I was asked to write a critical reflection of my time in the Writing and Editing course in my third and final year at Rhodes University. This is what I came up with, proof that when you leave my brain UnCorke’d, the most bizarre things appear.
The Art of Killing Darlings
A One Act Play
The lights open on two characters identical in appearance. They sit opposite each other on an empty stage in front of laptops, facing each other. Editor is smaller than her identical twin, with torn up clothes and there are bruises all up her arm. She sits in front of the laptop, panting. Writer sits proud and tall, furiously typing in a trance. A printer on the table next to both characters keeps shooting out pages and pages of words, covering every part of the page. Editor tries to catch them and fails each time. She eventually stops and begins crying.
Editor: I cannot. I will not. I am trying to help you.
Editor screams and throws the papers in the air, in the direction of Writer. Writer takes no notice of her. She continues and more pages are delivered from the printer.
Editor: Do you even notice me here? I stand here everyday, begging you to notice me. You never have the time; you batter me down under the pages with words so heavy they crush my bones to dust. Annie Dillard sat with me, she held me while I cried and I begged her to tell me how I could save this relationship. She said that when you write you lie out a line of words and that line of words has become a hammer. I bare the bruises from your hammer and there is no more room on my body for your abuse. Just STOP!
Writer: (She jumps at the shrill that comes from the Editor) If you break this flow, I will never forgive you. I cannot stop. That is not an option. Your cries are more deafening than a squealing pig, your speed in your work is more frustrating than watching a blind man walk through a crowd. You lag behind, you kill my flow and even worse you kill my words. You delete the work I shed my sanity for and I must start over. But with what, what sanity do I have left to give to my words? So no. You stop!
Editor: Your greatest strength has become your greatest weakness. Even Goethe said “do not hurry”.
Writer: Where is your ‘meticulousness’ now hey, silly wench? Goethe also said, “do not rest”. Your beloved Annie Dillard also churned through the madness that is being a writer. She also said that; “when I write, soon I find myself in deep uncharted territory”. Is it a dead end now or have I located the real subject? All I can do is hurry, from one deadline to the next and all you can do is slow me down.
Editor: But if I don’t slow you down, you shave away the bits and pieces of your reputation and spectacular reputation. You write and write, news report to news report without taking a break to actually read what you have written. And then the typos flow in, in tsunami waves.
Writer: I am the sea and nobody owns me. (Writer screams this as she slams shut the laptop lid.)
Editor: And whom are you attributing that to? If I wasn’t there you would send that off, without attributing that to Pippi Longstockings. Your reputation would slowly diminish into nothing. You are lost in this sea of yours. You argue with yourself over and over. You work yourself to a bone that you ground to dust long ago. Annie said that this was your problem. She asked me how many books do we read in which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical chord? She asked me how many gifts do we open where the writer neglected to remove the price tag? You are this writer when you give me no chance to create life out of your writing. I give your words life, I correct their imperfections and breathe existence on their simplicities.
Writer: I am the artist here, not you! It takes courage to pour myself into the written word. Without it I am nothing and without me, you are nothing. So let me be, this deadline closes in three minutes.
Editor: Annie Dillard said the written word is weak, that many people prefer life to it because life keeps your blood pumping. You are mere writing without me, impure writing. That must get under that short temper and make your blood boil. You are an imperfect writer and you will never reach perfection no matter how much your printer churns out. Not in the way you think you will, not without me.
Writer throws her head into her hands and she is to be rocking back and forth. In the background there is a faint sound of ticking, the sound slowly grows as time goes on.
Editor: I should let you suffer in your pool of your own self-importance. After the neglect you give to me and our darlings. I should let your reputation be slowly beaten away like you repeatedly let your typos and mistakes beat me down.
Writer: You are the hypocrite worse than them all because no one suspects you and your bruises to ever be so spiteful. You have killed off MY darlings, one by one, removing them from a story that was otherwise superb. You have ripped them from the page. You let the blood run down your keyboard as you rip them from me. Why? Because you are jealous. Because you are not great, you are slow.
Editor: Have you ever given me the chance to be great? You have never given me the chance to grow!
Writer: How could I when you sit there with my darlings blood on your hands?
Editor: You will never see past your own self-importance to realise that I am doing this for your own good. When Annie Dillard heard about our distorted relationship, she said that there are several delusions that weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work. If she has read the pages too many times like you do, they will perfectly answer your own familiar rhythms and you retain them. You have to trim the flab; you heard these words from a writer that you admire and learn from. She is your mentor and she said that I was right. She does not have these arguments with this part of herself.
Writer: That is because she does not ever have you sitting on her shoulder, constantly slowing her down. You may run off to Annie and complain about how down beaten you are but do you tell her what you do to my work? Annie said you are as guilty as I am! She said that you could save some of the sentences like bricks in a broken down house. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs no matter how excellent they are. But you don’t. You don’t ask my permission to shave away a part of me.
The ticking is now so unbearably loud that the characters are screaming over the noise. The printers both begin to beep loudly.
Editor: I am a part of you and you regularly shave me away. Coherent writing is beauty without blemishes. It is the perfection you seek in yourself every day. I know you spend hours in front of the mirror looking for it and I know that it was your writing that saved your life. Let writing be the perfection you seek. But you can’t do this without me.
Writer appears to be shaking in the same way a person would during drug withdrawal. With each tick she jumps. Editor looks at her for a while before she starts crying.
Writer: I just do not have it in me to continue with this. I have so much talent. I have such a way with words, I have been told that before. And yet Gill Rennie asks for more of you. I write for perfection, I don’t want blood on my hands for killing my darlings. My chest closes each day before I even take my first breath under the pressure. The time ticks away faster than I can handle and all the while I feel my sanity ticking away with it. I am stretched in so many directions I forget which way is up. Annie Dillard once said to me that writer’s work from left to right and the discardable chapters are on the left. The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the middle. That is the writing life. I am stretched so far that I can never find the middle.
