Thoughts on Writing

“A huge, bleeding effort”


When I came across this piece on writer’s block written by the New Yorker cultural critic Joan Acocella – I’ve long been in awe of her uncanny ability to narrate complex content in a deceptively simple manner – I finally received confirmation from good authority that it takes a lot of effort to produce effortless writing.

It’s no accident that “seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day,” Acocella opines. “Writing is a nerve-flaying job. Clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort.”

My guess is it must have taken Acocella a huge, bleeding effort to get to the point where even her book summaries can qualify as works of art. In her review of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s memoir on life in a concentration camp, for example, her abridgement of Levi’s account of prison toilets is, in my opinion, more vivid than the original. Here’s Acocella’s sketch in 81 words (Levi’s version runs for one full page ):

“At night, in the block, you had to learn to time your trip to the bucket so that you would not be the one to fill it to the rim. If you did, you had to carry it, spilling on your feet, through the snow, and empty it in the camp latrine. Many prisoners became expert in judging, during their half sleep, the sound their fellows’ urine made as it hit the bucket. Half full, near-full: each made a different splash.”

I love the sense of immediacy conjured up by “half full, near-full: each made a different splash” – you feel as though you were listening along with the inmates in the same space. I also admire Acocella’s clever touch of refraining from spelling out what’s in the bucket (“if you did fill it to the rim, you had to carry it, spilling on your feet, through the snow, and empty it in the camp latrine”). By leaving the specifics of “it” to the imagination, she can underscore the horrors of a system designed to convert basic bodily function into a source of torment for its prisoners.

While it’s beyond my abilities to elevate summary writing to art form, I do have some experience tackling that other aspect of writing that Acocella thinks also makes copy-crafting a difficult labour – the tall order of hacking past cliches and coming up with fresh and exact ways to say things. Just last week, while working on a column, I had to tweak the wording of this paragraph:

Some might think the attentiveness I received from that pet funeral company is no big deal; after all, I had paid for everything. Yet the fact remains it is telling that its personnel are able to show respect for their clients and their furry friends in auto-pilot mode, for this means the company has done a stellar job in instilling empathy in its employees.

As I scanned the above copy for faults, the following self-talk took place in my head:

“Some might think the attentiveness I received from that pet funeral company is no big deal” – “think” is such a general word. We can “think” positively or negatively of something. Since here you’re talking about regarding something in a negative light, why not use “dismiss” instead?

“Its personnel are able to show respect for their clients and their furry friends in auto-pilot mode” – any choice of words that may bewilder the reader is bad. There are people who can’t conceive of animals as “friends” ; your use of “furry friends” will therefore be lost on them. “Auto-pilot mode” probably has to go too – it sounds too arcane.

“The company has done a stellar job in instilling empathy in its employees” – “done a stellar job” comes across as the kind of phrase you’d expect from the speech of the head of a corporation or academic institution. Can you replace it with something less affected?

I revised my draft accordingly as follows:

Some might dismiss the attentiveness I received from that pet funeral company as no big deal; after all, I had paid for everything. Yet the fact remains it is telling that its personnel can convey respect so naturally through words and gestures, for this means the company has succeeded in weaving empathy into the fabric of its culture.

When Chinese people write in English and get stuck, all too often they attribute their gridlock to the fact that English isn’t their native language. The truth, however, is even someone like Acocella finds writing hard. “Think harder!” I always urge my writing students (most are Chinese schoolchildren) when they want to give up on coming up with more precise wordings. The more they exert themselves, the more they can understand why this white lady called Joan Acocella who’s a top writer in the US – yes, I’ve shown them her quote on the ordeal of setting down her thoughts – can’t work for more than three to four hours a day.

Categories: Thoughts on Writing

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