In praise of bad writing

If there’s a trait common to all good writers, perhaps it’s that they’ve all done some bad writing. More importantly, however, they’ve all done some thorough revisions on their work. A good piece of writing invariably results from careful editing, but the steps from a first draft to a final piece are far from painless.

I do a lot of bad writing, especially when I’m writing poems. I’ve written many more bad poems than I have good, but sometimes, I find a bit of good writing embedded in a bad poem I’ve created. It’s hard to picture the process other writers go through to take a rough piece and improve it when what you see is a final, polished piece. That’s why I’m choosing to share my own bad poem and how it became a poem that I like.

In my hands you left
Pieces of yourself,
Torn edges of pages
Ripped out of the book
Of you and abandoned
With me. Favorite plants
And flavors, what you ate
Instead of real food.  Everything
I can’t forget, all that you loved
More than you loved me. I didn’t ask
For this, for you, for us, for the end,
But I hold it in my hands, all of it.
I can’t look at your hands for fear
They’re empty. That you walked away
Unburdened, letting me have
All this weight.

Why do I dislike this poem? It’s meandering, more of a journal entry than a polished piece. There’s no particular intent clear in the poem, but there are things I do like. I latched on to the phrase “pages ripped out of the book of you,” because for me, it’s a strong image. From that, I built a poem that I do like.

“The Book”

Before I left, you put into my hands
torn-edged pages from the book of you,
closing my fingers around the scraps as if
I could make something complete from
sentences ripped in half, desires almost
enunciated. Possibilities that coalesced
but never found form slid from my fingers
smooth as glass and shattered
just as easily. Surrounded by the mess of you
I stepped carefully, carefully, until
I walked free of the danger of us. And like
Lot’s wife I looked back on our destruction,
but I am not a pillar of salt.
I walk still.

Two very different poems, but the initial organizing idea is from the first poem. The choices I’ve made here are deliberate, where I put the line breaks, what images I used. It was not an easy process; there were many lines I crossed out on paper. The ending is always difficult for me, but I got to this poem by making myself examine and think on how I wanted to say what I had to say.

Whether it’s a good poem I’ve ended up with is subjective, but I’m fond of it. Bad writing doesn’t have to be the end of a piece, and every writer should strive to push through the difficult process of editing to create something better.


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