Kill Your Darlings

It’s been over a year since I’ve blogged. Now here I am sitting at my laptop staring at the title I’ve chosen for this piece, wondering if I still have what it takes to do this. I usually wouldn’t select the title for an entry until I’ve at least finished my first draft. But after spending so long away from this site it seemed only fitting that if I were to post something, that I should break the mould of my own creative process and try something new while doing it. So here we go. Hopefully what comes next isn’t too rusty.

To kill your darlings is a phrase often wrongfully attributed to the American writer William Faulkner, but which can be traced back to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. The expression suggests that a writer must attempt to ruthlessly eliminate anything they personally love that does nothing to advance their story. And anything means anything; characters, turns of phrase, and subplots should all be stripped back and cast aside if they don’t contribute towards driving the narrative forward. As a writer who has been through several bouts of manuscript edits, it’s a concept that I have often found myself contemplating as I read through the works of others, whilst also fighting vehemently against when an editor inevitably suggests a heavy-handed revision of my own labours of love. 

When it’s someone else’s prose that needs refinement, it’s easy to see. Ask anyone game enough to ask me for my opinion on a book or article that I’ve read and they’ll tell you that I can be hyper critical. But when it’s my own work, the process of methodically laying to rest the superfluous ideas I have fallen in love with is far more arduous. It isn’t easy to fight against my own ego and see the world from the viewpoint of my reader, rather than the egotistical writer that I am. 

This complexity of shifting perspective and overcoming ego extends far beyond writing too. As a friend, a family member, or just a stranger watching from a distance it’s easy to see the people or afflictions in the lives of those around us that should be delegated to the cutting room floor. Shit, I can’t even begin to fathom the amount of times that I’ve uttered phrases like they’d be better off without him/her, or If I was them I’d leave that job, and countless others; only to fail to recognise that I too am tormented by many of prohibitive factors and traits that I so readily identify in others. Factors and traits which ultimately detract from the narrative of who I am. And who I want to be.

So, for the rest of this post I want to try and separate my amour propre from my work and kill an idea that I wrote about way back on the 26th of January 2014. Because while I was proud of what I wrote at the time, I’d like to believe that I have grown a lot in the eight and a half years since. The blog post that I once considered a darling of this site has been rendered redundant by the experiences that have since moulded and defined me. It no longer serves any purpose in the story of my life. 

The post started like this…

Here’s the thing: Respect isn’t given. It’s earned. It doesn’t grow on a tree and doesn’t come attached to a label or title; it’s received as a reward for your time spent in the trenches of life battling alongside your fellow man.

…It’s cringe worthy, right? I hate so much about that introduction that as I sit here and prepare to chide my younger self, I honestly don’t even know where to begin. There’s a weird line about battling in trenches, references to a label or title (I originally wrote the post because I was pissed off about being overlooked for a promotion at a company I left soon after), and the clichéd it doesn’t grow on a tree analogy that absolutely misses the intended mark. But it’s the idea that that respect is earned rather than given that I want to lay to rest because it irks me that I once wrote about an ideology that I’ve since grown to passionately disagree with. 

Before I go any further, it seems important to note that I’m not perfect. Nor am I going to pretend that I am at any point in this post…

I’m imperfect in so many ways, and while I do try to be respectful towards everyone, the truth is that I’ve been in more fights in the past couple of years than any other period my life. Not because I’m an arsehole; I’m a hell of a lot calmer than I was in my twenties. My sharp increase in physical confrontations has stemmed from a return to competitive sport and my own ruthless desire to win. I always start off a competition being courteous towards my opponents. But those courtesies can be taken away. And when they are, my desire to win can get the better of me and lead to some heated moments. It doesn’t help that I’m a talker. And an opinionated one at that. It’s a trait that can really get under someone’s skin in a competitive environment and I’ve been known to use that knowledge to my full advantage at times.

