Category: Posts (page 1 of 31)

Don’t Kill a Darling Just to Kill a Darling

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This essay is based, in part, on the ending to the television series How I Met Your Mother, which aired over 5 years ago in 2014 – if you are still avoiding spoilers, you probably shouldn’t read this!

You’ve probably heard some variation of writing advice nugget before:

  • “Murder your darlings.” – Arthur Quiller-Couch
  • “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” – William Faulkner
  • “[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King

There are arguments that other versions of the quote exist, even before Quiller-Couch’s advice On Style was published in 1914. 

But the origins of the quote are not the point. (Though I firmly believe in taking the time to attempt correct attribution whenever you can.)

The quote has good intentions, and it often does lead to better writing.

There are a number of stylistic “crutches” that we lean on as writers. We’re scared to take those steps that allow our most basic ideas, our unornamented sentences, and our simplest words to stand on their own.

Sometimes, those choices are what make our writing, our writing

For example, I am a habitual misuser of the Oxford comma. I love me a good grouping of three (like I wrote two sentences ago), and people can often tell that a piece is “by me” when these pop up throughout.

You might be surprised to learn that in most cases, at least 50-60% of these groupings are cut in editing. 

I’m aware that this is a darling, a particular style that I adore, but eventually it eats away at the message. It can get too wordy, too adverby…it adds too much.

In context, most of these “kill your darlings” quotes refer to this exact issue. To pare back ornate style, thus allowing your ideas and words the room to breathe. 

Yet the advice has come to take on a much larger scope, urging many writers to kill entire plot-lines (or even characters, thanks J.K. Rowling) simply because it might make the story better.

I won’t lie to you, this advice is sometimes accurate. But sometimes, it is very very bad advice.

Take, for example, the background to one of the most-loathed television series endings in recent years, How I Met Your Mother.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is narrated by Bob Saget about his 20’s and 30’s, and all the twists and turns it took to lead to the moment he met his kids’ mother. This plot device is shown with each show opening, in which two teens are sitting on a couch, listening to their father prattle on about what a complete idiot he could be while stumbling through multiple girlfriends, dates, and one-night stands.

In writing this recap, I am reminded of how creepy this premise is.

Why would a father be re-counting what amounts to an almost-decade of his Little Black Book, including the extremely uncomfortable inclusion of the many iterations of his relationship with the kids’ “Aunt” Robin (“Aunt” because she is not blood-related to either parent, but a member of their family-by-choice.)

We go through nine seasons of these stories, building up to the last season (which is jam-packed to take place over 2-3 days), the ultimate goal being that we finally get to see the moment that the Father met their Mother.

It happened! It’s the happily-ever-after we’ve been waiting for! These poor kids might barely escape years of therapy at learning how much their dad got around and how intimate many of those relationships were!

But wait. In the next episode, the series finale, everything we’ve invested ourselves in as an audience is ripped from us in some weird Greek-tragedy twist, with the death of the Mother. And the explanation that the Father was willing to unload his heart and soul onto his children in this weird oversharing manner, because he wants them to understand why he is going to ask their Aunt Robin to date him again. Because she is the other love of his life, and now is the time for them.

Viewers were…upset.

Now, I’m not actually a fan of many happily-ever-after endings, as they are often contrived and not real-life. And as I noted above, I can actually see how this ending fits the story of a father divulging his sexual and relationship exploits as a way of preparing his children for (what could be) an even-more horrendous betrayal of their affections and upbringing when he begins dating their Aunt.

It’s one way the story ends.

But it seems…off. Many viewers picked up on this.

The reason it seems off was further clarified when one of the show-runners explained the limitations they were under in the first few seasons of the show. As with most American television, this show was on the bubble (in danger of not being renewed) throughout it’s early run, before it became a number one contender and reigning champion. And they only had so many clips of the children, sitting on the couch, being the same age.

So they recorded an ending clip, with the kids finally saying something.

Then, they made the decision to use that scene, from way back, in the finale years later. 

Which essentially undid all the work they had done since then. All the character development, all the new plot-lines that unfolded, all the devotion the audience had acquired…WHOOSH! Gone.

In a moment, we were all swung back to a final episode from years ago, but with the knowledge and connections we had spent the past five to seven years experiencing.

They killed a darling…poor Mom didn’t stand a chance. Her fate was to die. We know why, we know that it makes sense in the grand scheme of the premise. 

Why would a father tell his kids these wholly inappropriate stories (for what had to be the longest Dad Diatribe ever) if there wasn’t a bigger reason?

But in killing one darling, they clung to another. They clung to that recorded scene, and original concept – and in doing so, they took back everything they had built.

What can you take from this?

