My hero, the poet/seer/activist Ariana Reines, once said in an interview, “I want to say something about bad writing. I’m proud of my bad writing. Everyone is so intelligent lately, and stylish. Fucking great. I am proud of Philip Guston’s bad painting, I am proud of Baudelaire’s mamma’s boy goo goo misery. Sometimes the lurid or shitty means having a heart, which’s something you have to try to have. Excellence nowadays is too general and available to be worth prizing: I am interested in people who have to find strange and horrible ways to just get from point A to point B.”
For two weeks, I could not write this essay because I was afraid my essay on bad writing would be…badly written.
I couldn’t listen to those tapes of me telling stories for my parents because the amount of joy evidenced by the way I kept going on and on and on, and my total obliviousness to how boring my stories were, seemed so…desirable. The tale of the cow and the whales wasn’t good in terms of plot or character development, and it was never going to win me a spot in the Kid Genius Hall of Fame, but telling those stories made me feel good. It made me feel less small and less frightened in a world that didn’t always remember me or notice me or take care of me. Making up those stories and recording them on tape made me feel like I could deal with my parents’ absence. In a way, they helped me survive.
I don’t mean to just romanticize our early longings to create art as some kind of purer state or a more ideal mode of creation. It’s not about merely feeling nostalgic for a time when I was so unselfconscious. It’s about remembering what it was that I loved so much about writing in the first place. I started writing not because I wanted to one day be a Very Important Figure in the Western canon, but because I loved it, all of it—telling stories, playing with language, making up words, inventing new forms of address. And that love, as tacky and cringe-y as it may be, is always in danger of being shamed out of existence, and we must not let that happen.
I can’t remember the last time I sat down to write a story without thinking, Oh god, is this any good? It’s been well over a decade since I could lose myself in writing fiction for hours and hours without being seized with paralyzing fear—fear of sucking, of being a shitty writer, of being derivative, of writing something that could be described at best as “minor.” I can’t remember the last time I read a novel and didn’t immediately have some kind of instinctive critical reaction to how the characters were developed, or how language was being employed or underemployed or something. It’s like watching a scary movie and thinking about how the severed limb looks too clearly like a prosthetic instead of feeling genuine fright at the sight of a severed limb. I want to scream, not analyze. I want to feel something without giving in to the impulse to articulate it, to deconstruct it, to bestow upon it intellectual teeth and arms and legs.
Why are we so quick to ridicule our angsty teenage feelings? Why do we feel a need to make fun of our “bad” poetry? Why is it embarrassing to be earnest, to take our feelings so, so seriously, to insist on our pain and to compare it to the stars, to the seas, to volcanic eruptions and cosmic voids that we can never completely comprehend? What is wrong with that?
I read good writing all the time, and it’s not even good. Most of the time when I read articles and essays in widely respected news outlets and magazines, the experience of perusing that heavily polished, finely wrought, carefully constructed prose is one of mind-numbing boredom, or maybe an eh. When I pick up one of the novels that the New York Times Book Review says we should all be reading, I often think, This is perfectly adequate, but is there more? There has to be more. My hesitation to name names here is partially due to professional manners, but it’s also further proof of the tyranny of the good—I do not want to be excommunicated from the literary world for questioning what I’m expected to revere.
But…what if the glut of great writing out there isn’t even that good? Maybe good writing has yet to live up to the shining promise of the bad writing that we save in our journals, that we lock in diaries hidden under the bed, that we seal in letters and keep in boxes instead of sharing it with the world in a more calculated attempt at art? That is the writing we do when we are so seized by terror or love or misery that we actually allow ourselves to write down what we must, must, must say, moments when we allow our raw and formless thoughts to survive and take up space.
When my first book of poetry came out, I posted a few videos of myself reading the poems on YouTube. I know maintaining faith in humanity is pretty much contingent on never ever looking at YouTube comments, but I went against good judgment and looked. One of the comments was, “Was this written by a fifth grade boy with psychological issues? This isn’t a fucking poem, it’s a bunch of garbage.”
A few months ago, a poem I wrote about the Empress tarot card was published on HTMLGIANT. I zipped right past the positive comments and zeroed in on the sole negative one: “At first I misread the bio. I thought it said that the poem was written by a teenage girl. Which would make more sense.”
I know both of those comments were supposed to be mad clever ZINGERS aimed at my self-esteem, meant to shame me and put me in my place, but instead, I was happy to be compared to a fifth-grade boy and a teenage girl. In fifth grade I wasn’t worried about whether my stories were well crafted. When I was a teenage girl I wasn’t fretting over whether my emotions had the potential to disrupt tradition. I wasn’t stressing about whether my writing would one day change the entire landscape of Arts and Letters in America. I was writing because it felt good.
I thought about the notebooks I filled up in high school, the ones that I’m still too scared to open up and revisit, not because I think my bad writing will make me cringe, but because I’m afraid my bad writing will make me yearn to write like that again—and I don’t mean writing poems that compare my loneliness to a black hole or my love to a prairie devastated by fire, but rather to write with tremendous heart and without concern for taste or craft, without concern for the entire wretched literary canon that has come before me, the literary canon that is still mostly populated by boring, uninspiring white dudes whose writing will never change my life. Maybe if I revisited those old notebooks, I would want to return to a time when I was driven only by big, terrifying, excessive emotions that resist intellectualizing (and monetizing, and professionalizing). But I can’t. So, at the very least, I will not be embarrassed. I will not reject my bad writing. I will be glad that I once placed terrible meaning in clichéd descriptions of love and bad metaphors for loneliness. I will be glad for my briny, bubbly, tumultuous adolescent feelings and enthusiasm. I will finally finish listening to those old tapes. ♦