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In the documentary film Bad Writing, filmmaker and one-time bad writer Vernon Lott culls the worst of his early poetry from boxes stashed in his mother’s basement and subjects them to the scrutiny of literary greats including Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Nick Flynn, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Lee Gutkind. That’s right.The likes of George Saunders, Steve Almond, Claire Davis, and D. A. Powell all sat knee to knee with Lott and reacted to the likes of this:

God I’m drunk

And frightened

As I write

The tears well

And the battle continues

The real fun of Bad Writing, though, is how subtly it shifts from being a film about Lott to being a film about any creative writer who has ever agonized over his or her craft.You find Lott hilarious, in other words, until you realize Lott is you.From the springboard of his self-critical experiment, Lott as every-writer and comic antihero explores in Bad Writing the ways writers develop as artists as well as the impact of digital media on form, the readership of bad writing, bad writing in terms of genre versus literary fiction, whether or not creative writing can be taught, and whether or not all aspiring writers should be encouraged to continue writing.

On the occasion of Bad Writing’s DVD release (available on iTunes and Netflix streaming this summer), I recently contacted Lott to find out how making Bad Writing has figured into his endeavors towards great writing.But first, here’s the official trailer:

 

Cynthia Hawkins:You explain in the movie that as a teen you dropped out of high school, you drank a lot, you read Kerouac and Ginsberg, you had writer friends, you were brooding.It would seem there’d be much to mine from that as a poet, yet you cranked out a lot of bad poetry.Now that you’ve been able to reflect back on it, what do you think was going wrong in the beginning?

Vernon Lott:I lacked perspective on those events. I didn’t see them as maybe being sad and misguided – which they were – I saw them as being hurdles in the life of a great poet. So, perhaps hubris, and then just being young (being drunk didn’t help either).

CH:What was it like to hand your bad poetry to your literary idols to critique for the film?I mean, more than one of them laughed.That must have been a little rough.

VL:It was difficult, but having a documentary crew with me made it a little easier in a way because I couldn’t back out.

CH:I loved the Mortified stage performances in the film — the woman reading from her old diary, the man narrating an enactment of his adolescent play — and in a way Bad Writing is its own Mortified kind of production.What has been the value for you in publicizing your worst work from the past?

VL:I’ve been able to own up to my own bad writing, hopefully move past it, and, more importantly, learn from it.

CH:Any negative outcomes from doing so that you hadn’t anticipated?

VL:A lot of vile comments from YouTube, some pretty harsh user reviews. But, for the most part, the responses have been positive, and people seem to enjoy the film.

CH:Some of my favorite moments in the film involve conversations between screenwriters Josh Olson (History of Violence) and Daniel Waters (Heathers).In one of these moments, Waters discusses encouraging struggling writers to keep at it while Olson contends that some writers would benefit from being told outright to quit.Which side would you take in this debate?

VL:I definitely side with Dan Waters. I think that if you want to write, then you can find a way to do it – given persistence and good instruction. However, I think Josh Olson’s perspective is very important; he was the only person who would say that on record, and we needed someone to say that to make the film more complex.

CH:There’s much talk among different interviewees about whether or not creative writing can actually be taught.After weighing everyone’s opinions, what do you think?

VL:I absolutely think it can be taught. But, I don’t know if it can be taught over the course of four-years of college (or during an MFA program). It’s something that takes place over the course of your life – it’s ongoing. That’s a pretty vague answer, but I do know that I could never have made the film if I hadn’t taken Daniel Orozco’s creative writing workshops.

CH:Which writer’s feedback resonated with you the most and why?

VL:It changes from day to day. Right now, I’m particularly fond of Lynn Emanuel’s statement, “Embrace your mistakes.” I’m working on a new film right now, and I’m still making mistakes, but this time I can identify and correct them – and some I even leave in as a way of differentiating myself from other filmmakers and writers.

CH:Could you tell me a little about your new project?

VL: The new project is called Confluence. It’s pretty different from Bad Writing. It’s about three murders and two disappearances that took place in my hometown, Lewiston, ID, from 1979 – 1982, all of which share one suspect. It does have one similarity with Bad Writing in that it’s about storytelling and narrative in it’s own way. It’s due to come out this summer.

