Dispatches | April 12, 2004
Murder Your Darlings
[By Shaen Pogue]
The spring shortly after I turned nine, my dad—with the help of my elementary school art teacher—delimbed a third of the trees in our front yard. Recorded on an ancient VHS tape is a ten-minute long sweeping pan of the process—chainsaws whining, the blurred outline of another branch dropping, my dad (in close-up) passing a forearm over his sweat-beaded brow.
Other than the details my mind absorbs as memory after watching the tape, I have no recollection of the pruning affair. I’m sure if I did, I would recall being horrified by the whole procedure. Back then, flushed with a second grader’s idealism, I had plans to set the environmental world on its ear—little matter that I wouldn’t reach legal voting age for another decade. Naturally I had no knowledge of “corrective landscaping” and didn’t really care that, without strategic action, those tree limbs—which overhung an evil grid of power lines—were in danger of catching the whole of Madison County on fire.
Flash forward approximately twelve years. I’ve all but forgotten even the fabricated memories of that spring day, watching my father work in our yard. In my last semester at Stephens College, I’m in the midst of tackling my capstone project—a stubborn novella wavering between the respectable genres of short fiction and the lengthier novel. I sit at my desk, contemplating the bleak question of revision. The professors on my committee have sagely suggested cutting several of the scenes I’m most in love with, and I’m racking my brain to figure out a way to revise without really revising. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to delete all the gem-of-a-line, Pulitzer-Prize winning fragments (I feel certain there are many) scattered in a handful of questionable scenes throughout the story. It would be a true crime—perhaps the best sentences I will ever write, in the trash.
So what do tree pruning and a senior graduation requirement have in common? Framed within the context of this editorial, it’s obvious, but it took me over twenty years to figure out the link. Until recently, I thought the most important step in writing was the process of creation—that mystical period where, to quote the late Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, the writer becomes a “little god”—and granted, it is integral. With no beginning, moving forward is impossible. However, in my youthful naïveté (an enormous amount of which, as I write this, I’m aware I still retain), I overlooked the possibility for the existence of an equal power—the power of revision.
F. Scott Fitzgerald knew; he granted writers the authority of a hired gun with his advice: don’t be afraid to “murder your darlings.” It sounds brutal, but Fitzgerald’s mantra holds the key to revision and is one of the most effective tools in a writer’s arsenal. Its use can strengthen every aspect of a story, poem, or mulish novella—regulating the pace, sharpening the language, cementing the validity of the characters.
Apply the rules of horticulture. Think about writing being like a tree; the artist, more or less delicate than a chainsaw or pair of gardening shears. If a section of text is impeding the growth of a piece of writing as a whole, it must be cut back. Once that’s done, the piece has space to bloom. Any written thing is subject to revision—especially those lines that glint like diamonds, those pristine paragraphs that rest oh-so-uneasily in the middle of page three.
I learned about revision the hard way during my capstone semester. Only in the last month or so of it did I begin to understand the applicability of Fitzgerald’s phrase. For me, learning to cut away unproductive passages and redundant stanzas felt like throwing my firstborn off the Brooklyn Bridge; so, for too long, I resisted. When I finally found the courage to strike a paragraph or two, I discovered how freeing it was. Let me tell you, it’s all about murdering those darlings.
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