A delicately-built woman with chiseled cheekbones clad in the simplest of clothes (a straw hat, a polo shirt and a pair of capri pants) perched next to a lake – it must have been at least 15 years since I first came across this photo. It immediately became my favourite. Over the years, as I sought out this picture again and again, enchanted by its stillness and simplicity, I was to learn its subject was the famous style icon Babe Paley, its photographer, Horst, a towering figure in 20th century portraiture. But even without knowing these facts I knew the image was special, for it managed to capture in one stroke womanhood at its most serene and self-contained.
Recently, I learned one more interesting fact about the photo. Tastemaker Sister Parish (1910 – 1994), a decorator sought after by society for her unerring eye, had so admired the Babe Paley shot that she gave it the pride of place on her desk. “The photo immediately caught your eye as you entered her office,” recalled a designer who worked under Parish. “Paley’s silent image lent an air of glamour to the room, something Parish clearly intended.”
The thought of me seeing eye to eye with Sister Parish on a work of art did much to boost my confidence as a writer, for I’m constantly rattled by the thought that my ability to write is an outside force that isn’t mine to summon at will. “Either you have it or you don’t,” Parish was often heard saying about artistic ability. It may have been entirely by chance that Parish and I were drawn to the same photo, yet I’ve allowed this coincidence to convince me that I do “have it.”
It’s when I’m persuaded that I “have it” that I can, say, stop second-guessing myself after I’ve settled on a wording I instinctively feel is the best. Take for example the time I had to translate the statement a mainland official made on the extradition law saga; the 2019 protests, he said, were “香港正面臨回歸以來最嚴峻的局面.” I considered several ways of rendering his pronouncement into English:
1. This marks the first time since the 1997 handover when Hong Kong is a hair’s breadth away from descending into chaos.
2. There has never been a time since the 1997 handover when Hong Kong sailed so close to treacherous waters.
3. Never has there been a time since the1997 handover when Hong Kong came so perilously close to losing its footing.
I eventually decided on (3). But why? I couldn’t tell. I was relying on a hunch, or – for want of a better phrase – my feeling for beauty. This is why the fact that Sister Parish and I esteemed the same picture can go a long way in assuring me that my judgement is in good working order. After all, she was someone so confident in her taste that she could weigh the intrinsic worth of an item without regard to price or periods. The objects she chose for her clients’ homes “could cost a million dollars or a few dollars. She might put a prim wooden dog made by some backwoodsman up in Maine on a gilt wood and lacquer table,” observed her business partner. Perhaps her resoluteness can rub on me.
I know I’m far from being the only writer weighed down by self-doubts. The late novelist Denis Johnson deemed this syndrome so common that to alert his writing students to it – and to train them to overcome it – he would bring to class two metal balls that were similar in weight and ask the aspiring writers he had taken under his wing to pick the one that’s heavier. “The difference in weight was very tiny but we found we could usually tell the heavier one if we didn’t think about it too hard,” recounted a former student. Since learning about Johnson’s anxiety-relieving trick, whenever I have to choose between drafts, I only need to imagine myself in the act of “weighing metal balls,” and immediately, it becomes easier for me to tap into my intuition. At any rate, considering how easy it is for me to be otherwise paralysed by my fear of the blank screen, it’s a small miracle that I’m still plodding on in the writing business.