Thoughts on Writing

“The jerks, the breaks, and the harshness of prose”

“The jerks, the breaks, and the harshness of prose”

To help the audience picture the difficulty of playing the title role in the Peking opera “The Inebriated Consort” (貴妃醉酒), the producers invited an opera apprentice and a little girl to learn the part from Zhang Jing, a venerated artist who could trace her lineage back to the legendary Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳). The child, a complete stranger to the idiom of opera, wobbled and dithered about despite her best efforts. But even the apprentice failed to replicate even a fraction of the range of nuances Zhang could magically summon by the mere turn of a head or wave of a hand.

The program sums up my understanding of my standing as an English writing coach. I may seem a figure of authority to my students – I often teach by writing in front of them, and not infrequently they express consternation at what they perceive to be my quickness of mind –   but I know I’ll forever remain at the level of that apprentice. For at any one moment, I’m always honing my skills at the feet of a more consummate wordsmith; I’m therefore constantly aware of my inadequacies. Yet, far from being discouraged, it is from such awareness that I derive my drive to improve both as a writer and as a writing teacher.

Of late, my flavour-of-the-month style lodestar is William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830); I’ve been wanting to impart more coherence to my copies, and patterning myself after Hazlitt – the gold standard in ease of expression – can inch me closer towards this goal. I especially like to mull over his comments on other writers, which always have a conceived-just-off-the-cuff air about them. Of Montaigne he said “He did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind.” On the opaque writings of his contemporary Jeremy Bentham, he remarked sardonically “His works have been translated into French. They ought to be translated into English.” Even his pronouncement on the challenges being eloquent is itself eloquent: in unskilled hands, “the jerks, the breaks, and the harshness of prose” too often disrupts the flow of thought “as a jolting road or a stumbling horse disturbs the reverie of an absent man.”

Because Hazlitt isn’t exactly light reading – A C Grayling likens his prose to whisky, “fiery to the virgin palate, it becomes, once the taste is acquired, wonderful” – most of my students won’t understand him. It is, however, the hand of Hazlitt they see when they watch me smooth over the jerks and breaks in their writings: 

Student’s copy:

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Albert Einstein said. In books, change is usually presented as positive.  However, in the real world, intelligence doesn’t often result in positive changes. Examples of changing for the worse are protests and climate change.

My rewrite:

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Albert Einstein once said. Indeed, intellectuals tend to depict change in positive terms. What they may have neglected, however, is it’s one thing to think about change while sitting in an armchair. It’s another thing to apply change to real life. And if history has taught us one thing, it is that due to the imperfect wisdom (not to mention selfishness) of mankind, the changes they bring about often result in pain and destruction.”

Student’s copy:

“To celebrate Halloween, I go to Ocean Park where people pay to get scared. I’m always forced to watch horror movies. My family is so focused when watching such films, but I cover my eyes when I see something scary on screen.”

My rewrite

“As Halloween approaches this year, once again I’m reminded of my inability to understand why people will pony up their hard-earned cash just to experience fright. For me, the desire to watch horror movies at home is strange enough – in my household, I’m the only member who will walk away from the TV when the suspense becomes too overwhelming. But taking all the trouble to travel to Ocean Park on October 31 to be scared out of one’s wits – this is completely beyond my grasp. For how can anyone be sure they won’t be the next in line to suffer the fate of that 21 year-old who got killed by a falling coffin at the park’s aptly-named “Buried Alive” attraction?”

Notice the student copies are perfectly grammatical. Their problem lies in their “jerkiness”, the type that can’t be dealt with by simply adding transition words like “moreover.” In my experience,  the only way to learn integrating blocks of thoughts into a satisfying whole is to expose oneself to writers who excel in doing this, and trust that one can channel some of their fluency when it’s one’s turn to write.

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