A conversation with Vernon Lott, who turned the terrible poetry he wrote as a teenager into the inspiration for his first documentary film
Morris Hill Pictures
In 2009, at age 34, Vernon Lott stumbled on a group of boxes in his mother's basement. He realized, with horror, what he'd uncovered: thousands of terrible poems he'd penned during his teens and early 20s.
"It was this enormous archive of dreck," Lott told me by phone. "I thought about throwing them away, or doing something ceremonial—burning them, maybe." But then he began to wonder whether professional writers go through the same painful process of growth and self-recrimination. Instead of incinerating his poems, Lott and his wife, Jennifer Anderson, teamed up to make a documentary. Their film, Bad Writing, looks into a vortex of literary botchery and tries to find redeeming answers.
On a cross-country tour, Lott brings viewers to bad writers in their natural habitats—pay-as-you-go writers' conferences, cringe-lit reading series, universities. And as poet and prose luminaries like David Sedaris, Nick Flynn, and Margaret Atwood look back at their own literary misfires, we get to see them at their most vulnerable and human. (In one of the film's best moments, George Saunders makes his wistful confession: "Yeah, I had a real Hemingway boner.")
We talked about the film's unusual genesis, its unorthodox warts-and-all production, and the masochistic pleasure of artistic train-wrecks.
In your early 20s, you took a lot of video and audio footage of yourself reading your poetry—often with a beer in hand or a cigarette dangling from your mouth. Did you ever anticipate that your work would serve as a case-in-point for in a documentary about awful writing?
Absolutely not. I thought the exact opposite. I thought it was the greatest writing in the world. Even though I wasn't getting accepted into literary magazines, I thought that someday—maybe after I'm dead—my poems would be revered [laughs]. So, no—I didn't think I was bad at all, to the contrary of a lot of evidence—such as my friends grimacing when I would make them read it. I was blind to all the signs telling me I wasn't any good.
So you weren't just a closet writer. This was a major part of your personality. It was the defining characteristic of my personality. I told everyone I was a poet. I read my work to anyone who would give me the time of day. It was my identity.
It's hard for me to even watch the early part of the film where I see myself during that phase. I wrote from age 15 to 25 from inside a bubble. I wish it hadn't taken me ten years to figure it out.
That's part of what's poignant about the film—it shows how wide a gulf can exist between a writer's sense of his own artistic self-worth and the actual quality of the work.
Absolutely. But I think, in most cases, it's necessary. You have to be blindly faithful to yourself in order to do anything. Unfortunately, this can become a problem. But the whole point of the film is that the early steps can be important for artistic development—even if the work itself doesn't have much value.
What's the worst line of poetry you ever wrote?
Having to pick is tough. There's one in the film that gets a pained reaction from Nick Flynn:
I'm dancing before my shame
"Dancing before my shame"—what a chestnut [laughs]. But the rest of the poem is even worse, believe it or not. I thought all poetry had to be confessional, that it had to be in the vein of Rimbaud—exploring some dark place. So it's full of these abstractions that are a hallmark of bad writing.
How did Bad Writing start to come together?
We approached David Sedaris and George Saunders, and they said yes to short interviews. We thought we'd do a short first, and see where to go from there. We shot the interviews, and made a trailer—for our friends, mostly—and put it on YouTube.
But USA Today and [New York Times arts blog] Paper Cuts picked it up, and the trailer started to go viral. So just from the response, we thought there might be a broader appeal than we thought. My wife and I took out credit cards, and family chipped in, and we started making the film.