Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors

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9780399168888: Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors

The writing in this book is so bad, it deserves its own taxonomy of suckitude.

Gillian Flynn, Mary Roach, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Chuck Palahniuk, Amy Tan, A.J. Jacobs, Daniel Clowes, Jeff Greenwald, Po Bronson...the list goes on. They all sucked once, and they all have the guts to share some of their crappiest early work in Drivel: an uplifting bit of voyeurism, based on the sold-out “Regreturature” stage shows in San Francisco, and brought to you by Litquake and the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

Within these pages you’ll find abstruse and esoteric poetry (bad); incoherent and illogical short stories (worse); bumfuzzling proto-journalism (shameful); and pretentious, overwrought journal entries (we’ll not speak of this again).

Thanks to these courageous but foolhardy writers, the world now knows the real meaning of a work-in-progress.

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About the Author:

Editor Julia Scott produces radio documentaries and news features for the BBC World Service and nationally syndicated programs, and writes for newspapers and magazines including The New York Times. Her work has been featured in Best American Science Writing.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Photos taken at Regreturature, the annual live show that inspired this book. © Chris Hardy. From L to R: First row: Ethel Rohan, Caroline Paul, David Duncan, Jeff Greenwald. Second row: Isaac Fitzgerald, Katie Crouch, Stephen Elliott. Third row: Heather Donahue, David Munro, Laura Fraser. Fourth row: Todd Oppenheimer, Jack Boulware, Simon Rich, Mary Roach.

The genesis for this project was a desperate idea for a fund-raiser. Janis Cooke Newman and I were brainstorming some type of collaboration between San Francisco’s Litquake literary festival and the Writers’ Grotto collective, which might benefit Litquake.

Grotto writers reading from their work? “Who’s going to pay to see that?” joked Janis, who of course is a member of the Grotto.

We continued racking our brains. It couldn’t be just another reading or panel discussion. It needed some real zest. And then it suddenly hit me—what if we had these respected, professional writers read instead from the worst thing they’d ever written? The most shameful, embarrassing, precocious, clunky, sappy, immature, cloyingly earnest prose that somehow may have been stashed in a long-forgotten box.

Subconsciously, I think I was remembering a horrifically misguided paper I had written about hippies in the fourth grade. It was so ill-informed and painful that I could still recall some of the sentences verbatim. If I were ever to dig it up, it might amuse a roomful of people clutching cocktails. I would come off looking pretty stupid, but perhaps other writers could be persuaded to also embarrass themselves for a worthy cause. (The “essay” is included here.)

But would it work? Would writers who ordinarily push themselves to be the best be willing to debase themselves and offer up a personal literary turd in the name of entertainment? This goes against everything writers strive for. It’s hard enough to learn how to write well, to hustle working gigs, to get paid, to get published, to find readers, to make the world care about what you wrote. So why would anyone reverse the process and call attention to the fact their writing once sucked ass? And even more importantly, for our purposes, would they have saved any of it?

To everyone’s surprise, from Janis and me to the authors, their friends, and the audience, the stage show titled Regreturature has become a hit. We’ve sold out all of our events over the past four years, and now you’re holding this collection—Drivel—which includes several of the pieces we presented, plus many other gems.

It’s always inspiring to hear great writing read aloud. But listening to a well-established author read from a cringeworthy teenage diary, or an earnest letter to President Nixon, or a groaner student poem is enlightening in a different way. It reminds all of us that writing takes work. That everybody does start somewhere, and often that somewhere is pretty crappy.

So in a sense, Drivel offers hope for all aspiring writers. And it also sends a warning. If you haven’t thrown away your horrible writing, we may someday hunt you down and force you to share it onstage.

—Jack Boulware, cofounder of Litquake

Right about now, you’re probably feeling pretty good about yourself. You’re holding a collection of shamefully bad writing by authors who have invested a lot of their careers in getting you to think they’re pretty great. If you’ve ever aspired to greatness but were scared of sucking, or spent desperate hours pulling your hair out and throwing draft after draft in the trash, you recognize the cringing terror these authors are feeling right at this very moment. Have a care for them.

Why? Because there was a time, not so long ago, when their writing stank so badly it wouldn’t even have been used to line a litter box. And yet the contributors in Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors are doing the unthinkable: they are willing to impale themselves, in public, for your amusement.

