How I stopped worrying and learned to murder my darlings

June 26, 2017

This is the first in an occasional series of essays on important writing and language books and the wisdom they offer.

One of the most famous bits of writing advice over the last century comes to us from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, known to his mates and university students as Q. (He should not be confused with the Quartermaster, played by actor Desmond Llewelyn, who provides 007 with those wonderful gadgets in the James Bond movies.)

“Murder your darlings,” Q ordered his students in 1914. He emphasized the imperative in italics: “Murder your darlings.

In America, the phrase has been misattributed (sometimes to Orwell) and misquoted as “Kill your babies.” Like other short sentences, “Murder your darlings” has the abrupt ring of truth, made more shocking because Q’s commandment bumps into a more famous one from Mt. Sinai, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Related Training: Help! for Writers

The eccentric Professor Q described exactly what he meant in a lecture “On Style,” the final chapter in his book “On the Art of Writing.” Before he offered his own definition of what writing style is, he argued for what style is not:

“Style,” he wrote, “…is not — can never be — extraneous ornament. You remember, maybe, the Persian lover…: how to convey his passion, he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this:…”

Freeze frame. As I read that passage, I imagine I am a university student at Cambridge in 1914 — not yet facing trench warfare in France — seeing only a world of language and letters before me, sitting on the edge of my chair in the lecture hall, a quill in my hand, waiting to record the wisdom of Professor Q:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

At the time that Q was delivering this message, the Oxford English Dictionary was chugging along toward its completion, so it seems only right to check the OED for a definition of darling. Derived from the Old English, it denotes a “dear one,” more broadly: “A person who is very dear to another; the object of one’s love; one dearly loved. Commonly used as a term of endearing address.”

For Q, then, it was not enough to murder a word, phrase, or passage that you like — or even love. His sadism required us to commit verbicide on the words we loved the most. Your darlings. In human terms, your favorite child, perhaps, your blushing bride, dare I say it, your sainted mother.

Here is where, for me, Q’s metaphor met real life.

Travel back with me to March 2017. A series of phone calls informs me that my alma mater, Providence College in Rhode Island, wants to give me an honorary degree: Doctor of Journalism. More significant, the president, Fr. Brian Shanley, asks me to deliver the commencement address in celebration of the college’s Centennial. I am struck dumb.

I had read speeches in front of big crowds before but nothing like this. My assignment was to inspire and delight 1,200 graduates and a stadium crowd numbering about 10,000. From the moment I said “yes” to the moment I delivered the goods on Sunday, May 21, my stomach hurt.

This felt like the greatest honor of my professional life with deep connections to family and friends. Over the next 100 days I thought of little else but that speech. Without committing a word to paper or screen, I spent a month in bed, in the shower, over coffee, behind the wheel, rehearsing the imagined text.

When friends asked, “How’s it going?” I would try out the occasional theme statement or funny line, forming a kind of ad hoc focus group.

I calculated that I could deliver about 2,000 words in 15 minutes. By early May, I had a first draft. It spread to 8,000 words. I did the math. I had prepared a speech that would take at least an hour to read. I knew my remarks would come near the end of the ceremony, with a huge audience butt-numb from more than two hours of sitting. I imagined I was on the stage of the Apollo Theater where they used to drag the bad performers in the talent show off with a hook. I would be like the guy who spoke for two hours at Gettysburg before Lincoln got his two minutes.

“You were selected,” said a friend, “because you wrote a book on short writing.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but it was a book about short writing.”

In examining my first draft, I loved everything I had written. What was I to do? A voice with a British accent invaded my thoughts: “Murder your darlings.” So that’s what I did. I murdered my mother.

Here is a less fatal version of my crime: I threw mama off the narrative train.

Before I confess the how and why of it, let me turn back to Q’s witness.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Notice that Q does not say “Don’t write down the words you love best.” He encourages us to write it down — almost as a way of purging it from our systems. Draft, purge, murder. Before you murder that darling, you must create it. The murder comes through revision. That reveals Q to be a “Putter-inner” rather than a “Taker-outter,” the type of writer who puts it all in during drafting, and begins ruthless cutting during revision.

