How To Kill Your Darlings

The above picture is a scanned copy of something that hangs prominently on my bulletin board in my room. It is a hand-out that I received in a creative writing class that I took my senior year of high school and it is brilliant. Every single bit of advice has been useful at some point in my writing career (if you can call it that) but the advice that I always go back to is within the title of this post: you must kill your darlings.

That particular bit of advice is from author, Stephen King (you’ve probably heard of him). He wrote a book called On Writing which is one of my favorite books of all time. In it are so many jewels of writing wisdom that he has acquired over the years. You probably zoned out after that italicized statement above. Claire…are you endorsing murder? No, of course not. I am endorsing literary murder. If you write a piece and the part that you think is excellent but doesn’t fit with the rest of the piece–KILL IT. MERCILESSLY. Delete it from the essay, short story, novel, etc. Then laugh maniacally.

Thus the life of a creative writer; write something brilliant then delete. Rinse and repeat.

I read an interview this past semester with the celebrated author, John McPhee, which I found to be very encouraging. I thought discipline was a result of some deep love of writing. Words pour forth from an author’s fingers onto the document onscreen easily. No. There’s nothing easy about writing. McPhee describes his writing process here:

It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.

Writers love learning about other writers’ processes for writing. It’s like finding out their trade secret. To know that literary giants lack discipline makes us wee Davids feel better about ourselves. As I write this blog post right now, I am simultaneously not writing my short essay for my Travel Writing class. I am however agonizing over what I will write. It’s a struggle to bring words to the page; to “tell the truth” as my hand-out instructs me to do.

Thus I reflect on my major and avoid thinking about how this will (or could) be a source of income in the future. All I have is the present assignments to mourn over my current inadequacy and strive towards a future where I too have the leisure to make tea and sharpen pencils all day until that fickle muse, inspiration, strikes.


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