Monday, January 11, 2010

Oh, My Darlin'.

There are plenty of things I don't understand about writing. More than just the vampire thing. There's the chicken soup thing. If I'm up to my ears in fail, why do I want to read about people who have escaped are doing great? That's depressing. What I really don't understand is one of the hoariest old chestnuts in all of writing instruction:

Kill Your Darlings.

This is from Faulkner. Much as I love him (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying), I also think he can be wrong (Absalom, Absalom!). Samuel Johnson said something similar, but the number of people who read him for pleasure has been falling off of late.

The idea, of course, is that if you write something really great, something that stands out against the background of the rest of the story, get rid of it. I suppose the theory is that the great bit will make the rest suffer by comparison. I guess.

I think it's the stupidest piece of advice in writing. Don't you wish I'd stop pulling my punches? Here's why: I read a lot and my memory sucks. I look at the shelf of books I have upstairs that I've read and there are a startling number I can't remember. Some, I couldn't tell you if the main character was male or female. At the end of the day, what I do remember are:

1. Great characters.
2. Great writing.

I want to emphasize that I might remember if the writing is all-great (rare), or I might remember that a line or two here or there is great (still tragically rare). But those great lines, the ones that get a tick mark in the margin and maybe a bent-down page, stick in the mind. Even mine. They are my darlings, and I'm keeping them.

That would have been an excellent closing line, but I have examples! I'm lucky at the moment, because both the print book I'm reading and the audio book I'm listening to (not at the same time) are terrific. I'm listening to Marilynne Robinson's Home and reading in print John Crowley's Little, Big.

Aside: If Marilynne Robinson didn't go to the Iowa Workshop I shall eat my iPod. And I'm fairly sure John Crowley read and enjoyed Susanna Clarke's epic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, another all-great book.

Neither Robinson nor Crowley ever killed a good darling. Their writing overflows with them. Here is one from Little, Big:

To his left and his right the road ran away down an avenue of horse-chestnuts heartbreakingly golden; the wind tore fortunes from them and scattered them spendthrift.

No bent-down page to find that one. I remembered the page number. A lavish bit of writing, isn't it? And it fits in the book. And that's the point. If that had cropped up in anything by Hemingway, it would have ground the read to a halt. Hemingway didn't use the language that way. Remember The Sun Also Rises? Remember the equivalent line from that one?

The trees were green.

No, I don't remember that page number.

The point is this: Know What You Are Writing. Are you writing a lavish, rich piece of prose? Are you busting out the fifty-dollar words? Or are you Hemingway, who would find the average prescription too florid? What is the voice of the piece?

Want to read a piece of writing that had no control over the complexity of the writing between one page and the next, one chapter and the next, one character and the next? A book with a supposedly simple bunch of people, uneducated, where suddenly you'd be listening to the most elevated bit of language because the writer had burst straight through the text and was sitting in the reader's lap? Yep, As I Lay Dying.

So much for Faulkner. Just stick to your guns. If you create a bit of good writing, even great writing, and you think it fits in your story, leave it. Unless someone you truly trust says it doesn't belong, keep it. It might be something that stays with someone forever.

To the day when everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts.


Rebecca said...

I really liked this post... And am totally liking this blog so far. Cheers!

~ rebecca.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Very kind!

KarenG said...

key words "and it fits in your story"--if not, then kill them.

Andrew said...

To thine own tone be true.


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