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Though I have been hearing (or rather reading) it a lot lately in many venues, it was a little odd — even a bit unsettling — to read it in the New York Times:

My favorite part of writing is taking stuff out. “In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” William Faulkner famously wrote, suggesting that the process of self-editing requires stoicism and the suppression of a natural affection. Samuel Johnson said something similar: “Read over your compositions and, wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

The author was the novelist and story writer Pamela Ehrens, and her Times piece, called “The Joys of Trimming,” appeared in a series about the craft of writing. Ehrens does not mind killing her darlings; she likes writing stuff and then taking stuff out of it: “I feel a rush that is a bit like being airborne. For every word I cut, I seem to have more space between my ribs, more lung capacity. I feel simpler and calmer, my head pleasantly lighter.” When an editor takes out still more stuff she is even better pleased: “I love editors who get rid of things.”

Ehrens is perhaps being a bit facetiously blithe here, though I don’t doubt that she proceeds as she says she does in writing. And certainly her sense that major surgery and rehab are essential to any piece of good writing is common, practically universal, even as advice on how to write has itself become universal. The way to write, the beginner is told, is just to write: Don’t “overthink,” don’t question yourself, just spill it out, put down whatever, produce a large mass of something or other, and then go through it, find its core, groom it, go over it with your writing group or mentor or mentrix. What remains after this process is the best the piece can be.

As a writer who has taught creative writing for quite a while, I ponder this program and its rationale. Is it offered to beginning writers by experienced ones — or to students by teachers — because it is what inexperienced writers are likely to do anyway or because those teachers truly think it’s the best way to proceed? Did the advice arise with the advent of the word processor, with which a mass of words can be easily and swiftly produced, then trimmed and plumped without having to be laboriously retyped or recopied, as it did back when I began? Do I think it’s terrible advice because it is, or is it simply a way to write that I can’t use, though it’s sort of perfectly all right?

And how are those striving to write well to understand that alarming phrase kill all your darlings? Why is it expected, even fated, that writers will, at first go, produce overwrought or merely ornamental stuff, specious self-indulgence, big words, and will consider it all precious as they write, and even as they first read over what they have written? I would suppose that we like the things we like because we think they’re good. If we cherish things that are not good, mistaken, fatuous, jejune, how are we to learn to hate them instead? If we can’t tell good writing from bad, might we in our rush to kill all our darlings risk beheading our only valuable bits of expression or insight?

Pamela Ehrens, like many who cite the phrase, attributes it to William Faulkner, who famously did not write it. The book-sharing site Goodreads (which Ehrens’s piece on the Times website links to) credits him with the “Quotable Quote,” which is liked there by 601 people as of this writing, certainly far fewer than the total number of people who like it. Of course the Web is rife with quotes misattributed to random famous personages or just made up. Faulkner, though, seems like an odd one for this remark, since a regular Faulkner reader might think he never once killed a darling or any other child of his pen. Indeed, though Google Books and other modes of search reveal that Faulkner occasionally used the words kill and murder and (less often) darling, he doesn’t seem to have ever used them together with this exact import.

The quote from Samuel Johnson that Ehrens also deploys is indeed his, and may reflect his practice (though I don’t know that it can be shown to have been, and he certainly was a rapid and flawless composer of sentences, in talk as well as ink). The occasion for the remark was Boswell’s recommending the writing of the Scots historian William Robertson and getting the dismissive reply from Johnson that “Robertson is like a man who has packed gold in wool: the wool takes up more room than the gold.” Johnson attributes the advice that he’d like to give Robertson — read over your compositions and strike out what you think particularly fine — to an unnamed “old tutor of a college,” who once said it to a pupil. Boswell thought Johnson was just being demeaning about Scots writers.

Kill your darlings is far more often quoted than Boswell quoting Johnson quoting the old college tutor, maybe because it sounds so hard-headed and absolute. It also has more sources. Stephen King certainly said, “[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings,” though he doesn’t claim the formula as his own, and it would seem — from both the obvious schadenfreude of his version and the evidence of his fiction — that he doesn’t mean the advice for himself. Elsewhere Flaubert (interestingly), Hemingway (reasonably), and Nabokov (irrationally) get the credit.

It actually proves fairly easy to locate the true originator of the phrase. It was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), a man of letters now largely forgotten except for his long editorship of the Oxford Book of English Verse. He offered his vade mecum, a version of Johnson’s, in a 1914 lecture titled “On Style”: “[I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’ ”

Not many writing-advice givers credit Quiller-Couch as opposed to Faulkner, Twain, Flaubert, or “someone,” for the obvious reason that no one’s heard of him (he wrote under the clever pen name “Q”). It’s the general case that misattributed quotes are given to persons more interesting than their actual originators. But there’s another problem with Q as a source text, a problem that Roy Blount Jr., in his delightful word-book Alphabet Juice, is the only one (so far as my research has gone) to have brought forward.

Blount first noticed that murder your darlings is itself one: “[D]on’t you suspect that after rejecting Kill your pets as too mean and Eliminate your sweeties as ambiguous, then hitting, bingo, upon Murder your darlings — don’t you suspect that he thought to himself, Q, you are cooking?” Blount then returned to the original 1914 lecture to learn the context of the famed directive, and found it not as we might think. After comparing Art and Science for a couple of paragraphs, Q proceeds thus: “Is it possible, Gentlemen, that you can have read one, two, three or more of the acknowledged masterpieces of literature without having it borne in on you that they are great because they are alive, and traffic not with cold celestial certainties, but with men’s hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and vanity of human endeavour, the transience of beauty, the capricious, uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer; all that amuses or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject which yet must be home for a while, the anchorage of our hearts?”

