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Today I saw someone tweet, “Your ideas aren’t very good if nobody steals them.”
Which at first might sounds like something I approve of, but actually, there are lots of bad ideas that get stolen and recycled all the time. (See: racism, fascism, etc.)
Ideas only travel as far as the minds ready and willing to take them in.
If your ideas are really, really good (see: the Beatitudes, universal health care, etc.) they might have a much harder time being stolen.
Looking at this manuscript by Jean-Paul Sartre, I was reminded of the writing advice, “kill your darlings,” which is widely attributed to Faulkner, but can be traced to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lecture, “On Style,” from On the Art of Writing:
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.
You hear this murderous advice all over the place: Kill your darlings.
Stephen King, in On Writing:
kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
Don’t fall in love with the gentle trilling of your mellifluous sentences. Learn how to “kill your darlings.”
It’s time to kill. And it’s time to enjoy the killing. Because by killing, you will make something else even better live. Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.
This is a very important point — like with gardening, when you cut dead things back, you encourage new growth — which is echoed by Mary Karr, who routinely throws out hundreds of pages:
I’ve just pitched out 150 pgs it took 3 years to write: NORMAL!!! Some pieces may make it into the new draft but am basically starting over. The old pages stood in line for me to write them. So despite having 0 pages, I’m closer than before
Some writers like Diana Athill suggest a gentler but still ruthless approach:
You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)
The trouble with murdering your darlings, as with all editing, is knowing what to cut out and what to leave in. (Writers employ editors for the same reason doomed pet owners leave euthanizing to their veterinarians.)
“The hardest thing is to kill your darlings,” says Paula Uruburu. “But you have to.”
Or someone has to.
I think “kill your darlings” has done more good than damage in the world, but I’m a much bigger fan of this advice, which is easier on my heart: Relocate your darlings.
“One of the most difficult tasks is to rigorously delete what has no function,” writes Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes.
This becomes much easier when you move the questionable passage into another document and tell yourself you might use them later. For every document I write, I have another called “xy-rest.doc,” and every single time I cut something, I copy it into the other document, convincing myself that I will later look through it and add it back to where it might fit. Of course, it never happens — but it still works.
One of my favorite writers, Eliza Gabbert, has built a whole revision strategy around this idea, which she summarizes as: “Keep your best line (or image or idea) and trash the rest.”
She calls this the opposite of the murder your darlings advice, and suggests starting a whole new piece around your darling:
Start a whole new file. (Or, if you write longhand, turn to a new page.) In other words, don’t just keep making changes to the same version. You need to be able to see your darling in a new context. This will also help you start fresh without feeling like you’ve abandoned your other lines – they’re not deleted, they’re not dead, they’re just sleeping in another file. You can always go back to them. (I’ve actually used the same line or idea or image, if I was really in love with it, in multiple published poems. There’s no law against self-plagiarism!)
This advice has saved me over and over again, and it can also lead to new work. I’ve chopped a whole section of darlings from one book only to have them fit beautifully into another.
And what is a blog if not the perfect place to put your murdered darlings? (David Markson once referred to the internet as “that first-draft world.”)
I think of it this way: not murdering the darlings, but relocating them, so you might re-home them later.
Usually when a client hires me to speak, they’re interested in one talk, so I either have to narrow down the scope of what I’m going to talk about, or I have to try to weave in elements from all of my work into some kind of unified theory. A client recently hired me to do something I’ve never done before: three talks over three days!
Conveniently, I have a trilogy of books that map nicely to 3 talks, but because each subsequent book after Steal grew out of the one before it, there’s a bit of crosstalk between them. (For example, the chapters “Something small, every day” from Show, “Every day is Groundhog Day” from Keep Going, and “Be Boring” from Steal all speak to the idea of daily practice and routine.) So, funny enough, I’m combining what I usually do for talks: narrowing each book down to an essential idea, and then building up each talk by weaving in material from all over…
Here are 10 books that helped me through the spring, listed in the order I read them:
Have you heard of the Beatles? They were pretty good. This is probably the best book about the band I’ve ever read. I love how saucy MacDonald gets: of “A Day in the Life,” arguably the high point of their achievement, he writes, “More nonsense has been written about this recording than anything else The Beatles produced.” Of Paul’s granny music: “If any single recording shows why The Beatles broke up, it is MAXWELL’S SILVER HAMMER.” A highlight for me is when MacDonald points out that how many of the big British bands of the sixties were made up of kids who went to art school. (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, etc.) You could blow up the chronology stuffed in the back and make another book out of it.
