“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the wild world,” said the Rat.”And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or to me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going’ nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.”
-Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
I got a letter from the internet, and it goes like so:
“How can I learn to trust which of my creative instincts are solid and which are self-indulgent? I grew up with the “murder your darlings” advice. How far does that apply? On a personal note, that advice probably contributed heavily to how critical I am of my own work. If I’m proud of it, it must be a darling I didn’t murder and therefore awful.”
That’s sad. Anyway.
Friend, I too grew up having that notable quotable regurgitated into my face every time I went trawling for advice on how to make for to word right. I, being very stubborn, got agitated at it every single time because it sounds, as my twelve year old self might have put it, really freaking dumb.
Really, the Writing Self Help World’s #1 quote never stood too great a chance of taking root in my brain because I couldn’t source it to anyone I respected. When it wasn’t stated as unattributed proverb as old as time it was cited as originating from as many as five different authors, among them Faulkner and Wilde. That’s poor competition against Ray Bradbury, champion of creative joy and my child self’s literary idol.
“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”
“Anything self-conscious is lousy,” says my hero, and there’s not much more self-conscious than scraping your work for anything you particularly care about and throwing it away. This is advice I can get behind because its wisdom sings through all of Bradbury’s work; even his heartbreaking and bitter stories are full of love and vitality. Bradbury’s my Book Grandpa, I can put his face to those words, but who is this picky dick who’s telling us all to deny our tastes and our instincts? I had no fucking clue until today.
Turns out I should be calling Sir Picky Dick, because the originator of this tired adage is none other than Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who I shouldn’t have introduced with such chutzpah because no one knows who the fuck he is. Despite having written fiction, I see him listed most often as an essayist and critic, and though I’m tempted to say I don’t trust the Edwardian equivalent of a blogger to tell me how to write my fiction that seems unfair considering I don’t know the man’s output too well. So, here you go, ghost of Arthur Quiller-Couch, the credit you deserve for annoying me all these years:
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
-Sir Arthur Motherfucking Thomas Quiller-Goddamn-Couch, and don’t you forget it.
Now, as I said, I don’t know Q (his mercifully short pseudonym of choice) as well as I know Bradbury. His fiction was unavailable to me and his criticism is ancient and British, so we never really ‘talked.’ I do, however, have some idea of him that fits the radical self consciousness of his advice.
See, Q had a friend, and unlike Q there are people alive and using the internet who may have heard of this friend: Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind In the Willows, which you might know as a book or you might know as a vaguely inescapable cartoon movie, and based the character of Rat on his good friend Q. In a post better than this one, Stephen Wright describes Rat as:
a dreamer who will never act out his dreams, and in fact is stricken with a fever when he comes too close to doing so. He is someone who may fantasise about becoming a pirate, but is happier having a picnic.
Having never read the book, I drudged it up out of the murky Net Waters and discovered, wow, yeah, that’s exactly what goes down. Hell, even throughout Rat’s spellbound exchange with the seafaring rat he tempers the stranger’s tales by insisting how hard such a life must be. There’s no doubting that the sea rat’s life is trying and uncertain compared to Ratty’s – the marks of it are on him in his shabby clothes and wizened eyes – but he’s full of love for it. Having tried half a year at an Arcadian lifestyle where he had everything he could expect from life, he is returning again to the sea. The guy practically speaks in darlings waiting to be murdered when he tells Ratty about his life at sea, picking out the finest and proudest things and presenting them with spiced floridity. He recounts simple pleasures like sleeping in a stone cistern on a hot day in tones that make these things sound rich. He’s positivity in the face of flux and uncertainty, a lyrical rejection of stasis as ideal and risk as anathema. There’s something in that that appeals to Ratty, even if he ultimately hangs back in his comfy home by the river.
But what does this analysis of a fictional rodent settling for his staid British lifestyle have to do with your question about writing? Well, you could call it foreshadowing because I’m not about to tell you to slice all the warm wind and red fruit out of your work in the interest of achieving masculine Edwardian sparseness.
The idea that fiction, an undertaking so rooted in emotion and connection, could be served by eliminating the passages for which you feel the most is laughable to me. It stinks of condescension, it implies that your taste is innately and irredeemably terrible and must be purposely defied in the interest of creating anything halfway decent.
So much of writing, of creating, is intuitive. That’s part of what makes writing advice so difficult to give, which in turn is why notable quotables like this persist. They’re repeatable, they’re nasty enough to sound Real and True to our anxious brains. They forgive inaction by making action into this insurmountable Hell Mountain, which I think is what’s going on in your last sentence there. They’re seductive, but they disregard the intuitive nature of creative work. They’re built on a foundation of disdain, as if a creative person’s taste and intuition are actually worse than those of the average person.
I don’t know about you, but I had my fill of parroted writing advice a century out of date years ago. What does Ira Glass, who has the distinction of both being alive in the 21st century and returning a healthy set of Google results, have to say about creative intuition?
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”
This, this I like. Your taste is good, your intuition is good, and they’re why you’re here at all. You’re full of inborn whim and instinct, you’re discerning, you like things for reasons. What you need, what you and I and everyone else will always need, is more practical application. And you don’t get that picking and choosing what darling a dead man would murder. Self consciousness is sedentary, it stagnates you under the guise of protecting you. It’s fear, it’s risk-mitigation when the risk is as abstract as someone who wouldn’t have liked your work anyway not liking it.
I have no space in my life for the duplicity this advice requires. I would rather indulge myself and others like me, because that gives me direction. Redundancy and non sequitur can be weeded out. Things can be distilled, but they will be distilled by the retention of the things that sing loudest, the things that serve the story best. I have no time and no patience for any other directive.
“And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!”