Friday, April 30, 2010
50. April 29, 2010 - erasing your darlings.
Tried something new - something I've been wanting to do for a long time, but a friend recently suggested it, and also there was an especially thick white paper at class last night, perfect for the technique: Instead of drawing on the brown butcher paper and providing highlights with white chalk (as I've been doing a lot of), I charcoal-smeared the white paper and found highlights with my eraser. In other words, I basically drew with my eraser. Fun.
I’ve been trying to think if there’s some writing analogue to this, drawing with the eraser. Imagine a page crammed with randomly selected words. Erase the ones you don’t want in order to reveal and combine the words you do. Close, but not quite, because even there you’re still drawing the reader’s attention to the words and not the spaces. They’re still looking at what you’ve left behind. Not what you’ve removed. How can a writer, through erasure, make the reader see what he or she has removed?
Maybe by killing the darlings?
“Kill your darlings” is a universally held precept among writers, attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, etc. Whoever said it first, all writers understand it to mean that if there is a sentence in your prose of which you are especially fond, you should probably get rid of it. The usual explanation boils down to vanity. Pride is a symptom of rot. The fact that you like the sentence so much is probably an indication that it calls attention to itself, and anything that calls attention to itself – anything that feels precious or to be of special value - must be purged for the good of the whole.
And that is certainly true.
But there’s another less recognized, less ascetic, reason that darlings must be killed. Darlings aren’t always darlings because they’re pretty or because they sound nice. They’re darlings because very early on in the process of composing a story, they stand out in the author's mind as being a damn-near perfect distillation of what it is that he or she means to say, or of who that character is, for instance. They are a kind of flag the writer plants in his or her page, a signifier to which the rest of the story must aspire, and in fact that’s often the way our darlings work best, by providing a kind of centerpiece around which the drama gets built, including scenes and dialogues and gestures. All of these are borne of the desire to justify and dramatize – to show, in other words - the meaning expressed in the seminal darling.
Once the writer has succeded in this, however – once all the rigging and the dialogue and choreography are all in place – he or she will very often find that the darling is now standing in the way. It is superfluous. It reads as being a little “on the nose,” as development people like to say. So the author kills it not because it is too pretty or ornate or subtle or mot juste-y, but because it has served its purpose. It has authored the scene, really, and it will always be there in spirit, but in the end it had to be erased so that the story – the flesh, that is – could be seen.
Post-scripturally be it noted that last night's class marks the last time we will, at least in the forseeable future, be drawing the pictured model, who is being lured east by the currents of her own life. She will be missed.