Killing My Darlings

The is the ‘wrong’ kitten. I can tell.
I love writing. I’ve been doing it since I first learned how. Letters, journal entries, poems, essays, plays, fiction – you name it, I have scribbled it out in a crabbed long hand or tapped it out on a keyboard.

At age twelve, I took a stab at my first novel, beginning with these unforgettable lines:

Laura lived in her own world. No one else lived in Laura’s world. Laura was alone in her own little world.

Okay, so it took me a while to discover the joy of editing and the rule of showing, rather than telling. But that wasn’t the only problem with that first novel.

Take my main character, what was her name? Oh right, Laura. She was a 12 year old whose parents had just died in a car crash, which left her blind. And an orphan. At that age there was nothing, and I mean NOTHING, more romantic to me than being an orphan. The thought of having no parents around to tell me to clean up my room or do my homework was almost unbearably attractive. I killed off my parents regularly in my dreams and  fortuitiously dead parents would be a theme in almost all my early work. These days, I’d likely be sent to a psychiatrist’s office for such fictional patricide/matricide. But of course it was all in the service of making myself a figure of maximum sympathy and mystery.

Wait, did I say me? I meant Laura.

My twelve-year old romance novelist self spent months crafting a compelling story.  It started with Laura in the hospital, (alone, did I mention that?) unaware that her parents are dead. To cheer her up, the nurse, a sweet, elderly Swedish woman named Ilsa, brings  Laura’s pet kitten for a visit and puts it in her hands. Our young heroine is thrilled, then freezes. Suddenly, she knows! She can tell that this is not her kitten! This is a replacement kitten! And in that awful moment, she knows (don’t ask me how) that everyone has been lying to her, her parents are dead, and so is the original kitten, who must have also perished in the crash. (Because losing one’s parents is not sufficiently terrible. I had to kill a cat.)  This scene, which my twelve year-old self thought a stroke of sheer genius, established Laura’s preternatural sensitivity. She could divine the falseness of the feline just by touching its fur! What amazing perceptivity! What delicate palms! What drama!

Now the story really picked up steam. A dashing young doctor appeared! Gifted and caring, he would soon miraculously restore Laura’s eye sight. But first, he caught the eye of Ilsa, who was now German and growing younger and prettier by the page. Nurse and doctor started flirting and slowly, I began to hate my own story. My beloved Laura sat in the corner, ignored, blindly petting the wrong kitten while two supporting characters were falling in love with each other. This was a serious problem. So I wrote my way out of it. As the chapters piled up, Laura aged rapidly until she was mature enough to lure the doctor away from the now ugly and entirely unpleasant (and unexpectedly French) Ilsa.

The kitten was never seen again.

I kept writing in a frenzy and the improbabilities piled up until one day, I just lost interest. Laura was no longer a romantic loner; she had an adoring doctor, 20/20 vision and probably, a life long enemy in the jilted Russian, Ilsa. But who cared? They were all now adults. Just like my parents. I put the novel in a drawer (literally) and forgot about it for years.

I wish I still had it. I would love to read my early, purple prose and reconnect with that thrill, that certainty that no matter how illogical, what was I was getting on paper was THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD. It was a wonderful feeling.

I don’t get that much anymore. The love affair is more mature, balanced by an understanding of the work involved. I know now that the stuff I love the best, that gives me a tiny taste of that long-ago writerly delirium, will probably end up being cut because, as William Faulkner put it, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

So the parents in my stories get to live and my darlings must die. I guess that’s progress.

On those days when it is SO HARD to get myself to settle at my desk and take up the lonely, lonely work, I’ve started a new ritual. “Jayne writes in a world of her own,” I whisper to myself. “No one else writes in her world. Jayne writes alone in her own little world.”

It makes me laugh. It soothes me. And reminds me that no matter how bad it gets, I can always write my way out of it.