The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands
edited by Huw Lewis-Jones
A downright gorgeous book. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with maps and even started my own collection of imaginary maps way back in 2008. If I’d have owned this book when I was doing my undergrad thesis, who knows, maybe I’d be a novelist? The Writer’s Map would pair well with Peter Turchi’s book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer.
The Order of Time
Beautifully written — which really means it was beautifully translated from the Italian by husband/wife team Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. I found out while writing this post that Segre died unexpectedly this year. Rovelli said, “They not only captured perfectly my meaning but they could completely render the feeling and sound of my Italian — and improve it, because their English language is remarkably beautiful and rich.” (I also read the couple’s translation of Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.)
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Another book about time, specifically, an exploration of Judaism as a religion obsessed with the architecture of time. As the rabbi explains, each Sabbath is a kind of a mini-eternity — something to look forward to. I picked this up after reading Beth Pickens’ Make Your Art No Matter What, and the two books together influenced me to rethink how I go about my weekends.
Emerson: The Mind on Fire
Robert D. Richardson
The great reading project of my spring was reading Richardson’s trilogy of biographies: Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (so good which was so good Annie Dillard wrote him a fan letter and they wound up getting married), Emerson: The Mind on Fire (which I swear reads in spots like he was showing off for his new partner), and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. (I also read his short biography of his mentor, the biographer Walter Jackson Bate.) Emerson is my favorite of the three and set me on a path of rethinking my indexing and filing systems. If you’re new to Richardson’s work, I might start with First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process.
The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live
Sarah Susanka with Kira Obolensky
This is a book I found while picking through my wife’s shelf of architecture books. It was partly inspired by two of my all-time favorite books — How Buildings Learn and A Pattern Language — and it has a very simple but strong premise: when it comes to houses, the quality of the space is more important than the quantity of the square footage. (Our family lives in a small 1949 bungalow, so the idea obviously appeals.) Before you buy a new house or remodel, give it a read.
Conversations of Goethe
Johann Peter Eckermann
This was a favorite book of Emerson and some of the other transcendentalists. Eckermann was 31 when he met the 74-year-old Goethe, and this book is a record of their conversations over nine years. Like many old books, this book is a great reminder that human beings have always been hilarious — I love how Eckermann will ask a question and Goethe goes into these long monologues that read almost stand-up routines. “The truth must be repeated over and over,” Goethe said. “My merit is, that I have found it also, that I have said it again, and that I have striven to bring the truth once more into a confused world.”
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is one of my favorite books about art and motherhood, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to read her followup. (Both could go on my list of good books you could finish in an afternoon.) The book was written before the pandemic, but it contains a brilliant sentence that sums it up: “And then it is another day and another and another but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.” (Try to get the hardcover with a jacket by John Gall.)
How to Take Smart Notes
Several people recommended this to me after my post about indexing and file systems. Not sure if I’ll go for a full Zettelkasten or not, but it’s one of the better books I’ve read about writing. (I really wish I’d read it in college.) Like a book it’s influenced by, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, it’s deeper and more Zen than you might expect. Ahrens’ insight is simple, but huge: if you arrange your writing and reading life correctly, you never really have to stare at a blank page or start from scratch.
Wendy, Master of Art
I feel like you can’t go wrong with a good sendup of art school. Anybody who went is like, Oh god, this is too real, and anybody who didn’t can laugh and feel smug. The only comic book I read this spring, which makes me want to go out and catch up with everything I’ve missed.
