Killing Writing

Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography
Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography

One of the most difficult things I faced as a young writer was the thought that I might have to stop a project halfway through it. This idea of stopping or killing off a project suggested failure. Everything I wrote must stay, I thought. If it wasn’t any good, I would keep working on it and hope it would get better, but I would never throw it away. Persistence meant improvement.

While this is a great approach for young writers, I soon learned that all writers abandon writing projects, even ones that have consumed too much time and energy. In certain cases, it might be best to abandon an idea. To understand why this can work takes time and patience, virtues that many young writers do not value.

An essay by Dan Kois in the recent New York Times Book Review addresses when a writer should kill off a project. In the article, Stephen King is quoted as saying that writing a novel “is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub … [s]ometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.” *

Certainly a project as large and cumbersome as writing a novel feels like a sinking tub in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but what about all of those other projects we write, and couldn’t smaller scale writing be just as cumbersome and difficult? In response to some of Kois’ points in his article, I would like to explore the pedagogical and self-reflective benefits of killing writing.

A writer seems to gain a simultaneous feeling of power and freedom in the process of killing a writing project. Because these feelings of owning and controlling the writing process are so important yet so elusive to young writers, is there a benefit to killing writing in the classroom?

Kois’ argument focuses on this process from the perspective of already established authors. He mentions Junot Diaz, John Updike, and Stephenie Meyer as modern writers who have abandoned projects after years of writing yielding nothing positive. For some writers, this was a damaging prospect, as it was for Harper Lee, who still has not finished a novel since To Kill A Mockingbird.
For others, it allowed for new territory to be explored. Updike, for example, abandoned Willow, one of his first attempted novels, but still “mined the novel for material for a series of Willow-set stories — some of which were written on the flip side of old novel pages.” *
The long list of authors cited by Kois provides some credibility to the idea that writing can be a frustrating and confusing process. It also gives writing teachers some credibility in promoting the idea of killing writing in the classroom.Because the reality writers face is that not everything works, it seems more honest to encourage students and young writers to not fear killing off a project.
The safe and preferred way for teachers to approach this issue is to encourage students to develop: to cut back some parts while adding to others, to master the art of precision, to use and develop what works and cut what does not. We teach students to use a scalpel, not a meat-axe, even though there are times when we would rather take a meat-axe to that project we are encouraging them to refine. Often, the meat-axe is the best solution.I am not saying this would apply to all writing scenarios. Clearly, there are practical reasons why teachers encourage students to learn the balancing act of revising, not destroying. One main reason, of course, is time: the classroom, conferences, and workshop sessions are the only times we get to spend with student writers.

There is also the issue of grading, and the sense that if a student has spent so much time on a project, they should be able to get something from it. But I wonder if it could benefit some (many) students to stop a project and to start over. It would encourage students to do what they might want to do already but have not done due to some perceived idea of passing course objectives.

As I see it, this concept of knowing when to kill a project and start over might take the form of a class discussion or it might be incorporated into an assigned writing project. I suppose the idea would be that the teacher would allow the student to make informed decisions about a writing project but lead those who need it toward starting over.

Or, it could be the assignment itself (“today you will take the idea you’ve developed this semester, abandon it, and start over. Pass up your scalpels. Here is a meat-axe”). Clearly, it takes time to make these decisions, and time is not something that teachers can control, as much as we’d like to.

I’d like to know what some of you think of this idea. How would it work? Does a classroom setting allow for new writers to learn the idea of killing writing or is it something that is gained in practical, real world situations? Thoughts?