How 'Bad Writing' Became a Great Movie

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 sick
I'm dead
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.

So the trailer that starting generating press was for a short film that didn't exist.

Right. I had companies calling me, wanting to know if the rights were available for purchase. So I had to tell them—"Well, first of all it's a short film. And it's not even a film yet" [laughs]. But since the trailer had very little description—it just said "for the upcoming film, Bad Writing," it didn't use the word "short"—we decided to make that jump. It seemed like the project had legs.

What did you discover about what makes writing bad?

To me, the film is about demystifying the creative process. We have this very romantic notion of creativity. But for most people, even great artists, creativity is a struggle. It doesn't take place on a mountaintop.

Part of the pleasure of the film is seeing these luminaries at their most artistically vulnerable—cringing at the mistakes they've made in the past.

Absolutely. All writers can identify with that. Which is why Mortified [the San Francisco-based reading series where writers present their most cringe-worthy adolescent poetry] is such a success—writers want to own their past mistakes, acknowledge them, so that they can move on. It's not always painful—it can be a lot of fun.

The whole film has a self-deprecating feel. Not only do you offer up your teenage poetry for our criticism, but you present moments that—in most films—would appear only on the outtakes reel: false starts, awkward pauses, flubbed questions. What was behind your decision to keep this kind of material in the final cut?

I'm not playing a character in the film—those are real moments. Our editor, Christian Canard, left them in the final cut because it runs parallel with the themes of the film. I think some people mistake the film as being shabbily made—as though we don't know what we're doing. But I think there's magic in the footage you don't usually see. Documentaries are so well made today—they're almost too well-made—so it's refreshing to see a badly-shot interview, or things that could have been edited out. In our film, the content justifies leaving these things in.

One particularly botched moment was your interview with David Sedaris. It was your first interview, and you were so nervous while setting up the camera that we only see his hands throughout the entire interview. How did you break it to him?

I didn't! I never told him. It wasn't until I got home and reviewed the footage that I realized I'd blown it. But there's something amazing about watching David Sedaris' fingers pick at a hangnail while talking about his early writing. I don't know what he thinks about it, but he's probably concerned about more important things than my documentary.

The film is getting enthusiastic reviews from small screenings around the country. Where is it playing next, and how can people see it?

We had limited theatrical release, where it played in New York, LA, Austin, and San Francisco. Now it's available on DVD through Indieflix, and it's slowly making its way through the digital distribution channels, which takes a while. Within six months it should be available on all the digital platforms—Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes being the biggest ones.

What are you working on now?

I've already made a second documentary—in fact, I just finished it last week. It takes place in my hometown. Between 1979 and 1982 there were five unsolved homicides, which all had a single suspect. It's completely different from Bad Writing.

My wife and I also have written a full-length screenplay, which is inspired by a summer I spent living in Iowa City. It's kind of an example of how far out of the literary loop I was. In the complete mania of believing I was a poet, I spent a whole summer in Iowa City—and had no idea how important the Iowa Writers' Workshop was for writers.

How's your writing coming? Is it going any better?

I've really fallen in love with the short story—and I wish I could have more success writing them. But I'm still trying. I still send out submissions. In fact, I just got a rejection from McSweeney's—after two years! How did that happen?