Killing Your Darlings. In Your Writing, I Mean. Not In Some Jim-Jonesian Way.

crop woman using laptop on sofa at home

William Faulkner famously urged writers to “Kill your darlings,” and Hemingway would never shut up about some variant of that advice, usually in clean, economical prose. He went so far as to say you should write your story, and then take all of the “best” lines out. Was he in the middle of A) killing something B) divorcing someone C) drinking heavily or D) All of the above as he gave this advice? Most likely.

Yeah, Yeah, Whatever.

Still, I concede it’s good advice. Not a bad rule of thumb. But, like, a rule rule? A rule without thumbs? I dunno. Would we like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Toni Morrison, or James Baldwin half as much if they took our their best lines (I know, I know: what does “Best” mean? Let’s let that lie for today). The problem is, of course, most of us aren’t Fitzgerald, Morrison, or Baldwin. In fact, if I understand these things correctly, none of us are.

Which leaves us with the vexing problem of figuring our just who the hell are we? As writers, not people: I won’t even try to squeeze down that rabbit hole here. This is why it’s so important to have a good editor, or if you’re a playwright like I am, a good director and/or dramaturge.

But Also

Another thing: when we’re starting out, we haven’t learned that there’s a good chance the more we love a line, or a sentence, the more likely it needs to come out ASAP. It’s most likely self-conscious and overwrought. Or if it’s comedy, maybe not as funny as you think. This stage takes a long time. Very much so. More than is comfortable. But, with luck and metric crapload of trying and failing and reading and writing, and re-writing, and rinse, lather, repeating, you start to not only develop your own voice, but start to understand it. Two different things, it turns out. But if you begin to understand what you do best, and how to rely on craft to make it happen, you’re on your way. Well to the next difficult step, anyway.

Understanding that voice. This isn’t always quite the conscious act it sounds like, and that’s very often a good thing. But here’s what sorta sucks. Sometimes what we do well becomes our worst enemy. Because it’s now a trick, a crutch, and a good excuse not to push forward as hard on the other things. But surely if it’s what you do well, you shouldn’t stop doing it, right?

Yeah, Like I Know. Anyone Who’s Watched Me Try To Wrap A Present Wouldn’t Take My Advice On ANYTHING

I dunno. Depends on who you are as a writer, and how realistic you are about the quality and type of stuff you’re writing (and good luck with that. You likely wouldn’t have become a writer without at least a little ego and ego is the arch-nemesis of good re-writing, which incidentally nine times out of 10 is the secret sauce). At a guess, I’d say most of us shouldn’t abandon those skill we’ve come by, but always be wary about how and when we use them. Which is, I think, the crux of what Faulkner et al were getting at.

I just had a reading for a new play about Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. They were, if you don’t know, chock full of brilliant quips and loved, loved, loved to talk. Scratch that: Conversation and one-liners were, I think, a pathology for them.

Now, as you’ve no doubt gleaned, I’m a big over-writer. I’m fine with that, because I’ve also learned to become fine (usually) about chucking out a lot of my writing in rehearsals. I always lean towards cutting the damn thing. Even if I really like it. If it slows the momentum down or doesn’t work like you hoped it would, it pays to be a ruthless editor of your own stuff. Like, you don’t like you ruthless. And for many writers, at least the first part is easily doable.

But with this play, it was a challenge, because I had to balance that instinct with the reality of who these characters – and yes, they were people, but now they’re characters – are. Two people whose natures demanded honoring their stream of quips and flood of language. Also, I only allowed myself five of Parker’s real-life quips and like, two of Benchley6’s, which set up the downright hubristic challenge of putting quips in their mouths, which is a little like saying to Mozart, “Here, I wrote a tune for you. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

Help: You Need Somebody; Not Just Anybody

I had the advantage of having really good and really smart actors – you’d be surprised how the two qualities don’t always totally overlap, as well as a very smart director. Together, we’d all pitch in with editing suggestions, which, if you’re insecure about you’re writing, you’re going to let your ego become defensive. I’m a carnival of insecurity in real life. My memoir will likely be titled, I Apologize for Inadequately Assessing My Inadequacies.

But with writing, I think I have the correct ratio, more days than not, of eagerness to hear smart criticism (and how to separate the smart from the not-so-smart criticisms should be like, 3/4 of any writing course. I’m far from infallible at this, but my rule of thumb i: are they critiquing your work, or arguing why you should write the play/novel/story that they would write?) but also stand my ground when I, open-minded as I am, still feel I’m right. Of course, feeling I’ve reached a good place in this is a clear sign I need to constantly reevaluate that belief.

Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well, I Contradict Myself

I wrote a post a while ago about being really skeptical of writing advice, and would personally feel uncomfortable offering any. And yet here we are. I think it’s because this last play forced me to wrestle with the kill your darlings axiom more than usual. So, I’m probably doing this at least as much for myself as anyone who may stumble across it. The main reason I feel unqualified – apart from not being on the level of William Faulkner – is that I’m not you. You are the best judge of your writing. Or at least, you’d better try to learn to be. And how hard is that? Trying to learn to be objective about an innately subjective craft based in which your material is drawn inevitably from yourself, about whom, I hate to be the one to break it to you, you’re probably at least a little subjective.

It’s a hard gig, it turns out. But then, that’s why it feels good. Sometimes. I sometimes wonder what I have a better chance of totally grasping: my writing or my life. It’s a false choice, of course. That’s the whole freaking point. In the end, I think one writer said it best: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” sure, Shakespeare, you make it sound easy because you’re Freaking Shakespeare.

And even that guy wrote stuff like Timon of Athens on occasion. That’ kind of a comfort, though. we’ll never get it totally right, or even, for the vast majority of us, mostly right. That’s not the point. The point is trying to with every atom in your body and soul, while being OK with the fact you’ll fail. But maybe, to quote another guy who knew how to write, Samuel Beckett, you’ll fail better.

My Opinion are Not Necessarily The Opinions of My Own Blog or Even My Own Self

But that’s just me. Feel free to let me know where you think I’ve got it wrong and why. Cos I promise you, I have. Incidentally, I had an amazing last sentence for this, but I ended up cutting it.

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Killing Your Darlings. In Your Writing, I Mean. Not In Some Jim-Jonesian Way.

  1. Love this article.
    Can’t wrap presents well either. Then writing. I write stories…or are they poems or are they flash fiction. They all seem to have rules damn it!

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