Thoughts on Writing

No License to be imprecise

Curiously enough, among the people who have managed to make the art of writing less mysterious to me is Pietro Yantorny, an illiterate shoemaker who took pride in crafting custom-made shoes in Paris for high society at the turn of the last century. 

Dismissing factory-made footwear as “little boxes for feet that one calls shoes,” Yantorny developed a unique approach to his trade: upon accepting a commission, he would make an effort to find out how his client distributed her weight by monitoring her walking barefoot; he would cradle her feet in his hands and ask her to tighten and relax her muscles. No one knows what went through his mind during these rituals – the closest he came to revealing his method was when he remarked, somewhat enigmatically, “the foot is such a tiny object, yet a great deal of thought must be put into fitting it in so small a space, so that the demands of beauty and comfort are both satisfied.” It took him an average of two years to deliver an order, but his clients immediately forgot the torment of waiting when they beheld their purchase: shoes that were as light and form-fitting as silk stockings.

I love the Yantorny story for its evocation of that all-important aspect of writing that textbooks seldom talk about: the period prior to putting pen to paper, when half-formed ideas are merely glimpsed of from afar, and the chances of imposing any order on them seem hopelessly remote. It’s at such times that it’s most tempting to grab hold of well-worn phrases and let them do one’s thinking for one. However, if I am to pretend that I were Yantorny for a moment – now, no longer are words my medium of expression; instead, I am to conceive of the act of writing as a matter of packing meaning into a three-dimensional space. If I think this way, I’m more likely to overcome my fear of  the preverbal stage of writing, and stay put long enough to (if I’m lucky) re-emerge in the realm of words with a whimsical take on the world. 

To give you some idea of the vast number of dialogues I have with myself in the preverbal stage of writing – “ preverbal” and “dialogue” don’t really clash, for the duration of this type of self-talk is so fleeting that they don’t register on the mind as words – let me try to spell out this thought process. Below is a paragraph (written by someone else) that is ridden with stylistic missteps; I will give it the Yantorny treatment, putting the author’s “walk” under close scrutiny, and demonstrating that short though the paragraph may be, in order to convey its meaning clearly and precisely, the behind-the-scenes deliberations that are needed are nothing short of unrelenting. Had the self-correcting mechanism in the author’s unconscious been in working order, she would have been aware of her slip-ups.  

 Hong Kong, “Asia’s world city”, has become the battleground for a new type of urban “guerilla warfare” – defiant anti-government protesters have adopted a “flash mob” strategy, as evidenced in their hit-and-run rampage against  police across several districts over the weekend.

First impression: I’m  bewildered by the author’s enthusiasm for quotation marks – there are a whopping three pairs in this 41-word paragraph. Outside the purpose of indicating direct speech, one should use quotation marks sparingly; in unskilled hands, the punctuation may distract the reader by making her wonder whether the quoted matter originated from a source she ought to have known.

The author’s description of the protesters as “defiant” seems to me a mark of her insensitivity to the nuances of the English language. “Defiant” has a positive connotation; since it’s difficult to imagine the author (a pro-government columnist)  intending to portray the protesters as heroes, she should have used an adjective with negative undertones – I would use “unruly.” 

I would hesitate to describe the protesters’ clashes with the police as “hit-and-run rampage.” “Hit and run” is associated with serious injuries, if not death; “rampage” implies a sudden eruption of violence on an extensive scale. Even readers with moderate pro-government sensibilities would agree that neither is an accurate characterization of what the protesters have been committing. A less-is-more approach would have allowed the author to remain safely pro-Beijing without putting off readers who are sympathetic to the protesters (or neutral about them):

I’d rewrite her paragraph as follows:

 “Hong Kong’s reputation as Asia’s world’s city is fast losing its luster, as rioters transform the once smooth-running financial hub into a launching pad for their cat-and-mouse game with the police, disrupting public order in one district, only to evade capture and re-surface in another part of town to repeat their misdeeds.” 

See? Unlike the author, I’m able to convey her meaning without seeking shelter in quotation marks. I say “seek shelter,” because I suspect the truth is, the author isn’t really that confident about using English; whenever possible, she would rather avoid the labour of ransacking for the exact words to express herself. For her quotation marks are an escape hatch, a gadget that gives her the license to be imprecise

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