Kill Your Darlings (Leave the Heart)
Tunnel-visioned. Closed-minded. Stubborn.
Whenever my parents used these words to describe me, I always felt a great sense of pride. After all, it was my bullheadedness that kept me singularly focused on pursuing a career in the arts, where others had given up.
Then came the day I realized these words were not a compliment.
I was in undergrad, and I had decided I would write and direct a feature film. I did all the cliché indie student filmmaker things. I wrote a script that was super low-budget. I studied my favorite director’s book like it was the Bible. I took on a third, part-time job to pay for the camera I wanted.
At the last minute, my lead actress suggested I give my screenplay to our playwriting professor for notes. I didn’t like this idea. I thought my script was pretty good, since it had gotten my skeleton crew to sign onto the project. But she insisted, so I said sure, whatever.
About a week later, my playwriting professor called me. She said my movie would be perfect as a twenty-minute film. Twenty minutes? At first, I was devastated. Then, a familiar resolve rose up within me. I had set out to do a feature film and, come hell or high water, I was going to do it.
Considering my inexperience, the filming process went fairly well. I’d even venture to say it was a success ... until I got to the editing room and found myself staring at a fifty-minute film in my Premiere timeline. Fifty minutes. 5-0. My video professor told me what I already knew—it’s not long enough to be a feature, but I could edit it down to a short film. Left with no other option (our location got shut down), I took his advice …
And ended up with a 20-minute film.
For the first time in my life, I realized my stubbornness was harming me. If I had listened to my playwriting professor, I could’ve devoted the time and resources I spent on a crappy “feature” towards making an amazing short film.
I vowed to never make this same mistake again. From here on out, I would apply any and all feedback I got. It didn’t matter if I disagreed with the comment. I’d apply the note and see what it did to my work.
In the beginning, this mindset did wonders for my craft. For the first time in my writing career, I attacked fundamental issues that were preventing my stories from reaching their full potential. I also improved my writing in small ways, tightening up my dialogue and adding in stronger visuals. I couldn’t be more pleased with this new method I had chosen for myself. I was finally learning.
But as the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing.
As my writing journey brought me to grad school, I suddenly found myself getting more feedback than I could handle. Seven voices all telling me different things. Seven voices full of conviction, where I had none.
I tried to please everyone.
Spoiler alert: I failed.
One feedback session in particular stands out to me. I remember feeling pummeled by the amount of notes I’d gotten, over every possible aspect of the script: characters, plot, dialogue, etc. After class, I read through my notes and brainstormed how I could possibly revise the story to address all of this feedback. My solution? Change everything.
The next feedback session, I got a unanimous response:
I liked what you had before.
You’d think this would be enough for me to realize my system of applying notes needed some tweaking. But it turns out I can be pretty stubborn about not being stubborn.
Not only did I continue to blindly apply people’s feedback, but I also started choosing ideas I thought people would like over ideas I was passionate about.
It sucks getting major notes on a story you believe in. But it sucks even more to get major notes on a story you don’t believe in. When my playwriting professor told me to cut my feature down to a short, yes, I was devastated, but I could at least comfort myself with the fact that I was writing with purpose, fulfilling my creative mission. But after getting notes on a story even I wouldn’t watch, I had nothing to make myself feel better.
For the first time in my life, I felt like a hack.
Moreover, I thought I was working my ass off, but the truth was, I was being pretty lazy. I would rush through my pages, then throw my work to the group to see what they thought. Instead of doing the hard work of asking myself how I should tackle the story, I became dependent on the group to do my problem solving for me.
I stopped thinking. You could even say I stopped writing.
I wasn’t trying to be lazy. I just didn’t want to spend too much time writing something I knew was going to get ripped apart. It was a defense mechanism. I was trying to protect my fragile writing heart, which was getting too used to having nothing to be proud of.
This led me to the worst side effect of all: I became desperate to succeed. I’d always been eager to reach my goals, but after my levels of insecurity and unhappiness skyrocketed, I suddenly needed validation. I couldn’t imagine living another month without having accomplished a career milestone, much less the years it can take to break in.
When those career milestones didn’t happen, my mental health declined.
Unlike my first epiphany, the realization that I needed to return to my own voice didn’t come to me in a “lightbulb” moment. It happened gradually once I started drifting away from writing groups and began honing my own writing instincts through script coverage.
I slowly began to realize that I actually know a lot about craft. I can trust myself with making certain decisions or, at the very least, I can make a solid attempt at problem solving before getting someone else involved.
I also realized I don’t need to get “permission” to work on my ideas. I can write whatever makes my heart soar. In fact, writing stories I’m genuinely passionate about is necessary for me to feel like an authentic artist.
Most importantly, I calmed down. Once I started relying on my own creative intuition, writing became fun. I could get lost in my work without constantly second-guessing what I was doing. Being able to drop into a creative flow made every writing session feel like a success. I no longer needed external validation.
This doesn’t mean I swung back to the other end of the pendulum. I still listen to notes. Feedback is essential. But I’ve learned it shouldn’t drown out my own thoughts and ideas.
The world is full of voices. Some of these voices can help you hone yours. But it can’t replace it.
Your voice is valuable—but only if you use it.
*Feature Image: "The Allegory of Charity" by Francisco de Zurbarán / Wikimedia Commons