Composting: The Value of Bad Writing
Writing is usually the last thing I want to do. To avoid writing, I will clean, read, and take walks. To avoid fiction writing, I’ll write in my journal. “My fiction writing is not going well,” I tell my journal. I sit at the computer or before an open notebook, terrified that the writing will be bad. I’m worried the writing will be so bad that it’ll draw attention to how dull, clichéd, and predictable I am.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says that sometimes it’s necessary to force it. She compares writing to jogging. “Some days you don’t want to run and you resist . . .,” she writes, “but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run.” A few months ago, on Goldberg’s advice, I started doing timed writing exercises. I try to do one a day. The fear is great, but Goldberg counsels, “Sit down with the least expectation of yourself. Say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write without destination.”
I open my notebook, the anxiety of a fresh page compounded by the fact that writing by hand makes my hands sweat. A minute passes. Two. I’m doing exactly what Goldberg advises against: I’m trying to think of something brilliant – a piece that would fit respectably in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring or George Saunders’ Pastoralia, but nothing comes. My mind keeps returning to a friend of mine. I’ve wasted enough time, so I start writing about him, and immediately I’m listing reasons why I shouldn’t be writing about him. He’s not a capital “C” Concept. He’s not a “big idea.” Is he torment? Is he dread? Is he civil unrest? No. Not for everyone. For me, perhaps, a bit. Yes, he has some of these qualities for me (though probably not civil unrest). So I think of other reasons to not write about him. This man is singular. He’s not universal. What am I saying? He’s not good enough to write about because he’s not “everyone?” Does this mean I should write more stories about Tom Hanks?
Suddenly he’s interesting enough to write about. I give a quick and abbreviated account of our history. I describe him the way a caricaturist would, exaggerating those traits that are easily made comical or villainous. I describe his body, his personality. As I do this it becomes clear that I have a crush on this guy, that I think about him often, not always consciously, and that he’s special to me. Now I start listing the ways in which the crush is inconvenient, the things about him I shy away from, and the reasons a relationship wouldn’t work. I take a breath. I look at a clock. Time’s up.
There’s no story in what I’ve written, at least not one I want to write, and the writing itself isn’t very good – it’s energetic and personal, but unrefined and simplistic. Lust and desire have always been good fodder for my writing, but they need to be compounded and complicated by something else to become a story, and I don’t yet know what that could be this time. And I’m no happier for acknowledging a new crush. (“Ask him out,” you might say. “You never know what could happen.” Yes, I do. I’ve listed it in sloppy, sweat-stained handwriting). Bad writing and a now complicated friendship. What was the point, Sensei Goldberg?
Goldberg calls this activity “composting.” You produce mountains of “shit,” and the work done making the shit provides you with stepping-stones. The shit has the potential to synthesize into something not quite so . . . shitty. In the meantime you’re exercising the muscle, considering the themes and elements at play, and preparing your mind for the work of laying it out in a crafted and compelling narrative.
Expecting brilliance and ease from the start can make a stumble seem like a failure, but a false start is better than no start at all. If it will grow into a story, it’s worth looking for, and it’s definitely worth screwing up a couple times first.
Kevin Skiena is the 2004-05 recipient of the Eugene Van Buren Prize for fiction as well as a winner of the 2004 A. E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition for his full-length play Post Departure. He has worked at HarperCollins Publishers and Maxim Magazine in New York, and in 2006 he received his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Washington. He currently lives in Seattle. His story, "In-Flight Dramaturgy," is forthcoming in HFR issue #44, out next week.