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.