Bad writing can be just what you need when you’re on a mission to write well. So my editing workshop for Brighton University’s Creative Writing MA students kicked off, after a few softer preliminaries, with the dissection of a very small chunk of what we could comfortably call ‘bad’ writing’. It was neither theirs nor mine, and so we laid into it happily and with a certain degree of abandon; no one was going to get hurt on safe ground like this. And we came out of it – I think – with our critical minds well oiled and our editing pencils sharpened and poised for more. Because writing is all very well, but the important thing is revisiting what you’ve already written, striking out the bad words and making the other words even better.
We peppered our day with the pleasures of truly ‘good’ sentences, too. An exercise like this can’t be anything but subjective, so choice paragraphs by Zadie Smith, Ben Lerner, Javias Marías, Anne Michaels and Robertson Davis were all stuck to the wall as examples of what works for me. So thank you to them, and also to Scarlett Thomas whose brilliant Monkeys with Typewriters had reminded me of the joy and purpose of holding up ‘a good sentence’ as an example of what we’re all trying to do.
After six or so hours together, I think we’d got somewhere. The students had relished the bad and the good in other people’s writing, and found the bad and the good in their own; they’d articulated the nubs of their writing projects and got these straight in their own heads and in mine; and they’d done all this with grace and enthusiasm. So I was impressed, both by the seriousness with which these students were approaching the job of writing, and by how Brighton University has brought these writers together and helped them on their mission. Of course a Creative Writing MA is about much more than just the time, space and supportive company to write – but what a good start those three things are.