There’s an old adage writers use as a guiding light: “Murder your darlings.”
It comes from the English writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and is part of the advice he gives to writers as part of On the Art of Writing: a collection of lectures he gave at Cambridge: “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to penetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Basically, you know that bit you wrote that you’re particularly fond of and don’t want to delete, even though in the current context of your revisions, it doesn’t really belong? Get rid of it. Just because you love something you created doesn’t mean it gets to stick around just because.
It’s a hard piece of advice to digest. I’ve written in circles around darlings I was particularly proud of, that I was sure were worth the piece as a whole losing out a bit. But every time, my piece was stronger for losing that little bit of preciousness.
I’m sure it’ll happen for everyone at a different time, but personally, today was the day when COVID-19 moved the world into “Murder your darlings” territory.
About an hour ago, the news broke that the Vermont State College system is seriously considering closing down three of its campuses after encountering a $10 million budget shortfall, due largely to the coronavirus pandemic. This means there’s a very good chance that the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College, as well as the Lyndon and Johnson campuses of Northern Vermont University will be shuttered. Most likely for good.
Hard news to digest, to be sure. But for me, it was compounded by NVU-Johnson (Johnson State College at the time) being my alma mater and the place where I met the mother of our kids, having my daughter currently enrolled there as a high school senior for early college, and Johnson being the town I grew up in.
Small college towns like Johnson, Lyndon, and Randolph are intricately tied to their college campuses. Kids from local families attend them as an inexpensive higher education option while living at home. Locals are employed on campus in a wide variety of positions, from professors to maintenance to behind-the-scenes office work. And little diners, bookstores, and other businesses lean on the colleges for their survival.
Shut down that college, and you’re shutting down a significant portion of the town, as well as educational options for the future.
If the plan being put forth by the Vermont State Colleges chancellor is approved, those three campuses will be the first major infrastructural darlings murdered in the wake of COVID-19, at least in Vermont. And if the plan doesn’t pass, make no mistake. There will be others that take their place.
In the weeks to come, hard choices will need to be made in ways we never expected, about things we never imagined. And every one of those things will be somebody’s darling, and there will be a million extremely good reasons why they shouldn’t be murdered. Some of those reasons come down to, “That’s not how we do things here. It’s not the norm.”
People keep talking about “when things get back to normal.”
“Normal” is a position of great privilege. “Normal” presented in this way is equivalent to “comfortable.” “Normal” is gone, if it was ever really here.
Before COVID-19 reared its spiky head, we were living in a way that was proving to be unsustainable. It wasn’t obvious to some, while others had known for years and years. Others still were starting to come around. “Unsustainable” was also equivalent to “normal” and “comfortable.”
We’re all outside our comfort zones now, with no “normal” to fall back on. And “unsustainable” means something very different from what it meant even a month ago. It means not just switching from plastic to reusable shopping bags or telling Amazon to reduce the amount of packaging it uses for your orders. It means a wholesale restructuring of how we function as a society, and there are going to be many darlings murdered along the way.
It’s going to suck. It’s going to hurt. And it’s going to make us cry (like right now as I write this, for example). And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t stand up and defend the places and things you love. You totally should.
But you should also know that the collective body of America is on the examination table. Things that seemed healthy yesterday turned rotten overnight. Some of that left arm might be able to be saved, but it’ll mean cutting it off at the elbow. And there’s suddenly some paralysis in the right leg for some reason. It’s probably not going to move again, and if it does, it won’t be functional in the same way. Those eyes don’t see as clearly as they used to, either.
Hard days are ahead. The kind we used to learn about in history class, viewing it all through the sepia-toned glasses of the present. We discussed how noble those sacrifices were during The Great Depression and WWI and WWII. And the difficult things our ancestors did to make sure we would have a better tomorrow. And for homework tonight, write an essay imagining if we had to do that kind of thing today.
Well guess what?
It’s our turn to make those noble sacrifices in the name of the future. It’s gonna break our hearts, and none of it will be fun.
But it needs doing.