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Creative Pros are Stone Cold Killers

By Erica Wilkinson

When I watched this video of David Sedaris on the Daily Show it felt like I’d been gut-punched.

Right smack in the middle of joking with Jon Stewart about the intricacies of inter-species dating, and how he came to title his collection of animal fables, he tossed out this sentence:

“What I wanted to do was write twenty-five stories, and then cut ten of them.”

Now Sedaris has been called the Mark Twain of our age, and the funniest writer alive. Everything he publishes is a best seller, yet here he is, telling us in a passing remark that he threw out 40% of the material he produced for this book.

Joy Williams of the amazing folk duo “The Civil Wars” said much the same thing when talking about the band’s latest self-titled album, saying that they wrote 20 songs, and then chose the best 12 to put into the album. Again, here were two-time-Grammy-winning, certified-gold musicians who cut 40% of what they created.

They purposefully over produced in order to have the freedom to choose only their best work.

In theory this is great. It is a safeguard against bad days, poor execution, low blood sugar, and the vicissitudes of life, insuring that your creative work is uniformly awesome.

murderyourdarlings1

In practice this is terrifying. At least it is to me. A potent cocktail of pride, fear, and weariness rebels at the very idea of slashing that much from any project that I’ve struggled so mightily to bring into the world.

In truth, I suck at it.

Sir Aurther Quiller-Couch tells writers to, “Murder your darlings”, and¬†considering the strength of that language, I’m fairly sure that he wasn’t talking about nipping off a phrase here or slicing up a paragraph there. He was talking about a blood bath.

So, I’m working up a plan to become a professional assassin. Starting slowly at first, and then gradually escalating, like any good murderess would. Of the next 20 pieces I write, I’m only going to post 19. Then I’m going to cut 1 from the next ten. Then 1 out of 5, and so on, until on my most important projects I’m averaging a 30%-40% kill rate.

Pros aren’t afraid of running out of ideas. Pros maintain a professional distance and can self-evaluate. Pros take it for granted that if they don’t over produce, eventually they’ll under deliver.

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