For a little while now, I’ve had a mental argument going on against that commandment, “kill your darlings,” that goes from what the title of this essay says to “whoever said that must have been frustrated away from writing,” to “maybe Hemingway said it,” then to blaming Hemingway, then to wondering if I just have envy for whoever got famous enough to say that and have people notice. It can’t be that last one, I’m relieved to say, because I finally found out that, according to Slate, the quote got traced back to Arthur Quiller-Crouch. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have Quiller-Crouch envy. Yet.
It makes absolute sense, definitely, to me, when I parse it and try to get what everyone seems to mean by repeating it: if I’m writing something that I have a strong sense of attachment to, and it’s not working, I shouldn’t act like it’s working. Of course I shouldn’t. Shouldn’t I? It might not only get out as bad writing, and be seen by readers who will identify it as bad writing, polluting the stream of writing for everybody and possibly persuading people to not read any more of my writing, because it might be bad, but I might send a message to whatever sinful part of my subconscious cranked that crap out: bad writing is what I do now. Let all the darlings come swarming. Right?
Well, I don’t know. When I was doing a journal purge a few years ago, in the name of downsizing that really had this idea behind it, now that I look back, I went ahead and got rid of a set of sestinas that had come out during some journaling in 2004, in a library in Ireland. They were pretty incoherent, would probably not even yield linked pairs of words that I’d put anywhere else, since I hadn’t ever gotten into that mode, and the fact that I remembered one phrase from them—“pirogues of fog”—just made them seem potentially embarrassing. Really, that’s bad. No, it’s okay, that’s just bad writing. But, as I started to look back, maybe the day after the trash containing those journals went out, I wondered where that phrase came from. Somewhere. But I couldn’t read where anymore.
My high school English teacher was no Arthur Quiller-Crouch, but when I showed him a poem I wrote, he helped me tremendously, more than I could see until recently, by saying absolutely nothing to evaluate it, but simply telling me, “save everything you write.” That gets trickier since I’m a journaller, and a migrant one these days, but it still is doable, thankfully, and it’s one of my new goals—to hold onto all of these things, not out of hoarding or even for the possibility that some of them, someday, might be publishable though I don’t know it now. It’s that, well, any darlings in there are my darlings for a reason. So, I aspire to a no kill darling sanctuary.
Which begs the question (was that a darling way to put it?), what really makes that darling distinction? If I’m going to take a strict attitude with my writing, enough that I do cut a lot, revise repeatedly, and let only the best get into print, then what determines that? Am I really qualified to judge that? There’s an intuitive sense that comes, sometimes, with the writing, of what’s working and what’s not, but there are also things that come completely undone from that, and they may simply be pointing the way toward something new. And that urge to cut might come from fear, not even of what readers might see, but what I might see. So it goes back to the question, what does my writing have to say to me?
According to Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare was a darling-killer, in spite of his reputation for just writing perfect first drafts. And he would have taken my “pirogues of fog” journal right out of that Irish library and hurled it into Galway Bay, probably. But the different versions of Hamlet that have somehow been saved show changes like “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her” becoming “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba.” And there’s the fact that he chose to rewrite a play already done with a fairly similar plot, not long before, with the title character’s name so closely resembling the name of his son, who had died not so long before. And not for any of his audience members, but with some tenderness toward himself, what if he had let messy drafts pile up, then gone back to see what came from his grief, what different directions his writing took, away from the project, and maybe toward their own?
Maybe he did; I don’t know. Maybe he wrote a lot, grieved a lot, let even the darling parts of his grieving out on paper, and then got rid of it along with everything else autobiographical, except the will. Maybe I’m just lately coming to this idea that my writing has something to say to me, and everybody else knows that about their own, if it’s true for them. But if some part of my writing seems too precious, too sentimental, or too just plain something undefinably bad, maybe it needs to be asked, “Darling,” or, better, “darlin’, what’s going on with you?”
Chad Parmenter’s poems have won contests in Hotel Amerika and The Black Warrior Review, have appeared in The Best American Poetry, The Harvard Review, AGNI, and The Kenyon Review, and are forthcoming in Crazy Horse. His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo Press’s Snowbound Chapbook Contest and was published last November. His article on T. S. Eliot appeared in The Yeats-Eliot Review, and a paper based on the article has received the Fathman Award from the T. S. Eliot Society. He received his PhD from the University of Missouri. (updated 10/2016)