I’m digressing. But for good reason. It’s so easy to cultivate false perceptions of oneself online; convincing others that we are infallible when the truth is that we are anything but. I’d love to say that I’m always respectful, but I’m not. Sometimes I can be a real dick. We all can. Yet despite our shortcomings and moments of frustration, it’s important to remember that respect should be our default setting towards others. Why? Well, apart from the obvious that if it is something that must be earned we’d all be a bunch of abrasive assholes who never form any meaningful connections because we believe that everyone owes us something, or must validate themselves to us; the simple answer is that feeling respected promotes feelings of psychological safety. 

Respect provides a sense of security to speak up, to share ideas, and feel included. It also reduces someone’s susceptibility towards bullying and hate, which in a society that is increasingly polarised and divided on issues both legitimate and trivial, seems pretty damn important.

So then why do we as a society often assume that respect should be earned? I mean, aside from the fact that so many of those awful motivational social media pages plaster the adage across well-rendered images billionaires, or stacks of cash and bombard our newsfeeds to capture our attention… Sadly, one of the biggest reasons is fear. 

We fear that if we offer respect to everybody, then we risk it being abused by somebody. That by being polite, friendly, and open to establishing lines of effective communication we make ourselves vulnerable to the minority of people who may take advantage of our generosity. But refusing to default to respect because we’re afraid it will be abused is foolish. It creates a world full of the abrasive assholes that I mentioned above. And we all know from our own personal experience that it hurts when someone shows us a lack of respect that we believe to be unwarranted. It makes us feel upset, and closed off; as though our psychological safety has been attacked or called into question.

Perhaps a better way to protect ourselves from the slim percentage of individuals who exploit our respect is to learn how to take it away. Because while I whole heartedly believe in offering a default level of common courtesy to everyone we meet, I recognise the importance of taking it away when it is mistreated.  

Unfortunately for me, a true definition of mistreatment probably doesn’t extend as far as I selfishly assume it does on a basketball court. Someone intentionally committing a dirty foul probably doesn’t justify my reactions or verbal taunting. But it does extend far enough to cover those who purposely or repeatedly, even if unintentionally, cause us harm. Whether that harm be physical, emotional, financial or whatever else is unimportant. What is important is being established enough in our understanding of self to know when we’ve reached our limit in a relationship and when it is time to pull back that default level of respect and walk away.

I’m not sure if I’ve managed to kill the idea that I originally wrote about in 2014 by writing this

I’d like to hope so. But the truth is that I think I’ve just learned to see the world from an alternate perspective. As someone who is learning to approach everyone I meet with a base level of polite thoughtfulness, as well as being someone who has been on the receiving end of the it must be earned ideology, I can honestly say that the former gets you a hell of a lot further in life and relationships than the latter. 

I could have just deleted my original post rather than recanting it like this. Or even just ignored it as though I’d never written it at all. But there’s no growth in erasing the past or pretending it doesn’t exist. Instead, I thought it’d be fun to embrace it. To admit that I was wrong and kill something that I once thought to be a darling before closing out this piece with the kind of analogy that a younger and admittedly less rusty version of me would have taken a lot of pride in constructing. 

At thirty-three years of age I’ve come to realise that forming and maintaining relationships is much like tending to a garden. If each time you encounter someone new you plant a little sapling of appreciation, eventually your garden will grow. Sure, you’ll have some bad weather days where some saplings don’t survive, and inadvertently plant a few weeds that you need to remove from time to time. But for the most part you’ll have a beautiful plot full of vibrant colours and diversity to tend to. But if you hold onto those saplings until the weather is just right and people prove themselves worthy to earn their place in your garden, you might avoid the weeds, but you’re likely to end up with an anaemic looking plot that is mostly soil and devoid of the brilliant vibrancy you truly deserve.

Offer people respect, and they’ll enrich your life (and possibly your garden) in ways that you never thought possible.

Author: Chris Nicholas

Chris Nicholas is an author from Brisbane, Australia. He has published two novels, and is currently working on his third.

27 thoughts on “Kill Your Darlings”

  1. I appreciate the words. Especially about taking away the mistreated. If we can do that in real life, not only books, our lives wold be complete! Thank you for the wisdom to kill the character (in the writings, not for real, the need is to escape or solve the uncomfortable).

