Thursday, 24 January 2013

Bad Writing - A Review

One of my friends, who has just caught onto the blog and is working her way through chronologically (shout out to Vanessa!), linked on her Facebook page an interview with Margaret Atwood in the documentary 'Bad Writing'.

Instead of just watching the related interview, this evening I thought I would sit down and watch the full documentary (1 hour and 27 minutes). It is currently streaming free until the 31st of January.

Now trying to decide if this was a mistake and I should demand back the 1 and 27 minutes of my life.

The basic premise was that the interviewer in his mid twenties threw himself into writing poetry. A number of years later, after attending college and actually doing some creative writing classes he found his old work and realised they were completely crap. He then went and interviewed a variety of different writers about what was 'bad writing'.

The major problem with the documentary is that the interviewer was in no way engaging. His writing was crap, and his forcing his interviewees to read it aloud and then comment on it, even with the disclaimer that he knew it was bad, still came across as uncomfortable. What was the point? It felt like bizarre self-promotion in a negative sense. And the bad writing didn't stop there. The documentary had multiple scenes of the interviewer wandering around with a voice over reading his bad poetry. Okay, we get it, you wrote really bad poetry. Let it go.

Also, in my naturally critical state, just looking at him, listening to him talk, I would quite confidently say that he isn't any better at writing now. Probably a different sort of bad. But watching him interview these famous authors, he did not interact as someone who has a natural perception to situations and can find appropriate ways of describing them. These I think are key elements of being a good writer. Even if you don't speak, if you just observe, you at least observe.

The film is also filled with scene after scene of him becoming all self-reflective and not being able to ask questions as he catches himself in mannerisms, which totally should have been edited out. He might have been trying to make some meta comment about how bad writing is also inherent in everyday life (one of the interviewees, trying to laugh off his inability to ask a question without analyse his own language suggests this, but he doesn't really seem to pick up on it).

The other thing that really annoyed me was that some of the authors were in the middle of making a good point and then they just cut the scene to something completely different, mid-sentence.

So, having trashed the actual documentary, were there some interesting things said by the authors?

Obviously, a better interviewer who had better questions would have brought out a lot more. However, that aside, some interesting points:

There was a definite sense that even good writers could do bad writing, even at the height of their career. And even the suggestion that a bad writer could occasionally produce good writing. Which brings up the question of how separate is the writer from their work?

There was also the sense that there is something optimistic about bad writing, in that if you can recognise it is bad, you are on the way to improving.

One author noted that first drafts should be bad, it is through editing that things are clarified and purified.
(Buffy plug: so don't let fear of being bad hold you back, get the words out and then rejoice that you can make it better! I used to think of essays like kiwi fruit, after writing the essay there was that satisfactory time of peeling off all the furry bits so it was just clear and smooth.)

There was a discussion on the value of writing classes, that writing can definitely be taught, but it is up to the individual as to whether it can be learnt.
I second this notion, that in my writing classes the good writers were also the ones that were usually prepared to take on the most criticism and do the most revision. The bad writers you would point out half a dozen major structural things, and they would come back having changed one sentence. If you can't let it go, you are never going to improve.

There are two sides to bad writing; bad writing which only makes sense if you are inside the writer's head, and bad writing where the writer has tried to explain every little bit in case you the reader couldn't make any of the connections or images yourself. These are useful concepts to keep in mind.

Similarly one of the authors talked about how bad writing often comes about from a fear of being honest, and that truly good writing can only develop from honesty; of emotion, experience, etc.

A lot of the authors talked about the development, that in their twenties they were pretentious and bad writers, and it wasn't until they were in their late thirties to forties that they began doing their better work, and improve from there.
I found this encouraging for a number of reasons:
1. I'm not too old! You read about those prodigies that have their books published at 20 and think 'damn, I'm past it', but no, no I'm not. My best writing years are yet to come.
2. It supports my notion of it taking about 10 years of almost an apprenticeship before you can start performing at the required level. I'm counting my years of academic study, week after week of writing and being critiqued on the writing, writing in different styles and all to a deadline, as my training. And now I'm just beginning my actual career as a writer, which is pretty exciting.
3. It demonstrates that writing is a skill, like most others, that can be improved. It is not a magical gift from on high, hard work and proper coaching, along with an attitude prepared to develop, is all that it takes.

I suppose I got some interesting ideas out of the documentary, so in that way it was no more a waste of an hour and half of my life as if I had just fallen asleep on the couch... something I'm starting to do with more regularity. Shouldn't have got such a comfy couch!

What makes bad writing for you? Do you have en examples? (I have to admit, when I was doing creative writing classes as a student, the bad pieces were almost more enjoyable than the merely good ones.)

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