Editor: You are overworked and we both suffer for it. Gill gave you the reprieve. Start making use of your time in a way that you are writing for all your jobs at the same time. The whole idea was to save time so that I could have time to fix the mistakes you could not see! I read over your emails, your articles and your essays and they are littered with typos like a broken open garbage bag. Nick Stockton wrote an interesting article on typos that you did not get a chance to read but I did. He said, “they are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics”. The pass pile is your idea of hell. You only want to be noticed for being extraordinary. You credit your dreams with saving your life, don’t drown them in greed.
Writer: I feel like I am drowning, soon to be sucked into the pass pile.
Writer eventually slumps off the chair. Editor slowly sits up straighter. The ticking stops and the printers jam. There is a deafening silence. After some time Editor breaks the silence.
Editor: This is your distorted relationship with words playing out and it is slowly desiccating your relationship with me. Give me some time. Give me some attention. Show me your faith in me and us. I am not killing our darlings; I am showing the right attention to the darlings who deserve it. I am giving the darlings who matter time and space to grow and not whoring out my abilities to every darling that spawns from that incredible mind of yours. Let me help you.
Writer: I hate how much I love you. I hate how much you are so right. I hate how much neglect you have had to put up with. I am drowning, please save me.
Silence. Writer looks up at Editor and they embrace.
The plight of the writer obsessed with greatness
An interview with Emily Corke
Emily Corke, journalist and aspiring novelist, reflects on her infinite quest for perfection.
Written like the mumblings in the mind of insanity, The Art of Killing Darlings, is a script showing the insanity of a writer and her perpetual arguments with the little devil on her shoulder. Becoming a writer is like choosing to take a long walk off a short bridge. With my constant quest for greatness, the bridge was even shorter for me.
I wrote this script to illustrate the personal battle that had made its way into my professional psyche. It was a peak inside my brain as I made my way through WRITING and EDITING so early in my career. Anthea Garmin, a mentor I greatly admired, at the time had tried to get through to me early enough to save me from the abusive relationship between two of my professional brains. I walked right into a distorted argument with myself, half way through my third year.
I am a person obsessed with perfection. It manifested in the worst ways and in the best ways. I was addicted to it and as with all addictions they run their course. Anthea had warned me, my biggest strength became my greatest weakness. As the short play suggests by the constant rattling of emotional abuse, the Writer in me had for so long neglected the Editor, and it showed through in my work. As Annie Dillard noted writing without life is only worthy for the “pass pile” and for the mistakes to slip through like they did, the pass pile was imminent for me.
My distorted relationship with perfection and the Editor in me manifested most in what I still class as my enemy in writing: word counts. Killing my darlings (as painful as slicing away a part of you with a blunt knife) was something the Writer could never forgive the Editor for doing, or let her do at all. In fact, there was little the Editor could do against the angst that is cutting away my darlings. I would save drafts of articles that were too long for any attention span, let alone the human race. Academically, I could make a case for long word counts but soon these was little I could say to justify them other than the fact that I was obsessed with words and greatness which I had so defined in my epics of essays. Learning to kill my darlings, was probably the toughest lesson I learnt in that year. At the time I read a piece by Forest Wickman, who said killing your darlings was where “you have to get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work”. I was a self-indulgent writer, which you can see come through in the script. Editor is harsh in saying Writer is wrapped up in her own self-importance but it was true. I learnt that lesson very quickly. The writer in me was abusive, dominant and overworked while the editor in me had not been given the space to shine.
That was of course my other problem, and at the time another mentor of mine, Gillian Rennie who I also greatly admired, reached out to try to help me. I was absolutely swamped. In true Emily Corke style I had bitten off more than I could handle and this meant I had no time to give to the real objectives that Gillian and another mentor, Rod Amner were trying to achieve. In all honesty, the feature writing and extra blogging work was lost with me as I was already the news editor for a local paper, The Oppidan Press. The extra work from the blogging course caused more stress than I needed and I felt that I had gained nothing. I gaged that there was little I could learn when I had been working in Grahamstown for so long, as a journalist for the Embizweni blog. That being said, it was during this time that Gillian was able to pick up the distorted relationship I was in. Like any abusive relationship, the abuser was brought down by her own circumstances and she took it out on the abused who was battered and beaten to the point of submission.
At that point of submission, her growth as an editor was stunted and the perfection of the writer was impossible. As a writer, my greatest strength was to turn out article after article, academic essay after academic essay. But soon I lost sight of what really mattered, as Annie Dillard put it, bringing mere writing to life. Writing is just words and with typos and grammar mistakes, words are lifeless. Editing brings writing to life. As Gillian always used to say to me, cut away the flab, trim the meaningless information. Working at the rate I was working at, I looked past all the typos and mistakes, the pass-pile crept up and perfection was far from achievable. I had to take steps to give room for the Editor in me to grow. The Art of Killing Darlings shows that progression at the point of near melt down because at the time I realised the value of my editing, the workload had overloaded my sanity to the brink of extinction. The ticking and the printers in the script are the visual representation of the sounds and images that were forever going off in my head. There was never enough time. Never enough words.
Eventually something had to give, and that was my inability to say no and the fear of failure. That conscious decision changed my identity as a writer. I was too proud to accept any help or criticism. Through that year, working with my mentors, on different blogs and publications and working in a workload no one should ever handle; I evolved as a writer into something more sincere. I learnt the soft act of killing my darlings.