For those of you who don’t know, alumnus Stephen Colbert spoke at Northwestern’s commencement this year. (He also used to live in my dorm, and when he returned to campus, he brought his daughter to see his old room. I was the one that let them into the building and showed them the room. It’s probably the closest to greatness I will ever be). He was funny, meaningful, and full of truthiness. He talked about his experiences at Northwestern, about how “soft” Northwestern has become (for giving us a snow day in February in the midst of a blizzard), and about how lessons from improv can be applied to life. Although it wasn’t at the crux of his speech, one piece of advice he threw out applies not only to life but also to writing: follow your dreams, but not if they’re stupid.
He was talking about how what you think you want out of life isn’t always what you actually want out of life. But I think this is very important when reviewing first, second, and nth-drafts in writing. A lot of times when you’re cranking out that first draft at one in the morning absorbed in your own imagination, you come up with a character or scene or sentence that is perfect, witty, brilliant, you name it. It is the best thing you have ever come up with. Then when you are rereading the final draft, that character or scene or sentence doesn’t quite fit into the context-but it was so brilliant you have to keep it in anyway. It was how you first imagined the story: it’s reverberating within the tunnels of your imagination and you can’t see how the piece would even be the same without that character/scene/sentence.
This is where you have to listen to Stephen. As he reminds us at 16:26, if we all followed through on our first dreams, the world would be filled with princesses and cowboys. Keeping that character/scene/sentence in your manuscript when it doesn’t fit will fill that manuscript with princesses and cowboys (perhaps in a literal sense, even). For example, in a manuscript I’m working on, the first and second drafts had characters that no longer exist. They’re still there in my mind, but they don’t work in the actually written story. It was hard to get rid of them; I had put a lot of work into them. But the ugly truth is while you may love it, it will stick out to readers, pull them out of the writing, and hinder the story. Stephen King calls it killing your darlings; a professor of mine has called it drowning your kitty; whatever the name, the idea is the same: if it doesn’t work, take it out, no matter how brilliant it is. I dressed up as Cinderella countless times as a child and dreamed of being a princess, but I gave up that dream when I realized it would never happen. Take a page from Stephen Colbert and allow your dreams to adapt as you and your story change.