Being Cruel to Your Work
Posted on May 3, 2018
My favorite screenwriter is Tony Gilroy who wrote one of my favorite movies, Michael Clayton (2007). Gilroy’s BAFTA lecture on writing original screenplays is incredibly insightful and useful. Gilroy advises writers to be cruel to their work before someone else is. By cruel, he means: edit the hell out of it, which is another way of saying kill every darling before you submit.
A creative work is the process of vomiting onto the page, then shaping, honing, sculpting, trying to create a story, a sense of continuity. The final work is a result of destruction. But how does one know what to destroy? Beta readers help. Editors are vital. Ultimately, the decision is yours. That can be daunting. I think a little self-delusion goes a long way. Every new draft produces a feeling of “completeness,” but no work is ever complete.
The book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction illuminates this point. It’s written by Pulitzer-price winning author Tracy Kidder and his long-time editor who observed that one of Kidder’s gifts is that he can get himself to believe that each submitted draft, even the first draft, is final. Of course, it’s not, but something about Kidder’s ability to think each draft is complete drives him to keep refining his work when he receives feedback.
Kidder’s editor might ask him to obtain more sources, or change tense or point of view, and with each iteration the work improves. Perhaps it all comes down to what write Susan Sontag said, “The writer must be four people: 1) The nut, 2) The moron, 3) The stylist, 4) The critic. 1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.”