The Spokesman-Review


TUESDAY, JULY 28, 2009

John Laird: It takes talent to write so wrong

Columnists, like most golfers, have high standards but low expectations. In the difficult race to become the best, we often just settle for not being the worst. It’s kind of like being a husband. As long as Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer are sputtering confessions at press conferences, well, at least we’re not the worst husbands in the world, right, guys?

Many columnists believe the worst writers are determined by the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest ( This event honors Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who began an 1830 novel with the famous phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night …” (Turns out that Snoopy, writing atop his doghouse, was a plagiarist.) Writers from all over the world enter this contest, conducted for 27 years by the Department of English at San Jose State University.

I’ll salute this year’s winner later, but first allow me to mention a few past writers of abominable literature, authors whose names I’ve lost through the years, but whose literary catastrophes I’ve saved and still use in speaking engagements to elicit groans.

Try reading this one without groaning: “The sun rose slowly, like a fiery furball coughed up uneasily onto a sky-blue carpet by a giant unseen cat.” In the world of combustible composition, that’s about as bad as it gets, right?

Another fictional fiasco: “Dawn crept slowly over the sparking emerald expanse of the golf course, trying in vain to remember where she had dropped her car keys.”

And this perfectly putrid prose features a numerical sequence: “The first second that third-rate representative of the Fourth Estate cracked open a new fifth of old scotch, my sixth sense said that seventh heaven was as close as an eighth note from Beethoven’s Ninth. So, nervous as a sophomore drowning in an 11th-hour cramming for a physics exam, I swept her into my longing arms and, while humming ‘The Twelfth of Never,’ I fell in love on Friday the 13th.”

Yeow! Get me an antacid!

This year’s winner of the bad-fiction contest, I’m proud to report, is from our own state. David McKenzie, 55, a consultant and writer from Federal Way, won with this gem: “Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’east and dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the ‘Ellie May,’ a sturdy whaler captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.”

Thank you, David. That was just awful. Professional writers (it’s really more of a trade or craft) are indebted to you for donning the soiled cloak of ignominy and sparing the rest of us from becoming the worst, at least for 2009. There’s always next year, I suppose. (In case you haven’t caught on yet, only the best writers can write as poorly as McKenzie.)

At the other end of the writing spectrum, we find the type of genius that redefines words. You might have received an e-mail about a definitions contest – one variation of the weekly Style Invitational contest sponsored by the Washington Post – in which creative new definitions are declared for ordinary words. Here are a few of my favorites from the 1998 redefinition contest, with their writers:

Flabbergasted: appalled over how much weight you have gained (Michelle Feeley).

Flatulence: emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller (Russ Beland).

Balderdash: a rapidly receding hairline (Paul Kocak).

Negligent: a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown (Sandra Hull).

Lymph: to walk with a lisp (Paul Kocak).

And from another contest, to define a “word” one letter different from a real word, here’s one whose writer I wish I’d been able to identify:

Bozone: the substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating.

Now that’s good writing.

John Laird is the editorial page editor for the Vancouver, Wash., Columbian.

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