You'll hear in writing courses and author's workshops across the nation: Kill your darlings. Supposedly advice from Faulkner, "kill your darlings" means letting go of your work — even when it is beautiful, hard-won work — in order to make progress in a piece of writing. That beautiful landscape description your readers will simply skip? That character you spent months developing but turns out to be unimportant to the plot? Off with their heads. On with your work.
Making a home is writing. It combines what is already available, like a blank sheet of paper, with human creativity and work, work, work. The longer you work at a home — like writing a long story — the harder it feels to start over. Even if I hate how my work is turning out, the moment spent evaluating the loss of time and effort makes me cling to the work stronger.
Kill your darlings is a cliché, but one which forces me to recognize that I'm hardly the first person to paint most of a room before realizing I hate the color. It guides me to acknowledge failures and mistakes and move on. I won't be the last person to stop wasting water on a garden that isn't panning out. Let it dry and die. Sorry, darlings.
Yet like writing, taking care of a home is a practice in which you never truly start over; you are always building on the work you have done. When you wipe the surface clean, the work remains in what you know, the way you carry yourself forward; it is in your fingers and flows through the next project.
Last year, which was my first year in my first real home, I spent the summer moving gravel from the backyard to the front yard. Tons of rock — literally. I built a sieve and separated sandy soil from grey rock one shovel at a time. After nearly a year's work, the new area of rock in the front yard looked like a modern, clean, maintainable entrance to our home. It was perfect.
Less than a month later, as spring neared, I realized the new rock was the only strip of land suitable for a garden on the entire property.
It doesn't matter where the rock is because I already know I have the power to move it.
Should I lose this home tomorrow, I would not regret the hours lost standing over that sieve.
I had a few minutes of mourning my darling before grabbing my shovel, and now I've spent two months back at the sieve.
As I have shoveled I have come to realize something: I do not regret a single word I have written. Not one dramatic diary entry, not one meaningless blog post, not the memoir pieces I'll never pursue publishing because they are too close to my heart. For each I suffered, in the moment, some form of disappointment, embarrassment or confusion on which way to move forward. In time, each has seemed so obviously like the sieve and muscle I built over the course of the past year. It doesn't matter where the rock is because I already know I have the power to move it. Should I lose this home tomorrow, I would not regret the hours lost standing over that sieve.
A poetry professor once asked my class when a poem is considered finished. Authors like Emily Dickinson are famous for having several versions of poems for which there is no authoritative final version. We concluded that a poem was likely never finished. There are obvious milestones, like line 14 of your sonnet or the first publication, but an author could tinker with a line break for the rest of his life and consider each edit to be the true poem.
Such it is for my home: always a work in progress, yet always the best version I've come up with yet.