Kill your Darlings
Photo by Nicolas Raymond
When Kevin Forest Moreau was 7 years old, he dreamed of being an astronaut and president of the United States—at the same time. Needless to say, his long career as a writer (New Orleans for Dummies), editor (the late Atlanta newsweekly The Sunday Paper) and pop-culture know-it-all (a consultant for the inaugural VH1 Rock Honors)—can only be viewed a dismal failure. He sometimes does the Twitter (@kfmoreau) and chronicles the end of the world at www.islandofkevinmoreau.com.
To create, you must destroy.
I’m not certain who first said that. I want to say Nietzsche, although partly that’s just because it’s a fun word to say. (Try it. You know you want to. “NEET-sssh-chee.”) The Internet tells me it was Josef Stalin, but you can’t always trust what you read on the Internet. (Well, except for this, obviously.)
Anyway, my first exposure to this concept came in a song called “Theme Song” by the band Too Much Joy. The song isn’t particularly relevant to what I’m here to discuss, but those words have stuck with me through the years, even though the lesson they’re begging to impart had to be learned the hard way. To create, you must destroy.
As I write this, I’m in the final stretch of editing a mystery novel I finished writing last year. I remember last year the way a man crawling through the desert looks back on the last time he had a glass of water: with a fondness tinged by nostalgia. I thought that I had finally crossed the finish line of a hellish 100-mile foot race, and I patted myself on the back so often I ended up with a dislocated shoulder. “I just finished writing a book!” I said to everyone within earshot, grinning like the total idiot I was. Although I’d been a professional writer and editor for 15 years by that point, I’d temporarily blinded myself to the most obvious truth of my profession: I hadn’t finished anything. In fact, my job had only just begun.
Writing, as it turns out, is not about dreaming up fantastic new worlds, breathing life into fascinating characters or honing razor-sharp dialogue that will alter the way people speak forever after. All of that stuff is the salad course. Writing—the true act of writing; the entrée, if you will—is all about the editing. And the same is true for other disciplines, as well.
See, here’s the bitter truth about creation: Your first attempt at making something out of nothing is not going to yield the Mona Lisa or The Tempest or The Empire Strikes Back. Unless you’re the fortunate one in several million who never makes a mistake, your first stab at creation is very likely going to be a mess. A gorgeous, elegant, insightful mess, if you’re lucky, with little sparkly bits of genius flashing here and there like lightning bugs at dusk—but a mess, nonetheless.
It may not be a hot mess like that one bisexual redhead you pined for in the eleventh grade. It may not be a train wreck kind of mess, like Lindsay Lohan’s career. It may not be a muddy vortex of a mess, like your little brother’s room when you were growing up. It may not even be an obvious mess at all. And in fact, to most eyes, it will appear to be damn near perfect. Your friends will congratulate you. Your girlfriend will say nice things about it. Your mother will frame it and hang it on the wall in the shrine that used to be your bedroom, and write letters to the newspaper and her local congressman demanding that everyone who doesn’t read it immediately be branded a Communist and thrown under the jail.
But if you have anything of the true artist in you at all, you’ll know better. Because all you’re going to see are the bits that don’t work, the pieces that don’t fit together, the sticky tangles that shoot out from the main body at awkward angles like broken limbs. The hinted-at subplots that lead nowhere, the red herrings that are never adequately explained away, the scenes that don’t move the plot forward one. single. inch.
And here’s the heartbreaking thing about it all: invariably, those scenes are going to be the ones nearest and dearest to your heart, crackling with an electricity that leaps off the page.
In the first draft of my novel, there were a couple of characters who arrived out of nowhere, beautifully sketched and artfully defined like gifts from the muse. These characters led my protagonist and his friends into situations fraught with tension and danger. One, a worn-out roughneck named Harlan, took my protagonist to a biker bar in search of a woman known for hanging out with biker gangs. I researched motorcycles and motorcycle clubs and criminal motorcycle gangs, and I labored over that scene in the biker bar, filled it with an escalating sense of unease that finally exploded into violence. And then the story revealed to me that it had no room for biker bars, biker gangs or even poor old Harlan.
Another character, an aging stripper named Delilah, also got the axe—even after my mentor, a published author of some renown, told me she was the most fully realized character in the whole damn book. It slowly dawned on me that the story could leap from plot point A to plot point B much faster and more efficiently by skipping over Delilah’s scene. The only reason the scene existed was to show off what a well-written scene it was. So, painful as it was, I had to hand Delilah her pink slip and ask her not to sob on her way out the door.
Whether you’re writing a story or a song, painting an image or constructing a trick, your goal isn’t to show off how talented you think you are. At least, it shouldn’t be. The goal is to make your creation the best it can be. And that means checking your ego at the door, rolling up your sleeves, and stripping that sucker of everything—and I do mean everything—that keeps it from being perfect.
And don’t dwell on it afterward, either. You neatly excise that bugger and drop it into a file. Because one day, you will find a use for it. Harlan the Outlaw Biker and Delilah the Aging Stripper will be back, when I find myself telling stories that won’t work without them—stories that cry out for them.
So you line that sucker up in your sights and you pull the trigger without so much as a twitch. It’s an unpleasant business, but it’s got to be done, and best to do it quick and clean. Keep your arm straight, your head high and your vision true. Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings.