Those Damn Darlings

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-12-24 12:00:00 No comments

Nurture Your Darlings :: Matthew Buscemi

My advice to Aaron, and to all other writers, is not to kill your darlings, but to nurture them. That scene that you think is really awesome, try to make it the best it can possibly be. Don’t forgive its flaws just because you like it—you’re the author; make it better. What better motivator could one have for wanting a thing to be good than caring about it deeply?

I think the whole reason the cult of "kill your darlings" came about is as pushback against the kind of senselessly "expressive" writing that made self-indulgence and obscurantism into the highest goals, instead of storytelling and narrative/artistic cohesion.

I like it when an author uses their talents and their inclinations to show me only the things they can show me in only the ways they can do so. (I never once get the impression Anne Tyler is showing off.) But I don't like it when they do this just to fill the page, to prove to me they have Writerly Chops. Nobody has to prove any of that to me. The only thing I ask of them is to make me believe in what they have to offer.

Thing is, only the author can really answer for themselves when they are reaching for something, and when they are just showboating -- trying to prove to people they're the real deal who'll one day be taught in school, not one of those nasty hacks who evaporate leaving not even their royalty statements behind. You need to be honest with yourself in a way that isn't really teachable, but can only be picked up by contact with good examples.

Beautiful language is nice, but too easy. I am more impressed with authors who are distillers of observation than wranglers of language -- that is, when what it is they see and understand drives the choices they make to be beautiful with their words, rather than just the impulse to "write beautifully".

If "kill your darlings" means anything valid, I guess it means, "Don't let beautiful writing lead you by the nose." Find something worth shedding the light of truth on first, and then find a memorable way to throw that light.

When I was in college I had two creative writing teachers -- one whom I managed to learn a great deal from even though he was actually not a very good teacher, and another who was a great teacher and a great model for how to get students to support each other. One of the lessons-by-accident Teacher A imparted was when he gave one his students a lecture that amounted to: "How can you want to be a great writer when you've barely lived through anything worth writing about?" Kernel of truth pimentoed into a fat nugget of bullshit: it's more than a little mean-spirited to say that to someone who's barely even into their twenties. But again, kernel of truth: find what lies behind the words first. It's out there if you look for it; it's just that many of us train our expression more aggressively than our observation.

I hate sounding like I am the enemy of beauty, even when I have my own reasons for thinking I could be. "All beauty is our enemy", Genesis P. Orridge wrote once, out of the belief that conventionalized ideas of beauty were most often used to hide the spiritual ugliness of our lives, not used to encourage us to also create beauty in our own way. If it meant choosing between beauty and sincerity, or beauty and truth, Gen opted for sincerity/truth first; the last thing Gen wanted to be accused of was lying to the audience, of spinning some pretty illusion that existed only to sustain other, uglier illusions. Hence COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle, all aimed at confounding and throwing off expectations and intentions. The downside of this philosophy is that it leads too readily to a cult of compulsive ugliness, of rubbing-the-nose-in-it, where the crueler something is the more true it also is.

The trick is to see where beauty and the intoxication of language have their place. Not long ago I read The House That Jack Built, a series of lectures poet Jack Spicer gave shortly before his death of alcoholism. I am fond of Spicer's work and evangelize for it where I can. Spicer was big on the idea of making yourself into something that just receives transmissions, as it were -- about finding something spontaneous and channeling that. For poetry, this makes sense in a way it does not for prose. But even poetry's sorceries need to conjure correctly. Good poetry brings in the transmissions with fidelity; even the things that seem obscure are easy to understand as part of the transmission. Bad poetry works like those horrible "concert hall" settings they put in radio receivers, which sound less like a concert hall and more like someone playing the radio at the wrong end of a drainpipe. (Not for nothing are they called, both in poetry and home theater equipment, "effects".)

Write as beautifully as you can, but only because you have truth pushing the beauty, and because in the end you can leave the beauty behind in favor of the truth. What we are trying to kill is not our darlings, but our own preciousness and insincerity, wherever it resides and however it manifests.

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