Did Q really not perceive what he had done here, before sending it to the printer? Was he shamelessly enamored of its beauties? Unable to cut one of two adjectives with negligible difference in meaning (“capricious, uncertain”) or to resist an assonance (“gladdens, saddens, maddens”), and boldly running the risk of being “buried under his own ornaments” as Johnson said of Robertson? If the inventor of the phrase can’t murder his own darlings, I don’t see how others can be expected to.

There is also a sense of recursive paradox in the advice, which intensifies the more ruthlessly it is insisted on. If we kill our beloved excesses, then what we have left will be the stuff we are justly proud of — the real darlings. But the rule is to kill all the darlings, and so these will have to go, too, and so on through all that remains. This consequence does not faze Brenda Coulter, a writer of inspirational romances, who tells her readers how to kill darlings “without remorse”: Turn on your word processor’s highlighter, she says, and mark every scene “absolutely essential” to your story. Eliminate the rest. Then do it again, and then a third time. Now you’re down to cutting single words and sentences: “It’s all pretty painless by that time.”

It seems that niche writers who invite intimacy with their readers are the most hard-hearted when asked for writing help. Coulter’s blog is titled No rules. Just write. Perhaps her slimming program is best suited to the pile-it-up writing that results from directives like that. If we take the highlighter to a different sort of fiction we get possibly unwanted results. The famous last paragraph of James Joyce’s story “The Dead”:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

How proud Joyce must have been when he’d written this! We can feel his confidence in his own power as we read, and that confidence and that power — the confidence to fly away in that fashion, and the power to bring it off — infuse our reading of it. If anything can count as a writer’s darling, surely this is it. Absolutely essential to the story? No. Flowery, wordy, fancy (“falling faintly — faintly falling”)? So kill it. Story ends: “It had begun to snow again.”

People need hints about how to write, and other people need to supply them. In my search for the sources of the darlings advice, I came, deep down in the Google selections, on another instance in the Times, this one a post on the Opinionator blog by the non-fiction writer Amy Klein. Klein claims that tags like kill your darlings and show, don’t tell are writing-workshop lingo that must be reevaluated and understood as masking what the group really wants to tell you, which is often invidious or personal: I hate this story about these people. Nevertheless she wants us to know how much she loves her writing group. Who would take the time to help you endlessly wrestle with your work but those for whom you’ll do the same?

I don’t think the longing to express something in words and a general bafflement about how to do it accounts for the proliferation of these gnomic instructions. Nor is it solely the much-examined rise of Creative Writing as an academic endeavor that produces MFA candidates who after winning a master’s degree go on to teach others to show and not tell. A larger reason is that writing — of fiction, “creative non-fiction,” and memoir — has become something like a collaborative process in this century, as have other activities once done singly and by the seat of one’s personal pants (raising children, dressing for work, liking and disliking things). Before we were able to “reach out” as easily as we now can to others we think can help us, or at least echo our needs, learning to write — insofar as it is learned — was a matter of learning to read, not just for pleasure and transcendence and wisdom, but as a writer. It meant a conscious and solitary submission to teachers who — as Plato said about books — can be asked questions but won’t answer.

I don’t know how the teaching of writing can best be done, or even if I or anyone really does teach it. I know from years of experience that among my students the very best writers of fiction (or at least those who show the greatest promise) are often the ones who have the least idea of how they went about writing what they wrote, and despite the gratitude they might express for my guidance and advice, are the ones who are the least likely to apply it.

So perhaps our teaching (online and off) should be seen — and is generally taken — not as the passing of truths de haut en bas but as just one part of a fruitful or at least hopeful collaboration. Perhaps the reiterated maxims that teachers of Creative Writing give to students, and writing-group participants to one another — show, don’t tell; kill all your darlings; just write; omit needless words — aren’t simply useless, contradictory, wrong, or unfollowable in practice. If they are so endlessly repeated, maybe it’s because they really do work: not as truths, perhaps, but as puzzles like those that Zen masters give students to break open their minds with insoluble and recursive paradox. In many Zen fables the teacher is as wrong about the nature of things — and as liable to chastisement by reality — as is the novice at his feet. The same relation surely obtains between the teacher of or guide to writing, the baffled aspirant, and a world that words can never be made to wholly contain.

Two neighboring Zen temples each had a child student. Every morning, one of the children went to the market for vegetables. On her way one day, she met the other child.

“Where are you going?” he asked her.

“I am going wherever my feet go,” she answered.

This reply was puzzling, and the student asked his teacher for help.

“Tomorrow,” the teacher told him, “when you meet that child, ask the same question. You’ll get the same answer. Then you ask, ‘If you had no feet, where would you be going?’ That’ll fix her.”

When he met the other child the next morning, he asked her, “Where are you going?”

“I’m going wherever the wind blows,” she said.

The boy went back to his teacher. “Well,” the teacher said, “how about asking where she’s going if there is no wind?”

The next day he met the girl again on the path. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“I’m going to the market to buy vegetables,” she said.

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