On writing badly: an exercise for aspiring writers

HemingwayGun

Struggling with writer’s block? Try propping a picture of Hemingway pointing a gun towards you on your desk and use it as motivation.

The relationship between writers and their writing is a remarkable, intricate – and far from fully understood. Why is it that some authors, for instance, write alone and in secret, while others write openly and regularly – with some producing thousands of words a day; and others painstakingly labouring over every single word, producing perhaps only a hundred words a day; a novel over decades?

The word count, in fact, is often something that can prove a distraction to writers – especially new and aspiring novelists; who judge their work against how much they’ve produced.

This can prove less than helpful – placing an expectation on the writer that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write. Using such unhelpful self-measurements can sometimes lock a writer out from their work, to the extent that they produce more when they don’t have to; or, conversely, don’t write at all – for fear of falling short of their set daily targets.

Yet a long-term break from writing can sometimes have adverse effects on the psyche of the aspiring author. Many start to feel an awareness that something hard to define is missing; a vital part of themselves that isn’t being explored, something that should be happening that isn’t.

This can cause a slow damage to set it – with writers coasting along for a while until they start to numb themselves creatively; and their body and mind become used to the stasis; come to accept the lack of writing as the norm. This is dangerous; because the longer any writer goes without writing, the harder it is for them to then start again.

Of course, when the writing habit is indulged – and indulged regularly – it can feel for the writer as though they are living in two different dimensions; the life you live, happily, with those around your – and a completely other world you inhabit that no one else knows about.

This sensation, of course, if one of the biggest allures to writing that attracts and retains so many disciples to the art. But it does not always come naturally. The curse of writer’s block can strike at any time – and the impact can disrupt, or even discontinue, a piece of work being written.

So can it be maintained?

In many ways this question comes down to the idea of writing “flow”, which is something often spoken about by writers – “just getting into the flow of the story”; “finding the flow” – but rarely described.

A relatively accurate description of just what flow is may be a sense of forgetting who you are, your surroundings and what you came from. A deep and almost symbiotic relationship with the writing and the act of writing, which absorbs you entirely with the world you are creating.

Sounds pretty sweet, right? Crucially, in order to engage with this and begin to develop your own flow, it is often necessary for aspiring writers to let go of pretensions about only writing well, and to accept that what they are going to write may well be, to term it simply, “bad”.

As Pulitzer-winning writer, Jennifer Egan, posits: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

By accepting that bad writing is inevitable, writers can free themselves of the unhelpful self-measuring tools that can hold them back and prevent them from truly engaging with a piece of writing.

A useful exercise here is provided by Ray Bradbury – the literary genius who reminded us of the importance of writing with love – who said: “Write a short story every week. It is not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

5 thoughts on “On writing badly: an exercise for aspiring writers

  1. Oh man, I forgot about that quote! Thank you–I bought Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing” and thought it was great, but forgot he said that, too. I was wondering where I had the idea to try all those short stories (which I abandoned). Now I’ve actually written in my schedule to revise a bunch I have half finished and to do new ones, one each week. Oh man, I needed this today! Danke Danke!

    Liked by 1 person

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