Murder your darlings. – Sir Arthur Quiller-Crouch
It’s too bad such a great phrase has become such a writing cliché. The last time I heard it, the quote was attributed to Stephen King. Before that I had heard it was Faulkner. Neither is true. It was a snooty old prof at Cambridge warning writers about the dangers of ornamentation. This was about the time the grumpy and irritatingly correct William Strunk was leading his own rebellion against flowery Romantics across the Atlantic. They were sick of all that pretty and wanted writers to just get to the point. You think in a time of locomotives and world wars, people have time for your damnable puffery?
There seems, too, a divide over the meaning of the phrase. I had understood it to mean that one must have the guts and self awareness to acknowledge when a passage doesn’t work and then slash its pretty throat. It doesn’t matter if you love it. You are not objective enough to really make that determination until weeks or months later once the proverbial bloom comes off the rose. Once it does, kill it. Murder that beautiful piece. But that may be too rational an understanding of the phrase. Another interpretation is that you should kill your darlings precisely because you love them. If you, the author, are in love with a particular word coupling or tagline or paragraph or passage—kill it dead because you’ve probably dumped a whole bottle of literary maple syrup onto a pile of sugar-coated honey-glazed word donuts. So pick your favorite part and kill it because the audience will resent your self-indulgence. The audience, who may not be familiar with the phrase, at least share King’s actual and less eloquent opinion: Stop trying to be brilliant and tell the $@#!&! story.
There’s truth to it. And many writers, myself included, have to go through this phase of cheap ornamentation before learning to pare it down to its essential elements. Spare writing. Stark writing. No-hiding writing. Hemingway and Carver made it worse, inspiring a generation of writers following their lead. You see it in modern poetry, among the long lasting movement of what I call Zen poems about bees and flowers. Modern poetry doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t need structure, and for Pete’s sake don’t write about love unless you want to look like a kitschy poser. Perhaps part of the darling-killing movement is this (modern) desire to not be moved by fairy tales any longer. We consider ourselves mature, not subject to the whimsy we once were. We're serious creators and serious connoisseurs. Don't tease us. Show us real life. The modern world is sleek, fast, to the point. Modern literature is a knife. And it’s a kind of blasphemy to dislike Hemingway and Carver.
Well, consider me blasphemous. I’m not indicting them. Many have loved these authors and that’s okay. Love them. Write like them, if that’s possible. As for me and my house, we like a little sugar.
The Philosophy of Spare survived even the post-modernists, the too-smart-for-the-room Warhols, and is backed up by the proliferation of online literature. Blog posts should be short, theses obvious. Stories—cut them down to 500 words. Make whatever you write small enough to fit into a Twitter feed, tiny little chocolate morsels of truth as people go about their surfing, their realities fragmenting in real time.
But at the same time, back in the world of books, the kids everyone doubts the future of (don’t sweat that, kids, happens every generation) are buying books thick enough to use as booster seats. Yes, some have glittering eterna-teen vampires in them. But some of them have much better kinds of magic created by authors who set out to write something beautiful and perhaps ornate. And you know what? How else would the literate youth rebel against their forerunners? By reading the same stuff their parents read?
After 100 years or so of Modernism and Post-Modernism, someone told me we were entering a literary phase of neo-realism. Lord, I hope not. Nothing worse to me than realism in fiction. Please, please, please don’t spend three pages telling how a plow works. Actually, I think we’re going back farther than that. Perhaps the steampunk rage is a better indicator that fantasy and romance are en vogue—and I hope for a while.
And fantasy and romance require, well, darlings.