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Susan PlettLose Your Favorite Lines
Copyright©2011 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's ninth column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

I once wrote an entire 500 word story around the phrase, “The dusk calls me to come wander through its shrouded silence.” Sigh. All that gentle longing, those lovely sibilants. Doesn’t it just make you want to go outside after dark and listen?

And then I had my short story critiqued. Nobody loved my line the way I did. Almost without exception, my writing peers suggested I delete that line entirely. The piece didn’t need it. It didn’t add anything. I gazed longingly at my carefully crafted line, prepared to defend its inclusion—and then read the piece without it.

Everyone was right. I deleted my lovely, lovely line (but I memorized it first). Sometimes I recite it when I am walking the dog after dark. The dog is not impressed. A few years later, I was part of a writing group that took turns providing writing prompts for each other. I trotted out my precious line, and there was much oohing and ahhing as people wrote it down. And the next week, all five of them came back with short bits and longer bits built around the concept of ruminating outdoors after dark, all completely different, with one curious similarity. None of the polished pieces contained my original beloved line.

And I added another wee rule to my list of Things I Will Say to Students Nine Hundred Times In My Life: "Lose your favourite lines."

Most classes have a keener in them. Keeners want to know why. "Why lose your favourite lines?" someone invariably asks.

“Well,” I say, with great authority “Read it without that line. Do you see how much stronger it is?”

And the Keener will try it and go away, if not satisfied, at least deflected.

Last month, as I was rummaging around in my head, looking for things I always say to students, I thought—Why? Why lose your favourite lines? Suddenly “because” seemed like a lame answer.

Murder your darlings

I tried to discover who said it first. A quick search on “lose your favourite lines” garnered no hits. I knew I hadn’t made it up, so I kept digging and finally hit upon “Murder your darlings” or some variation thereof. The quote has been attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Mark Twain, among others, but it seems most likely that it originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

I ferreted out Sir Arthur’s article, finding it in published excerpts from a series of lectures on the Art of Writing. “If you 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.” He says, “Murder your darlings.”

Samuel Johnson said, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Tori Deaux’s excellent article delves into the reasoning behind this. “Why murder your darlings?” she asks. “Because they get in the way. Left to their own devices, darlings will suck away your creative flow…They force you to go around them, to build a framework to support them, a framework that will never do them justice.”

A poem is an organic thing

A well-written poem is an organic thing, living and breathing on the page. No single line or phrase should stand out any more than any other, because if it does, it has a detrimental effect on the integrity of the piece as a whole. It can, in fact, attract so much attention from the poem as a whole that the message is diluted or completely lost.

Another thing that happens for me, when I have lines that I am overly fond of, is that I do not edit as efficiently. When I read through an intermediate draft of a poem, I will (often subconsciously) skip over the beloved line, because it’s already so perfect, it doesn’t need to be looked at. It often takes another poet to point out the prancing brat on the page, like the kid in your grade school class photo waggling his tongue at the camera because he can’t stand to just be one of the crowd.

Loyalty to the best

It can be a painful procedure. When I first started to write, I saved these lines in their own little file and took them out and cooed over them once in a while. A funny thing happened, though—one day I added a line to my file, and the line above it caught my eye and—gasp!—it did not move me. It made me laugh a little. It was ridiculously overwritten.

I think it’s a natural part of the learning process. As a new writer, I was giddy with delight over my newfound power with words. I loved to play with words and create elaborate constructions, monuments to my own brilliance. Once the newness wore off, however, I moved from writing solely for the delight of writing to wanting to communicate something with those words. I wanted there to be something of substance beneath the pretty words, and finally, I wanted there to be something of substance without the pretty words. I am much more likely to seek exactly the right word now, and much less likely to seek the clever words.

That’s not to say we do away with craft. It’s more that a good piece of writing will integrate both craft and content seamlessly, so the separate parts are indistinguishable.

Farther on in Quiller-Couch’s article, he talks about this sort of exacting writing as essentially resembling good manners. “It comes of endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for yourself—of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head. It gives rather than receives; it is nobly careless of thanks or applause, not being fed by these but rather sustained and continually refreshed by an inward loyalty to the best.”

Dr. Suess is much more sparse with his take:

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

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Copyright ©2011 by Susan Plett