Writers like to toss off Virginia Woolf’s admonishment to kill your darlings. I always thought it was advice to be ruthless in revision. And it is. But what this excellent piece of writing advice does not tell you is that identifying darlings can be difficult.
Darlings disguise themselves as really killer sentences. Really good. Like the best sentences you think you can ever write. Or if you are a poet, they are an amazing image, line break, or turn of phrase. But if they don’t fit what your work is trying to do? Kill them.
Darlings, sneaky things who clearly do not want to be killed, also hide in familiar text. They can be the perfectly normal competently written paragraph that never stands out because it is so innocuous. But if that perfectly ordinary piece of text does not go in the direction your work wants to go, kill that darling.
Darlings are often old. They are the grandmother sentences. They have always been there. They started the whole damn manuscript for fuck’s sake! Kill them. They are not really your grandmothers, they are just sentences. They do not fit the current direction of your work, and they must go.
How do you weed out the darlings?
I was on the phone with my very favorite second sister when she made the fateful error. “How is your book? Have you finished your book yet?”
My voice went chill. “What do you mean? Are you talking about our most recent murder mysteries [that we both read all the time] or do you mean the book book?”
“The book book. Hey, let’s both finish our books by this summer!”
Dearest, darlingest favoritest second sister [who reads this blog], somehow that’s not how this works. I keep thinking I’ve finished the book, or I’ve written all I can, when yet another person tells me it’s not ready, and I see what they mean.
I have an MFA in poetry. And minus one very very good graduate class in creative nonfiction, I’ve had to teach myself how to write a memoir. Poets just present you with three objects and allow the reader to draw her own conclusions. Evidently prose writers have to tell a story about those three objects.
I am not very good at telling stories. I get caught up in small details and backtrack and regress and tell it wrong anyway. Nevertheless she persisted.
Maybe if I got off the Internet. Maybe if I weren’t moving. Maybe if I didn’t have the attention span of a gnat. Maybe if I were better at physics. Maybe if all these things were true, my work would be done. But I doubt it.
I get jealous when I see other books published. But some of them are not thought through. Some of them have not found their form. Many of them sag in the middle.
But the only way out is through, and other such cliches. Wah, wah, wah, writing is hard.
What’s the worst question you’ve been asked?
I would like to finish my book this summer. (Yes I know I said that last summer. Carry on.) My residency taught me that I can cobble together a shitty chapter in a week and I can revise after that.
Twelve chapters, twelve weeks, three months. Two chapters are already revised. This might actually work if I started now. Today. Pedal to the medal. This is why I’ve gone from a weekly calendar to a monthly calendar. I can see the big picture and notice that June is ticking away and the chapters are still unwritten.
What’s your plan?
Well, there is some good news and some bad news. About a month ago I declared finis! and sent my MS out into the world. As I did my final skim/edit for fucked up tabs (thank you, Scrivener), I reflected that the book was not perfect, but I had done everything I could do. I had thought over every word and I hadn’t had a new idea for structure in a good six months or so.
I declared to the whole of my acquaintance that I was never writing again.
“You’re taking a break,” a friend said.
“No, I’m on strike. It sounds better.”
[Aside: Love me, love my melodrama.]
After a few weeks I take up freewriting. I have an article I’m thinking about. I do some reading and take some notes. I have a writing date with a friend at the library. I suddenly remember a book that is relevant to the article. I read a chapter and take more notes and write up some thoughts.
Then it happens. A whole new idea about structuring the damn book. And it’s so fucking obvious, I don’t know why I didn’t think about it years ago. I’m somewhere between ecstatic and heartbroken.
I babbled my new idea to my trusty reader. “Why didn’t I have this idea six months ago,” I wailed to her.
“I know,” she said. After months and years of revisions to her own novel she says, “I feel like I’m ready to start [the novel she just finished].”
When will it end?
Last night I dreamt I had to teach a class I had forgotten to plan. I didn’t know what the title of the class was, only that it was English 106. The class was full and I had no syllabus, and no idea what I was doing.
So I had them go around the room and introduce themselves and talk about how they felt about writing. I figured I was supposed to be teaching them some version of academic writing. Then when they started to complain that they didn’t know how they felt about writing, I made them freewrite and then go around the class and introduce themselves.
That was pretty good pedagogy for a dream.
August has always been my favorite month. This morning I was particularly sad to see it was gone already. I was supposed to finish my book this summer. School starts next week, and I am to be an adjunct clause. DP starts teaching today. I’d take a picture of him in his backpack outside the house for his first day, but no one wants to see that scowl. Today, for me, is the end of summer.
I am a quarter of the way through entering my final edits, and I’m pretty sure I’m losing my mind. I thought it was going to be done by the end of August, now I’m thinking the end of the week. I’ve cleared my editorial calendar for this week and by god it’s going to get done.
Yesterday I turned to my friend/housemate and said, “You know what? This sentence isn’t very good, but I don’t fucking care. It could be worse.” F/H giggled, which only encouraged me. “I can’t decide to not make every edit, but I’m not changing that one. So there.”
I don’t know if last night’s dream was about writing anxiety or teaching anxiety. But the message is that I can do it. What will I do without my faithful companion, the fucker that has been with me for six years? Probably I will die. But not today. Today I will fight.
What are you fighting?
It may have been quiet over the last week on my blog, but that sure isn’t the case in Fangs and Clause Central. My sister Cougar is literally in the house and we’ve been talking and fighting and talking while fighting. Evidently recreational fighting is the way of Clauses.
I wouldn’t know because I am abandoning the Clause family reunion to stay home and write. This goes against the very fabric of my family culture. (Yes, that’s probably a mixed metaphor. Yes, I’m too lazy to change it.)
It’s easy to say you’re going to finish a book over the summer, especially in April. But when August looms it becomes a little more tricky. I have been working mostly regularly on the book. A little bit most every weekday. But there have been visits and visitors, there has been burnout and panic. Sometimes I just want to spend my free time reading a book under my tree.
When are you done? I don’t know. But I know I’m reaching the end of my ability to make the MS better under my own steam. I could keep chipping away at it for the next 10 years, but I don’t want to. I want a finished book. So it’s nose and grindstone. It’s looking up all the tiny facts I have been glossing over. It’s develop the last little bits and polish, polish, polish.
When is it over?
A few weeks ago someone asked me for advice about her first time at a writing residency. I said that she need to do whatever she needed to do in order to write. Then I realized this was advice one could take home.
I need to finish the fucker. I’ve been working on it some or a lot every day, depending on my work schedule. Sometimes I take Saturday off, not because I’m a good Jew, but because I am exhausted by the book.
I had a friend with kids who rented an office without telling her husband to write in the mornings. She told him she was going into work early. My demands are fewer. I’ve been struggling to find the mental space to write. In order to do that I need to eat regularly, drink water, and take my psychotropic medications every day. So far, so good.
I need to ignore my spouse’s needs, when they are tangential to me. I need to stay on task. I need to write on paper, so the distracting Internet doesn’t reach out to hold me in its glittering arms. I don’t have to respond to texts or emails right away. I need to get my ass in the chair. I need to clear my calendar. I need to get the fuck off the Internet.
How do you get your brain in order?