An Exercise in Bad Writing


The Cathedral of St. John the Divine from Morningside Park

An invitation came by email to contribute to a teaching volume. A brief piece, only a few hundred words long, was needed. Describe a favorite teaching exercise from your literature classes. The word “fun” was also used. I responded immediately. The previous semester I had asked my creative-writing students to do a simple exercise in class. They were required to produce bad writing.

Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classic of its kind. It illustrates Hemingway’s “iceberg theory,” which requires that a story find its effectiveness by hiding more than it reveals. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” the conversation between a man and a woman waiting for a train at a station in Spain turns on the discussion of an imminent operation. Neither party uses the word “abortion.” What is omitted in the discussion adds to the tension felt by the reader of the story.

Here is the exercise I suggested: The students can come to class having read “Hills Like White Elephants.” Ask them to rewrite the dialogue where the iceberg is tipped, so to speak, allowing students to see for themselves what is lost when we state the obvious. Here’s a sample of the work that students produce during in-class writing:

  • “It’s really a simple operation, honey,” he said. “It’s not really an operation at all, abortions aren’t a big deal these days.”
  • The girl had an ambiguous look on her face that possibly hid some crucial emotion behind it. She said nothing. Sometimes, silence speaks volumes.
  • “I know you’ll be fine in there when they do it, it’s no big deal, just to get rid of the baby.”

Bad writing as a conscious goal is liberating for students: They are freed to be creative in a new and different way. I try to use this exercise in other classes, including nonfiction. In my journalism class for undergraduates, I take the poem “Waiting for Icarus” by Muriel Rukeyser and ask students to rewrite it as a bad news report. The point of the exercise isn’t simply to teach students to avoid stating the obvious but, in the broader context, to prompt them to become better critics of what is conventional or clichéd.

Teju Cole, the author of the novel Open City, was visiting my writing class. He said that editors of nonfiction want whatever is important to be revealed in the first two paragraphs. They’ll ask, “Why are you burying this? Put it in the lede.” But it is different in fiction. In a work of fiction, Cole said, “you pretend to be giving a lot of interesting information but actually you’re burying the lede. You’re going to release the information you want to when you want to. And in fact you probably don’t need to release as much information as you think you need to.” As an example, Cole said that nowhere in Open City does he tell the reader the narrator’s last name. (“Even though I know it. … It is none of your business.”)

I asked Cole to read the novel’s opening lines and then participate in the exercise of bad writing. Here are the actual lines:

And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park …

Cole said, “To me, the wrong way to begin it, knowing what the book is about, would be: ‘As a Nigerian-German psychiatrist, living in New York City in my mid-thirties, I found myself quite melancholic to be in the shadow of the Twin Towers five years after they went down. In order to sort through my feelings both about the historic past of the city of New York and my own unsorted neuroses regarding my mother and my grandmother and my dead father I decided to wander around the city.’”

I sent off my brief submission to the teaching volume and then began to wonder what passage I would choose to give to graduate students in a criticism course if I wanted them to do bad writing. Which example from a critic or theorist would you choose, as I had done with Hemingway, to encourage students to write badly? Or, more provocatively, which passages would you choose to illustrate such writing?


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