Notes from Purgatory – (Don’t Over)kill Your Darlings


Ambition is to the mind what the cap is to the falcon; it blinds us first, and then compels us to tower, by reason of our blindness. But alas, when we are at the summit of a vain ambition, we are also at the depth of real misery. We are placed where time cannot improve, but must impair us; where chance and change cannot befriend, but may betray us; in short, by attaining all we wish, and gaining all we want, we have only reached a pinnacle where we have nothing to hope, but everything to fear.”

I’m not going to lie, I’ve left a lot of projects at the wayside in my time as an author.  Most of them were mercy-kills because certain ideas weren’t worth pursuing over time or their plots simply weren’t panning out.  Even so, there were others that were genuinely good, ones that might’ve blossomed into compelling stories had I not suffocated them with unbridled ambition.  Such an unfocused perspective on my work sometimes contaminates my writing process before I really get to the meat of my stories.  By then I’ve already lost interest because these stories aren’t living up to such implausible depth.

What I mean to say is I overkill my darlings.

Looking back on the corpses of stories past, I see plots that were spoiled by an old sense of grandiosity.  I distinctly remember trying to force complexity into plots that actually needed simplified.  I recall digging deep networks when a shallow pool would suffice.  I would dilute a story (and, by extension, my creative process) because I couldn’t yet focus my imagination, which is what I truly feel is the definition of creativity.

Ambition is certainly not a bad thing, but it must be harnessed with a well-developed sense of direction.  If I spend all of my time developing interconnecting rabbit-holes between my short stories instead of focusing on their plots, I’m missing my mark as an author, which is to entertain readers while delivering a memorable experience of a specific story.  As a young writer, I would often preoccupy myself with how the big picture fit together in my little literary universe.  The problem with such distraction, however, is that the enormity of the forest can easily take focus off of the beauty of each of its trees.

Now I spend less time erecting secret architecture between stories and more time guiding readers to their strange hearts.  I use ambition as a map, not a compass, and I’m ever so careful not to stray too far from where my instincts are drawing me.  I slow down to let the story tell itself to me before my imagination can interrupt the process with noisy belligerence.  I try to be creative, not imaginative.  I seek to focus my ambition to manifest a story never told, one that stands at the heart of its own world.

I still make nods to past stories, of course, and the occasional wink to those to come, but my writing process has become much more streamlined since I’ve ditched the over-analysis and meta-everything of my stories.  Now I can clearly hear my stories when they speak to me.  I can feel each setting and come to know each character.  I kill my darlings in appropriate moderation.  So I once was blind but now can see.

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