Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
Stephen King offered this advice in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s not original to him, of course. Or to William Faulkner or Oscar Wilde, who both expressed something similar. Apparently, the sentiment goes back more than a century to another book about writing published in 1916 by Arthur Quiller-Couch.
Whoever said it and whenever they said it, the underlying idea is that writers should be willing to lose a particularly compelling or well-written sentence, paragraph, plot thread, or even character if it will serve the overall good of the story being told. So I was wondering the other day if this was a notion that could apply to our own personal narratives.
Because we all have our “darlings,” don’t we? Embedded in the “Story of Me” that we tell others and ourselves are all of these well-crafted memories and anecdotes and personal insights that we’ve been polishing and fine-tuning for years. Maybe even decades.
- “I don’t like confrontation, because I have a vivid memory of sitting at the top of the steps in the middle of the night once listening to my parents yell at each other when I was five years old.”
- “As the middle child, I’ve always felt as if I have to try harder. As if I have something to prove. That it wasn’t as easy for me to receive the validation I needed. That I fell through the cracks.”
- “Not getting accepted into the academically talented program in high school was a huge blow to my self-esteem. Which made me study all the harder, of course. But it still stings when I think about it.”
- “I love old movies, and I’m convinced I was meant to be born fifty years earlier. I believe I would have been so much more successful in a simpler time with less technology to distract me.”
You get the idea.
Canned assessments like these are something we originally create as a kind of shorthand. A way to better understand ourselves or to describe ourselves to others. But over time, they become more like personal mythology. And myths die hard.
After all, not all darlings are good darlings, right? They don’t always serve us well and can sometimes serve us poorly. Some memories or insights are like the dusty old relics crowding the aisles of an antique shop, coloring the decisions we make and the way we see ourselves. Reinforcing limiting beliefs or preventing new beliefs from taking root. Cluttering our minds.
This happens with my laptop sometimes too.
When I first bought it a few years ago, there were hardly any programs on it. But over time, I’ve installed all kinds of software, some of which I don’t even use anymore, but which is still running in the background, taxing the CPU and eating up its “working memory.” As a result, everything runs more slowly than it should, including the programs I rely on most. Based on past experience, I know that if I don’t clean house and uninstall some of these old programs, the laptop will start to randomly shut itself down. Maybe it will start giving me The Blue Screen of Death. Or worse, it may crash entirely.
The same goes for us. Are there parts of our story that we’re holding onto that don’t serve us anymore? Maybe some darlings we’re romanticizing that are slowing us down, keeping us from devoting more energy to our mission, or living up to our full potential?
We can’t simply “uninstall” or “delete” old memories of course, good or bad. Nor can we completely forget them. Nor should we want to. But like those compelling bits of dialogue and extraneous plot points that writers have to “kill” before they reach the final draft that’s ready for the world, we can choose to file them away, out of sight, to be mulled over at a time of our choosing.
By not allowing these well-crafted “darlings” that have nagged at us for so long to be part of the “Story of Me” that we’re telling and living now, we can move our narrative forward in ways that better serve not only ourselves, but others.
Randy, You give us much to ponder.
Great article Randy. Constantly reviewing what is and isn’t working and making the necessary adjustments is something I have done professionally for years. It took me much longer to start doing it in my personal life. Purging the old beliefs, attitudes and actions that I thought once served me has brought peace of mind.
To continue your analogy, Randy, this is what an editor/ a therapist(mentor/coach) is for. I can tell you 15 stories about other people’s darlings, but it is darn difficult to center in on my own.
That said, I think there are two different phenomena playing with our internal darlings: One is when we tell ourselves a story and let that become an excuse for whatever we want to excuse. The other is the Eureka story where finding a reasonable explanation – it doesn’t even need to be “the truth” – allows us to move on. The thing gets put to rest and we need not expense more energy on thinking about the why explained by the story.
Interesting. You;re the second person this week who has mentioned the Stephen King book on writing. I am just finishing up a gargantuan screen story and am finding that I had written way to many ‘darlings’ into it. So once I finished the draft, it’s out with the axe.