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

Writing “Valentine” by Alison Townsend

February 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

townsendAlison Townsend on the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Valentine”:

I am constantly intrigued by the way the past is alive in the present, weaving itself into a kind of tapestry that at times feels seamless.  The moments when I am able, in my writing, to capture that seamlessness, that sense of everything being connected to everything else are among my happiest.  This was my experience in writing “Valentine.”   As described in the opening of the essay, I was making dinner with my husband one Wisconsin night in the dead of winter.  When I broke open the Boston lettuce I was washing for salad, I suddenly remembered my mother’s words, uttered in my early childhood, about the heart being “the best part.” I never knew exactly what she meant by that, but because she died when I was nine, her words, tinted by loss, have always seemed to contain some deep and mythic truth.   I’ve held them to my own heart for decades.

Listening to the echo of her words in my head, the entire piece unfolded from there.  I’d wanted to write about the heart for years (and had attempted to do so in numerous failed pieces).  I’m not sure what confluence of events (or, perhaps, my simply being ready to write the piece) conspired to be present that winter night.  But I do know that the fact that I was engaged in a simple domestic task, while my thoughts flew free, had much to do with it.  The experience reminds me of something I seem to need to learn over and over in my work; namely, to attend to what’s happening on the seeming periphery.  For this is where, released into musing, the heart of things often really lies.  It’s really an exercise in alert receptivity, in mindfully attending to the stream of one’s own consciousness, noticing images and picking one to follow.  It’s the “thread” poet William Stafford describes pursuing.  One holds on to it, walking quietly behind it to a pause somewhere, and then dips a net into the stream of whatever one images one pulls up, gathered together in artful conjugation by the unconscious.  Trained as poet, my impulse in essays is always governed by the lyric.  So I followed the images and was led by sound. All the different kinds of hearts that exist in the world piled up in my head up, as they do in the second paragraph of the piece, in turn releasing other memories.

Adapting this experience for my students in creative nonfiction, I showed them the essay and then asked them keep an eye on their own peripheral images and involuntary memories, things that seemed to be happening at the edge of things, then picking either one image or word to follow or listing a series of them to pack associatively into a flash-length piece.  I suggested that they jump off from whatever they were doing in the present and encouraged them to remain open to seemingly unexpected juxtapositions and relationships, ones that, in the writing, might reveal themselves to be as intentional as those in Joseph Cornell’s boxes.

“Valentine” was also a lesson to me about how many times we must sometimes attempt to write a piece before all those attempts coalesce, powered by a muscle strong enough to push them free.  “Valentine” came in a whoosh for me, fluid as a fish swimming beneath the ice in the middle of winter.  It was one of those rare examples of completely pleasurable writing, where I followed what Anais Nin once described as “a thread of wonder.”  But I know, too, that all the failed pieces I had written were also what made it possible, what contributed to developing the muscle the piece became.  The title came last.  I didn’t realize it was a valentine to all the hearts, all the plenty, and all the losses in my life until some days after I had written the piece.

Writing “For the Unknown Good of Our Enemies” and Other Resolutions

January 3, 2012 § 6 Comments

These writing resolutions from Brevity readers were inspired by a blog post at Bark. Our gratitude and best New Year wishes to all who weighed in:

I will finish a draft without revising along the way. ~ Ioanna Opidee

I will make mistakes, lots of them, because each day I will be more fearless. ~ Bridgett

I will clean up my office/writing space, not to the point where it is really neat, just enough to make it easier to find stuff. ~ Ellie O’Leary

I will stop dilly-dallying by playing computer games and WRITE. ~ Ruby Juster

I will write down that story I keep avoiding, the one that scares me. Even if it never makes it out of draft form. Even if no one but me ever reads it. ~ Chelsea Biondolillo

I will make a schedule to write creatively, not just blog posts–minimum of one hour per day. ~ Linda Joy Myers

I will finish the novel I started 2 years ago, spit and polish ’til it shines, and find an agent who will fall in love with it and sell it to a great publisher for a good deal! (and she clicked her red shoes together three times:-) ~ Susan Cushman

I will support other writers by buying their books (through our local, independent bookstore, of course), praising stellar work, and expanding our artist residency program, because helping writers helps all of us (and, dang, don’t I feel good about myself when I do). ~ Jill McCabe Johnson

I will read what I’ve written aloud even if only to myself. ~ megscottharris

I will be brave and submit my work regardless of the rejects or lack thereof because to stop writing is to die. ~sandrabranum

I will contribute to a critique group, not only by sharing my writing, but by having thoughtful opinions of other’s work and by learning more about grammar, style and pov so I can make good suggestions. ~ Lori Thatcher

I will be more mindful and capture ideas in my field book so I won’t forget the spontaneous gems that surface when I’m not at my writing desk. ~ Jean Coco

I will write, as William Stafford puts it, “for the unknown good of my enemies.” ~ Becca J.R. Lachman

I will make a donation to support Brevity. ~ Renee E. D’Aoust

I will stick to personal deadlines I make for projects. ~ Rachelle Stein-Wotten

I will stop beating myself up because I am 60 instead of 30 and came to writing late, and will instead remember that I probably have 30 years of writing in me and time, energy, brain and heart enough to do it every single day. ~ Beth

I will share my work. ~ Courtney Bulsiewicz

I will quit picking the dead skin around my toenails and counting it as writing time. ~ sarahfreligh

I will write more than just carefully crafted shopping lists. To wit: I will grab a pretty pen, pull one of my many dusty, empty spiral notebooks off the shelf and, after having sneezed and quickly reached for a tissue, I will slowly put that pen to paper. ~ Sybilla Suda

I will be more organized about my other responsibilities (teaching, editing, absolutely necessary household stuff, etc.) so that the morning hour or two that I’ve resolved will be kept sacred for writing will not constantly have to be hijacked to put out fires that wouldn’t be burning in the first place if I’d dealt with them the previous day. ~naomijwilliams

I will not stop writing tonight until I know tomorrow morning’s first sentence – even if I change my mind. about it then. ~ Evelyn Sharenov

I will stop waiting for the “right” time to write. ~ Kimberly Lauzon

More and more I’m seeing the ways writing and teaching feed one another rather than feud with one another. ~ Samuel Anthony Autman

I will remember how eerily appropriate this list is.  And I will finish my manuscript. ~ Virginia Lloyd

Blogging William Stafford

May 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Rick Robbins writes about the genesis of his Brevity 30 essay, Driving William Stafford:

A friend of mine suggested I write short essays dealing with the drives I make to and from the Minneapolis airport in connection with my hosting the Good Thunder Reading Series. The Stafford piece was the first of these I tried. The fact is, I forget most of the conversations I have with visiting writers on that 80-mile journey, even though I remember much of the talk as animated and interesting.

The Stafford drive was unforgettable, though, for its harrowing aspects and for Stafford’s stubborn restriction of subject matter.

I think he was trying to keep us both alive.

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