Dispatches | March 18, 2004

[By Michael P. Kardos]

Several years ago, I took a week-long writing workshop, during which the teacher, a visiting novelist, instructed all of us to compose a piece of “bad writing” and bring it to class the next day. She didn’t tell us specifically how to make the writing bad, only that it must be bad. That night I sat at my computer, determined to write something really, really awful. I typed in some prose full of imprecise language and mixed metaphors. No, I told myself, reading what I’d written. This was nothing special. This was run-of-the-mill bad. I wanted it to stink.

The next afternoon, we all sat around the table, and the teacher asked if one of us would read our example of bad writing. Delia, a woman who always raised her hand first, raised her hand first. She began to read a story she’d written about a man sitting in a bar, blathering on to anybody who’d listen about the components of various chemical compounds. Delia’s story was hilarious. It was good. We all made fun of her for writing such a good, hilarious story and utterly bombing the assignment. At first, she tried to defend herself: “Didn’t you notice the choppy sentences?”

“But the narrator was drunk,” we countered.

“Didn’t you notice there was no plot?”

“Who cares?” we said. “The part where he yells ‘Boron’ into the woman’s ear—that was funny.”

She turned red, shrugged, and muttered, “Sorry.”

The man to her left convinced us not to worry, that he’d written something truly bad, and proceeded to read an essay entitled, “Why I bathe.” The grammar was terrible, the logic inane. Surely this was bad writing.

When he finished reading, we all looked at the teacher. We had no idea why we’d been told to write something bad. This man seemed to have proven that it could be done. We wanted some answers.

“So tell me,” the teacher said, “in what situation would this be an example of very good writing?”

Good? What does she mean, good? She wanted bad, not good! We looked at one another. The clock on the wall clicked a number of times. Eventually, a woman sitting across the table from me said, “What if the narrator were a small child? Maybe two years old? Because that would explain the bad grammar and faulty logic. And why this narrator seems obsessed with his own toes.”

Yes—of course! A child narrator, reflecting on why he bathes. Suddenly the narrative voice made sense. A brilliant portrayal of a two-year-old’s sensibility.

We went around the table and over the next hour became less confident about our mastery of bad writing, and more hopeful that we, too, however accidentally, had actually written something of merit. Example after example, our discussion proved that our so-called bad writing was, given the proper frame, good.

Eventually we returned to Delia’s story that we had all liked so much. What was a possible frame for her story?

“Drunk high school chemistry teacher,” one of us suggested. “He just got denied tenure.”

Yes, we all agreed. That would explain everything. We knew Delia had written something good, not bad.

To further her point, the teacher pulled from her knapsack a few novels—Catcher in the Rye, Flowers for Algernon, The Sound and the Fury—and demonstrated to us the importance of literary framing. She taught us that day not to think in absolute terms about what constituted good and bad sentences, paragraphs, and pages, but rather to think hard about contextual framing, and stretching the possibilities of language and voice to accommodate our narrators.

After class, while people were filing out of the room, I went up to the teacher to thank her. “It’s somehow comforting to know,” I said, “that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t write badly.”

“No,” she said, zipping up her knapsack. “Yours was quite bad.”

Only hours later, relating this story to a friend, was it pointed out for me that I must have written a very good example of very bad writing. But by then the class was over.