Politics Thoughts on Writing

Tips on writing to prisoners of conscience: “Show, not tell”

Now that writing letters to political prisoners is fast becoming one of the few remaining outlets for Hong Kong people to express their solidarity with the spirit of the anti-extradition law protests, as a writer and writing coach I’m more than happy to share with the wider public pointers on how to craft thoughtful notes. Below is the first installment of my “Tips on writing to prisoners of conscience” series.

Consult any textbook on how to write well, and invariably you’ll come across the injunction to to “show, not tell.”

By way of illustration, this is David Foster Wallace describing how the minds of cruise ship passengers function differently when they’ve set their minds to relax and have fun:

“I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the ship’s Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”

Compare Wallace’s sentence with this watered-down version:

“The moneyed passengers kept asking the cruise staff stupid questions, as if they had left their brains onshore.”

There’s a world of difference between showing and telling, and these two examples demonstrate why. The second version – the one that tells instead of shows – expresses the same meaning as Wallace’s version, yet it has little or no dramatic impact. In contrast, by citing details of passenger stupidity, Wallace manages to drive home how being on a cruise puts people in a peculiar frame of mind without saying it directly.

The ability to show instead of tell doesn’t come naturally to me. In the text below, I’ll use a recent column I wrote – “An open letter to the 53 Hong Kongers arrested due to last year’s primary election” – as an example and explain the thought process that went through my mind as I struggled to adhere to this writing rule.

My comments are in italics. To better facilitate my discussion of my work, I’ve numbered each paragraph.

An open letter to the 53 Hong Kongers arrested due to last year’s primary election

1. Shortly after Katherine Anne Porter published “Ship of Fools,” a nun approached her and asked “you look like such a nice woman, how could you have written that dreadful book?” Porter replied “sister, this is a perfectly dreadful world, don’t you know that?” Later, Porter had an epiphany when she reflected on this exchange: “it is a horrible world. But sometimes I have found little bits of time when you couldn’t believe that everything could be so nice.”

2. As you remain marooned in the maze that passes itself off as the legal system of an international finance capital, I want you to know how you’ve left an imprint on my world: Hong Kong is currently in a horrible state alright, but thanks to your bravery in putting yourself out there, I can still find little pockets of hope where humanity is at its finest.

(In my second paragraph, I was mostly “telling,” but it doesn’t feel this way because the paragraph appeared right after I “showed,” after I set the stage with that Katherine Anne Porter story. It’s a story I can place my letter recipients in, and so in one stroke I can “show” them that they’ve done something monumental: shining light out of darkness.)

3. Lately, people have been asking me how I can still summon up the readiness to think uninhibitedly and write candidly. It’s actually due in no small measure to people like you. Even though I work on my own as I put my political thoughts on paper, I’ve been observing from afar your unceasing effort to make Hong Kong less unfree, and I’ve derived so much of my motivation to write from you that I can honestly say except in the physical sense, you’ve been keeping me company.

4. I’ve had Apple readers writing to tell me my columns have given them the motivation to go on, so chances are your reach is extending to corners so far-flung that it’s beyond your imagination.

(In paragraphs 3-4, I used their unawareness of the fact that they’ve affected a columnist to “show” it’s likely that they have likewise affected many more people than they’d thought. So, their present sufferings have more meaning than imagined.)

5. I’ve talked about how you’ve made it possible for me to find human goodness in unexpected quarters. Now that Hong Kong is even more at the mercy of Beijing’s whim, it is again in unexpected quarters that we can find hope. Take for example Ta Kung Pao’s recent denunciation of that senior civil servant who wore a mask bearing “SW”; ”SW” is the logo of the mask’s manufacturer, but the paper insisted that the stamp was a veiled reference to “51,” the abbreviated form of the protest slogan “five demand, not one less.”

6. While some Hong Kong people may view the Ta Kung Pao editorial as yet another sign of Hong Kong’s descent into totalitarianism and feel even more downcast, I have it on good authority that the mouthpiece’s antics may indicate that Hong Kong is close to hitting rock bottom, which in turn means it’s only a matter of time that the winds will blow in our favour. An elderly lady from a grand family in Old Shanghai who managed to survive the Cultural Revolution once told me even at her nadir – she was forced to labour in a factory where her arms were frequently scalded by boiling water – thoughts of suicide never crossed her mind. “I knew at the beginning that the Cultural Revolution was completely preposterous, and the world doesn’t operate preposterously forever. So I knew my sufferings would end one day.”

7. When I met the said lady in the mid aughts, she was attending her weekly dancing sessions at Shanghai’s Paramount ballroom (百樂門), her old haunt before 1949. Lately, I often think back on that encounter with her at the fabled nightclub: there aren’t many things on earth that are more preposterous than the “SW” mask farce, and if the Cultural Revolution ended for her, surely, there will come a day when Beijing will relax its grip on us.

(Paragraphs 5-7 form the main body of my letter. Here I cited the “SW” mask incident  – a news item most HK people would see as yet another sign that Hong Kong is in steep decline – but I created surprise by turning it around, using the story of that former Old Shanghai socialite to “show” with the passage of time, things will often take on an opposite meaning. Now, imagine if I’d simply adopted the “tell” approach and said “things will get better.” My letter would have lacked any dramatic power)

8. Sometimes, it’s outside Hong Kong that we can find more reasons for hope. In mainland, everywhere you can see signs of the CCP’s façade cracking. Just last month, state media reported with great fanfare how a former young financial analyst who holds a masters degree from a British university happily adapted to becoming a hired hand at a refuse recycling company and is now earning up to RMB 50,000 a month. This salary level seems improbable, but even more improbable is his upbeat attitude towards his plunge in status. “To be able to earn money with my pair of hands, what’s shameful about this?” he was reported to have remarked. What’s more probable is the CCP is still having difficulty finding employment for those 8 million fresh graduates who flooded the job market last year (this year’s load is an estimated 9 million), so its propaganda outlets have concocted this young man’s story to persuade young people to take on jobs that are incommensurate with their education. With the party increasingly exerting its hold on the mainland economy, is it any surprise that enterprises are having difficulty creating good jobs? For all we know, mainland is itself on the cusp of change.

(The Beijing-unfriendly crowd in Hong Kong often bank on the collapse of the mainland economy (支爆) to deprive the CCP of its legitimacy. So, in paragraph 8, I used the downturn in fortunes of this former financial analyst to “show” it’s not unthinkable that 支爆 is somewhere on the horizon.)

9. “Hong Kong is more and more like a large detention centre,” one of you (John Clancey) recently observed. While only some of us are physically detained, all have to contend with not letting our minds be apprehended by fear. Speaking personally, it’s not easy for me to conquer my fear of Beijing and write the way I do, but now that I feel it’s my turn to lift your spirits, you have my word that I’ll try my best to do so.

(Here I “show” I have rapport with my letter recipients by (1) quoting one of them (2) pointing out whether we’re in prison or not, we share the challenge of not letting fear overwhelm us)

(This column originally appeared in Apple Daily)

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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