We all remember what it's like to be a teenager whose every emotion is heightened and blown way out of proportion. A break-up becomes the end of civilization, the never-ending battle with the parents becomes an updated version of when those British guys fought those other British guys for independence. We also remember what it's like to put all that exaggerated angst to paper, hiding it away from prying eyes, while believing that what was just written could very well be an award-worthy poem, or at least a hit song. Years later, we realize we were wrong about that. All that dramatization was quite simply bad writing.
In Vernon Lott's documentary, Bad Writing, he explores his own embarrassing past, when he pounded beers and typewriter keys all night, churning out one crappy poem after another, all the while utterly convinced that he was an undiscovered genius and the heir to the glory of the Beats. A sample poem from this time in his life reads:
God I'm drunk
as I write
the tears well
and the battle continues
He doesn't hesitate to share videos of the drunken poetry readings from his 20s nor does he hide the fact that he optimistically preserved all of his poetry in his mother's basement for his future archive. The present-day Lott has since eaten some humble pie and accepted his status as an anti-hero, who, in showing how bad of a writer he was, also shows that being honest about your imperfections can prove more honorable than being perfect.
This is a documentary for writers or people who used to think they could be writers or simply people who respect the written word. Lott travels around the country to find answers to the fundamental question of what makes a piece of writing good or bad, with the help of literati superstars, such as Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, and David Sedaris (Lott was so nervous when he interviewed the latter that he focused the camera on Sedaris' hands instead of his face).
Lott also pays a visit to Mortified, the national project where people bust out old diaries and journals, read their most cringe-worthy entries, and "share the shame." Just like Lott does in this documentary, the Mortified participants expose and cleanse themselves of their humiliating former selves for laughs. These airings of past mortification become a communal comedic experience. After all, none of us are immune to purposeful poetry about our bleeding hearts and souls or a really unfortunate senior yearbook quote.
Although mostly entertaining and engaging, Bad Writing seems to have missed one of the crucial points in avoiding bad writing: editing. The doc drags on a bit too long and could have benefited from some cutting for a tighter, snappier result. But what the documentary teaches us is that an imperfect result is better than never having tried.
The message of Bad Writing is not to point and laugh at a terrible turn-of-phrase, but to recognize that we all share a common history: one littered with failure, rejection, and embarrassing amateurism. The more important thing is what comes next. So what if the last chapter sucked? You can always write a new one. A better one. And all signs indicate that Lott will do just that.