Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Writing so bad it's good

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on August 26, 2008.

Picture a younger me walking down the hall of the English department at San Jose State University back in the late 1970s. Imagine me stopping to look at the office door of one of my English professors, Dr. Scott Rice, who had taped up a cartoon of Snoopy on top of his doghouse typing: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Little did I know as I read the cartoon that Dr. Rice would soon hatch the idea for the now world-famous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which invites entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. The contest takes its name from the Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1803-70), who penned the famous “dark and stormy” line.

Because Rice was one of my favorite professors in college, I’m always pleased by how many people have heard of the contest. I entered once, but I'm not expert enough to write an award-winning bad sentence. Chances of winning are slim anyway, since entries can be as high as 10,000 for the annual contest.

This year’s winner, recently announced by Rice, did write a pretty darned good bad sentence. Written by Garrison Spik, a 41-year-old communications director and writer from Washington, D.C., the winning sentence reads:
Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped ‘Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.’”

Wow that’s bad. I mean good.

So why would Rice encourage us to consciously write really awful sentences? Besides being fun, writing poorly in a masterful way requires knowledge of good writing. So the contest teaches us how to write well even as we try to write poorly.

I’ve been thinking about Rice lately and realized I haven’t spoken to him in decades. So I found his email address and sent him a message that began: “No doubt you’ll need to brush off the dusty memories of the late 1970s to recall me, but I was a graduate student of yours way back when.”

A few days later, I got a reply: “I remember you well. You were the guy whose dad made him write essays and then corrected them.”

And so began a conversation in which I learned that these days Rice teaches just two classes a semester and enjoys playing golf. The contest, of course, is a significant part of his life. “I don't run the contest,” he said, “it runs me. I will keep doing it as long as enough people are interested.”

Rice said he gets sentences submitted every day. “The contest takes more work than many will be willing to do,” he said. “I am working on it almost on a daily basis.”

Rice also said that in the 26 years since he came up with the idea, he hasn’t tried to improve the contest, which is judged by former winners who often disagree over which sentences should be winners. “I am a charter member of the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it club,” he said. “I ignore all suggestions for how I might make the contest bigger or flashier.”

When Rice was my professor, he’d been teaching at San Jose State for just over 10 years. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to school in Spokane, spending his summers on his great-grandparents’ dairy farm in Clarkston, Washington. After high school, he spent a year working at a lumber mill in Idaho.

Rice became interested in teaching English during his freshman year of college at Lewis-Clark Normal School in Idaho. “I had a Humanities course from a charismatic teacher named Wayne Sims,” he said. “Listening to his enthralling lectures and working my way through the old Warnock and Anderson ‘The World in Literature,’ I realized that I wanted to become an English professor.”

Rice also credits a second teacher, John Sisk, with inspiring him at Gonzaga University in Spokane. “Sitting in awe listening to his lectures, it seemed to me he had read everything,” he said. “After I had spent some time in graduate school, I realized that he had.”

Rice earned his doctorate from the University of Arizona, and fortunately for me, he found his way to San Jose State right out of graduate school in 1968. In the same way that Rice enjoyed the talks of his professors, I was captivated by his lectures. I took several courses from him. I’ll never forget his Rhetoric class. I still have the textbook handy in my office. I learned about persuasive arguments, diction, style, and sentence composition. Much of what I learned in that class taught me how to write.

My other memories of Rice include his sense of humor, his beard, and his style of teaching, a style I borrow and honor even to this day in my own English classes at Las Positas College.

For more about the Bulwer-Lytton writing contest, visit www.bulwer-lytton.com.

1 comment:

she said...

LOVE this story! ..column..


what a great re-connect for you, and enticing contest for all bloggers

i must spread the word; the bad sentence word

AND in regard to awesome professors, and brilliant lectures

i sure wish..

(feel another ted wish coming on..)

their lectures could be taped/podcast to share with the whole wide world

like the great talks/lectures on ted.com

because LORD -the commute/parking at san jose state!

but i can however, make it to las positas (friendly reminder).

great read! thanks ren man, ~s.