Yesterday, I wrote about why reading trash instead of “great literature” would help your writing. Today, I want to go a step further. I want to encourage you to write badly.
First, a story about a literary guy
So there’s this story many people know about Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, one of the foremost short story collections of last century. I have read through that book many times. It’s remarkable. It’s spare and heartbreaking and surprising. You need to read it, if you haven’t.
Story goes, Carver sent the completed draft to his editor, Gordon Lish, said “here ya go,” and lit up a victorious cigarette. The original draft was a few hundred pages, and was entitled Beginners.
When Lish was done with it, it was just over 100 pages. And the title was changed. And characters’ names were changed. Whole scenes were gone.
As you can imagine, Carver was distraught. He begged Lish to reconsider his edits. Lish refused.
You can read the original draft of Beginners now–it went on sale 26 years later, to indulge people’s curiosity. It’s bad. At times, painfully bad. And that was Carver’s finished draft! There were worse drafts!
But inside that bad draft was a piece of writing that critics have hailed as revolutionary for many, many years.
Gordon Lish understood a very important fact about writers:
Great writers are writers who often write very badly
I have read a lot of how-to’s on writing well. The way you should arrange your desk, the time in the morning that’s best, the duration and output of literary greats (Hemingway was 6 am – Noon, DeLillo writes 6-8 hours per day and runs for an hour in between, etc.).
I have never read a manifesto on how to write badly. This shocks me, now that I know how often professional creative writers write bad stuff.
Good writers know how to write badly. They’re far better at bad writing than non-writers are.
Obsessing over writing well causes the horrible mental constipation we refer to as “writer’s block.” If we fall into the lie of taking bad writing as a sign of some kind of dysfunction, chances are we just won’t write.
Seth Godin, marketing raconteur and overall brilliant writer, has a solution: “Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure,” he writes in his blog, “Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.”
If you don’t have the “right idea,” or a clever enough concept, or God-forbid, something “interesting” to write about, this is not a sign of writer’s block. It’s just a sign that you listen to too many creative gurus who are insisting that you get your chakras aligned before you hit your next big idea.
Forget big ideas! Forget big epiphanies and beautiful flowing sentences and forget “beauty will save the world.” Sorry, but you aren’t saving the world today.
Just as successful business people have learned to fail better than others, successful writers have learned to write crappy stuff better than others. How many pages of crap have you written this week? If the answer is zero, then hop to it!
Tip #1 to start today
Today, right after you read this post, write crap. Just do it: say to yourself I am now going to write something so stupid and nonsensical that it will even make my cat vomit.
Then just write write write.
Here’s an exercise I have a lot of success with: use a random fact generator to create subject prompts. I use this one. When you get the random fact, write completely without punctuation. When you feel your mind bending toward “meaning” (trying to make sense of it all, structuring, etc.) then click the generator again and write on this fact.
Resist the compulsion to write well. Be bold. Be bad.
Second tip, for later in the week: find a community of bad writers
The great thing you get to do in a community of writers, a really underrated thing in fact, is that you get to read really bad writing. And they get to read your bad writing. And then you get to do it again and again. Eventually, you get the point: 90% of what good writers write is bad. You publish the 10%.
Before I came to my MFA program I only read published writing. Therefore, I only read writing that had been put through multiple drafts, revised, and line-edited within an inch of its life.
This is not most writing. It’s far less than 1% of the actual writing that’s happening around the world.
Go find a writer’s group today of people who are willing to write and read bad stuff. This can be an online community or one in your neighborhood.
But be mindful of what you’re looking to accomplish here. You aren’t looking for a small group of free editors. If you are, then…well, you’ll get what you paid for.
Instead, you’re looking for perspective and support. A community of readers can see things in your work that you can’t. And a community of writers can empathize with your crappy work and normalize it. We’re all in this together is a much more powerful sentiment then here’s a pen and a barren desk, good luck.
It’s important to remember that Hemingway, after writing alone in Paris for 6 hours in the morning, would immediately start drinking afterward.
Don’t go it alone. Find a community of bad writers.
Welcome to the writing life. Toilet’s in the back.
Join my community of bad writers
Also, please join my little growing community of readers. And comment! I’d love to hear from you. I’m working on some free material to give my little worker robot to hand to guests who subscribe to my email list. More on that later!
Tomorrow’s post introduces another hidden truth about the writing life: There is only one thing that separates a writer from a non-writer: Writers never stop.