I am not a writer. I am, however, somebody that writes. I write thousands of words every week, in reports, in emails, in copy for the website of my employer. To me, the distinction is that I hold the writer to a different level. I write as a perfunctory task, a means to an end. The writer has ideas, imagination, and purpose, qualities that I find myself lacking in.
Why, then, did I read a book that contains the words “writing advice” in its subtitle? Indulge me, if you will, in a tale about how this book came to be in my hands. It is a pleasant summers day during what I would later realize was the eye of the storm in the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases were seemingly under control, restrictions were as lifted as they were going to be, and with all the false sense of security and hand sanitizer we could find, my wife & I planned a day trip to a nearby Chicago suburb.
In that suburb was a large, open, and inviting bookstore. If ever there was to be a physical manifestation of what conservative talking heads lovingly refer to as a “liberal safe space,” this would be it. Tables were piled high with books on critical race theory, weeks before the federal government would ban the topic from any training session. Over by the counter, a catalogue provided an at-a-glance overview of a vast array of pride flags available for purchase, ranging from your standard rainbow, to specific flags for those identifying as asexual, bears, and anything in-between. The back of the room housed a children’s section for young activists, featuring picture book biographies of feminist icons mixed with the standard selection of hungry caterpillars and hatted cats. Through a narrow doorway to the right was a museum-worthy collection of books about art, books of art, and books inspired by art. I browsed the shelves dutifully, maintaining the façade that I was interested in anything other than the aisle hidden behind the counter, the one marked with the word every frugal Northern Englishman can identify at fifty paces. Sale.
Unable to resist a bargain any longer, I found myself in an Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. Books piled twice my own height. Old books. Brand new books. Books I had already listened to on audio but now could not say no to owning in paperback, too. All for just three dollars. I took home several books that day. A book about a town established by a group of libertarians. A book about the link between twitter and populism. Finally, Murder Your Darlings, by Roy Peter Clark.
I am not a writer, so I told myself I was buying the book for my wife, who is a writer. One that has imagination, stories to tell, and an honest-to-goodness degree from an academic institution recognizing her as a writer. A skilled one, at that. I would just read the book first to make sure it was worth her time and would not overlap too heavily with the tomes that already lined the writing guidance specific shelf on our bookcase at home. Yes, that would make sense.
Murder Your Darlings is a collection of distillations of advice that can be found in a litany of literary guides and is named after perhaps the stand-out piece of advice found within. It is a thoroughly digestible tour of some of the best books about books, with each chapter highlighting one or two pieces of work, and leans occasionally into biography, with Clark grounding the advice in his own years of experience as both a writer and teacher of writing. This teaching experience is most clearly seen at the end of each chapter, where he provides a short list of key takeaways and exercises for the reader based on the lessons just learned.
The advice itself can be split into categories, writing, and being a writer. Murder Your Darlings discusses everything from sentence structure to imposter syndrome and gives writing examples for every type of writing imaginable, ranging from literature to the labels found on household chemicals. Beyond the practical, Clark provides a semi-autobiographical take on many of the lessons, offering personal anecdotes about authors he knows. Of most interest to me were the chapters devoted to the mindset of a writer. Without slipping into pandering (after all, one of the history lessons contained within teaches us that the self-help book originated as a tool of fascism in Nazi Germany), the book builds upon the concept that anybody who writes, is a writer. Parallels are drawn between literature and philosophy, and the authors profiled offer vulnerability, revealing their own struggles with writer’s block and imposter syndrome.
Reading this book made me want to write. It made me reflect upon stupid little stories I wrote at the age of eight, and how if I could just get over myself, maybe those silly little stories could be mine again. By the time I finished, I could not help but wonder if I am a writer, after all.