The source of the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ is the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who actually said more pointedly ‘murder your darlings’ in a lecture he gave at Cambridge University nearly a century ago. Quiller-Couch was the inspiration for the character of Rat in The Wind in the Willows. Rat is a loner, 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. He doesn’t like things to be too unpredictable, and doesn’t like his friends to be unpredictable either. And if a picnic can’t solve your personal crisis he’s at a complete loss. He does however possess an extensive personal armory for use when the proles get a bit restive.
For those of you who came in late, the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ has become a kind of shorthand instruction on how to write prose. There’s even an Australian lit journal by that name and an upcoming movie about Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. Here’s what Quiller-Couch originally said:
To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not – can never be – extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: 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: ‘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.’
I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit over taking literary advice from high Edwardians, the actual darlings of whom shortly thereafter went and got themselves very thoroughly killed in enormous numbers on the fields of France and Belgium. In fact when Quiller-Couch published his lecture in 1916, that’s exactly what was happening, which gives a somewhat sinister context to his exhortation. I wonder if Wilfred Owen read it.
Writers have often been ready to give each other advice. I remember reading some a year or two back in a Fairfax paper – an Australian writer who sternly and virtuously exhorted the neophytes among us to eliminate all adverbs. That’s a big call, suddenly burning all the adverbs in the English language. Put your darlings to death, nuke all adverbs sounds a bit extreme. But O Great Writer, aren’t there any good adverbs or any darlings that deserve life? No. Kill them all. Purify the page. Destroy all monsters. God will know his own.
It’s as if writers secretly hate each other, or maintain themselves with dreams of fascist grandiosity. After all a novel can function as a kind of personal fiefdom where its creator has omnipotent control, and hatches, matches and despatches exactly as he or she wills. The novelist as Vladimir Putin: discuss.
When writers get together they often form hierarchies, set up gatekeepers and, not unusually, establish journals or competitions as a way of settling their differences. Or festivals. Which makes them sound remarkably like Kenneth Grahame’s Rat. We might dream about reconfiguring the narratives of the world, but really we’d rather have hyper-organised picnics – with admission fees. And no you can’t share my sandwiches. I copied them from a recipe by Arthur Quiller-Couch and they’re special. So get your own, you greedy ink-stained amateur. And remember not to use adverbs when you speak to me.
As I say an Edwardian aesthetic isn’t really my thing. What Quiller-Couch seemed to be arguing for was a masculine simplicity, the simplicity of the smoking room after dinner, something neat and spare with nothing left over, like a parquet floor. Ornamentation, I’m guessing, was regarded as feminine, decadent (‘Persian’) without the clean lines so pleasing to the masculine eye. It’s curious that Quiller-Couch used the noun ‘darlings’ a term then reserved for those masculine possessions: wives and children. England was at that time also host to a group of newly famous darlings, Wendy Darling and her two brothers Michael and Peter, in JM Barrie’s children’s story Peter Pan first published in 1911 after the earlier success of Barrie’s play. It was re-printed in a popular new edition in 1915, the year before the publication of Quiller-Couch’s lectures.
For writers to endorse the process of rewriting prose as an act of ruthless violence is extremely odd. It’s as though when one writer gives another their work to read, the knife comes out, which is a very strange response to a gift. I’ve been thinking that perhaps writers just don’t know how to listen to each other. It’s probably a difficult skill for people who prefer to spend their time talking to themselves, having omnipotent fantasies and mercilessly putting their darlings to death. Perhaps it’s worth asking what kinds of listening writers could discover if they tried. Special super-sensitive writers’ ears would not be required to do this either. Jacques Lacan criticised those psychotherapists who advocated for the cultivation of a ‘third ear’ in clinical practice. What’s the point of a third ear, said Lacan, when the two ears we have are already too many? Maybe, he said, we just need to become less deaf with the ears we already have.
Listening isn’t an act of intrusion. Nothing needs to be killed. Listening isn’t a search and destroy mission or a way of practising our literary topiary skills. What listening has the potential to be is a structural openness to the other, as we try to hear what is already there, not what we want to be there. It’s kind of dangerous, too. After all, if we let others speak with their own words – instead of with ours – who knows what they might come out with. Most likely it will be something we don’t want to hear, but critical to their way of being, something dear to them – a darling in fact. Listening to prose has nothing to do with what some writers think of as the craft or the wordsmithing. That can come later. It’s not brain surgery. It’s more like mucking about in the sandpit. Listening requires antenna, not knives.
It is the making of his or her own mind the writer engages in, which is why the process of writing can be so painful, building out of debris and found objects something contingent, and why every work of fiction verges on collapse. The work of imaginative prose you may be offered to read is the ruins of someone’s imagination, a heap of flotsam, of bones, of weird animal sounds snatched up and glued together any which way, stuck together as though they could make sense, like a song played backwards in which you think you can hear a secret message encased in a random collation of syllables.