As writers these days, we are expected to put out a nearly-prolific level of quality writing. 

At least monthly, preferably weekly, really preferably multiple times a week – or almost daily.

It’s almost impossible to consistently put out this volume of content without some serious planning.

I’m sure there are some writers out there who can do this on the fly, and good for you.

For many others, however, we rely on content calendars and saved post ideas and constantly incubating for what may be.

Yet there’s a danger in doing this.

If we cling too hard to the darlings we created, we can forget the needs of our audience, or lose the journey to focus on a destination.

Readers, even essay and blog post readers, are here for the ride. They read our writing to learn how we got to our conclusion. It’s what makes a story compelling.

So if you are going to use editorial calendars or saved post ideas to keep up with the current demands of creative output, make sure to stay true to your own journey.

Don’t publish something you wrote or planned six months ago without reviewing (and possibly revising) it, to see what might have changed.

Maybe it is the public zeitgeist. Maybe it is a change in your industry or niche. Maybe it is a change in you.

Whatever the changes might be, if you are going to share something old with your audience thinking they are getting something new, you need to honor the journey everyone is on.

Don’t kill a darling just to kill a darling. 

But don’t be afraid to kill the darlings that aren’t serving your purpose or style any longer.

Are You a Good Fan and Follower?

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Remember when it used to be OK to like things?

You’d read a book, see a movie, try a new dish … and tell everyone about it.

With glee.

I’m sure many of you can identify with this cartoon from Sarah’s Scribbles:

be a good fan

I’d venture to say it is why a number of people become writers, or take to the internet to revel in their geekery and fandoms.

Eventually, crashing into conversations with cymbals clanging isn’t “cool” anymore.

As we get to be adults, we somehow desensitize ourselves.

We don’t want to be bothered with such exuberance, unless it is something we can (and want to) be exuberant about.

Knowing that we have such a limited amount of fucks to give on any given day, we can’t waste them on such frivolity.

Which causes a serious dearth of elated feedback and promotion.

Tell me something …

Has someone ever said something nice about your writing before?

I’m seriously hoping that your answer is YES! At least one person in the world has commented kindly on something you poured yourself into and shared with humanity.

Now, let me ask … 

How great was that feeling?

I actually keep a “Yay Me” folder in my email, where I save such good notes and thoughts, for those days when I’m feeling like maybe I have no idea how to write/create/run a successful business and life.

So, how often do you tell the writers you are reading that you like their work? How often do you share it?

As I said, this weird gross thing has happened in recent years.

Being online is all about promoting ourselves. World leaders have coined the term “it’s sad” to provide social commentary on actions and initiatives. Somehow, it is better to love something fiercely without ever telling anyone about it, fearing you will appear to be fawning or leaping aboard a bandwagon.

Which is … sad.

I prefer to stick to a simple heuristic, learned from years of travel through airports and public transit:


Seriously, screw all those people who are above you sharing something you really enjoyed.

Who feel the need to cut down what others are doing to … I don’t know … make them feel better about themselves?

Who try to build their own bliss by draining yours.

More importantly, don’t deny some creator the joy of seeing that someone liked their work. 

People deserve to know when others are saying nice things about them. 

And frankly, these days, it can feel like there aren’t many people saying many nice things.

You can change that. 


When you are done reading this edition of TWR, I encourage you to take to your own email/social media/carrier pigeon nest/etc. and tell someone that you love something they’ve made. Share it with your world.

Make a small change in yourself to start gently shifting the world around you.

I guarantee, this is like the movie Outbreak, without the infected monkeys.

When you see something, say something. 

Others will follow.

On Wanting One Thing But Doing Another

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After almost a decade on the road, my long wavy mane of “doll hair” is no more.

going through change

Year after year, I’d make it back to Maine for a single trim with my hair stylist Heather at Guru Salon & Spa in Portland, Maine, because I have yet to get a haircut as good as hers anywhere I went. I tried, including that one time in a Thai hair salon where half a dozen student stylists were holding different layers of my hair, since they had no idea how to deal with the bushy mass that hangs off my scalp.

This winter, after a season of particularly stagnant life advances, I needed to change something in my life.

Now, as a Xennial (the cusp of Gen X and Millenials), I was raised with a certain aversion to a reactionary chopping off of hair, after my generation watching horror as Keri Russell cut of her gorgeous tangle of cascading curls on Felicity. (Readers of my time, you know my pain!)

Still, having seen my hair transform from long and luscious ringlets to a bit like a hanging blob of ratty lifeless tresses — coupled with this mini-existential crisis of identity and life-path — I knew the time had come.

