I’m pretty sure Stephen King was the first writer to say that line about needing to force yourself to kill your darlings. At this point, it’s ubiquitous enough that I’m not going to bother to look up the source—it belongs to at least three different people in the first meeting of every writing class I’ve ever been a part of. The line is useful and true; darlings are hard to kill. All the more difficult, I’ve found, when all the darlings are yourself.
For the better part of a decade, my memoir, Lord Fear, wasn’t working. This was something I realized periodically, in acute and terrible moments of clarity.
For me, what wasn’t working had nothing to do with what was missing from the narrative, but rather what I seemed incapable of deleting. Lord Fear is a book about my brother’s death from a heroin overdose when I was thirteen. He is the absent protagonist, but the book is not fiction, nor is it biography. It’s the story of trying to tell his story, so it seemed natural and necessary that I would be the other protagonist. There are plenty of models for this dual structure—Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Honor Moore’s The Bishop’s Daughter, JR Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude. The list goes on. It’s a whole subset of self-writing: the personal story born from an inquiry into the meaning of someone else’s life.
The difference between the dual protagonists in my book was stark; it was the difference between the unknowable and the known. For everything that I wanted to know about my brother, everything that I wanted to say about him, he was finite on the page. Gone, fractured, enigmatic. Never to be resolved. And I wanted to tell a story. I wanted, I thought, a memoir that looked like a novel (that ultimate, misguided goal held up for many memoirists), and I thought that meant a story lush with scene-setting, a character moving through a journey with a vivid world around him, and in this story the only person that could be that character was me. I said to myself what I say to students all the time in creative nonfiction classes—“don’t just tell us about your subject, show us how that subject made you feel.”
In memoir this is the seductive option, a narrative parachute whose string is always there for the pulling: when in doubt, show yourself feeling. Moments lived through, moments enacting and forwarding your emotional journey—these are a personal writer’s greatest, inexhaustible resource. At their most elemental, I think, scenes are just details filled in around emotion, thus concretizing it and giving it weight. No wonder, then, that the parts of Lord Fear I felt most comfortable writing, for so many years, were those in which I lingered in my own lived moments—what I saw, who I spoke to, each paragraph presenting a chance to embody my grief.
These comfort zone scenes grew steadily longer over developing drafts, particularly during the years when I belatedly discovered the power of Joan Didion’s observational details (also known as my Lists, man! period). One scene in particular exemplifies this expansion—me and my family buying egg and cheese sandwiches at a combination novelty shop and deli, on the way to my brother’s grave. By the end, the scene-ness was nearly suffocating: details about egg breath, flecks of bacon on my father’s beard, a Welcome Back, Kotter jean jacket on sale, sneakers from Back to the Future II, and finally the shop’s oh-so -symbolic fake headstones with your name here painted upon them.
I loved these details; I was confident in their worth as storytelling tools. Even as I doubted my book as a whole, I held this scene up as an example for myself of the fact that I could, at least in flashes, write compellingly. If only, somehow, the rest of the narrative could live up to the completeness of those pages.
Yet that never seemed to happen. The book continued to feel stale. Finally, a couple of years ago, there was a moment when I was very close to abandoning it altogether. I had read through the whole manuscript a last time, periodically muttering to myself, “I’m bored.” I found myself returning to the egg-and-cheese scene, glaring at it, the way it lingered, how present I was, and how present my family members were, too, each of us behaving in detail, pumped full of believable, well-crafted emotion. For the first time, I admitted to myself that I just didn’t care about the egg sandwiches or the memorabilia-turned-metaphor, or the snappy dialogue that exemplified my family’s penchant for smothering grief with snark. It all lagged. It all felt indulgent in its clarity.
In what started as sort of a final flagellation, I deleted the scene. Fifteen pages gone. This hurt, but made me feel a rush of renewed risk, like getting a tattoo. I kept scrolling through the manuscript, and whenever the boredom became palpable, I cut again—the scene in which I wander, grieving, through a faded Poconos campsite on a class trip; the scene of my mother giving me permission to grieve in my own way; the Thanksgiving scene in which all of the story’s players are conveniently in action around a single table; the scene of me and my father and my surviving brother talking about movies; the final scene of me returning to the funeral home where the service had been held.
I had not intended for there to be a pattern to my purge, but when the dust settled, everything newly missing from my book was about me. What remained after the deletions felt startlingly naked when I read it over. There were quick memories of my own; there were memories from other people and snippets of the interviews I’d conducted with them; there were references to the books I thought about when I thought about my brother. Nothing lasted long; there was very little arc to connect the fragments. When you remove both showing and telling, what’s left is only implied. What was left for me was blankness, the throbbing nothing between the bones of my brother’s story—a story about absence, about what cannot be understood.
It took a while to accept that the scenes I’d deleted wouldn’t be pasted right back in. Their removal seemed wasteful. And honestly, I was more unsure of the book without them. I thought I had less control over my readers’ reactions, less of a handle on whether any of what I wanted to be felt would be felt. It was hard to trust that the reader would connect at all. But perhaps the reason so many of the scenes about my own journey eventually felt boring to me was that they were, in a way, too easy. Not easy in their construction, not easy in the emotions that they explored, but easy in the fact that you could anticipate them. They made sense. They made a narrative. They addressed ephemeral, irreconcilable themes—addiction, grief, guilt—with too much concreteness, too much order, too much substance.
Where there had been extended descriptions of my life, I began to drop in snippets of the writing my brother had left behind—poems, stories, detox journals. Most had nothing to do with me. I only read them long after he was gone. They fostered no scenes and led to no epiphanies. They lay there on the page, unchanged, incomplete, surrounded by blank space on either side. And, to my great surprise, they felt right.
I read an old Auster interview re cently in which he describes The Invention of Solitude as “an exploration of how one might begin to speak about another person, and whether or not it is even possible.” This line really resonated with me; what better way to describe an attempt that is both autobiography and elegy? So much of any memoir is the exploration of what can even be said. In the face of such uncertainty, of course it feels reassuring to write everything you remember, how it all felt. But to write well sometimes involves rejecting reassurance. It took a long time for me to realize that, when trying to tell the untellable, what you don’t say can be the most important part of the story.