“…if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Writing. 1916.
Killing a project is one of the hardest things you will ever have to do. As long as I can remember I have had ideas for stories. As a child growing up in the woods of New Hampshire I would often spend an inordinate amount of time by myself acting out the stories in my head. This was fun for me. I would go on adventures with the X-men or create whole new characters for Spider-man to interact with. At some point I started creating my own universes.
When I was thirteen I remember reading Watchmen for the first time. A friend had lent it to me after borrowing it from his father. The scenes, the graphics, character development, and sharply executed plot made the reading of the book one of the most important experiences that I have ever had. That first time I read it, remember skipping the parts of the book I didn’t understand or thought were boring. Then I arrived at the end of the book, the famous twist ending I never saw coming, and my life was forever altered. I knew at that point that I wanted to make comics.
I read everything I could about the author Alan Moore and was especially inspired by how contained the world of the comic was. The fact that it was a book in and of itself, and was never meant to be a part of an ongoing series or have the “to be continued” gave me one of my first glimpses of conceptually finished artwork in the medium I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to.
My biggest influence, the aforementioned comic Watchmen, has also been my biggest weakness in my dedication to the craft of comic making. In my eyes Watchmen is perfect, and for the longest time was the pinnacle of what I wanted to aspire to in comics. I viewed Watchmen as Alan Moore’s magnum opus comic, and in turn I thought that the comic I should create should be the same kind of project. That I should step up to the plate and create my own magnum opus.
The Problem With The Magnum Opus
The problem of the intentionally creating your own magnum opus is a tricky concept to overcome. “You don’t choose your magnum opus, your audience does.” writes Jason Brubaker, in his book Unnatural Talent “Once you stop worrying about it being the best work of your entire life and start focusing on finishing a story, you might actually have a chance of finishing a piece of work that ends up becoming your masterpiece.” (Unnatural Talent, p.34-35)
There seems to be an infinite spiral of one end of it being dedicated to inspiration you get from the masterful work of others and it’s correlation to the construction of your own original work.
For me Watchmen was the book that held all the qualities of a comic that I would want to create. The problem was that Watchmen already existed and I had to create my own work. Over the course of the last fifteen years I would frequently get inspired to write a great story I had in my head. When sitting down to create the brilliant masterpiece it would come out like junk, and even when it was comprehensible I would show it to others and they wouldn’t seem impressed. I have an elephant graveyard of work that I have started and never finished on the hard drive of my computer.
Alternative Approaches to Alleviate Creator’s Block
When I decided to make Hipster Picnic in 2010, I approached it very specifically as a disposable comic concept. When I say “disposable” I am referring to my own personal attachment to the piece. The goals of the project were not to create a great comic, but to specifically have a project I could experiment with. After years of attempting, and stalemating, great comic concepts I found myself needing to practice comic creation with an emphasis on productivity as opposed to perfection.
Because Hipster Picnic had goals that specifically were not connected to my ideals of comic creation I found myself working, experimenting, and honing my craft in a far more steady way than ever before.
I would never prescribe to an aspiring creator that one should create a comic or comic project that follows the path of Hipster Picnic. I hope to merely highlight the fact that if one is facing the complications of a stalwart creation process in the pursuit of a magnum opus, or a darling project, one may have to take a step back and focus on a less emotionally stressful project in order to progress.
In the end, creating Hipster Picnic taught me more about myself and my own style of comic creation than any of the hundred unfinished projects on my hard drive. In an interesting twist of fate I have had a lot of interest in Hipster Picnic as of late, and it stands to make a come-back on Gocomics.com as a weekly strip. My disposable comic was, in so many ways, more impactful for my career and practice as a comic artist than almost any other project I have worked on.
How To Know When A Project Is Darling
You are going to know that a project is too near and dear to your heart when you are inflexible to change when presented feedback for it. Sometimes that grand idea is way too big, and ambitious, for a creator to take on at their current ability level as a creator.
Knowing your ability levels is paramount to your success. Like a professional athlete, an artist must practice, and push their abilities in a training regimen that is aimed at accomplishing a desired goal. If you have never ran before, would you expect to run a marathon on your first outing? No! You would work up to that goal. Just like running, you should definitely work up to the goal of writing that 200 page graphic novel. How about try to write a really great ten page short comic first? Or even a four panel strip?
Another way to tell if a project is too important for you to work on right now is to ask yourself this very simple question: are you willing to, at this time, fail to finish the project you want to start? If you said yes – by all means go ahead and start working on it. If no, perhaps the project in question is best meant to sit on a hard drive until you are ready to potentially fail at completing it.
Why is failure a factor? When a project goes from the ephemeral ideation, brainstorming or musing, phase of the work to the actualization, making it real, phase it enters into the real world. In the real world there are multitudes of factors present to inhibit the success of project. Because of all of those unpredictable factors the author always runs the risk of failure. While failure is never a goal, the practicing artist always embraces failure as a possible outcome.
If you aren’t ok with the risk of failure, pick a project that you are willing to do so with. Or, make one up. The phrase “Murder Your Darlings” is thought to originate from the Sir Quiller-Couch quote at the top of this article. I suspect that he was encouraging, in the quote, the proposed author to actually create the piece that they were attached to, their darling, but to also realize that you may have to bury it before anyone else sees it in order to honor the delight you are personally lifting from the piece. Before anyone can taint this darling piece with their criticism, he urges you to murder it, and in a way preserving its beauty within yourself.
Wendy Palmer seems to disagree with the sentiment, urging writers to not feel guilty if they are enjoying their writing experience. I agree with Palmer, but I would urge that the writer be ok with moving forward with the piece being criticized in the editorial process. If they aren’t perhaps they are creating a piece not meant to be actualized.