Life, in a can of paint (changes for 2013)

I spent part of the holiday break painting a couple of “accent” walls in my house. I wavered between two color choices: a grey-blue, or dark red. I went with red, preferring the sense of fire and passion and emotion it brings up for me.

photo (1)I find painting tedious and routinized. The advantage, though, is that you can spend the time thinking about other things. Since it’s the start of a new year, my thoughts wandered into resolutions, the idea of beginning anew, and “character” development.

To be very charitable, 2012 held a “rough patch” for me. I’ve since been working to paint a new (or renewed) self. Among other changes, I want to (re)discover a feeling of fearless love, toward life and toward myself and toward the passion and willingness to be vulnerable and caring that have led to the best things in my life. Somewhere along the line, life snuck in, snatched that away, and sabotaged the good. I want it back.

paint canHere’s where I’m taking direction, as absurd as it sounds, from a paint can. Redecorating requires that you follow a few rules. First, there’s prep work. Painting, both walls and the self, is a messy process. If you don’t take time to set up your work area, you’re likely to do as much harm as good. Set your drop cloth down, tape off the area that you want the new paint to cover, and don’t forget to clean the work surface. No matter how it got there, you’re responsible for the gunk and grime on the walls you live in. Simply covering up what’s currently showing doesn’t work. For the paint to stick, you’ve got to clean up the old and repair cracks and scars.

Second, you need to give the paint time to dry. Often you’ll need several coats. Rushing the process doesn’t work and can actually be counter-productive, muddying the finish you want. Patience and a willingness to sit calmly in the midst of mess are required.

I’ve realized that my writing often turns to a similar interplay between surface and what is covered. As a writer, I’m fascinated with what lurks beneath. I talk in Chapter One of Ghost Music about how we live on top of a palimpsest, with hidden layers under our feet. I mention elsewhere the idea of running atop a cracked surface, trying to stay one step ahead of the crumbling ground. Characters try to escape the past, only to find that they never leave anything truly behind. Words create a veneer that says one thing but vibrates with the weight of unspoken emotions. For me, it always comes back to emotion, which some characters push down in a (doomed) effort to contain it.

Ghost Music is a murder mystery. Of course, murder will out. But the same is true of emotion and history. Emotion will out, while history is in fact always present. I can’t undo 2012. I also can’t just cover it up. Painting—whether it’s a scene for readers to envision, a new self, or even something as ordinary as a wall—involves a great deal more than just slapping on some color. Done properly, it’s not as much covering up as it is repairing, adding to, and building upon what’s underneath.

Shopping for concrete shoes with Faulkner

I’m thinking of murder again. Fictional, of course. There’s no mystery to the deaths I’m contemplating, though. They have to go.

So whose eminent demise am I talking about? It’s time for select phrases, sentences, and even sections of my novel Ghost Music to sleep with the fishes. I’m fitting them with concrete shoes, courtesy of the delete key.

I’ve of course revised and edited and cut a great deal from my novel already. It’s in a spot where I even think of it as “final.” Writing is rarely final, though. What I have, I think, is good. But it’s still too long. It’s bloated in spots and needs to be made leaner and more efficient.

All of which returns me to murder. I’ve made the easy cuts to my novel. It’s time to “kill my darlings.” The advice comes from Faulkner (though I’ve also seen it ascribed to others, including Stephen King). As a writer, there are probably sections or phrases that you particularly love. Words that you’ve hammered together that feel especially well constructed and resonate with exactly the right type of emotion. I have several spots like that. They need to go.

Why do I need to cut them if I like them so much? In part, it’s smart to kill your darlings because you are simply much too close to them. You love them. You can’t see them as objectively as you need to. And because of that, they can actually be disrupting the flow of your novel.

That’s what’s happening in my book. My darlings are sabotaging a few chapters. So should you immediately and always murder your favorite parts? Of course not. Sometimes your favorite parts are your favorite precisely because they do such a good job. But equally, you shouldn’t refuse to cut them just because they are your favorites. Divorce your ego from the writing. Look at the work as objectively as you can. Have others read those sections and don’t let your feelings be bruised if they don’t think as highly of the work as you do.

It’s not easy. It hurts to kill them. I feel guilty. But I know they need to die. To continue this strange pairing of Faulkner and the mafia, I need to murder some of those that are closest to me but have put the rest of the work in jeopardy. So here I am, shopping with Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County for a pair of concrete shoes to put on my darlings. Murder, for a better manuscript.

–Patrick