In my 8,000-word first draft, I included eight references to my mom. Two things conspired to make my early draft so Mom-heavy. The first was my misunderstanding that the commencement was scheduled for Mother’s Day, when in fact it came a week later. The second was a ghost-like visit from mom in the form of a long-saved voicemail message. Mom had died in March of 2015 closing in on the age of 96. Looking for a lost message, I stumbled upon this saved one which began: “Hello, Roy. This is your mother. Remember me? The one who created you?”

She was inquiring about someone in the family, but out of that context, this felt like a visitation, and it led me to reflect upon my favorite Shirley Clark anecdotes, some which were pure entertainment, others that carried potential lessons for the graduate:

  • She was the first person in her large immigrant family to attend high school. I was the first to attend college.
  • She was my first editor. I had a crush on a teenage girl nicknamed “Angel Face.” She had those two words embroidered on her leather jacket. One day I watched her walk down the street and my mom pointed out to me that my dream girl had misspelled her name on her jacket. She had written Angle Face, not Angel Face, and I could never look at her the same way again.
  • Mom was a conservative Catholic church-lady, who could swear like a sailor who was the love child of a longshoreman and a gangsta rapper. I believe I once heard her use the f-word in a single sentence as four different parts of speech. When her assisted-living facility conducted a trivia contest and she could not quite remember the name of a famous Peter, Paul, and Mary song, she blurted: “Fuck the Magic Dragon.”
  • She learned at the age of 90 that her first-born granddaughter was gay. The next day she phoned to assure her that her only concern was Alison’s happiness. “We love you,” she repeated. “Your family loves you.”
  • She worked as a volunteer teacher’s aide at a parochial school and directed a play for first-grade children. At mom’s wake a lady named Marge told us of how her son Michael was cast in the lead role, even though he had a speech impediment. “Michael has a beautiful voice,” Shirley told the worried mother. “He’ll do fine.” Michael marked that experience as formative. The curse of his stuttering voice became a blessing, so that he was cast in other plays and asked to read the morning announcements over the intercom. That little boy grew to become a veteran, award-winning news anchor in Pittsburgh.

There was more, but you get it. I had a lot to work with. And I thought the mothers of the graduates would be pleased to hear me honor my own mom on this special day.

How do you turn an 8,000-word text into 2,000? I remembered the advice of writing coach Donald Murray, that “brevity comes from selection and not compression.”

So maybe I did not have to murder my mom; I could just select the best of her multiple personalities. Over days and then weeks, the text grew shorter and shorter. Eight references to mom became five, became three, became one. Became none.

Why did she have to make the ultimate sacrifice? Because the speech was not about her. Mom was nothing more than the scaffolding for my story, the parts I had to erect until I learned what I really wanted to say, what I thought the graduates really needed to hear.

The short version of my theme derived from the meaning of the name of the college, Providence, as expressed in an old religious saying I learned in eighth grade: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” I told them that out of high school I did not want to attend Providence, I wanted to go to Princeton, but did not get in.

“It turns out I was never, ever accepted to the place I thought I wanted to be, but in retrospect, I always wound up at the place I needed to be. Only looking over my shoulder could I see that pattern. Time after time, what I had experienced as disappointment became transformed into opportunity.”

To see how all this played out on the big day – including two short versions of Beatles songs — and a cameo appearance by my wife Karen — you can find me here on YouTube:

My brothers Ted and Vincent offered their opinions on what mom would have thought about being elbowed out of the final draft in favor of a little light theology and the Beatles? I should mention that Shirley Clark was very theatrical and wrote and directed many community variety shows. She may never have murdered a darling, but our best guess is that in some corner of heaven she had Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in a choke hold.

For more wisdom from Q, see:

On the Art of Writing
By Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Fellow of Jesus College
King Edward VII Professor of English Literature
(Based on lectures delivered at Cambridge University in 1913-1914)
Published in New York by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916
An inexpensive edition is available from Dover Publications.