Thoughts on Writing

The power of an entrance

The one thing that doesn’t get easier with time even for experienced writers is the art of striking the right note in the opening paragraph.

The British-Canadian journalist Barbara Amiel has to look to unconventional sources for instruction as she labours to conjure up imaginative beginnings for her pieces. In addition to drawing on her knack of wowing people with what she wore – in her heyday, her extensive wardrobe was memorably covered by Vogue – she also took cue from George Bernard Shaw’s trick of performing a little dance for the press shortly before a sit-down interview, as a way to pique their interest.

“When I sweated over a column on legal affairs or the Middle East, I would always couch the beginning in a verbal jig, some grab-your-attention outrageous line or anecdote, and I thought of my clothes and appearance in the same way,” Amiel divulges.

For Amy Fine Collins, another writer who’s also a clotheshorse, the impact her rather whimsical dress sense has on her writings is even more pronounced.  Just look at how she set the stage for her profile on the French fashion designer Jacqueline de Ribes. The information she had to convey to her reader at the beginning of her piece was straightforward enough:

– de Ribes was born in Paris on 14th July 1929

– Her parents were the Count and Countess Jean de Beaumont

– She was eventually awarded a Cavalier of the Legion of Honor by former pesident Nicolas Sarkozy”

Collin’s virtuosity in creating theatre out of these bare-bones facts is nothing short of stunning:

Suddenly the dining-room doors opened, and in glided the Vicomtesse de Ribes. An exotic vision, the aristocratic beauty was swaddled from the pinnacle of her tasseled hat to the tips of her pointed slippers in a fantastically opulent Turkish disguise, ingeniously cobbled together by the Vicomtesse herself from three of her old haute couture dresses; organza lamé from a remnant market; and a sable cape, acquired from an impoverished ballerina. Recalls de la Renta, “It was a show. And she was the star. No one knew like Jacqueline the power of an entrance.”

Jacqueline de Ribes’s instinct for arrivals is, in every sense, innate. Oldest child of the Count and Countess Jean de Beaumont, she made her entrance into the world on Bastille Day 1929—the 140th anniversary of the insurrection that had cost some of her ancestors their heads. “I was Cavalier of the Legion of Honor born on July 14,” Jacqueline recounted recently, during a toast occasioned by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decoration of her as a Cavalier of the Legion of Honor. “I evidently stirred up a little revolution.”

What I particularly like about Collin’s introduction is its double meaning: in describing de Ribes’ entrance at the party, Collins is making her entrance as a writer too. Not prepared to be upstaged, Collins exploits the expressive potential of her material to the full, very much the way de Ribes plumbed the depths of her originality when assembling her flight-of-fancy outfit. To emphasize de Ribes’ patrician roots, for example, Collins underscores how the date of de Ribes’ birth coincided with the 140th anniversary of the storming of Bastille, a seminal event that heralded the toppling of the French nobility. Collins then takes advantage of a quip de Ribes made at the Legion of Honor awards ceremony – “I evidently stirred up a little revolution” – to not only make another allusion to de Ribes’ class, but also to give readers a preview of her piece’s theme: de Ribes is a woman accustomed to stirring things up, both in her manner of dress and in her decision (radical at the time) to be an aristocrat who worked.

Mindful of the power of an entrance, I did try to come up with my own version of Amiel’s verbal jig in a recent piece on the CCP’s liking for using financial rewards to goad people into carrying out its orders. Hong Kong people are all too aware of this practice, and since familiarity breeds indifference, the issue is in danger of being ignored altogether. In presenting it as my topic, I reasoned, it’s best if I could stir things up a bit. So, I took the risk of starting my column with an anecdote that tested the limits of good taste. What follows are the first two paragraphs of the piece in question. To be honest, I’m still in two minds about whether my entrance worked. I leave it to my Mingpao readers to decide:

As affairs between tycoons and starlets in Hong Kong go, this liaison in particular has gone down as the one that can provide the juiciest fodder for gossip: the tycoon in question dangled $20 million (in 1990s dollars) in front of an actress who was, by many accounts, the most beautiful star of her day; let me shove two golf balls into you, he proposed, and the money is yours. She said yes. After the proceedings, however, she discovered to her horror she couldn’t remove the inserted objects on her own. She went to a hospital for help, which was how her story got leaked.

I was reminded of this sordid tale when, two months ago, the Water Supplies Department awarded a $4.5 billion contract to the construction firm owned by the husband of the Secretary of Justice Tersesa Cheng. In the light of the fact that late last year, this same firm found itself under investigation for anti-monopoly practices shortly after (according to the Financial Times) Cheng begged Beijing to let her resign – Beijing denied her request and ordered her to go back to work – it is difficult to escape the impression that by alternately applying carrot and stick, Beijing is bullying Cheng into doing its bidding. So, despite my contempt of Cheng – among other things, I loathe her for raising the spectre of a criminal charge to deter people from protesting in the streets – part of me began to pity her. Just as, to this day, every time the said starlet flaunts her life of luxury, people will gleefully recount the golf ball incident on social media, so, Cheng’s wealth will forever be perceived as tainted, as associated with her willingness to debase herself for the CCP.

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