, but I can see that there could come a day when a conspicuously pretty something or other should stay. I’m never one for absolutes [note my irony, a genius trait]. I’d say, as it is with most things advice-related, know the suggestion, know cases and others’ opinions on the matter, then forget the advice entirely. It’s there and you’ll use it when you need it and allow it to go unnoticed when you don’t. The Taoists call this “unlearning.”
NOTE: I’D LIKE TO CELEBRATE THE FACT THAT THIS IS MY 333rd BLOG POST, MAKING IT 50% “THE BEAST.” AND IN MY BOOK — WHICH I AM CONFIDENT IS NOT YOUR BOOK — THAT’S PRETTY AWESOME.