Be Willing to Write Badly

April 30, 2018 § 46 Comments

zz janpby Jan Priddy

Karen Karbo spends twenty minutes each morning ranting on yellow pads of paper before she begins her real writing for the day. William Stafford famously began his days by writing an aphorism and then the draft of a poem. In his book of writing advice, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, erasing a mark, and that we should use lined paper with green lines. He also writes that he hopes he doesn’t teach others to write, “but how to teach yourself to write.”

My first creative writing teacher, Sandra Dorr, described being stranded in Europe and completely blocked from writing by her interior nay-saying voice. We all hear that voice. It tells us that our writing is hopeless, clunky, too specific or too general, without purpose or meaning even to ourselves. Personify the critical voice the way Jamaica Kincaid does briefly in “Girl” and allow it to have its say, and that nay-sayer will shut every one of us down.

We should not let that happen.

Freewriting, the deliberate writing of whatever pops into our heads, is one way to shut down the nay-saying voice. There is no editor allowed in freewriting. Words spill onto the page without judgement. Accident and mess are welcomed onto our pages. Random, weird, confused, repetitive—sometimes it is the only way to sneak past our critical sentinel who consistently, insistently demands that we write better than we are able to write.

We speak about 125 words per minute, but we think words at least four times this pace. Our observations of visual images and sound and touch and taste are vastly more complex. All of this happens much faster than we can write about it.

When I write as fast as I can, even with a word processor, my thinking obviously outstrips my word recording. In order to stay on my topic on the page or screen, I notice inconsequential details. I see and hear and think about the words I type in order to prevent my mind from wandering off the page. I once hand-wrote the word “oatmeal” a dozen times in a freewrite until I found the word “cookies” and could advance to “chocolate chips.” I hear my own voice saying each word I type. I do not allow the naysayer to have any voice at all.

When we are afraid of doing a bad job, we can hardly get started.

When I was trying and failing to write about my father after his death, I finally set the timer on my watch for thirty minutes, sat before my computer, and typed for all I was worth. Most of what I typed was trash, but about a third of the way into my time, I began to remember and describe the visuals and sounds and smells of my father’s tobacco pipes, his expansive answers to my questions, and the salmon-colored 3×5 cards he kept in his breast pocket and his fountain pen always filled with blue-black ink. The drawings of a medieval boat and of a nineteenth century clipper. The pink shell he stole from a hermit crab in Fortuna Bay. The terrible distortion of his fingers from arthritis.

In a half hour, I did not have a draft, but I had a start.

Karen Karbo says she does not reread her yellow pads, but keeps them just the same. William Stafford did not publish 365 poems a year, but writing that many drafts gave him material for what he did during the remainder of his day: revision.

Everything that is to become must first find a start. I do not believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in fear of bad writing. William Stafford didn’t believe in writer’s block either. He insisted the only way to keep going when the ideas did not seem “good enough” was to “just lower your standards and keep going.”

Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, and that we should use lined paper with green lines.

I like green ink and I never use lined pages. I usually write with a fountain pen on the plain square pages of a journal. Most of what I write is drivel. The greatest skill of any good writer is a willingness to write badly.

Jan Priddy’s work has earned fellowships, awards, and publication. Aside from nonfiction, her last project is a novel about recovery from grief, and her current work is science fiction short stories. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, She lives and teaches writing in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Her new blog is

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