I spent an [embarrassing] amount of time on Pinterest finding the new shorter cut that would work well on hair that I’ve spent nearly four decades trying to figure out myself. Armed with about 30 Pins and a special request: to cut enough for a donation to a cancer charity (my Mom is a cancer survivor, so it was important to do this if I had enough length with my layers.)

After some quick assessment, we determined my cut would have to be a little shorter than planned to donate, but hey — hair grows back.

going through change

Snip snip snip and the ponytail I’d dedicated over a decade of hairstyles to was gone.

About 90 minutes later (as Heather quipped “Man, I thought with shorter hair it would be easier to cut, but you still have so much hair!”) I was handed a mirror to see the front and the back of my “new head.”

going through change

So, Elisa must be pretty vain, to be sharing this story of her haircut and pictures like you care — am I right?

Well, maybe?

But there’s also a point.

When you’ve been working with someone for almost 10 years (as I have been with Heather) on something that is a piece of yourself, there’s a lot of trust that gets built.

And a lot of understanding.

As with every good hair stylist, Heather and I have spent all these years chatting and becoming friends. I know about her family and friends and hobbies and travel, she knows the same about me.

She knew I was coming in to try to enact some of the changes I wanted to see in my life that I don’t have much control over by severely changing something I could control.

Have you ever been there?

When I told her at the end that I was aware of the cliche I was fulfilling she laughed.

But what she said after is what stuck with me:

“I knew something was up if you wanted to cut your long hair that you love so much; but I also knew this new cut would look so good. Honestly, if it was just a crisis-cut, I wouldn’t have let you do it. I would have said ‘Hey, instead of doing this, why don’t you think on it a few more days, and we can go grab a beer instead.’”

Friends, it is important to have these people in your lives.

Not who will harshly criticize you or constantly try to “tough love” you with fierce rigidness.

But who are willing to speak up and hold you accountable — while still being kind and supportive — giving you the confidence to be your best self.

PS – If you are on Instagram, I’m doing a #30DayChallenge on my personal account. It doesn’t follow some grid or preset plan, though my sister and I did have a fun night sitting down to map out potential content for the 30 days at the end of April (“Remember, if you fail to prepare you are preparing to fail.” – H.K. Williams, not Benji Franklin.) If you want a bit more of a glimpse into my daily life, it’s all being documented there!

It’s OK to Change Your Creative Direction

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I am fascinated by this bar chart gif, which shows the 10 most populated cities in the world, from the year 1500 to present:

(If this doesn’t load as a gif for you, an original is available here on Twitter)

I’ve watched it at least a couple dozen times.

While there are many arguments to be made for outside circumstances like poverty and class and societal norms, the animation is also a visual representation of the movement of people to the empires dictating culture and domination.

From China starting out the 1500s (and we in the West are always taught about how brilliant we were with our Renaissance years) to the brief resurgence of the Ottoman Empire, to the rise of the United Kingdom and then the United States, coming into modern times with the resumption of power in Japan and the climb in recent years for India, there’s no doubt that we as people are a fickle species.

Ready to wander the world and often relocate to the cities and countries where exciting things are happening and the opportunities seem to be endless.

Years ago, I read an essay by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (yes, the actor) explaining why the U.S. would have a hold on leadership and power because of Hollywood. As long as Hollywood continued putting out movies and television shows about the lure of U.S. life and dreams, then people around the world would continue to believe that is how it really is.

As an American who has traveled a fair bit, I’m always amazed at how people don’t seem to understand how utterly unrealistic the ‘90s show Friends was. We all knew in the U.S. that no one could afford the lifestyle those six schlubs were swinging in NYC on their salaries; but to many others, if they could just get here, then they too could live in massive, two-bedroom rent-controlled apartments just outside of Greenwich Village in Manhattan for under $1000 per month.  

Even 20 years ago, this is laughable at best.

The point is, whoever is dominating the culture of the moment has a large audience’s attention.

But here’s the thing.

They aren’t just copying someone else.

No one moves from Beijing to London to New Delhi thinking that things are going to be the same. In each location, you’ll see new landmarks and try new food, and meet new people and wear new outfits, and take in different shows and … well, you get the point.

The same goes for your writing.

See, when we really start figuring out what we want to say and how we want to say it, we can cling too tightly.

We say silly things like “Oh, that’s not my brand” or “I’m not interested in that type of content” or various other pass-offs that don’t seem all that silly … at the time.

You don’t want to become shiny-object obsessed, changing yourself with every new whim and fancy.

But you do want to be open to new experiences and mediums and thoughts.

In barely more than 500 years, the world has shifted focus and world power at least seven to 10 times.What changes are happening in your industry or field or mind that you aren’t paying attention to (in other words, you are missing out on) because you don’t want to leave your own backyard?

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