Kill your darlings: what being a writer taught me about homemaking

March 13 | Guest post by Rodrigues
By: xlibberCC BY 2.0

"Kill your darlings" is one of the writing terms which has become a mantra to me over the last year of homemaking.

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. 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.

  1. This is very thoughtful advice. I didn't think about something like this before. Sometimes I get so attached to something that I spent so much time working/fixing/whatever, I don't realize it doesn't actually work. Thanks!

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  2. THIS. This is one of the primary lessons I'm learning in my first year of grad school, along with "You can never rewrite too many times" and "Writing is research."

    • I hadn't thought of "Writing is research"! That is a great crossover, too… it is a creative process but it is usually improved with prior legwork.

      • "Writing is research" is something my advisor says… I think his point is that you should be writing, writing, writing all the time- even as you're reading and doing other traditional research tasks- because it's writing that really helps you work out ideas for yourself. It's less of an "in the head" process and more of an "on the page" process… which is what I'm struggling with!

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  3. This is perfect, because I have a hard time letting go. I'm in the process of trying so very hard to throw things away and it is difficult. I have to keep asking myself: Would I rather keep this item or get rid of it to make room for something else?

    • I'm trying to do this in the face of a near-future move, and my mindset has become "If i had to pack a suitcase tomorrow, would this come with me? No? then is it something i would spend my first paycheck in a new country replacing? No? Then why am i allowing it to take up space in my life?"
      …be aware i'm saying this surrounded by precariously stacked piles of crap, but the thought is there XD

  4. Life is like the writing process, no? We're always going back to our source material, always trying slightly different routes… Always revising what we've done…
    But anyway. Good post! I like the application of "Kill your darlings" to home projects and home stuff. I also really like the idea that no experience is wasted, even if the project doesn't work out… I agree with that, 100%.

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    • I agree that all life is like this. I'm killing a lot of darlings at the moment and it has not much to do with writing or housework.

    • Hey! Thanks! I'll change the source on the Pin :)

  5. Lovely post. My first thought was knitting. Sometimes I've put hours and hours and hours into a project, and it just isn't working. And I have to rip it out. When I was new to it, that was heart-breaking. Sometimes it can be therapeutic. I'd almost finished a scarf as a Christmas present for a boyfriend when he dumped me. I ripped it out and gave the yarn away, and it felt great. Now I mostly don't mind, although I just finished a beret knit in reverse stockinette (all purl) on size two needles, and I'm not happy with it. Not something I'll wear, not something I feel is good enough to give away, but I can't quite bring myself to rip it out. Maybe it's time.

    2 agree

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