It’s a truism among writing instructors: Kill your darlings. Meaning the phrase or passage you love so much that you’ll go to any length to preserve it, even though it stands like a speed-bump that rips off the wheels of your story. Not that Shakespeare should have excised “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Just that, unless it serves a vital function besides advertising what a genius the author is, you’d maybe better cut to the chase.
I can’t kill my darlings, but I can put them in cryonics. For every project going back to the Stone Age, I’ve kept a file of get-rid-ofs: things I like too much to cast to the worms but that just don’t fit. A few actually contain a seed that may sprout into something new, but that’s rare. Mainly, they feed the illusion that you are indeed a great writer but the world just isn’t ready for the utter irrelevancy of this passage.
At times, with our playwriting, we’ve had what we call the Flying Dutchman speech: a ghost ship that never comes into port. It’s an exquisite passage that it’s torture to cut, but it has to be. And then it finds its place in your next play—until the third rehearsal. And on and on.
These things do have a function besides exercising your typing skills. At times their presence reveals what’s really needed instead. At times, you can find a crisper way of saying it. At times, it stands as a simple monument to over-blow. But in any case, I do find that providing a homeless shelter for these frail souls does provide a way of getting them off the street.
Here are a few excisions from our forthcoming Galahad’s Fool. Roughly one page out of thirty-six.
He saw a glimmer of his long-ago pet mouse. It had escaped from its cage, and the cat left its tail on the porch as a gift. He buried the tail, making a tiny cross of popsicle sticks, though he hated Sunday School.
If vampires couldn’t see themselves in mirrors, how could they put in their contact lenses? Simple: being bats, they squeaked. Bela Lugosi emitting tiny squeaks? That was always left out of the movies.
You’re on a freeway, you want to change lanes, you signal but the car in that lane won’t let you in. You try to push faster, they go faster, faster, faster, and then . . . you give up. Amazing: they slow down and let you right in. It almost never fails. Flip on your back, your feet in the air, say “You win!” and suddenly, “Okay, cool, go ahead.” The tactic is giving up. Losing, willfully.
Galahad would encounter Merlin at a crossroads, always a crossroads, in the guise of a game-show host. Merlin would quote the poet, tell him that he, Galahad, knows the whereabouts of the Grail if only he’ll reveal it, so he should put himself to torture. Three days of water-boarding, but he won’t crack. Want us to break your fingers, the soldiers ask, or cut off your nuts? At that point Galahad decides that the poet was just a poet, wrong from the start.
One more day done, gone, with its little mouse journeys and leftover email blurbs. Today his characters had pretty much behaved themselves, just a few outcroppings like the last gopher mounds of summer. Maybe tomorrow they’d crawl to the back of the fridge behind the spaghetti and fall into hibernation. Anything to delay the onset of the Quest.
Then he saw—ye gods, he’d left the cage door open in his head—he saw his grandfather talking on his fingers, that half-formed mumble in a language never heard.
Grandpa Frank had grown up in Ohio, the son of deaf parents, so as a child he’d learned signing. He came west to work at a school for the deaf, met another teacher Lizzie, married and settled into farming. When Albert was very young, after his father split, he and his mom had lived a while on the farm, and he would watch Grandpa Frank sitting by the window in the worn armchair that smelled of old age, mumbling on his fingers. His lips moved silently, and his fingers would half-form the words. What were the words? What was the world where those words found a current of wind? Albert longed to know, but never asked. Now he was doing the same. Same search for words, and the same frustration as when Grandpa Frank cursed the old black Angus bull and whacked him on the flank to get him through the gate or railed at the crows descending to scatter the chickens away from Grandma’s slops. Something the old man had tried to tell Grandma, but when the words came she was already standing rigid at the ironing board. At last he spoke only in voiceless hieroglyphs.
The lost boy had heard voices he couldn’t understand, lines that sounded meaningful but couldn’t be deciphered. Exactly our political discourse, Albert thought. He recalled an email he’d sent once: If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it may very possibly be a duck—or it might just be a walrus with a good speech writer.
The few times I tried to speak in my own true voice she’d thought it was bronchitis.
With every bad idea a seed is planted.
The endocrine system is like comedy: it’s all in the timing. The substances exuded from the adrenals, pituitary, pancreas, thyroid, this wild chemical balancing act, like juggling balls that change size and shape as you juggle. Cells that send out federal regulators, which must achieve perfect balance or your industries collapse and there is no recovery from this recession.
There are thirty-five more pages of these deletions, not counting the ones that just went up in smoke—so many darlings, so little time. Some are interesting. The book itself, it’s better.