Thoughts on Writing

A room of her own

At the height of her fame in the 1960s, Pauline de Rothschild (1908-1976) was frequently photographed by Vogue and admired by the public as an interior designer of singular taste. She was, however, in possession of another talent that didn’t come across in those glossy pictures: she was a very fine writer too. So awed was longtime The New Yorker author Janet Flanner by Rothschild’s travel diaries that she mused, “we writers work all our lives for style and special faculties of expression; (Rothschild) has them as an amateur.”

I would take issue with Flanner’s assumption that the division between writers and practitioners of other branches of the arts is so clear-cut. When Rothschild was renovating a drawing room, she was so particular about the color of its walls that (according to an observer) she “(sat) for hours with the painters, drinking mugs of tea, until they got the color she wanted.” Isn’t such pains similar to the kind writers habitually submit themselves to as they try out different words and phrases, only to find each wanting and find themselves despair of ever being able to strike the right tone?

My belief that responsiveness to beauty developed in one creative medium can be quite easily transferred to another is borne out by my own experiences. A large part of being a writer is becoming adept at guiding your reader’s eye, so that as they make their way through the twists and turns of your text, their attention naturally falls on what you want them to notice.

It is this kind of spatial intelligence that someone like Rothschild can cultivate in me. She would install a sette at the back of a room and then place a few pieces of furniture in its path, so that a visitor would catch sight of their loveliness as he made his way to the settee; she would place at floor level vases of flowers and then a small mirror on the opposite side, so that when she was in the room she would have the feeling of walking through flowers; she would remove the many-colored doors of an antique closet, and then re-attach them inside out, so that every time she unfastened them, a flurry of bright hues would overwhelm her senses.

Rothschild’s aesthetics is to me the perfect antidote to the kind of writing lessons my formal schooling shoved down my throat. Back then, I was ordered to follow a rigid format: first, plan your piece by coming up with three things to say about the given topic; then, write your introduction; next, present your three points one by one, allocating one paragraph to each and starting each paragraph with “firstly,” “secondly,” and “thirdly“;finally, write your conclusion by beginning with “To conclude,” and then summarize what you wrote in the previous three sections. The end product was, of course, completely lacking in style, but this approach to writing helped me sail through years of exams; later in life, when I wanted to write properly, I had to first liberate myself from its hold. Rothschild was of such service to someone in my then-predicament. What I discovered was, if, in my non-writing moments, I make a habit of taking the time to track the logic behind her layout of a room, when I sit down to write, I automatically become more emboldened to opt for untried ways of arranging blocks of thoughts in my piece.

It’s not easy to find Rothschild’s writings even in the internet age. The only thing she published in her lifetime was a slim volume on her travels to Russia; the book is now a collector’s item and isn’t available in e-format. No full-length biography on her exists (though one is being written). Of the snippets of her writings that I’ve managed to chance upon, the one that moves me most deeply is her poem on Balenciaga, which describes how the sensation of sashaying  in the legendary couturier’s “tulip” dress lulls the wearer into a state of spiritual bliss.

“That was the answer to these miracles of cut,
the black tulips he would send out across the floor.

Nothing held them out, neither whalebone or cages-
nor petticoats gave them any support.

Legs moved easily, the front of the long skirt running a little faster ahead than one’s walk,
like the tides,
you were given the elements,
you could use them at will.”

I find it natural that in her homage to Balenciaga, Rothschild would zero in on his mystical power to free those attired in his creations to be at one with nature. As it is with most artists, freedom was likely the state of being Rothschild was most acquainted with. When she took the time to figure out the exact shade of the paint that she wanted, it must have seemed to outsiders that she was having a hard time. But she was actually living the paradox that is at the heart of an artist’s existence; it is in being trapped that one can be intoxicatingly free, in being mired in a difficult project deep enough that the sweet spot can be reached, and the work of art begins to create itself. It’s very difficult to describe the mind when it is in such a mode, but  E. B. White’s assertion – that writing is sometimes “sheer luck, like getting across the street” – comes really close.

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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