In a long and fairly boring piece at the London Review of Books, the writer Iain Sinclair describes a recent meeting with the poet Gary Snyder. Sinclair says:
When I try to bring the practicalities of composition, the gossip of craft, into the conversation, Snyder misreads my questions or veers sharply away.
I met Gary Snyder once, and he woudn’t talk to me much either. But I suspect, in this case, it has more to do with the fact that Sinclair, who we learn can’t hear the difference between a frog and a bird, is making a lot of assumptions about what it means to be a writer. The ‘craft’ of writing seems like a topic for those who think writing prose has no political or ethical import. There isn’t any craft, sitting out there like a set of blueprints for an Edwardian escritoire. It’s not carpentry or leadlighting. There’s a lot of made up rules and assumptions and a lot of self-appointed experts who writers flock to like flies to jam, as well as a truckload of unexamined politics and ethical dilemmas that writers avoid like a contagion. The ‘craft’, about which Sinclair says he loves to gossip, is informed, shaped and completely saturated by a context of political and ethical choices.
Poets, as perhaps someone should tell Iain Sinclair, are a different kettle of fish, and the rules of writing either by Quiller-Couch or even George Orwell don’t really apply. But then poets are always a different kettle of fish. Or a fishy bunch of kettles. In fact, it’s arguable that poets are not actually writers at all, but really something else, something much more arcane. We should probably keep them in cages, like canaries, for their own safety. Orwell said that in a society with a fascist imperative, it’s the lyric poets among writers whose work is the last to be corrupted. It’s as though poets breathe a different atmosphere to other writers, a more ancient air. Maybe that’s true. As with the blues there’s probably always been poetry. The Chicago bluesman Jimmy Dawkins said that Black American blues grew out of the moaning of the slaves in the holds of the slave ships, which is a pretty amazing image. But as John Lee Hooker once remarked (and this doesn’t negate Jimmy Dawkins’ claim): ‘Blues has been here since the world was born.’ So I guess blues and poetry may have come out of the same egg.
Poets stand obliquely in a different relationship to words than everyone else, in a universe with a different physics where everyone has multiple quivering antennae and clusters of eyes and the gravity is twelve times heavier. When poets turn away from poetry and start writing essays, the result can often be exceedingly leaden but also kind of weird and naive, as though they’re giving an especially pious lecture and remembered to solemnly don their mortarboard but forgotten to put on their pants. For example, Wallace Stevens’ book of essays, The Necessary Angel, reads as if it’s been badly translated into Martian and then back into English. It’s like getting a rendering of ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ that reads ‘The small furry animal explodes’. When poets start writing novels (I’m looking at you Simon Armitage), it’s best to just walk quietly away and hope some kindly paramedics will clean up the blood-drenched mess and extract the poet from the wreck with the Jaws of Life.
I can’t imagine living with a poet, and I’ve never tried. It could well be like living with Stewie Griffin, if Stewie Griffin also had the temperament of Elton John but sang like Nina Simone. Clear boundaries would need to be drawn: Leave that essay alone dear, and go back to your cage and sing. Or I’ll have to blind you.
A poet might write you a love poem, but it’s not really for you. It’s really addressed to Poetry.
Anyway, where was I? Sorry, I got sidetracked when I probably should have been wrist-deep in the blood of my murdered offspring. Personally, I’m more interested in what I call ‘white-outs’ than darling slaughter. White-outs are the bits of my writing that my eye slides over without getting any adhesion. I think of them as white-outs because it’s as if they blend into the page itself, perfectly camouflaged. And there’s always a very peculiar and particular reason as to why something gets whited-out. ‘White-outs’ is a nice image for the structural realities we inhabit, where so much is still whited-out by old white guys, and for all the things we ourselves can’t see in our own experience: the ways we trap ourselves, our failure to take ourselves seriously, the violence we put up with or perpetuate, the dead relationships we hang on to (sometimes for the poetry).
The imperative to ‘kill your darlings’ of course ensures that no darlings will actually be killed. Nobody kills off their own darlings. It’s always other people’s darlings that get put to the sword. But what gets knifed may well be something that still hasn’t taken on its full shape, something potentially unsettling trying to make itself heard, a moaning from the hold where you keep your slaves.
I remember reading a piece about an Australian playwright who won a prize that gave him time with Edward Albee. Come to think about it, I may have read it at Overland. Anyway, Albee reportedly said: ‘It’s ridiculous spending 10 days together. I could give it to you in three short lines: “No. Absolutely Not. And go fuck yourself.” It’s all you need to know.’
That’s pretty good advice I think to give to the next person who invites you to kill your darlings: No. Absolutely not. And go fuck yourself. Maybe if one of Quiller-Couch’s undergraduates had said it to him before they got marched off to the Somme, we’d be having different conversations about writing today. It might also mean we’d have a literary journal called Go Fuck Yourself. That’d be something.