Thoughts on Writing

Copy that

In the days of her youth, when Zhang Chonghe (张充和) honed her art at the feet of the master calligrapher Shen Yinmo (沈尹默), she was captivated by his unconventional teaching method.

“To curb my habit of leaving character construction to chance, Master Shen prescribed Sui and Tang Dynasty fonts – known for their precise structure –  for me to mimic. He would never tell me, this character is ill-drawn, that one has an irremediable defect. Instead, he knew which font would straighten out which deficiency in my technique, and he would assign that font to me accordingly.”

After my last column was published – in it I extolled the benefits of boosting one’s facility in English by emulating well-crafted prose – one of you wrote to ask me to recommend books she could use for the purpose of imitation. Upon reading her email I recalled the above Master Shen anecdote, and I thought: I’m in the dark about which authors this reader could use as a style reference, as her note was far too brief for me to be able to develop any feeling for her faults,

The Chinese calligraphy analogy is illuminating about the art of writing in another way: unlike, say, those mainland parents who enrolled their children in “quantum reading” class – they believed the hype that such classes would teach kids to read 100,000 characters in five minutes – the process of poring over a text with the intention of patterning one’s prose after it is as snail-paced as that of copying a font sample stroke by stroke.

Last year, in my effort to add another know-how to my arsenal of skills as a columnist, I decided to learn how to do hatchet jobs. Below is but one of the “font samples” that showed me the ropes, a 1940 New Yorker review by Wolcott Gibbs – the preeminent theatre critic of his day – of Romeo and Juliet (the play). In his piece, Gibbs reserves his most biting remarks for Laurence Olivier’s performance as Romeo in the play’s famous balcony scene (Olivier was also the play’s director):

“Not only is he just as inaudible as any of his colleagues, but also he plays with a strangely preoccupied air, as if half his mind was still busy with his problems as director. His balcony scene, especially, has less the appearance of a man transported by love than that of an actor-manager automatically reciting blank verse while reflecting uneasily that the balcony really seems absurdly low, which indeed it does.”

We are amused by this passage because we get vicarious satisfaction out of Gibbs’ unmasking of Olivier – that the “strangely preoccupied air” Olivier had when he recited lofty words of love as Romeo could have been due to his sudden realization that as a director, he should have asked for the balcony to be set higher.

The insight I got from Gibbs is, a hatchet job can become a delightful read if you can give a convincing picture of the innermost thoughts of the person you’re passing judgement on. And if you spot any slapstick humour inherent in the situation, then have a blast playing it up.

Here’s me doing a Gibbs-inspired take on Carrie Lam’s administration:

“If you want to find out why many of the world’s most prestigious PR firms have said ‘no’ to the lucrative assignment of helping the Hong Kong government patch up its reputation – Edelman is the latest one to bolt – you just need to look at this photo.

The Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her cabinet are pictured pledging their support to Beijing’s plan to impose a freedom-curbing law that may, among other things (many details are not yet forthcoming), allow the security apparatus of the communist regime up north to do as they like in the former British colony.

The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the photo was, they could really use a PR firm. Their awkward demeanor and air of resignation looked familiar; in a flash I remembered where I’d last seen such body language – on the likes of Silda Sptizer and Huma Abedin, wronged political wives who had to swallow the humiliation of standing beside their errant husbands as the latter admitted to career-ending extramarital exploits.

Surely, if the Hong Kong government finally succeeds in finding a PR firm, one of the first things those spin doctors should work on is the posture of its members – how to project confidence even when what remains of your conscience is eating you inside, even when you’re embarrassed that your children have to see you this way.”

Lest you think it’s easier to write when you have a “font model” to follow – this little story, also about Shen Yinmo, can disabuse you of this notion. One day, when Zhang Chonghe saw master Shen heading for another session of calligraphy practice in the afternoon, she asked “but you just practised this morning! Aren’t you tired already?” Shen replied “my arm doesn’t know of exhaustion; it’s when my mind is exhausted that I can no longer do calligraphy.”

Shen’s remark pretty much sums up what you don’t need to be a master of prose to understand: having writing models to rely on makes writing more difficult, because they make you become aware of more possibilities and force you to get out of your comfort zone. Which brings me to what I think is the biggest misconception Chinese people have about writing in English: they think the more they know, the easier it gets.They would do well to remember an aside the art critic Joan Acocella made in her article on writer’s block: for “seasoned writers,” writing is such a “huge, bleeding effort” that they “tend to write for only about three or four hours a day.”

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