I was teaching my Legacy of Words class last week and telling the class not to be put off by poor writing, especially in the early stages of writing. One of the students had said she was discouraged by some of the other writing samples she’d heard in the class, and was afraid her own writing might not measure up.
Of course, my first reaction was to be encouraging: Writing well takes time and practice and trial and error. Each of us improves, the more we write, and the only way to improve is to keep writing.
I also went on to say, sometimes writing poorly just happens. Even after years and years of practice, and publications, and experience teaching writing, it still happens to me. Not just one of those moments where the writing isn’t as great, and I’m not talking about writing a first draft with the full realization that it isn’t, yet, a great representation of your work.
No, I’m talking about a scene or section that is bad. Like, really bad. Painfully so.
Vomit Drafts Aren’t Easy to Look At
One of the things I tell writers—especially new ones—is to not be afraid of the “vomit draft.” That’s where you up-chuck whatever is circling around in your head and put it, unfiltered, onto the page. You don’t self-judge. You certainly don’t allow the inner editor to take over and start slinging the negative words of your 7th grade english teacher at you. You just let whatever words out that you can access. Period.
This sort of writing is closer to a free-writing exercise than it is a legitimate draft, most of the time. It is hard to look at, afterward. It is like the backseat of the station wagon after letting the kids eat anything and everything they want at the fair: It’s going to require a lot of cleaning up.
But being willing to just let the words come out—and being committed to allowing the raw, ugly mess to just be a raw, ugly mess for a while—is sometimes necessary. And it isn’t just a technique to use when you are a new writer, or when you feel otherwise “stuck” in your creative flow.
Often, I find myself writing this way when a story part or new scene feels too much like a dream. There are days when a new idea or scene presents itself, and it feels temporary; it is almost as if as soon as my conscious mind “sees” this ghost of a scene, it begins to fade away.
These sorts of bits and pieces of a story act like a dream. No matter how “good” or “right” they feel in the moment, if I don’t write them down, I will not recall them later.
(I’ve lost some brilliant lines this way, including the opening lines to a novel that has been stalled out for a while. The new opening lines came to me late at night, just before sleep. They were good lines. The kind of first lines that would help me put the rest of the story into a slightly new context and would free up writing some of the parts I was stuck on. But I was sleepy, so I repeated the lines over and over. Three or four sentences. I was convinced that if I just repeated them often enough, they would be there waiting when I woke the next morning. I didn’t get out of bed, find a pen, and write them down, as I should have. So far, those lines have remained elusive.)
A Mess is Better Than Blank Space
Sometimes, I tell new writers to be open to the “vomit draft” because I think it is an important tool for overcoming the negative inertia of the blank page. It is a step up from free writing (where you may write, “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again for twenty minutes, on a really bad day) but that sort of messy, hideous draft can be very scary. To write several pages of dreck can be disheartening.
So whenever I talk about this sort of draft, I do so with a great big reminder: “You can always go back and fix it later. The important thing is getting the words out of your head, and onto the page.”
But, I also think a lousy draft is okay for the more experienced writer.
For me, the draft of the scene I mentioned earlier (and told my class about) was necessary. I needed a messy draft, because I needed to wrestle with the words. I knew the highlights of what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how to say it. I could have tried to work it all out in my head, but I know from experience that I am much more likely to work it out on the page.
The Bad Scene
In my case, I needed to just push through the messy draft, even though I realized about 100 words in that I was not hitting on all of my creative writing cylinders. I came to a point where I almost gave up on the scene, but I knew if I did that, many of the details in my head would be lost, just like last night’s dream was lost.
So, in a way, I suppose this was more like a dream journal, where I put in as many details as came to mind, in whatever order they came to mind, and just tried to write as quickly as I could before the thing faded completely.
In the scene, I knew I wanted to accomplish a few things that were specific to this character’s narrative: a portion of his childhood, and a metaphor that would reflect this character’s emotional state throughout the novel. The metaphor was the central theme, the trigger, the abiding image. It was the image of this narrator, as a pre-teen, playing a game in a pool where he stood on an inflated ball, trying to balance and keep the ball submerged, using every ounce of mental and physical concentration to keep the ball beneath the water until he was unable to sustain the effort and the ball slipped from beneath his feet and exploded through the water’s surface.
Half-way through, though, I knew the narrative was awful. Terrible. As I told my class last week, I toyed with starting over right then, but instead, I scribbled a nasty note to myself about how ugly the words were, but I kept on writing.
Here is a sample of what I wrote:
One of the last things we played before my uncle came to the balcony railing and called down to us that we needed to come in and go to bed because we had an early start planned for the next morning and another 18-hour drive ahead of us was a game where we held the soccer ball beneath the water and attempted to balance on it.
It is painful to read now, but I see how many nuggets of the story are buried in this laborious text, and I’m glad I wrote it all out, no matter how difficult it is to read.
There are three pages like this. None of it is much better, and some of it may be even worse, but I have the key ingredients and none of them have slipped from my mind far enough to be lost. Part of my “writerly pride” wanted to avoid the embarrassment of writing something so bad, but it was better to endure the pain than it was to let those bits of the story go, and risk them not returning.
As the class ended, the students said, “What did you write to yourself? What did your note say?” So I read it to them.
In big, brown letters across the top of the page I had scrawled my blunt assessment: “This whole scene is trash. It has to be re-written from scratch.”
It wasn’t an over-statement. But sometimes, we can find great treasures in even our worst writing. Anything worth trying is worth failing at, and this scene may take several tries before I begin to get it right.