  2. Ah…the revelations of aging provide hindsight to improve present foresight. Its a lifelong process. That’s where editing and deleting is beneficial to us writers. Thank you for sharing yours.

  3. I agree with both your arguments. I promise I am not wishy-washy. I used to work in fast food. One of the prevailing attitudes among managers is that you had to respect the button-up shirt. Among the crew, it was this: you respect the shirt, but not necessarily the guy wearing it. So respect was classified into two different categories–initial respect and earned respect. You respected the guy because he’d gone through the training and had been deemed competent. It was only after he showed up in the rough times that he earned the respect. Everyone should be treated with initial respect. It’s a starting point. Whether the person keeps or loses the respect from that point is up to them. It is the same for any authority figure.

    When you treat someone who is not in authority over you with respect, that reflects on your character. How long the recipient of this respect keeps it is up to them. If you treat those people whom most do not hold in any regard with respect, they will respond with gratitude. If you treat those who are lower in the corporate latter than you with respect, you earn theirs, and their loyalty as well. The only people that DESERVE respect are those that have earned it. But those people you meet for the first time should be treated with at least initial respect.

  4. A lifetime ago I read an interview with Larry Niven. He related a story about being at a con and talking with another author at the bar.

    “Sure,” the other said, “you’ve got all of Known Space. But how do you destroy it?”
    I realized in that moment, Niven said, that you do not really own your story unless you are willing to wreck everything.

    I took that to heart in the second of my two-books series, “Foes and Rivals.”

  5. A good topic for discussion.

    I am someone who believes in people earning my trust. But, before you start yelling at me, let me explain.
    You could either have different tiers of respect or … just call SOME things respect, but not all.
    Here’s the thing – I treat whoever I come into contact with with decency. It’s the baseline. I don’t know them, so I give them a benefit of the doubt. I wouldn’t want to behave like an ass. However, after that, the ball is in their court. We can remain at the first tier – decency and mutual respect, or we can move up or down. If they do something off, they go into the negative. They don’t lose my respect because they never really had it, but they lost the baseline of decency. If they do something good in my eyes, respect can be gained.

    I do understand your argument about respect not being earned. However, I do have a problem with it because of some people who are given baseline decency, mess up, go into the negative, and then cry that you don’t shower them with flower petals. That’s not how it works. If you act like an ass, I am NOT obliged to carry you on my shoulders.

  6. (So glad to see a post from you!!) Many years ago I learned that Respect (something I was raised to give unquestioned) is Givearned. It is both given and earned. Someone earlier commented about respecting a person’s “shirt” or role/position. This goes along with what Goldie said about that initial baseline personal respect. Then there’s the earned respect that comes from a real relationship back-and-forth. So there’s respect that’s given and there’s respect that’s earned. And sometimes we give respect where “none is due”, say with an older family member who is a terrible person, but we choose to show respect/deference regardless of the fact they do not Earn that respect.

    It’s an interesting topic to meditate on and discuss, assuredly.

    That aside, I really like this, that you’ve taken this old idea/draft and recognized your own personal growth and have made yourself vulnerable enough to share it. Another really thought-provoking post, Chris. I appreciate it!

  7. Very interesting. I don’t have tiers to my respect. Respect is only a third of human interaction and intersoul-communication, the other two thirds are honour and submission. Honour comes first. It is what others are referring to as, ‘respecting the button up shirt,’; someone in higher authority gave that person a certain value and position and if I honour that authority then I will honour who they have placed there. Depending on how high we want to go on the totem poll that honour could extend all the way to a capital H, Higher Power. Honour is also attributable to my colleagues as well as those I have authority over. If a Higher Power has placed me over them, then my Honour for that Higher Power is dependant on how well I treat those they are over as well. Respect follows Honour which is my own value that I attribute to that person as a person of value to me. If their whole value is only subjective to me then I’ve become a narcissist, which is why I never start with respect. Submission, whether to an authority, a pier, or someone under my authority is last. It is how often I am influenced by their opinions and or how much I capitulate to their commands and take them to heart and act on them; it is the sum total of my honour and respect for them. No matter how poorly they treat me, my goal is always to communicate a balance of honour, respect and submission in regards to my life’s purpose which I see as repairing the interface between God and people and people with one another.

