I finally figured out what was wrong with my mini-hexagon project. Don’t worry. It wasn’t anything major — only the whole entire concept from top to bottom.
Fortunately I was able to switch it up pretty easily and get back on track. I also gained some good insight into some of the reasons why those hexagons have been compelling me so fiercely for the past few months. I’ll let you know more about that later.
For now, here are a few thoughts on what to do when a project goes awry.
First, from Annie Dillard‘s book The Writing Life. This wonderful book is, you guessed it, a book about the writing process. However, there is plenty about general creativity to be gained here. Please don’t feel too badly about extrapolating from writing instructions for your knitting, pot-throwing, jewelry-making, or other pursuits. A quick jaunt over to Annie’s website reveals that she herself has been painting in recent years. Go, Annie, go.
The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.
…You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now. (Are you a woman, or a mouse?)
The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.
Kill your darlings.
No, don’t slip cyanide into your children’s chocolate milk. Instead, be willing to part with (slice off, scrub out, or frog) your very favorite part of a piece of art. If you’ve been laboring on any one aspect for too long, it runs the risk of becoming precious, overdone, and (for lack of a better term) priced out of its own market. It could be the very thing that is weighing you down.
And this, from Samuel Johnson:
Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Here are a few more essays about the idea of killing your darlings, and an interesting sampling of creative media which appear to benefit from the advice.
- By Brenda Coulter (novelist)
- By Ben Corman (novelist)
- By Jay Fields (computer programmer)
- By John Douglas Porter (software designer)
- By Emil Schildt (photographer)
- By Diana Peterfreund (writer)
What about you? Have you? Would you? Could you? Should you?