Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Kill your darlings"

Wasn't it Mark Twain who said that the first rule of a writer is to "kill your darlings"?

At the Chronicle, Rachel Toor has an essay called "Goodbye to All That" (one of my favorite titles, by the way, and taken from Robert Graves's autobiography) that gives similar advice. Here's a little of it, with the sentence that particularly struck me in bold:
In a passage that should elicit whoops of assent from his former colleagues at university presses, he [William Germano] gives advice on titles: "Avoid titles that quote literature (and especially avoid titles that use quotation marks to set off the borrowed words). Shun titles that insert punctuation in the middle of words (Re:Vision, De/Construction, and other once-new formulations that are tired now.) Avoid the academic double-whammy of an abstract title and a concrete subtitle separated by a colon."
. . . .

During a three-hour run with my friend Dean, he told me about his dissertation. A strong runner and Ironman triathlete, he slowed his pace so that I could keep up, and as we covered miles of trail ascending Stuart Peak, I asked him a barrage of questions.

By the time we'd climbed the hardest part, it was clear to me how he could revise his dissertation for publication. It would take a lot of work — an overhaul of the entire structure and some serious rethinking — but the ideas and the research could be shaped into a terrific book. It would mean saying goodbye to all the pages he had worked so hard on, and hello to a new project.


I've been thinking about that a lot as I work through the writing that I am doing right now and as I've been reading work by my students. It's easy to get carried away with your own thought processes, and the longer and more painful the process of writing a section is, the harder it is to think about tossing it out. Even if it's a section, an organizational scheme, or even an argument that fails to come together, it's still hard. Part of what struck me about what Toor was saying was the sense of excitement she felt--as an editor, someone disinterested but not uninterested--because she could see the phoenix in the ashes, so to speak, although the author can only see the ashes at that point. I'd like to think that that excitement is what I convey when I'm meeting students about their papers and explaining why they have to kill their darlings.

Of course, what makes this process possible and tolerable is knowing that earlier that day I'd had to kill my own darlings, so to speak, by jettisoning sections of painfully written text. I guess that's what gives us empathy as well as credibility with the students. Part of learning to write is learning to be, as much as possible, your own Rachel Toor to separate the phoenix and the ashes, because unlike a real phoenix, a piece of writing isn't going to rise by itself.

4 comments:

Cero said...

Actually this is something blogging really helped me with. I know, of course, that pages one cuts from project A can be saved for project B, and so on.

But the thing is, I was never a draft writer (before blogging). I'd think things out in notes or while walking, and then when I actually composed, it would be very near final copy. That is what made it so hard to cut.

When I blog, I try to write clearly, so I can be read. But I am also using the blog to think things out: it isn't intended as final copy of a paper text. So I write and then cut in happy abandon, and it's affected my "real" writing such that I can do it there, too, a lot more easily than before.

Horace said...

I am staring this phoenix/ashes thing right in the face. It's been almost five years since I defended, and with new research published, a lot more thinking about the project, and most recently, teaching a class on the topic, I am coming to understand more and more that a simple re-framing of the chapters is not going to work. I think I'm going to have to sit down and start with a new document, copying and pasting sections from the diss. as approporiate, but still working from the ground up again.

This doesn't look fun.

undine said...

cero, I kept thinking that the blog would do this, but it hasn't for me so far. But you have a separate professional blog, too, don't you, where you work out ideas you're writing about?

Horace, at least you have diss. sections that you can use for this, even if you have to reframe everything. It's discouraging, though. I had a day a few months back when I thought I had a whole new--well, practically a book--but the new one just wasn't as viable as the old one. Maybe nothing is wasted, though; all that thinking has to count for something.

Cero said...

The professional blog is supposed to do that, but it seems in large part to be a place to archive bibliography and scraps of ideas. I've got class blogs, too, intended for use of students but which I think actually get used more by me - keeping track of them turns out to be a great and painless way to prepare (I fool myself into thinking I'm not working, I'm just blogging, but really I'm doing heavy prep). It really and truly is
the main blog that changed my way of writing, freed me somehow.