On Embracing Bad Writing

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing two of my favorite writers, Jennifer Egan and Jeffrey Eugenides, read from their latest novels at New York City’s 92nd St. Y. After falling in love with a writer’s words and thoughts, part of me instinctually wants to fall in love with the writer, too.

Egan and Eugenides not only did not disappoint on this front, they far exceeded my expectations, each projecting a persona that embodies the wit, brilliance, and humility of their respective works. It was one of those nights that remind me why I live in New York.

Egan read the first chapter of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. I was enthralled by Goon Squad when I first read it, and re-visiting it these many months later through Egan’s voice confirmed that the passage of time has in no way diminished the strength of my awe.

Eugenides, who took the stage next, admitted that he had just flown in from Europe earlier that day, and was suffering from a bad case of food poisoning. I expected that as a result he’d be dull and subdued, as I most certainly would have been under similar circumstances, but instead I found myself laughing hysterically at his jokes, and riveted by the excerpt that he read from his new novel, The Marriage Plot. As a great admirer of MiddlesexThe Marriage Plot is already high up on my list, but his charming and nuanced reading made me all the more eager to run out and get my hands on a copy.

Egan said something that particularly resonated with me as I embark on writing my second novel. During the Q&A portion of the evening, an audience member asked what she now knows about the craft that she wishes she had known when she first started. Egan described how she has established a “faith in the process” which she wishes she always had, meaning she is no longer afraid of “bad writing.” Just going with it and trusting the process, she said, will ultimately lead to something valuable.

Egan offered a variation of this reply in a recent online interview, excerpted below:

One corollary of that— and this is probably the most important thing for me— is being willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen. Let it happen!

Hearing this piece of advice from such a seasoned and accomplished writer was incredibly reassuring, especially because I have not yet been able to reach that point where I can just let go and trust the process. My fear of bad writing can sometimes be paralyzing, even more so now that I have published.

When I was writing The Girl in the Garden, there was a purity about the process. Even though I rationally knew someone would eventually see my work, whether it was one friend or a mass audience, this prospect felt distant enough to ignore when I was in the throes of writing.  Even though I still have that control over my work, it feels more tenuous now that the first book is out in the world and people are waiting for the second. My writing is no longer an intimate thing, my own secret activity undertaken in stolen moments. Now that I am working on my second novel, upon which my livelihood depends, it’s difficult not to pore over every sentence, spending hours and hours analyzing and judging each word I put down on the page, and imagining other people’s reactions.

Egan’s response was brief, but after hearing her speak I felt rejuvenated. I feel more open to letting the bad writing just happen, and having faith that all the clichés, the clunky sentences, and red herrings that make me cringe in the moment will eventually lead me somewhere worthwhile.


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One Comment

  1. Erik
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Eventually the writing will get where it needs to go. We tend to think that what we write the first time around is the final version even when we know we will have to edit it and rewrite later. I get anxious myself over my writing being so purple that what I have produced isn’t a story but a plum.

    This next novel will be different, different story, different characters, different context under which it is written. But, and I can’t emphasize this enough, you wrote well once, you’ll do so again. Just keep writing, just keep doing.

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