There is a certain kind of bad writing that occurs when you are between the ages of 16 and 24 and have an audience of one. 'Self-indulgent' doesn't begin to describe it, and in fact to do so would minimize the intense feeling of urgency of budding writers of a certain age who feel called to bear witness to our years of transition. From falling in love to falling apart, the themes are big and the feelings are bigger. It's all so overwhelming. The only way to get a grip on the given moment - to slow it down long enough to see it pass -- is to write it.
I want to experience LIFE viscerally, but at the same time step back and think about it all.
That's a line from a journal entry I wrote as a trembling, sensitive 19-year old on the eve of my 20th birthday, rediscovered nearly 15 years later whilst looking through the diary pages of my sad, anxious year abroad in Paris. The ink was green on yellowed stationary, and as I read it, I remembered walking the streets of that indifferent city as a virginal college junior -- the dank wetness of winter, the diesel fumes, the existential fear of failure that leveled me for hours on my thin cot in the drafty boarding house I shared with a hundred other women, run by nuns.
I feel like I'm not SEEING enough. Where are the moments of absolute suffering and joy that complement each other in a cycle of happiness and pain, love and hate?
Whew. Thank goodness I didn't think to extend my daily roster of anxieties to the quality of my prose, or I would have been laid out for good.
I've never done well within periods of transition, and a fearful cuspiness drove me to write that journal entry on the momentous occasion of leaving my teen years behind. But other young writers are moved to commit word crimes for a variety of reasons. Witness this heartfelt, humiliating attempt at erotica from renowned short-story writer Ethel Rohan, who wrote "Out of the Mouths of Virgins" when she was 19 and attempting to be sexually subversive in buttoned-up 1980s Dublin.
She looked at Barry standing at the bar, so tall and broad and his eyes as black as his hair, and her vagina started up again like a thumping heartbeat. She loved Barry and she was going to give herself to him tonight. Fully. She recalled the shower of daisy petals she'd imagined raining down on her just minutes earlier and believed she and Barry would marry some day, a warm feeling spreading over her like hot water on a teabag.
The heroine of this story does give her virginity to Barry, but the results aren't quite as romantic as expected.
He moaned and his hand pressed the back of her head. She thought her eyes were going to pop out of her face. Then, no, oh no, her stomach retched and she vomited all over him.
"I'm sorry," she said, her hand at her mouth. Barry cleaned himself off and wanted back to business.
You don't even need to read between the lines to know that "Out of the Mouths of Virgins" is a portmanteau for Rohan's complex and troubled relationship with sex at a young age. That's because she says so herself in a new book I edited called Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors (Perigee, $16.00), a new humor collection that conveys the real meaning of a work-in-progress. The previous and foregoing excerpts all appear in the book, which also presents pretentious poetry, illogical journalism, weird cartoons and anguished correspondence by established authors as diverse as Mary Roach, Gillian Flynn, Chuck Palahniuk, Dave Eggers, Daniel Clowes, Amy Tan and Rick Moody.
Their questionable "work," published for the first time with a personal introduction and requisite embarrassing photograph, reminds us that every writer has to start somewhere -- and that somewhere is often really bad.
Insipid prose can, and does, also happen to older writers who seriously ought to know better. More than one adult has committed poetry that ranges from wan sentimentality to explosive anger. Steve Almond was 35 and "attempting to be a writer" when he penned a poem titled "To the Men At Work Outside My Window," a lyrical ode to the workmen who punctured his brooding one afternoon as he lay depressed in bed. Today he compares the poem to "a very serious cancer."
To the Men At Work Outside My Window
See here, fellows: It is me, your skinny-stemmed little daisy faggot boy
Yoo-hoo! Yes, me - the fellow you keep glaring at.
I have a few things to say, if I might.
Might I? Right, then: first off, let me accede to the discrepancies
between us. I did not just recently fall from the turnip truck,
or what have you. I can see, from the cut of the collective jib
out your way, the paintsplat and jeanrip, those ungodly scabs,
that we are not destined for tea,
okay? Understood. Capiched. Comprendo'ed.
There are divisions here deeper than language, or drill bits
Yes yes. We would tire of one another in a matter of minutes
You would bang and I would frill
And never the twain shall meet
But say: since you have knocked me awake and into this dew-clingy day
I find myself gilding a few questions
As in: all that banging and haranguing
is it all entirely necessary to the repairs you have been summoned here to enact
And: why are you all named Richie?
Is there some sort of law - the law of Richies?
Don't you ever feel just a bit numb?
Don't you ever get tired of your tools?
Don't you ever, in some secret sun, sit in wonder of the leaves?
or the women you undress around your offbrand cigarettes
Is it all just sawdust and Sheetrock?
Is there nothing between us besides cocks?
The concept for Drivel originated in a live San Francisco series called Regreturature, which presents writers reading from terrible early work and sells out every year. It's how I learned that my tragic teenage journal, which I approached with a mixture of tenderness and embarrassment, was damn funny, too. There is a measure of pleasurable schadenfreude that derives from watching respectable writers fall on their pencils. But the laughter is also buoyed by a sense of solidarity. Our messy failures evoke a struggle to articulate something important, and although our writerly language has improved, the effort applies to everyone.
I've found a measure of success as a journalist, but I try to avoid writing about myself at all costs. If I feel the need to record a major milestone, I will. And the writing will probably be bad. But I'll be keeping it anyway -- in case Drivel calls for a sequel.