CH:During the closing credits someone mentions, in discussing creative writing tropes, the “Doogie Howser Ending.”What might your Doogie Howser ending for Bad Writing be?

VL:Why am I making a documentary about creative writing when I’m a teen doctor?

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Cynthia Hawkins TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

40 responses to “Bad Writing and You”

  1. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Cynthia, what a cool topic and interview. Watching the trailer I was reminded of how difficult it is to say something profound about writing, good or bad. The statements from the accomplished writers sound as if they came straight from one of these epiphany-a-day calendars. Once you say something that is true, it becomes immediately trite.

    • Thanks Stefan. That’s such an interesting observation because I had some of the quotations from the writers in the film written down to potentially reference in this piece and didn’t end up using any of them. Maybe that’s why, because especially out of the context of the film they felt “immediately trite.” Komunyakaa, though, who doesn’t appear in the trailer, could make a recitation of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” feel earth-shatteringly profound.

  2. dwoz says:

    It has a glimmer of high possibilities.

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Brave man. No way would I hand my old crap to people I respect for them to critique in my presence.

    I agree that creative writing can be taught–in craft. I saw that for myself when I taught fiction writing. What can’t be taught is the art. One student of mine had “it” at 19. No doubt. My job was to encourage him and help him with the mechanics.

    Dig this. A friend told me about a Canadian program, Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids. The August 15, 2009 program cracked me up beyond reason—the first and last readers especially. http://www.grownupsreadthingstheywroteaskids.com/2009/08/grownups-read-things-they-wrote-as-kids-the-radio-show/

    • I thought of you, Ronlyn, and your fires when I watched this!

      I agree that craft can certainly be taught to a degree and that the art of it is really up to the individual. That sounds about right. I would love to show this film to CW students and see what they make of it.

      Ah, I love that link! Hilarious! My elementary school writing was probably a lot like that first guy’s piece, heh. My mom STILL loves those though. I would burn them, but she’d never let me!

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        After I watch the film, perhaps I’ll be tempted to burn everything now…

        Several years ago, my mom gave me an envelope containing a few things I wrote when I was little. There’s a poem that actually has a poetic moment. Things went downhill in high school. Surprise.

  4. jmblaine says:

    “the happiest
    writers I know
    aren’t writers.”
    A writer said that
    to me awhile back
    & it almost makes sense.

  5. Yeah, that box of poetry in Mom’s basement is like a throbbing chunk of uranium, just waiting to cause me harm. I love the idea of busting it out on camera. Hilarious. Putting it on my netflix list now…

    • “A throbbing chunk of uranium, just waiting to cause me harm,” exactly! I can’t imagine a world in which Sean Beaudoin ever wrote anything bad, though. I just can’t. I’m sure it probably happened, maybe when you were five and had the flu or something, but don’t mess with my whole world view here.

  6. Matt says:

    Times like these I’m glad I lost 90% of my student writing when my house flooded, so there won’t be any horrid manuscripts with my name on them being published posthumously.

    Except for the ones I’ve written since, at least.

    The film looks like a hoot.

  7. Cool interview, Cynthia! I can’t imagine how this film managed to fly below the TNB radar until now; for a site so devoted to writers and writing, you’d think that this would be essential viewing.

    I really want to watch this now – onto the list it goes!

    • Just what I was thinking! I remember seeing the trailer shortly before it came out in theaters (it didn’t come to my theater, though, sadly), and I fully expected someone else to beat me to it.

      How ARE you doing on that list, anyway? I haven’t seen any updates, and I am very concerned that your movie-viewing progress has stalled!

  8. (Cranky, bratty, child voice) But I don’t WANT it to be released on Netflix this summer, I WANT it to be released NOOOOOWWWWW!

    Seriously, this looks ab-fab, thanks a bunch for the heads up!

  9. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Great interview and a perfect subject for TNB. I happened upon that trailer a couple weeks ago and look forward to seeing it one day, possibly many moons from now.

