The Art of Performing Poorly

Dan Blaufuss | September 2009

    Jaleel White is most famous for playing nerdy Steve Urkel on the 1990s sitcom Family Matters. During an interview he said that the most difficult part of playing Urkel was having to dance and sing out of rhythm to portray how clueless the character really was. This surprised me, as I always assumed doing things poorly was simple; however, I learned how correct White was when I discovered the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
    Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was author of numerous novels, including Paul Clifford, which is best known for Snoopy’s repeated use of its opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Bulwer-Lytton also coined the phrases “the almighty dollar,” “the great unwashed,” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” In honor of his convoluted prose, San José State University English professor Scott Rice runs a contest each year for which entrants come up with the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.
    I first learned of this contest four years ago and have sent in 8-10 entries per year ever since in hopes of being named America’s most wretched writer. Unfortunately, writing that poorly is just as difficult as writing well. It is one thing to carelessly add an apostrophe to its at the wrong time or mix up there, their, and they’re, as is seen on the internet so often, but it is quite another to come up with notably awful writing.
    I do well at awful ideas, such as William Shatner singing “Karma Chameleon” or describing what a tongue sandwich tastes, but as a former Instrumentalist intern put it, “These are horrid ideas, but the writing makes me want to read more of the story.” My writing just isn’t poor enough when compared to the 2009 winner:

      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 the 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.

    The same holds true in music. Like many young low brass players, I was repeatedly chastised in junior high and high school for playing too raucously whenever I had the melody. It was easy to mistake playing out with playing too loudly. Similarly, the first time I played P.D.Q. Bach’s Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion, the director had to remind us repeatedly that funny music had to be played with the same discipline with which we would play anything else.
    I eventually learned my lesson musically and approach every style I play with the same professionalism. In addition, my writing must be getting better (or worse), because one of my 2009 Bulwer-Lytton submissions was awarded a miscellaneous dishonorable mention:

    As Lieutenant Baker shrank his lips back to their normal size, he tried desperately to think of a situation in which his new-found power might be useful, as have I, your narrator.

For more on the information on the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, including an archive of winning sentences, visit