  8. I, too, have struggled with this. I was, for most of my life, a competitive but generally passive and respectful individual. Then, 2019 hit, I awakened, and began to believe that most of our human existence is predicated on bullshit, which i still believe is true.

    However, what I wasn’t doing was looking at the other half of the equation: the kindness that individuals show to me. I put my blinders on and willingly believed that all of existence is corrupt. It made me into an angry and venomous person.

    While that period may never go away, I am making efforts to get back to my old self, the better me…

    In any case, I enjoyed this article and can fully relate!

  9. This is an interesting blog and I believe a couple of your respondents have got it right. There are two types of respect, self respect and respect for others. Respect for others comes in two parts, the initial respect you give every fellow human being in the first instance, and then the respect that you earn by doing the right thing from then on. The first one is a matter of courtesy, the second one is deliberate and is earned. You cannot expect to receive respect if you do not give respect. “One good turn deserves another” type of thing.
    Thanks for giving us all something to think about.
    Regards, Phil

  10. Thanks for an open and honest post, Chris. So good when we can acknowledge that we’ve moved along… You can’t do much about this, but when I saw the heading: Kill Your Darlings, I wrongly assumed it was from the organisation of that name, or connected to their newsletter.

  11. An honest reflection of your words represented. Great post, and you’re a good writer who expresses their self very well.

    As far as respect goes, some people act like if they are disrespectful toward one that it lowers their value within some way when in actuality I don’t see how their opinion or attitude on which they base their view or judgment on someone has any true bearing.

    We all have different mindsets, personalities, beliefs and so on. Another person’s disrespect towards me for whatever perception they have about me is a reflection of them and does not faze me at all because I truly love and respect myself and I know who I am. I truly never cared or needed anyone’s recognition or approval. It is all in how we personally feel as individuals.

    And to be further honest, there are people who I don’t have respect for due to reasons of my own. But respect is not something someone has to earn. Respect is something to give as a gesture of human decency if one chooses to.

    Yet, we should never depend on the respect of another to determine our self value or worth.

  12. Quiller-Couch allegedly wrote ‘murder your darlings’ (in Legat, 1995, p.59 [Writing for Pleasure and Profit]), and this way of thinking can be taken too far. Yes, drive the narrative forward, but not necessarily always at the expense of excellent writing. It is also unnecessary to have an editor, in this day and age (a fresh pair of eyes is good, yes, but not someone to correct the work, unless English is not your strong-point). Even so, I really quite liked what you wrote about relationships and saplings, that is an excellent metaphor.

  13. always appreciate your shout-outs so I’ll give you one back now! Thanks for this post on “killing your darlings”. I will attest to the truth, at just-turned 58, that you will have many more darlings to come. Those darlings help you grow as is seen, very obviously, in this post. I love the idea of giving respect until it’s been shown to you that it’s time to take it away. I’ve found more often in life than not, it will be rare to take away and always appreciated to start off that way. Excellent post! Give us more darlings!

  14. Good blog topic. I have found, as both a writer and an editor, that distance (mental and physical time away) from the words makes it easier to see what is working and what might have to go.

    I build this time away into my writing plan, usually shifting to an entirely different project for a time sufficient to “forgetting” the first. If I have no other projects, I am also known to spend time just “refilling the well,” reading for pleasure and just experiencing life, spending time with family and friends, or learning/doing new things.

    Through trial and error, I have found the best length of “recharge” time to be 1 week for every 10k written. I recommend this to all my clients and writing workshop students.