    Fortunately, most of my writing done while young, full of hubris and a little booze has been chucked or burned. Every now and then though, I unearth something I wrote ages ago and it surprises me. Sometimes I even wonder if I actually had more insight in the early phases, which makes me panic even further. Then I find free verse about a dream I had and I feel better. Progress.

  10. James D. Irwin says:

    I can’t really comment. I’ll be back in about ten years where I’ll be totally embarassed by most of my TNB posts.

    ‘Oh God! They’re so awful!’

    Seriously though, I hardly ever throw stuff away and whilst a lot of it embarasses me— particularly an irritating tone I used take where I was pretending to sound more grown up than I was and consequently sounded like the class nerd everyone hates— a lot of stuff has a good idea behind it that I can steal and upgrade.

    Until ten years when I realise the upgrade was also awful…

  11. Jessica Blau says:

    Very cool interview–I can’t wait to see this film! I’m signing off TNB and going to Netflix NOW!

  12. Excellent interview Cynthia – I really can’t wait to check this out, if for no other reason to hear George Saunders talk about his Big Hemingway Boner.

  13. Joe Daly says:

    CH-

    First off, thanks for bringing this documentary to my attention. Next stop, Netflix queue. This sounds awesome. I can’t get over how ballsy Lott is to go back to his works that embarrass him and submit them to very public scrutiny. A selfless gesture that will benefit other writers in a number of ways- from learning to get over harsh and sometimes unanticipated criticism, to the non-negotiable importance of perseverance. You can’t go from zero to awesome in one week, and Lott gives us a fantastic, empathetic example of the rewards of sticking with a process.

    Your questions are typically entertaining and probative. Very fun interview.

    • Thanks JD! Yeah, I was struck by that as well, by the example of owning up to having been bad at writing, listening to criticism, learning from big mistakes, and pressing on. That’s just how it’s done … unless you want to keep writing new additions to the basement archives.

  14. Richard Cox says:

    I love the topic and the interview. Good choice and great work as usual, Cynthia.

    I wrote a blog post one time where I included a paragraph from my earliest typewritten manuscript, but I think I was the only one intrigued by it. I mean, what’s not to like about a haunted barbecue pit?

    As always, you rock. And apparently so does Vernon Lott.

    • Ah, thanks, Richard! You’re so swell I sometimes forget you’re a murderous luchador. Do you still have a link to that blog post? I’d love to read a story about a haunted barbecue pit!

  15. Gloria says:

    This was really fun to read, Cynthia. I’ve never heard of this film, but now I really want to see it. Thank you (sincerely, a lot) for bringing this interview with Lott to TNB. I look forward to seeing this movie.

    Also, great questions! 🙂

  16. Zara Potts says:

    Oh, my. I can’t even bear the thought of letting someone read my early attempts at writing. It gives me chills just thinking about it.
    I went through some of my old diaries and journals when I was packing up getting ready to move and I swear I read them through my fingers, it was horrifying! So much angst!!! Arrrrrgh.
    Great interview, Cynthia – as has already been said -it was lots of fun! And it just makes me wish we had Netflix down under more than ever.

    • It should be on iTunes movies at some point as well. Or maybe you’ll just have to come here! We can watch this movie and then go roller skating.

      Oh yes, the angst. The angst! Also, my teen writing tended to be highly emotional about very minor things. Recipe for disaster right there.

  17. Great interview, Cynthia. I cannot imagine ever exposing my old stuff to the world. In my case the phrase literary archives refers to cryptic Post-It notes and scribbled upon day planners. As for the rest? Ah…. what lies at the bottom of the ocean stays at the bottom of the ocean….

  18. Tawni Freeland says:

    Oh, wow. Huge props for the cojones needed to hand bad poetry to one’s literary idols. I’m in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

    Your excellent interviews and reviews always introduce me to films I would like to see, and this out-of-touch old lady really appreciates it. Thank you, Cynthia! xoxo.

    • Thanks Tawni! Oh man, I’m out-of-touch in so many other respects it’s sad. I had to ask someone today who Michael Scott was and if he’d died or something. I do know every Wiggles song, though. xoxo!

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