Thoughts on Writing

A picture is worth a thousand words

The detective was told the murder victim found in Brooklyn had worked as a sex worker, but when he arrived at the crime scene, he noticed a detail that was at odds with her presumed identity: her hands and feet were beautifully-manicured; in his dealings with streetwalkers, he rarely found them immaculately groomed. Before long the detective’s instincts proved correct: the body belonged to a law school grad.  

The detective attributed his sharp eye to an art course he had taken. Not any art course, but one taught by Amy Herman, a former lawyer with an arts background who uses paintings to boost the observational skills of professionals like doctors and police officers. In her talks, Herman would make a point of shaking her audience’s confidence in their sensitivity to details by asking them to examine paintings like John Copley’s Mrs. John Winthrop. In her experience, most would notice the subject’s face, headdress, and her garment’s elaborate trimmings, without noticing the one distinguishing feature of the picture: the reflection of Mrs Winthrop’s fingers and sleeves on the tabletop. Invariably, Herman’s class participants would then express consternation at their obliviousness to the obvious.

I’m charmed by the cop’s discovery of the value of paintings in training his eye, for I, too, have been using paintings to help me write better. In my case, by examining how tricky it is for landscape painters to create a smooth transition from foreground to background in their pictures, I’ve come to appreciate a parallel problem in writing – the difficulty of building a narrative that can move through the wide expanse of multiple paragraphs effortlessly.

As is often the case with trying to master a skill, it’s when we come across examples that don’t work that we are on our way to figuring out what does work. So, I took note when the preeminent art critic Kenneth Clark pointed out the ways in which the early landscape painters more or less stumbled collectively when attempting to create the illusion of distance in their renderings of nature. Clark cited the case of the Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): in a departure from his usual deft handling of technical issues, Rubens failed to depict correctly the proportions of the footbridge and the partridges near it in Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen – the birds are far too large in relation to the bridge. Other painters find the challenge of traversing middle distance so insurmountable that they avoided it altogether: in The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1429-1498) simply situated the scene of the saint’s execution on a plateau, so that there was no uninterrupted stretch of land for him to draw.

It’s tougher for writers to run away from the burden of presenting a seamless narrative, since their medium – passage after passage of text – puts them in a constant state of exposure. To dupe my reader into believing that the unfolding of my story from one paragraph to the next is natural, I have to lull them into seeing connections where none exists. 

By way of illustration, below is the opening of a column I recently wrote for Apple Daily. Titled “An open letter to the 53 Hong Kongers arrested due to last year’s primary election,” the piece kicks off with an anecdote about the novelist Katherine Anne Porter:

”Shortly after Katherine Anne Porter published “Ship of Fools,” a nun approached her and asked “you look like such a nice woman, how could you have written that dreadful book?” Porter replied “sister, this is a perfectly dreadful world, don’t you know that?” Later, Porter had an epiphany when she reflected on this exchange: “it is a horrible world. But sometimes I have found little bits of time when you couldn’t believe that everything could be so nice.”

As you remain marooned in the maze that passes itself off as the legal system of an international finance capital, I want you to know how you’ve left an imprint on my world: Hong Kong is currently in a horrible state alright, but thanks to your bravery in putting yourself out there, I can still find little pockets of hope where humanity is at its finest.“

I continued on for two paragraphs elaborating on how the examples of the 53 have inspired me. I then reached the point where I had to switch gears and get into the body and main theme of my piece: how Beijing’s mishandling of Hong Kong (not to mention the mainland economy) will come back to haunt it and in turn give us hope for change. Below is my transitional sentence; writing it is the equivalent of bridging the middle distance in landscape painting:

I’ve talked about how you’ve made it possible for me to find human goodness in unexpected quarters. Now that Hong Kong is even more at the mercy of Beijing’s whim, it is again in unexpected quarters that we can find hope.”

Notice there is actually no direct link between finding goodness in Hong Kong people and finding hope in Beijing’s misguided policies. Yet because both are about finding something, I can easily induce my reader into believing the two are connected. I can therefore facilitate my transition with ease.

(Here is my column in its entirety)

Even though I know the chance of readers noticing my writing tricks may be as high as the chance of non-painters noticing the reflection of Mrs Winthrop’s hands and sleeves on the wooden table – readers will only have a vague feeling that my storytelling mode is fluent – this is just the way things should be. For my tricks are only meant to be seen by fellow writers; we grapple with the same problems, and we take pleasure in showing each other how we’ve managed to overcome some of them. Like the early landscape painters, most of us learn and err as a group. This is why making art is essentially a humbling enterprise: even as we revel in our mastery of details, we are reminded of our finitude, of our inability to go beyond the idiom and preoccupations of our age.

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