In fact, the writing in this collection is so bad it deserves its own taxonomy of suckitude. There’s abstruse and esoteric poetry (bad); incoherent and illogical short stories (worse); bumfuzzling proto-journalism (shameful); and pretentious, overwrought journal entries (just turn the page and we’ll not speak of this again).

And all by your favorite bestselling authors. Yes, they’ve committed horrible crimes against the written word. But the lesson, if there is one, lies in what happened next.

They never stopped writing. And eventually, they began not to suck.

I conceived the idea for this book after performing at the second-annual live Regreturature show in San Francisco in 2012. I read from a journal entry I wrote as a twenty-year-old, gushing like a Tiger Beat teenybopper over an encounter with British playwright Tom Stoppard. (“It’s enough to know that I am living IN THE SAME LIFETIME, let alone being in the same room!”)

Who knew my earnest writerly crush on an eminent septuagenarian would supply so many laugh lines? I was delighted. But as the evening slipped by, I sensed a second feeling in the crowd: a sort of communal catharsis. Together, we’d transcended the pain and the humiliation of dredging up our stinkiest “work.” And we’d turned it into a kind of public sacrifice.

By far the hardest part of putting this book together was getting authors to cough up their hoary hair balls. Some were seduced by the concept immediately and were forced to choose from a veritable catalog of tumescent masterworks.

Others not so much. No matter how I framed my plea, begging for some scrap of juvenilia or errant bit of mid-career offal—anything, really, that escaped the wrecking ball of good taste and discretion—a number of fellow writers were not swayed.

Their excuses were just a notch above “the dog ate my homework”: “My mom threw out my early writing.” “My boxes are buried in the attic.” “I don’t have anything that qualifies as bad enough to share.” (A note on that last one: we don’t believe you.)

Some writers expressed genuine regret, even as they confessed why they couldn’t contribute. One bestselling novelist got straight to the point:

“My bad writing is so bad, and there’s so much of it, and so little of the good, that it’s just too painful to lay eyes on that stuff,” he explained. (We understand.)

You’re about to meet the dozens of contributors who volunteered to pluck their turgid treasures from the bottom of a locked and moldy vault. Thanks to these courageous but foolhardy writers, the world now knows the real meaning of a work in progress.

—Julia Scott, San Francisco Writers’ Grotto

MARY ROACH

GUPPY LOVE

MARY ROACH is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and her latest, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. She was guest editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 and a winner of the American Association of Engineering Societies’ Engineering Journalism Award, in a category for which, let’s be honest, she was the sole entrant.

In my early twenties, I had a job in the public information office of the San Francisco SPCA. I was excited about this job, because for the first time in my limp, spotty almost-career I was being paid to write. One of the things I was occasionally tasked with writing was the “Pet Tips” column in the San Francisco Examiner. There was no byline on this column because there was no columnist. The writer changed from week to week, depending on who had managed to weasel out of it, who had pretended to be under the gun with, say, a press release on Holiday Dangers for Pets (“Deck the halls with caution this Christmas . . .”). I was dismayed by the absence of a byline because I thought I might one day use some of my “Pet Tips” columns as writing samples. Not all of them, mind you. Just the really good ones. And without a byline, how could an editor be sure I hadn’t just clipped someone else’s wry, sparkling guppy piece from the paper and claimed it as my own?

I seem to recall being proud of the phrase “minute fry” and the sly humor of baby guppies emerging “individually wrapped” in clear membranes. Obviously the word “plastic” to describe the clear membranes is a mistake, the sort of airheaded gaffe that still from time to time shows up in my books. My long-standing inability to wrap things up smoothly (with or without clear plastic) is also in evidence here, in the jarring, graceless shift from oxygen concentrations to “So let’s hear it for guppies!”

—M.R.

JAMES NESTOR

DEAR BUTTHOLE

JAMES NESTOR has written for Outside magazine, Men’s Journal, Dwell, the New York Times, San Francisco Magazine, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other publications. His first nonfiction book, Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, was published in June 2014. His long-form piece Half-Safe, about the only around-the-world journey by land and sea in the same vehicle ever attempted (and completed), was published by the Atavist in 2013. Nestor owns a 1977 Mercedes that runs on used cooking oil and a 1979 Sebring-Vanguard electric CitiCar, both of which are for sale. He lives in San Francisco.

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