Leave Your Darlings Alone

battle sommeAt what point does murdering your darlings become genocide?


No idea, but why should anybody want to murder them in the first place? Writing advice like that was propagated in the lecture halls of Cambridge University over a hundred years ago. When Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch exhorted the writers of his day to murder their darlings in 1914, had he any inkling how many of his students and members of the university would join the infantry and be slaughtered in the following years? 2,470 to be exact. That such advice on style, On the Art of Writing, would be published the same year as the Battle of the Somme to me seems significant. Fortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald discarded such Edwardian quackery. Otherwise, we would not have The Great Gatsby, and such darling sentences as these:

If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.

Today though such infanticidal notions are still propagated in classrooms and writing groups the world over. Fortunately there is some progress. If I had received a $1,000 for each time I’ve been advised to kill a beautiful sentence I still would not be a millionaire because an equal number of people said they wanted to kidnap my baby.

So if murdering your darlings is unconscionable, then what?

Some writers seemingly believe in segregation. They allow their darlings to steal the best real-estate, and then they force relocate the impoverished, neglected bulk of their prose to those regions of the story where all the heavy labor is done.

Bad idea.

My recommendation: Leave your darlings alone. But also something else is needed.

Nurture the freaks, the mutants, the hybrids. Let them grow wild, mix with your darlings in a Bacchanalian orgy, an entangled, rhizomatic biomass of living, breathing prose that vows to do more than just reflect a pale zeitgeist, but foment the kind of cathartic evolution that has yet to be—at least the kind that could be at this particular quantum juncture, until it is forever lost in the multiverse of infinite possibilities.