Murder Your Darlings

Seth Fried

“Murder your darlings,” is a popular piece of writing advice that is often attributed to William Faulkner, but which can actually be traced back to the English writer and surname collector Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Of course, this expression is not meant to suggest that literally killing the people you care about will make you a better writer. If that were the case, the novels of William Burroughs wouldn’t be complete gibberish. Rather, it is a metaphor for how you should behave toward your writing while you are revising it. The idea is to proceed objectively and without sentiment. Just like you would if you were to kill a loved one.

For example, let’s say you wrote a poem that is supposed to be about a sunset. Throughout you use words like “yellow” and “orange” so that nobody could ever look at your poem and say that it isn’t describing an absolute barnstormer of a sunset. However, once you turn your critical eye to the newly finished work, you notice that in the middle of your sunset epic there is an elaborate description of a moon landing that has nothing to do with the rest of the poem. To complicate matters further, the moon landing is your favorite part. It stretches on for pages in hard-won verse that took you several months to tease out of your tortured soul. The way you describe the astronaut’s helmet alone is enough to make a thousand coma victims spring from their hospital beds and all just start grinding on one another.

Figure 1: A sunset that has not yet been processed into a poem.

Nevertheless, this is where that old maxim comes into play. You must murder your moon landing description. If it helps, picture yourself as a powerful king. The queen (your brain) has just given birth to a child (moon landing description). You are waiting outside her chamber deep in thought when the queen’s servants (neurons, I guess) carry the swaddled moon landing description out to you. It looks up at you sweetly and says, “Da-da?”  But even in this touching moment, it is crucial to the integrity of your poem about a sunset that you stand firm. You must order your guards to seize the moon landing description, throw it into a ravine, and take turns shooting poison arrows at it. Then you can sit on your throne drinking port and stroking your humongous beard while up in her chamber your brain queen wails bitterly and curses the day that you ever signed up for that creative writing workshop at the community center.

This can be difficult advice to follow. Even brilliant writers occasionally have trouble murdering their darlings. A famous example from contemporary literature is Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, which suffers greatly under the weight of McCarthy’s constant classic rock references. Those otherwise flawless books are interrupted again and again by anachronistic asides about how the band Deep Purple, “totally rules.” Likewise, if you were to remove all the digressions about professional wrestling from the work of Edith Pearlman, most of her stories would only be a few paragraphs long.

These are both clear instances of writers who allowed their passions outside of writing to get in the way of their craft, which is something I have struggled with in my own work. Because while first and foremost I see myself as a writer and sexual healer, the fact is that I am also the proud owner of several iguanas. And so, whether I am writing a piece of fiction set in Victorian England or in a village of priapic slime cannibals on the planet Kremlak 8, I will always feel that same urge to fill my work with long, pointless descriptions of basic iguana care. But no matter what my natural inclinations may be, I know that I must never compromise the integrity of any given piece of writing on account of my role as an iguana parent. If I’m writing a scene in which one of the Viscosity Lords of Kremlak 8 sentences my protagonist to death by means of a brutal slime spanking, it wouldn’t make any sense if I were suddenly to launch into a description of my recipe for a cricket hot toddy, which, by the way, is a great home remedy if your iguana has an upper respiratory infection.

Figure 2: FYI

Whether you’re working on a poem, a short story, or a column for Tin House’s website, it is essential that you put aside all other considerations and focus on the internal rhythms of the writing itself. Once a project has begun to take on a life of its own, you must proceed with honesty and humility, eschewing all petty biases and superficial interests in order to tend to the needs of your writing without distraction, just as if it were an iguana with an upper respiratory infection… Speaking of which, when you do give your iguana a hot toddy, you should actually make sure that the water is more warm than hot. My eldest, Quentin, burnt her tongue on a toddy about eighteen months ago and I still haven’t forgiven myself. It happened the same week that her favorite climbing stick broke and she really slipped into a funk for a while there. Our vet upped her dosage of lizard Prozac, but, I mean, you try getting your iguana to take her lizard Prozac when she’s got a burnt tongue. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that as a writer it’s important to never lose sight of the fact that raising iguanas is a huge responsibility.

Seth Fried’s short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Vice, and have been anthologized in The Better of McSweeney’s, Volume 2 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV: The Best of the Small Presses. His debut short story collection, The Great Frustration, was published by Soft Skull Press.