I met Lucy Ferriss at a memoir conference at Trinity College in 2007. I was less than one year into a low-residency MFA program, and between on-campus residencies (at University of Southern Maine), I often went in search of literary community and inspiration closer to home (Hartford, Connecticut being only two hours away). Lucy was the conference organizer, and had put together a craft-packed and busy weekend which fulfilled my wish list. If memory serves, we also shared a meal and some lively discourse. Months later, I was pleased to find one of her creative nonfiction pieces alongside mine in Sport Literate journal. I've been noticing her work ever since.
Lucy has published 10 books, mostly fiction, including her latest novel A Sister to Honor, for which she traveled to the remote Pashtun area of Pakistan. She is writer-in-residence at Trinity and lives in Connecticut and the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
Please welcome Lucy Ferriss
I haven’t sent anything to The New Yorker in years, but when I was young and starry-eyed, I used to polish my short stories until I could see my reflection in them and shoot them off to an editor there. This was back when you licked stamps and enclosed SASEs to get your pages back, since it cost twenty cents a page to photocopy a manuscript at the local library. Perhaps in recognition of this effort, or maybe because they weren’t yet overwhelmed with emails, the editors used to respond with a dashed-off handwritten note. Thanks, but we can’t use it. Good luck!
One time, the note was more instructive. You need, the New Yorker editor had written, to learn to write badly.
Well, I never.
What was she on about? Write badly? I was putting myself through this exquisite torture only because I wrote well. I had always written well. Writing well, as far as I knew, was my only positive attribute. I had paid attention in English class. I knew the difference between lay and lie. I knew not to write a series of sentences in a row as subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb. I knew how to use the serial comma. I knew alternatives for the verb to be, and I had a list in my head of all the different ways to write he said (he exclaimed, he gasped, he pontificated, he muttered).
I made a paper airplane of the editor’s comment and flew it into the wastebasket.
But "write badly" had to mean something.
It nagged at me, and I found myself noting instances in the work of my favorite authors where they wrote, well, badly. The prose stuttered. It circumnavigated the subject. It dropped into cliché. It repeated itself, and used it way too many times. Take, just for starters, Emily Dickinson. What was it with all those dashes? Did the woman have no idea how to punctuate?
A Bird, came down the Walk -
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
. . .
And what about Thomas Hardy? I loved Hardy. I wanted to be Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd. But just have a look at what the master hath wrought, in The Mayor of Casterbridge:
One of the two who walked the road was she who had figured as the young wife of Henchard on the previous occasion; now her skin had lost much of its rotundity; her skin had undergone a textural change; and though her hair had not lost color it was considerably thinner than before.
Even accounting for Victorian wordiness, the description feels flat and diffuse. The verbs are weak—walked, was, lost, undergone. Surely Hardy could be more precise and vivid.
Crossing into our century, I encounter Mary Gaitskill, perhaps my generation’s most forceful dramaturge of female desire. Her novel Veronica, about a fashion model named Alison, was deservedly a National Book Award finalist. But in one scene after another, the writing seems to miss its mark:
In Paris, things happened fast. Two weeks after my first job, I met the head of Céleste. His name was Alain Black; he was a South African with a French mother. He was the man I had glimpsed on my first day there.
I have no idea whether method attended the madness of these authors as they crafted these sentences. But I can tell you this. Dickinson’s dashes and oddly placed commas yield the sense of her breathing, or trying to breathe, as she writes that poem. Hardy’s uninflected description of Michael Henchard’s wife has the effect of stage directions, notes on the actress who is about to step onto the proscenium—making you feel that the whole novel is a sort of play. As indeed it is, a morality play about bad faith. As to Veronica, the third-person narration channels Alison’s indirect discourse, and she’s an insecure, narcissistic wreck.
The so-called bad writing, in other words, risks tasking a reader’s patience, but its rewards go beyond sharp description or elegant syntax. To learn to write badly, I had to
• abandon my own cleverness
• listen to the cadences of my characters, including their silences and stumblings
• put every bit of writing to the service of the story
• trust my reader as much as my characters trusted me.
I still struggle. I long to use words like penumbra and viscid and hate giving them up for shadow and sticky. In my latest novel, A Sister to Honor, I write of a character who has committed a terrible act, What, oh what had he been made to do?—which sounds melodramatic to me, but he’s a melodramatic guy, and that phrase kept hammering at me. Almost every time the copy editor corrected a verb to subjunctive voice (“I wish she were here”), I threw it back to the indicative (“I wish she was here”).
Elizabeth Bowen has a bit of advice for writing dialogue: Effect of choking (as in engine), more to be said than can come through. Though the reference has long been obscure—when was the last time any of us choked a car engine, forcing the gas through a tiny hole to give it more explosive propulsion?—I like to apply the advice to what my long-ago editor called bad writing. What can’t come through does come through, in the end, and all our velocity depends on it.
Note from Lisa: Lucy would be happy to answer questions from blog readers, in the comments section; she'll *stop by* a few times over the next two weeks, so leave your questions or other comments for her there. She's also like to give one blog reader a complimentary signed copy of her novel, A Sister to Honor. Just leave any comment here by April 11 to be in the running. (Must have a U.S. postal address.) You can connect with Lucy via Twitter or Facebook, and visit her website.
Images courtesy Lucy Ferriss