Two Hundred Bad Poems


You have to make time to write every day. Really? Let's say, "yes, really."

My mom made me take typing in high school.

In those days kids didn't sit at keyboards since they were young. This was before there were iPads, iPhones, Macs or any other type of computer that didn't fill an entire room and require a staff of technicians to maintain.

In those days we used manual or electric typewriters (go ahead and search for that). We inserted a single sheet of paper or two sheets of paper separated by carbon paper so that we would have a second copy of our work. We tapped on keys to get our thoughts down on paper. Before I got to college and had to write papers for all of my classes, my mom wanted to make sure that I had the right keyboard skills so that I could concentrate on the content of my papers and not on the process of getting them down on paper.

I practiced typing one period a day for a semester my senior year of high school. It made all the difference when I got to college.

I also kept a journal where I wrote daily, long hand. In other words, each day I took out my spiral notebook and wrote something with an ink pen. I'm sure the writing was juvenile and embarassing. But it was the second essential piece of training that helped me write quickly and cleanly in college.

Later, I ran many summer academic programs. In each, we would start each day with a half hour of writing. Each student needed to write for a half hour. I stole the idea from Julia Cameron's book "The Artist's Way".

Here's the thing: I didn't care what the students wrote. If the students wanted or needed, I would provide a writing prompt. They didn't have to hand it in. The only rule was that they had to keep their pen moving for thirty minutes.

The whole idea was to get the process of getting ideas from their head to the paper out of the way. This repeated exercise freed them to more easily express their thoughts when it mattered.

A couple of weeks ago Billy Collins was the guest on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me". Collins was the Poet Laureate for the United States from 2001 to 2003. He was an entertaining guest.

Peter Sagal told Collins that when he was in high school he wrote "very sad, melancholy, self-indulgent poetry."

Collins said, "I did too."

Collins then said, "we're all born with 200 bad poems in us [...] This is statistically proven. And so - and middle school and high school is a good time to get rid of those."

This is a compelling variation on Malcolm Gladwell's argument that it takes ten thousand hours to master something.

We have so much bad writing in us. We need to keep writing until we get that writing out of us.

You have to make time to write every day. Really.