You first heard the expression from an individual with whom you’d already begun to have a stormy relationship. Although the expression did have what you considered a sound premise, you did not begin to pay it the attention it deserved until your discovery that F. Scott Fitzgerald uttered the expression well before the individual from whom you first heard it.
The expression is directed to all writers. “Kill your darlings.” By this, Fitzgerald and, to be as fair as possible, the individual from you first heard the injunction mean to rid one’s sought-after effects, observations, figures of speech, ironic comparisons and the like that have more to do with demonstrating one’s own brilliance, rather than illustrating some key point or dramatic theme.
You could go so far as to make a general rule out of the observation that such tropes and figures have the opposite effect of enhancing the story or supplying by indirection some vital dramatic information.
Your darlings gravitate toward long, sinuous sentences. Your practice is to allow them free rein as you pursue early drafts, going so far as to see how many semicolons you can add to the cadence as well as the vagrant clauses and those locutions bordering on redundancy, as though this were some game.
When he was still giving his daily workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference, Barnaby Conrad enjoyed assigning an exercise in which the goal was to produce a sentence no less than five hundred words in length. This proves to be a challenge and a worthwhile exercise, wrapped in the same package. As you follow its phrases, clauses, and slithering through verb tense progression, you become aware of nuances beyond the mere fact of a beat elapsing, an event performed, a reaction made to a psychological vector, which actors and many writers refer to as responding to dramatic stimuli.
On any number of occasions, you’ve heard Fanny Flagg attribute Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café to her indulging the five-hundred-word sentence at the occasion of her first Conference attendance. Working to keep a sentence alive for over five hundred words seems a good way to lose sight of darlings, which might want to creep in, uninvited.
Most of the darlings you’ve seen or dreamed up yourself belong to a kind of description glorying in its own brilliance, a self-conscious attempt to demonstrate some recondite fact or human trait.
The phrase is not meant—you believe—to discourage originality, although you do have to admit, in a manner not unlike the circuit court judge who claimed he did not know how to define pornography but surely knew it when he saw it, how easy it is for you to detect originality in your work and in the work of others. You also believe you are supposed to recognize originality because you enjoy such exquisite taste, which tends to bring the discussion back around to darlings and their relationship to demonstrating one’s erudition, sensitivity, even compassion.
A fun part of revising any work comes when you work up a good head of steam, then plunge through a draft as though a Cossack on a stolen horse, scimitar waving in all directions as the darlings fall in your wake. They were not needed. You could push your luck on this to say embellishments are distractions; a successful story does not need darlings to give it stature and resonance when, in fact, a story with a weak spine or scoliosis needs a darling or two to distract from the fact of its inherent need for some support.
Darlings call attention to the author, when in fact the author should be pointing the way to the characters, their plight, and the manner in which they address the problems besetting them. This is the function of story, last time you looked. A particular aid comes to you in the form of narratives read at gatherings. When a number of individuals compliment you on your reading, then call forth a phrase or two of particular eloquence or beauty or grace—you see how easy it is to become seduced by such glorious adjectives? —then you darlings have taken up squatter’s rights in your story or essay.
Does this mean a litany of straightforward declarative sentences? Does this mean no figurative language or hyperbole? Does this mean no striving for rhythm or cadence or the compressed essences of poetry? No such meaning is intended or implied. If you stand aside, allowing the characters you’ve chosen to present the material in dramatic fashion. The characters will be all too eager to bring forth their own darlings, eager to bring them into the writing game. Your own standard of judgment will center on whether you become jealous of your own characters for the easy fluidity of their darlings, whereas yours were so clunky and gauche.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Posted by Shelly Lowenkopf at 10:15 PM