Murder your darlings

Of all the advice I’ve ever heard or read on the art of writing, the best comes from one of my college English professors. She was English herself, and said to me in the way that only a Brit can, “Murder your darlings.”

The phrase comes from a lecture titled “On Style” given by British journalist, critic, and novelist Arthur Quiller-Couch when he was serving as a professor of English at Cambridge University in the early 20th century. The idea is to write objectively and avoid getting so lost in love with your favorite words, phrases, or ideas that you can’t “murder” them for the sake of creating something more succinctly wonderful.

Seeing the slashes of my professor’s red pencil in my mind, this phrase is almost always with me when I write. What I didn’t expect was for this phrase to start creeping into other areas of my life far beyond the laptop. Of particular interest is its application to motherhood. Let me elaborate. (As succinctly as possible.)

  1. Time management. This is a skill no mother can live without, and I’ve had to learn it the hard way. Far too many times I’ve ended up in a messy heap of frustration and discouragement simply because I tried to do more in a day than humanly possible. (This was especially true when there were babies and very small children in my home.) An hour of exercise, a home project, and a made-from-scratch dinner on the same day as volunteering at the preschool? Uh-uh. Knowing how to murder the darlings in your daily schedule can be the difference between going to bed with contentment and going to bed in tears.
  2. Home management. Who hasn’t let their home get overwhelmed at times by baby gear, toys, clothes, books, craft supplies, kitchen gadgets, and even furniture? Murdering your darlings in the home means getting rid of all the stuff that is cluttering up your life both physically and emotionally–even if it’s a “favorite” or was a graduation gift from Aunt Judy. There is no trinket or favorite dress worth the peace of mind that comes from a clutter free home.
  3. Extracurricular activities. Oh, have I struggled with this one in the past! (And maybe even sometimes in the present . . .) It’s tough to strike a balance between signing your kids up for multiple activities to help them figure out their calling in life (isn’t that what the rec. center cheer class is all about?) and just letting them evolve “organically” through the simple, unadulterated life of a kid. But if you can’t sit down as a family for dinner most nights of the week because of all the “extras” on your child’s plate, it’s probably time to murder some darlings on the after school schedule.
  4. Outside commitments. Similar to extracurricular activities, but these are the “extras” you take on for yourself. Depending on what’s happening in your home, it just might not be the best year to serve as PTA president, start your own home business, go back to school, or start training for a triathlon in the spring–even if it’s been your lifelong dream! Someone once said you shouldn’t try to sing all the verses of your song at once. Save some of your dreams for later. There will most likely be other times when those darlings can come to life.
  5. Friends and family. This one can be a little sensitive, but when you have the responsibilities of a mother, certain friends and family members may need to be relegated to the Christmas card list. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time and space for all the people we’ve ever known–especially the toxic ones. (Which is why Facebook can be so overwhelming!) Your first obligation is to your husband (if you have one) and children, not your girlfriend in the middle of a wardrobe crisis, and definitely not your sister-in-law who wants to vent and complain about her husband every day. To extend the murder analogy a little bit farther, trying to maintain too many relationships in your life–toxic or otherwise–can feel like death by a thousand cuts. Murder some of them. (But just figuratively, okay?)

The Chinese author Lin Yutang said, “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the nobler art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” In essence, “murdering your darlings” is about cutting out the non-essentials. And much like the art of writing, when we murder the non-essential darlings in our realm of motherhood, we’ll most likely create something much more wonderful as the living breathing darlings in our life are able to come shining through.

QUESTION: What are some of the darlings you need to murder in your life?

CHALLENGE: Choose just one darling to murder from one of the categories above.

One comment

  1. Danny Chipman

    Having been to many a writing class and conference, I’ve heard the “murder your darlings” phrase many a time. This article couldn’t come in a more timely manner for me, with three children under the age of 6 at home, the baby being just 2 months old (but finally sleeping through the night!) Thanks for such a great post!

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