Bad WritingPosted: June 19, 2013
This last spring I tried an experiment: in the last weeks of the semester I asked my introductory students in creative nonfiction to consciously write badly. To carry out this effort, we returned to an in-class exercise from the beginning of the semester, one I had created to target observation and description. The windows of one wall of our classroom look out to the Red Cedar River, which runs through the campus at Michigan State University. It’s a busy spot and rich for observation. In the original exercise, all twenty-five students crowded to the window for some minutes of visual research and then wrote about what they had selected to describe. Then we read the impromptu writings out loud and grouped them by subject matter.
We were all curious to see what others had selected to write about and how they approached their material. Who would gravitate to the spot where on frequent nights some individual or group spray-paints the ROCK? Who would write about the river, or focus on a human figure instead of the landscape?
We found that even when the same subject was chosen, approaches were individual and unique. One writer might take a humorous tack, while another was philosophical. One writer narrated a scene heavily, while another became invested in fresh description. Subject matter was not defining, approach was.
I hoped that springing this simple exercise on apprentice writers might make the experience fun and spontaneous, that they would enjoy the benefits of ungraded exercises. I also hoped we might create a sense of community in the classroom. The results exceeded my modest hopes. I learned once again that I do best when I turn my classroom into an exploratory writing lab, and that giving students something to do is energizing.
From that early day in the semester we practiced the dissection of bad writing to move incrementally into new skills and awareness. But toward the end of the semester, we all needed a boost of fun, a twist in our method, and so I came up with the idea of returning to that earlier exercise in looking out the window, but this time with the intention of writing badly. We could gauge how far we had come because it requires skill to consciously write badly. By now it was April, not January; however, last April in Michigan was a lot like January. We were still trudging through wet snow. The instructions were the same as the first time: pick something to describe from your view out the window. The added twist now was to target an element of style the student had come to identify as bad writing, and compose in that style using that element.
We read the results out loud. This time we identified the style elements. I did not predict the splendor of the results. Some of the students had so mastered writing poorly that their writing was good. It was something like turning a sock inside out. Reading them out loud was so much fun, so entertaining, that I thought we should record the result.
I spoke to Peter Johnson, the new and extraordinary digital specialist who had already begun filming our events to post on the department’s website. I had the idea of roughly modeling our video on the sequence of Bob Dylan displaying and discarding a series of cue cards bearing selected words and phrases from the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film Don’t Look Back. The students would write out on construction paper an announcement of the element of bad writing being demonstrated—for example, melodramatics, malapropism, run-on sentences, mixed metaphors, clichés, or detachment. That was the plan. Peter asked if there was a student who would want to work with him in the filming and production. Brandon Lee enthusiastically volunteered and did a terrific job.
A few students who had been engaged in a chalk drawing contest each day before class began, volunteered to create something on the blackboards as a backdrop for the video Bad Writing.
I did run into a stumbling block I had not foreseen. I thought the whole class was on board for the filming, but some were not. One student thought he was supposed to be learning how to write well and he didn’t see how this exercise in writing badly was accomplishing that. In short a handful of students wanted to opt out for a variety of reasons. At first I was taken aback by this mini-revolt and then I saw that filming each student would risk tedium. The overall results were enhanced by reducing the number of performances.
The filming was great fun. We figured out the order of readings, where each person would stand, and each student did his or her thing twice. The trick was having the performance pieces move forward at a good clip. All the students who participated were incredibly good in their own way. They put their pieces over.
Brandon showed the video on the last day of class. You never know what might result from an idea. It might fail, fall flat on its face, or it might take off. This time the experiment took off, and part of the reason it worked was because so many students put energy into it. It’s a balancing act, this teaching business, and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t.
The undergraduate chair asked me if I’d be willing to show the video at the department’s end-of-the-year awards event. We did, and it was again a much bigger hit with students and faculty than I had ever imagined. Now Bad Writing is up on our departmental website.