Spare Your Darlings

Without fail, every single workshop I’ve ever been in, someone has quoted Faulker saying, “Learn to kill your darlings.”

It sounded like sage advice at first. But the second time I heard it, it started to sound like a mantra, or a pass-code that everyone else who took writing workshops knew and I didn’t. After hearing it for the n-teenth time, I finally decided that it had long since passed into the realm of Meaningless Shit.

The message is good, but not the sentiment. As I have interpreted it, the command means, “Just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s good,” so you’d better be prepared to cut it if necessary. It took me a while to come to that realization, unfortunately. People tend to repeat Faulkner without context or explanation, and usually as a bludgeon when they are trying to convince a writer that she should obliterate something despite her fondness for it.

As a person who despised the revision process at first, I needed someone to tell me this, but, unfortunately, no one fully explained it. Now I rewrite and revise obsessively, but for a long time I did worse. If I wrote something I enjoyed, I would assume it should be destroyed and then did so. Even now, I feel a little strange when I realize that I like what I have written, like it’s a guilty pleasure. So, I lost a lot of good material because I took “Kill Your Darlings” as a bylaw of writing, but that isn’t as great of a loss as my damaged relationship with my hobby and passion.

I love writing. For too long I tried to make it into work. Sure, objectivity, editors, and an understanding of one’s audience are really important, but I think that too many writers and teachers, in an attempt to make their work and craft seem more legitimate, try to make the act of composition seem like a harrowing process. It’s not and it shouldn’t be.

So, I’m going to take a stand and say that if you are a writing teacher, do not tell your students to kill their darlings unless you add a lot of caveats.

If you’re a writer, be merciful. Spare your darlings. Remember why you started writing in the first place – probably because it was enjoyable and you liked your stories.


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