How I Learned to Kill My Darlings

William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” When I first heard that from my mentor, the late Andre Dubus Jr., I knew what he meant. Don’t show off! It’s about the story, not about you, the author. But this was easier said than done.

I’ve always been a pretty good story teller, the sort of person who can hold the attention of a group of people at a dinner table for four or five minutes spinning out one of my favorite tales. Perhaps that’s what led me to believe I could be a writer — the belief that all I had to do was to get these stories down on paper. But I quickly learned it isn’t as simple as that. First of all, good stories told to a group of friends don’t always hold up well as a standalone piece someone might read at bedtime or riding on the commuter train. Sometimes it’s the spirit of the gathering that makes these stories work best, a few bottles of wine and the inflected voice of the storyteller. By the same token, the story may be a stand-alone piece that falls flat or becomes an abstraction if it’s put into a the larger context of a novel. Let me give you an example…

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james-whitfield-thompson           lies-you-wanted-to-hear-cover

Column by James Whitfield Thomson, author of LIES YOU WANT TO HEAR
(Sourcebooks Landmark, Nov. 2013), chosen by public librarians for the November
list of LibraryReads, and Redbook magazine’s book of the month for November 2013.
James Whitfield Thomson grew up on the North Side of Pittsburgh and attended
Harvard College. After graduation, he served in the Navy as navigator of a supply
ship off the coast of Vietnam. You can find him at jameswhitfieldthomson.com.

 

 

My uncle Mike Drobezko, who was born and raised in Russia, was a coal miner in Western Pennsylvania. He and my Aunt Vaudie and their three children lived in company housing next to the mine. One day there was an explosion in the mine. I don’t know how many miners were killed or injured, but Mike and two pals were trapped. Mike told his friends not to worry, he knew the mine like contours of his own face. There was an abandoned shaft that went under the Allegheny River, which they could take and come out on the other side. As word of the explosion spread, and the families of the miners gathered at the entrance to mine to pray and follow the progress of the rescue effort. Meanwhile, it took Mike and his friends about six hours of digging and wading through chest-deep water, but they emerged from the mine on the other side of the river. None of the rescue workers had thought to look for any survivors there, and Mike and his friends they began walking up the road with their picks and shovels. As they approached the bridge that would take them back to their families, Mike noticed police cars and ambulances sitting on the bridge with their lights flashing and he suddenly got nervous. Ten years before he had jumped ship from a Russian freighter in Philadelphia; he had no papers, and he didn’t want the police officers asking him any questions. So he and his pals did what any God-fearing coal miners would do in that situation; they went to a saloon and got drunk. When Mike straggled home that evening my Aunt Vaudie fell to her knees and thanked the Lord. Neighbors heard the good news and started bringing food for the lucky man; then Vaudie put the kettles on the stove and filled up the copper bathtub. “Oh, that hot water felt so good,” Mike would say as he told the story. “But as soon as I got in the tub, that woman grabbed a broom and beat me like an old rug.”

I put that story in the mouth of an old coal miner at a funeral in my novel, but I ended up cutting it from the final draft. It was one of my darlings, but had little to do with my characters or the plot and it took too long to develop. While the reader might be amused by the story, it was a distraction. Not all distractions are necessarily verboten, but they must be used with great caution. I see this often in stories where the writer waxes into a long, lyrical description of the landscape, which does nothing but make us aware of his facility with language. So too when a writer uses a fifty-cent word. In that case, I would argue, it must be the only word that fits that sentence; otherwise, the obscure word pulls the reader away (usually to the dictionary) and interrupts the flow.

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Let me give you an example from another art form. No matter what role Jack Nicholson is playing, there always seems to be a point when he turns to the camera, cocks an eyebrow and gives us that irrepressible grin. In that moment we recognize him as Jack the actor, not the not the character he’s playing, and, at least for me, in that instant the spell of the movie is broken.

That grin is Jack’s darling — his way of winking at the audience. I suppose all artists do it from time to time, but I try to stop myself as much as I can. My goal is to keep my readers immersed in the story and the characters at hand, no side trips down into the mine no matter how entertaining that diversion may be.

 

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