  15. Thanks for your thoughtful words.

    I think oftentimes we fancy ourselves as more respectful than we really are, and to recognize that takes an awareness of our flaws that many people would rather not face. We’re so wrapped up in a web of niceties that a simple interaction, from the outside, can look like an amateur performance. We might all be a little better off if, remaining as respectful as possible, we transitioned to a kind of respect that didn’t take social formalities as such a serious factor of our interactions, and instead, just tried to be kind.

  16. Thanks for your thoughtful words.

    I think, oftentimes, we fancy ourselves as more respectful than we really are, and to recognize that takes an awareness of our flaws that many people would rather not face. We’re so wrapped up in a web of niceties that a simple interaction, from the outside, can look like an amateur performance. We might all be a little better off if, remaining as genuine as possible, we transitioned to a kind of respect that didn’t take social formalities as such a serious factor in our interactions, and instead, just tried to be kind.

  17. Hi Chris,
    Firstly, thank you for liking my post, ‘Surely you can’t be serious?’

    You’ve written with a great deal of wisdom, and I’m right with you, that to respect others is a great default position. If we all treated people this way, the world would be much more harmonious!

    I don’t think you should be too severe on your original post. Thinking back on my working life, ‘Respect’ meant 2 different things. I sought to respect all my colleagues as being worth listening to, valuing and taking seriously. But some stood out as having special qualities, e.g., our electron microscopist who was diligent, careful and an excellent investigator. I respected his opinion far more than other colleagues who were better qualified and had louder voices. I think that in your 2014 article you were reacting against being sidelined by such people. I know how infuriating it feels!

    Does this make sense?
    Very best regards,
    John

  18. I’d like to respond your blog post because i can relate so much ^^ i too have spent almost a year away from blogging (my first and dearest blog is actually on hiatus) , and i’ll be 33 this year too. It is said that human brain reaches full maturation/growth at around 30’s. even if we sure evolve all along our lives (or i hope so) . So maybe the new perspective you got is also getting from there 🙂 Anyway, i learned the expression “killing your darlings” thnx to you today. As an apprentice/wannabe writer, i have been through lots of phases these past years… untill now, none has proven efficient in unblocking me ^^ sadly. Also i totally relate to the part of criticising others is much more easy to the mind than seing ourselves truly. We have a commonly used french expression for that ” On voit la paille dans l’oeil de son voisin, mais pas la poutre dans le sien” [which i believe comes from religious writings]. Well. that’s all i wanted to say XD . Totally agree with your conclusion. Let’s not be abrasive arseholes. Sorry for any weird phrases/ i’m not a native english speaker 🙂

  19. Hi, Chris –
    Loved your post – and thank you for giving one of my recent efforts a nod with your ‘like’. Much appreciated. Two things captivated me in your post: I loved the ‘kill your darlings’ title and your introspection about self-editing. I feel that. And – I loved this perspective: “We fear that if we offer respect to everybody, then we risk it being abused by somebody. That by being polite, friendly, and open to establishing lines of effective communication we make ourselves vulnerable to the minority of people who may take advantage of our generosity.” All of that sings to me. Helps to explain why we put our bumpers up…trepidation about others. 😊

  20. I liked your post and taking away some stuff been thinking about ( of course , Thanks for reading my last one !! . Been struggling to write the last few months as wonder what’s worth writing , but that’s a slippery slope ) .So what I take away is some of the conflictual stuff about respect and it’s mate tolerance. Have just been rereading Helen Garner Monkey Grip and thinking again about freedom and respect and tolerance . Mixed feelings now , nostalgia and admiration mixed with disapproval (( ?) . Anyway this is too long and can’t really put thoughts down clearly . All I am certain of is I don’t want to be one of those people who from a position of security ignore or disrespect or toss aside all the mistakes and inadequacies , and braveries with that , of the past . So thank you for sharing ,

  21. I find respect as just being part and puzzle of what each of us has to offer to one another, regardless of a person’s identity, personality etc. Humans become civilized thanks to the cooperation over thousands of years and out of that, comes one of many children of connections we name it as respect. Your words are clearly what Life should be on the right track and I am utterly glad to read it. Therefore, thank you for those words, and I hope to read more from you later! 😇

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