Killing What Darlings?

E4969563159377B8FB3286A0A16EThe title of the new Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, Kill Your Darlings, cleverly cross-references a familiar piece of writerly advice and the suggestion of murder. It also, according to my Harry-Potter-besotted students, effectively nullifies that piece of advice for at least as long as it conjures, not ruthless editing, but the image of a skinny, innocent, bespectacled Allen Ginsberg.

This short classroom discussion got me ruminating on writing advice. Killing darlings is usually a bitter but memorable pill, if you can get it down your gullet. A New Yorker editor once handed it to me in a different form. “You must learn,” she said in the gravelly voice of experience, “to write badly.” Meaning: to take the risks of stop-and-start dialogue, of bodies described without metaphor, of entering into the voice of an inarticulate protagonist; to dare to describe a boring place, as Flaubert does with Yonville l’Abbaye, in prose so stultifying that the reader may exit, like Emma, screaming.

Two other maxims adorn my writing wall. One is attributed to Michelangelo, speaking to one of his apprentices: “Draw, Antonio. Draw. Draw and do not waste time.” Make that write rather than draw and you have a nip in the rear end to get you off the Internet and onto the page.

The other is from the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “The writer,” he observes, “is like the weaver: He works on the wrong side of his material. He has to do only with language, and finds himself suddenly surrounded by meaning.” This one reminds me that it’s about the words, in the end—that what we’re trying to say emerges only out of what we say. There are no shortcuts for this tapestry.

It’s a little scary to contemplate the news I received a couple of months ago from a former student—that the motto he keeps ready to hand came from a sheet I distribute at the beginning of each writing class called “Ferriss’s List of Bewares.” The first item on the list is “Beware the wrong mystery,” and he says my warning has forestalled many flimsy concoctions of suspense and kept him in hot pursuit of right mysteries. I only hope it has proved more inspiring than stifling.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice? Is it E.M. Forster’s “Only connect”? Is it E.L. Doctorow’s metaphor of driving at night, “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way?” Is it Red Smith’s “You just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”? We look for them, these pithy or gnarly axioms, bright candles in the tunnel, urging us along. Please share.




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