* * *
As a bonus, here are some pictures and sound I enjoyed…
Music: the new Pharaoh Sanders record was wonderful, Vikingur Olaffson made me fall in love with “Bruyères” on the piano, and while I’ve loved Violator since college when my drawing teacher played it on repeat, Depeche Mode 101 turned me into a huge fan of the band.
* * *
When I was growing up, my parents would occasionally mark my height on the wall with my name and the date in pencil. One day I was drawing chalk outlines with my kids in the driveway and I dreamed up this art project that I wish I’d have thought to start when they were babies.
If you have babies or small children, feel free to steal this idea and send me pictures of the results!
“It was dark, and I needed a little light. So every day I did a little drawing.”
When they asked me if there was a local Austin artist I’d like to interview for CM Austin’s 8th anniversary, I had a long list of folks in my mind, but when they said the topic was procrastination, I immediately thought of Ed, and, specifically, this clipping, which I cut out of a NYTimes years ago:
I’m shocked that his latest project still doesn’t have a US publisher. Editors, get on it!
I’ve written more about EC’s work here.
Here’s my intro:
Tove Jansson, the writer and artist best known for creating the Moomins, spent her summers on an island in the gulf of Finland with her lifelong partner, Tuulikki Pietila. She wrote most of her books there, and she wrote The Summer Book, about a girl and her grandmother living on an island, at the age of sixty, after losing her mother. I love this book because it’s what I wish all my summers would feel like, deep and just a little dark and surrounded by the sea…
The timing couldn’t be better: a new festival is starting in the UK called The Woman Who Fell in Love with An Island. (Inspired by a letter she wrote to Tooti in 1963, asking her partner if she’d read the D.H. Lawrence story, “The Man Who Loved Islands”: “How about ‘The Woman Who Fell in Love with an Island’?”)
The Guardian recently published “How Tove Jansson’s love of nature shaped the world of the Moomins,” with more about their life on the island, including this passage about their “hut” and routine:
Like the lighthouse that the author hymned in Moominpappa at Sea, the hut’s one room had windows facing in all directions so that Tove and Pietilä could watch the horizon from 360 degrees, and see the winds and storms coming and going. Seated at separate desks (in Helsinki they lived in separate apartments joined by an attic corridor), they “got a lot into the day”. While Jansson wrote, Pietilä drew, or filmed with her 8mm camera. Occasionally they had a joint project, constructing scenes from the Moomin books, with Pietilä making the 3D models and Jansson painting them: “That was their play time.”
Back in April, I watched a (rare) documentary made up of footage Tooti shot on 8mm: Haru, Island of the Solitary.
Jansson wrote a piece called “The Island” that is, according to translator Hernan Diaz, “at once a short story, an essay, and a prose poem,” which “reads both like a sketch for The Summer Book (published eleven years later) and a vignette of Klovharu, the island where Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä, her partner, built a summerhouse in the mid-60’s.”
It begins: “There is a surprisingly large number of people who go around dreaming about an island.”
I am one of them!
When my oldest was five, he recited this poem:
by Owen Kleon
A fart! A fart!
You can hear a fart!
A fart! A fart!
You can smell a fart!
A fart! A fart!
O why can’t you see a fart?
Perhaps that was the inspiration for our fart collages, an ongoing collaboration and art activity I pull out whenever the kids are driving me absolutely crazy. It’s very easy to make a fart collage: simply cut out a photo from a magazine and add a toot visualization.
I believe deeply, you see, in the connection between fart jokes and creativity. (There’s a whole wiki devoted to Mozart’s love of scatalogical humor.) Jokes, pranks, irreverence — if we start poking fun at the world, at a certain point we wonder if maybe we can change it…
I found one of those old German printings sheets called Münchener Bilderbogen — they were the equivalent of a comic strip in the 1890s. There was a a story in there with a picture of three robbers. They inspired my story, which developed as I started drawing. So I must say that originally those three robbers were not my idea. Original ideas can always be traced back to something. We are all influenced by something, and then we translate it and transpose it into something else.
Emphasis mine. (Steal like an artist.)
I tracked down the original sheet he was talking about:
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of a page from the book with a panel from the sheet:
And a close-up of the original robbers:
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