Thoughts on Writing

Writing as an observational science

Even though I sat through my compulsory physics and chemistry classes in secondary school not understanding a word, oddly enough, it was a book I read at university on how scientists make discoveries -The Art of Scientific Investigation by William Beveridge – that played a part in developing in me an eye for detail that later proved so handy when I became a writer.

To drive home how easy it is to fail to see the obvious when conducting experiments, Beveridge describes how even Charles Darwin once fell victim to his blindspots. Darwin made two field trips to Wales; an interval of 11 years fell between them. The first visit was undertaken when he didn’t know about the Ice Age, the second, when he did know about it and wanted to find evidence of it. He was in for a shock on the subsequent occasion: despite having spent “many hours examining all the rocks with extreme care” on his prior expedition, it was only now, when he was actively looking for corroboration of the Ice Age in the very same spot, that he became aware of  the plethora of “wonderful glacial phenomena” that had previously escaped him – “the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines.”

The Darwin story has brought a sense of play to my efforts to write well. Like a parent pencil-marking her child’s height along a door frame from time to time to chart his growth, I can gauge whether my responsiveness to the intricacies of writing has gone up a notch by re-reading a passage after a gap of several months, and keeping count of the additional details I discern on my second reading. I can also learn how to cultivate Darwinian attentiveness from other writers. For example, John Gregory Dunne’s uncanny ability to exploit the expressive potential of the minutiae of everyday life provides me with a picture of how I should get my mind to work:

(from a Michiko Kakutani review of a book by Dunne)
“(Dunne) notices that the stretchers in the Los Angeles County morgue are Tiffany blue. He notices that during the O. J. Simpson trial, Universal Pictures moves an 18-wheeler truck, emblazoned with advertisements for its latest movie, to a spot outside the courthouse where it will appear in live news coverage. And he notices that Steven J. Ross, the onetime Time Warner boss, always signs notes ‘Love, Steve’ — even to people he might not recognize if he saw them.”

A few years ago, when the troubled daughter of the then (widely unpopular) Chief Executive of Hong Kong CY Leung slapped her mother in full view of the press, Darwin and Dunne had a hand in drawing my attention to a detail that seemed to have escaped others. While the whole of Hong Kong took delight in watching the tussle between mother and daughter, I was more fascinated by its aftermath: after her daughter went home alone in a taxi, Mrs Leung, still reeling from shock and embarrassment, was asked by a reporter “didn’t your daughter just hit you?” This, of course, was a rhetorical question; everyone present had borne witness to the altercation just a few moments ago. Mrs Leung, however, hesitated for a split second before replying “no.” This “no” was so telling to me: Mrs Leung was so used to putting up a front that she had forgotten that in this instance, in continuing on with her everything-is-fine pretence, she was actually letting on the very secret that she was so keen to keep under wraps: her life is full of unpleasant things – it must be so difficult to be married to someone like CY Leung – and she deals with them by banishing them from her consciousness.

I was later able to mention Mrs Leung in the opening paragraph of a (Chinese) piece – in it I likened her hush-hush coping skills to the temptation to look away from the injustices that are being committed by the Hong Kong government in the name of justice.

Beveridge says he wrote his book to show young scientists how western science works; my guess is he would be extremely pleased to know that 70 years later – his book was published in 1950 – halfway across the globe, he somehow managed to speak to a woman who couldn’t even handle highschool science. There’s probably no greater proof of the universal nature of human knowledge than this.

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