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.