“A writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him,’ The New Yorker editorial writer E. B. White once counseled.
I lack the nerve to knowingly throw myself at writing situations that are beyond my abilities, but still, often, I end up passively going along with White’s exhortation: I’ll begin a piece whose level of difficulty I believe is manageable, only to realize midway I’m at a juncture where most roads will lead to dead ends – to chart an exit I need to tax my mental powers to the full.
In a recent column, for example, I underestimated the difficulty of adopting a writing trick the British-Candian journalist Barbara Amiel discussed in her memoirs: “mixing in negative remarks about a female subject’s appearance with commentary on their ideas or policies.” This kind of mud-throwing can really enliven a narrative, but it can also backfire on the writer if done thoughtlessly. Amiel readily admits she’s misused this trick at least once, when she gratuitously referred to a female interviewee’s recent face lift (“newly tightened face”) even though the detail was irrelevant to her reportage.
In my case, when I saw the Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng presenting herself for COVID vaccination wearing a cheongsam that was several sizes too small, an idea struck me: perhaps I could connect her carelessness over her appearance with her indifference towards the role she has played in undermining Hong Kong’s legal system.
So,I began my draft by describing Cheng as having “show(ed) up for her CCP virus vaccination session in a form-fitting cheongsam that outlined in minute detail the rolls of fat that laid siege to her midsection.” I then wrote:
“More disturbing is the possibility that choice of clothing is not the only department in which Cheng lacks self-awareness. God forbid that when she maintained, on the occasion of the release of this year’s policy report, that the national security law strengthens the foundation of “One Country, Two Systems,” her grasp on reality was so tenuous that she was not knowingly lying but making a statement she sincerely believed in.”
This, I thought, was the furthest I could go in relating Cheng’s appearance to her performance as a public servant without coming across as mean. My column had to be 800-word in length. What else can I write about?
After a few false starts, I came up with this solution: instead of using Cheng as the sole focus of my piece, I’d also cite other examples of the Hong Kong government stumbling on matters of self-presentation. I’d then persuade my readers if the Lam administration can’t even keep up appearances, it’s probably even more dysfunctional than we’d thought.
So, I presented the letter Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung recently wrote to The Washington Post rebutting its claim that Beijing is eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy. I wrote
”（Cheung’s) letter was so unintelligible that anyone reading it has to think if the Hong Kong government can’t even pen a letter in coherent English, then something must be seriously wrong with it.”
I then quote a paragraph from the letter:
“Those arrested…were suspected to have conspired to obtain 35 or more seats in the Legislative Council through their ‘35-plus’ and ‘10-step mutual destruction plan,’ and conducting ‘primaries’ among themselves in July, with a view to recklessly and blindly vetoing the government budget and public funding applications, forcing the resignation of the chief executive.
What my draft still lacked, however, was an illustration that could act as a foil to Teresa Cheng. I then remembered how Jackie Kennedy wowed the French when she visited Paris as First Lady in 1961; I decided her success in boosting her country’s prestige was just the opening I needed.
So, this was how I started my column:
“Later in life, when Jacqueline Bouvier became known by the world as Jackie Kennedy, she would accompany her husband on a now-famous official trip to Paris, where he would proudly announce himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris” – her aplomb and sophistication had so astonished the French that those haughty custodians of good taste were prepared to, if only momentarily, hold back from dismissing the US as a cultural backwater.“
It was only after I provided my readers with Jackie as a yardstick that I turned to Teresa Cheng and her tight cheongsam. After describing Cheng, I went on to Matthew Cheung’s incoherent letter and other instances of the Lam administration failing on matters of self-presentation.
What I’ve tried to show is the manner in which a piece is born is usually anything but straightforward. I sometimes kick off a column by trying to experiment with a technique I’ve seen other writers use. In the process of applying that trick, other ideas will occur to me. Granted, I’ll run into an impasse here and there, but gradually, my piece will take on a life of its own and complete itself on its own accord. It is at such times that I understand E B White’s remark upon learning a fellow author has written a biography on him – “how hard it is to write about a fellow who spends most of his time crouched over a typewriter.” Only those who are on intimate terms with the mixed joys of making writing work can tell White made this understatement about his life by design. Chances are the kick he got out of writing had so dumbstruck him that being low-key about it was the only option opened to him.
My column on Jackie and Teresa Cheng can be read in full at Apple Daily