July 29, 2013

Dumb Books, GIGO, & What You Can Learn From Wretched Writing

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” - Ray Bradbury, from Zen in the Art of Writing

In the fifth grade, I had my first male teacher. Mr. Davis and I even had the same initials, and he jokingly told the class we were twins separated at birth, by gender, and by at least thirty-five years. (Yes. Teacher jokes. I know.) He was on the "cutting edge" of education in the eighties, and so we did a lot of computer work in his class. We "programmed," by which I mean we typed out lines of code for a very early typing class which made butterflies... "move" in a manner of speaking and made images. It was, to me, horrendously boring, which is why it amuses me every day that I ended up with Tech Boy, who breathes, eats, and sleeps code, and seriously wakes himself up at night, having solved some problem he's been working on... but I digress.

Our computer-savy, very tech-y fifth grade teacher was ever so fond of the phrase, "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Oh, how I hated it. It was his excuse for criticizing the girls' reading material - "Sweet Valley High? GIGO, girls." - his baseline reasoning behind lectures on note-passing, gossiping, and tattle-telling. Everything we did was potential fodder for his theory. We were taking garbage in, and, he reasoned, we were to spend our lives spewing garbage out.

SO, you can imagine how well it hit me when CitySmartGirl brought it up that phrase at brunch yesterday.

{REDACTED} is a big proponent of Garbage In, Garbage Out," she told us, mentioning the name of a prominent Bay Area writing coach. "I feel like all the reading I'm doing in my internship for {REDACTED}," she named a very prominent children's literature agency, "is ruining my chance to be a good writer."

As CitySmartGirl has never put out garbage a day in her life, I am automatically disposed to disagree with this theory already, but the second truth is that we can actually learn a lot from wretched writing.

Most of the time, people think writing is either really easy - and they make asinine comments about the simplicity of children's books, and how simple it must be to write them - or they think it's some amorphously impossibly hard thing, that requires voodoo and dark ritual sacrifices. Real writers know it's neither - writing is a studied craft for which one can exercise a few rules and execute successfully. This is not to say that following The Rules will make your words sing, or make you a great writer, but English teachers throughout the ages have proven that, given a few simple rules, most anyone can write something competently.

What bad writing tells us is what makes it so bad. Bad writing reminds us is that seeing the rules NOT followed is a better, shorter teaching lesson than memorizing something by rote.

The first time you get lost in a prologue, finding yourself mired down in useless information, is the first time you realize the difference between a good writer, and a bad writer. You'll truly understand the portmanteau "infodump." You'll realize that time passes slowly, in the hands of a poor writer, as the character's every breath and if, and, or "um" is recorded, whereas a good writer can cut away time and make you want to stay in the book longer.

The first time you read a novel larded with adverbs - the first time the heroine says something quickly, then guiltily, then cleverly, then laughs riotously, winking her eyes flirtatiously - you'll remember. There's simply no rule to memorize about how many adverbs is way too many, but you'll develop a fine sense of when one is outside of enough. Having learned that, you're not going to easily forget.

That same year in fifth grade (a big year, in retrospect), we learned a song about "little flowers" and something about if it never rained, they'd never grow. While the song was supposed to prepare us for lifelong travail or something, I like to apply the lesson to writing - just like I didn't truly appreciate a warm California summer without going through five endless years of Scottish winters, I don't think I can sink into the effortless language of a good novel, without learning to identify and scrutinize the "bad." Without occasional fertilizer, our little writing flowers wouldn't grow up straight and tall. Especially since "garbage" is all so subjective, I think I'm hoping people fond of that GIGO phrase give it a bit more thought.

"You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world."

Happy Monday, y'all.

4 comments:

Gail Gauthier said...

I think this is very true, Tanta. It's time consuming to read poor work and not very enjoyable, but you absolutely learn from it. This is also why I think it's such a loss for reviewers to write only about books they like. An even-handed discussion of a book's problems is beneficial to...ah...the literary conversation, I guess I'll call it.

Gail Gauthier said...

That's Tanita. Sorry.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Hear, hear!

aquafortis said...

I meant to say this much sooner, but I absolutely love that quote. I really have learned a lot about, not just Bad Writing as a blanket category, but things I just plain don't want to do in my own writing, value judgments aside.