Was there ever more difficult advice for a writer to follow, especially if they haven’t been a professional writer for a lifetime? And, even if, like me, you have been?
But it is, in fact, the best writing advice, ever.
When we work so hard on something, when we are so attached to our prose, the way we’ve expressed it, what we have expressed, we are reluctant to let it go. Yes, even when a writing coach recommends it.
If a professional writing coach suggests we jettison some of our pearls of wisdom it is often because they do not serve the story. We don’t see this, of course, because we LOVE what we wrote! Especially when it’s a first person essay, memoir or performance. Which is exactly what I write.
We hold it close because we believe it completely expresses our point. We hold it close because we do not see what the reader sees. We see as WRITERS. And that’s a completely different view.
I published my first piece when I was 16. Nearing 70, I haven’t stopped. I have been a professional writer, a career writer, a freelance writer and a writer for pleasure all my life. I’ve achieved a certain proficiency in personal essays, too. I am, I know, a very good writer. I got that way by being edited. So I feel pretty good about my skills.
And yet, if I am working on something for serious publication I ALWAYS engage an editor. Always. Because 50 years of writing experience tells me that I do not have an unbiased eye on my own work. Especially when it comes to my own story.
I look for an experienced editor who has worked on material like mine, who has taught and who has achieved their own literary success. Many people tout themselves as editors when maybe they have a self-published book and a blog and coach on the side. That’s not what I want.
These days I am writing a solo performance. My first. It’s partly autobiographical, but not entirely. I have never written a performance piece before and it has challenged my writing chops in ways I’d never imagined. I am in a workshop with some excellent writers and it’s led by a guy who has had successes bringing solo performances to the stage.
The feedback I get from my workshop teacher and others in the workshop writing their own performance pieces–as well as from bestie, who actually IS a playwright and holds two Masters’ in theatre (one in playwriting)–is that I am an effective story teller.
“And oh by the way, you need to cut this part of it.”
What??? But I LOVE that part! I think it’s IMPORTANT!
But is it?
When we write memoir for an audience we are like sculptors, carving our own piece of art from raw stone. The raw stone is everything that’s ever happened to us. What we are carving out though, is the REAL story and to do that we must eliminate the excess. The stuff an audience won’t find as riveting as we do. The pieces that do not guide the audience effectively through our story.
It is very difficult for us to identify that excess. We are too close to our own story. We may think it works. But really, it doesn’t. That’s a hard truth.
Now, I have to admit, I knew I would have to kill some of my little darlings before I signed on to this workshop and it did give me pause. I spoke to several other writers about coming to terms with my fears of killing my little darlings and concluded that I would always have my first draft, the draft I loved so much, in my files. I can read it any time I want. Without subjecting an audience to it.
And now, heading toward Week 4 of my class, on the recommendation of people who have clearer vision than mine, I have had to murder many of my little darlings. Oh, they’re not gone for good. They still exist, but in a file I call “Snips for Later.” Maybe I’ll find a way to use them later in the piece. Or in something else.
Or, maybe not at all.
Because, as I am discovering, once I snipped, I exposed the guts of the story, the meat of it. And as a result, my piece has taken on new life. It is stronger in ways I have been too close to recognize.
So, if you’re resisting killing your little darlings, I feel your pain. But you might want to think again. You don’t have to kill them for good. Just for right now. Trust that people more experienced than you are giving you their best counsel. And see what happens.
Because you’ll always have your draft.
And, as Rick told Ilsa: “We’ll always have Paris.”