I almost made a terrible mistake. I almost walked into a Florida high school wearing a T-shirt with the word “Murder” across my chest.
Just before leaving the house, I caught myself in the mirror, and saw the word. I thought of all the horrible mass shootings in America, including the one five years ago at the high school in Parkland, Florida. I ripped off the shirt and replaced it. My heart was beating.
Why would I be wearing such a shirt? My most recent book is a history of advice on the writing craft, a writing book about writing books. Its title is “Murder Your Darlings.”
The phrase, a favorite of writers and editors, goes back more than a century. The author was a teacher named Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, known by students and friends as “Q.”
His lectures at Cambridge were anthologized in his book “On the Art of Writing.” In one lesson, he alerts his students on the dangers of overwriting. He explains that if they think of a clever phrase, one that shows off their talents, by all means they should write it down. But before they send it to a publisher, they should take a good hard look at it. Does that phrase reinforce the purpose of the prose, or is it merely showing off? You have to be ready, said Q, to “Murder your darlings.”
Skip ahead from 1913 to 2023. I am sitting at a coffee shop in St. Pete with three writers who have earned the title “poet laureate”: Peter Meinke, Helen Wallace and Gloria Munoz.
Helen had a gift for me. I could see it was a dark gray T-shirt. When she held it open, I was surprised to see that it was almost identical to the cover of my book. The text said: GUILTY OF MURDERING DARLINGS.
The image of the nib of a fountain pen looked like the blade of a sword.
I had worn the shirt a couple of times and, in a local bookstore, received smiles and nods of appreciation.
That brings me to why I was at Lakewood High School, the public school from which all three of my daughters graduated, one of the most important institutions at our end of the city. Two years ago, I found an article in their student publication that I have used in my teaching. It was written by a student who had contracted COVID. He described what it was like, how he had a severe cough and had lost his sense of smell and taste. It was a cautionary tale for students and their families.
It was so good, in fact, that I decided to reprint it in my upcoming book “Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing.” The student, Aiden Segrest, now a senior, gave me his permission. I was at Lakewood to deliver to him an early review copy.
Then I noticed the playfully violent imagery on my T-shirt. For a while, I wondered whether I was overreacting. Would the folks at the front desk see my shirt and push a panic button to signal for help?
What do we say these days? See something, say something.
Then I wondered about the cost of hypervigilance?
I was a young father in 1976 when my family was robbed at gunpoint in a motel room in Charlotte, North Carolina. There was a knock at the door. I thought it was the housekeeper. I opened the door and faced a man with a gun. For years I would not open any door without knowing who was on the other side.
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Hypervigilance can have destructive, even deadly consequences, including racial and ethnic profiling. After 9/11, Muslim citizens bore the burden of suspicion. With the pandemic, Asian Americans wearing face masks came under attack. Not long ago, three white racists were convicted of murdering a Black man whose only mistake was jogging through their neighborhood.
See something, say something.
I doubt that school security would have been alarmed by an old guy wearing a T-shirt with a literary allusion on the front. Still, I chose to walk the fine line between responsible caution and a paranoid overreaction. I simply did not want to alarm good people at the school who are doing their best to protect our children.
My Facebook friends say I did the right thing. What do you think?
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.