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
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?