Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Kill Your Darlings


The cornerstone of the MFA program (in my eyes) is the workshop. This is when we share our writing with our classmates and professors, discuss what's working and what's not, question the choices we make as writers, and find ways to improve our craft. I can't tell you how many times I've written a piece, tweaked it until I have the thing practically memorized, convinced myself there is not one more thing I can do it to, not even move a comma, and then hand it in for workshop, only to have it torn to pieces by my astute and talented peers and professors and sent home with the shreds of my "masterpiece" and a very long to-do list.

Workshops are not for the faint of heart, but if you want to become a better writer they. are. vital. Stories require tough love to get them from first draft to finished product and it can be nearly impossible to follow the twisted path of revision on your own. It's ironic, actually - I can read someone else's story and identify exactly what's not working. But when trying to diagnose my own work? Forget about it. When you're too close to the source, it's nearly impossible to see the big picture.

There are two idioms that people in workshops love to throw around. The first is "show, don't tell," which is meant to encourage a person to put things in scene instead of exposition. For example, writing that "Kate's eyes narrowed and a furrow appeared in her brow. She gritted her teeth and felt her body grow hot," is infinitely more interesting than, "Kate was angry." The other idiom is my favorite, if only for the poetic punch it packs. "Kill your darlings." This one speaks to the fact that often, the part of a story you love the most - the paragraph that inspired the whole piece, or the line that you slaved over to get just right - is the precisely the part that needs to be cut to make the story, on a whole, stronger. Workshop is one of the best places to identify such darlings, and a post-workshop revision is basically a murder scene, no consonant or vowel safe from the decisive stroke of the delete button.

All of this is to say that tomorrow, I am starting a month long workshop with visiting writer Steve Almond, who just published a new book with UNCW's own press, Lookout Books. I am the only first year in the workshop and I volunteered to go with the first group, so last week I emailed my story to the class. One person sent me a critique already, and I already read it, and now I wish I had submitted something else - something more polished, closer to finished, with less darlings ripe for the killing. I don't usually get rattled by workshops but I think the combination of upperclassmen that I admire and a writer I respect, tearing my story to (much needed) shreds, is more nerve-racking than I anticipated.

On the other hand, what better time to submit a story then when it's raw and rough and mostly potential? I have a bad habit of writing something and then revising it for at least a year (literally) before I let someone else see it. By that point, my darlings are so entrenched that killing them is nearly impossible. So I will look at this workshop as an experiment - get my feedback early and finish the piece with those suggestions in mind, and hope my stories will be stronger for it.

How do you deal with criticism? Do you have a thick skin or do you only pretend, weeping in the corners when no one is looking? I usually welcome any attention someone wants to pay my writing, good or bad (along with workshops, a big ego is also vital to a writer's success) but I also think it's important to feel vulnerable once in a while. An adventurous life demands risk.

14 comments:

  1. This post made me so excited for you. I miss workshops so much and every time I start dreaming of going back for an MFA it's the workshops with my major professor, who was also my advisor and mentor and has published god knows how many books, that I think of the most. They were brutal, and awesome. 

    Criticism is TOUGH for me, really really tough and honestly, being insecure about my writing skills is why I gave up on fiction for a few years and just wrote a blog. Now I'm trying to balance blogging with writing stories again and thinking about the road ahead if I try to do anything with these stories, it's tough, and it makes me nervous, but like you said ... an adventurous life demands risk!! 

    Good luck with your workshop! I hope it is productive and not too painful! :)

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  2. Lovely post, but one that makes me so jealous. Enjoy your MFA days, once you turn thirty time starts to fly! Now that I write professionally I miss the luxury of a workshop...

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  3. Hi Chrissy! Good luck. Don't cringe. Deep breathes. Darlings can sleep in other places. :) 

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  4. Thanks, Jacki! From what I've read on your blog you have a great voice, and I'm sure that carries over to your fiction. I'm so impressed with your NaNo progress. My advice is to enjoy the writing and not think about what comes next until you're done. This is, after all, the fun part!

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  5. Ack. Don't tell me that - I turn 30 next year! And the workshop is definitely a luxury, which is why I signed up for TWO next semester. :)

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  6. Ha! They can. Mostly in a document on my computer named "dead darlings." I hope they will be reincarnated one day. 

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  7. I miss workshops...I think I thrived on the criticism :)  Sounds like your'e in for an awesome experience with Almond!!

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  8. Oh, man.  Graduate school definitely toughened me up for criticism.  It was hard always hearing about all the ways in which I could or needed to improve, but it's really a luxury to have someone paying that much attention to you and your professional development.

    I think that when it comes to criticisms now, I can make distinctions between a criticism of my work and a criticism of my habits, temperament, intellect, etc.  I'm much more open to criticisms of my work; the second set is much harder to change, so I'm more sensitive to criticisms.  And I also think that sometimes a weakness in one setting is a strength in another...which means sometimes I decide to ignore a criticism altogether!

    Good luck, my dear.  It sounds like you have a great attitude, so stay strong and positive.

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  9. I never show anyone anything I've written but I've been called upon a number of times to edit screenplays and short stories. It seems I have a knack for improving the writing of others but I'm scared shitless to let anyone see my own!

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  10. So far, SO AMAZING. Once it all sinks in, I'll write a proper recap.

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  11. "it's really a luxury to have someone paying that much attention to you and your professional development." EXACTLY. I will never have so many people caring about my improvement as a writer as I do right now. It's definitely a luxury!

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  12. You need to put it out there! Especially if you're reading the work of others. Next time, suggest a swap! Or else. ;)

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  13. I'm thinking of this post today as I kill the darlings in my grant.  Damn page limits!

    Happy Friday :-)

    PS  Is it weird to comment on older blog posts?  I'm never sure about this...

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  14. Not weird at all! I actually like it. Sometimes I am sad to think of all the great blog posts I've written that get lost in the archives. I'm glad you've found one you like and refer back to it!

    Kill those darlings! Grant success will be yours!

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