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.

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!

What Happens When Your Muse Doesn’t Answer?

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There’s a lot of confusion about the Muses.

Some say they are Greek (well, most cite the Greek mythology), while others believe that Osiris collected them while traveling through Asia and the Middle East. Depending on which oracle you listened to (aka the area of Greece you lived in), they were either the daughters of Zeus and  Mnemosyne or Uranus and Gaia, and possibly nymphs but most likely goddesses (lowercase “g”).

In certain stories, there are three, others there are nine. Their names and function vary wildly.

Regardless of their origin story, the idea of a “muse” has become a standby reality for creatives. Artists especially seem to have a deep love for their muse of choice; finding their muse in others or a single person, some who find it in an inanimate object or experience.

A few tortured souls seem to find their muse at the bottom of a whiskey bottle or sharp point of a needle.

I like the beautiful idea behind a muse, something that will inspire your passion and desire, but I find little comfort and rationale in basing any of your work and decisions on anyone (or anything) else. What will you do if something happens to your muse? How do you handle it if your muse does not answer your beckon call?

People who live for something else, whether it be their muse or other external sources of inspiration and validation, tend to have a lot of excuses and broken dreams. They kept waiting for an outside force to impact their existence, without realizing that the only way to put their work into motion is to take action themselves.

Muses served an important function in Greek canon and the later Roman Pantheon. Apparently, they were involved in Egyptian mythology as well (which I didn’t know ‘til I started researching muses!)

But constantly waiting for yours to provide the inspiration to get a post written or an article published or a book manuscript drafted will leave you with a lot of ideas and dreams of “What if” with nothing to show for it in the end.

I may or may not be speaking from experience here.*

Finding the People Who Care

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I’ve recently seen a complaint making the rounds from a few prominent writers and marketers, in varied forms, which made me start wondering if I was missing some big story somewhere.

When I asked a couple privately what their real problem was, I was told it was “just a joke.” That old chestnut.

Basically, people taking to social media to call out cooking sites and food bloggers, for including backstories and personal stories in their posts.


Now, I’m immediately going to get irritated by anyone with a platform and following, who jumps on their soapbox to try to declare that people shouldn’t be able to tell their own stories.

I realize I might be weird this way (ok, let’s be real, I’m weird in a lot of ways), but I love reading people’s stories. Getting to know why something is important to them, hearing about their family and traditions, understanding how they came to discover whatever particular thrill brought them to sharing this moment of sharing.

It’s something that perplexes me: how can people not be insatiably intrigued by the people and world around them? Remember Anthony Bourdain? He created an entire food show, phenomenon, and legacy with sitting on flipped over buckets at street markets and just listening people talk to him.

We live in a fascinating time and place, this crazy speck of dust spinning through the universe, and online content gives us the opportunity to get sneak peeks into lives and thoughts and experiences we never had before.

More importantly, I see little point in belittling them, or getting irritated about it.

But that’s unfortunately the way that content marketing and phenomenons like the 24-hour news cycle and eCommerce have conditioned us to think.

That there is no value in stories and writing if they do not serve what YOUR short-term needs and objectives are.

Which is, of course, utter bullshit.

I speak to a lot of writers and creatives in passing, for consultations, during masterminds, and on our podcast Writers’ Rough Drafts.

One of the things we always talk about, when I ask why they started writing or how they built their career, is this need to tell stories. For many, taking to a blog or column or (for those with a long enough writing-background) LiveJournal and ListServ, was the way to get thoughts out of their heads – where they simply swirled around, constantly niggling at them.

Eventually, through practice and working at improving their craft, they started to get more attention. More than just the 12 original old-school RSS feed subscribers, and their Mom.

They found an audience that was filled with “their people.”

And I suppose that is my greatest problem with criticisms like the one above.

When people with platforms try to tell others that their stories aren’t worth reading, it is most likely because they are stories that that person is not interested in.

While I love stories, I don’t read ALL THE STORIES. I don’t finish every book I start. I click away from more articles than I complete. I daydream my mind off into an exploration of no less than one million rabbitholes every time I am forced to make small talk with strangers at dinner parties.

That doesn’t mean the stories aren’t worthy of being written and shared.

It means that I am not the person the stories are being written for.

If these people are looking for recipes to “feed their family” (honestly, how condescending and shameful can you get?!), then they simply need to look at recipe sites. It’s exactly what they were created for. They have one job, and it is to focus on the one thing, that in an instant, fulfills their commoditized need and one-track mind.

They need a recipe, they go to a recipe site, they get a recipe. Bada-bing, bada-boom.

There’s a place for them to find exactly what they are looking for, yet they take the time to instead whinge about a site that is obviously not for them.

And that, my friend, is the most important part of this whole message.

Those cooking sites and food bloggers are not creating content and websites for them.

They are creating stories and experiences for their people – the people who crave the background and personal anecdotes. The personality and the fun. The process and steps and how-to.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, there are a number lifestyle bloggers and online influencers doing quite well, doing just that.

So it really frosts my cookies (I heard that phrase once and it made me chuckle; and since this is a food-themed piece, we’ll go with it) when I read things like this, especially from prominent personalities.

As if we don’t have enough to deal with in a world where the poignant is so easily replaced by the sensational.

I’m not going to give you the special snowflake line, where I tell you that you will absolutely make a ton of money one day, just by being yourself and telling your stories. The newly available addresses listed on domain registries across the internet will show you a deepening reservoir of folks who tried and weren’t able to succeed.

Maybe they gave up too early. Maybe they couldn’t make the commitment to practice and improve. Maybe they are that person at the dinner party who drones on in a way that makes everyone around them “go to their happy place” to smile and nod their way out, slowly backing away.

Or maybe, they are taking advice from these jerks, who want a world filled only with the quickly passing trends that serve a singular function, so they create content that doesn’t build a fiercely devoted community and instead is write for an audience that will probably never read them anyway.

There will always be a market for quick and easy, and it will likely make lots of money. If that’s the route you want to go, then you do you, boo.

But if you want to make the time, put in the practice, improve your craft, and tell your stories…in my experience, from the conversations I have, and through the successes I see again and again…it does pay off.

You need to find your people.

Don’t focus on the people who tell you they only want what you don’t provide.

Focus on the ones who are desperate for the experience only you can create.

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