Thoughts on Writing

Teach writing by dancing up a storm

Among the things I revisit to maintain my sense of wonder is this one-minute video clip dating back to the1970s showing the choreographer Balanchine teaching the great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov the role of The Prodigal Son: we see Balanchine demonstrating the steps in the last scene of the biblical tale, when Baryshnikov’s character, now broken in body and spirit, sees his father from afar and drags himself towards home to beg for forgiveness. Balanchine was so compelling in conveying the character’s anguish through wild eyes, tense facial muscles and a gait that was at once hesitant and determined, that Baryshnikov’s attempt to follow suit seemed contrived by comparison.

(the clip can be seen from 14:30 onwards)

I was reminded of Balanchine’s coaching recently, when a parent asked me to help her daughter with the writing part of her DSE English paper. I reviewed how exam tutors  prepare their charge for the test, and was taken back by the vast number who would give their instructions on DSE English in Chinese! Why talk down to students this way? English may not flow naturally from us the way dance did through Balanchine, but if we make a concerted effort to couch our instructions in the most beautiful English we can muster, there will be moments when our students can see our subject come alive through us.

In the field of writing, I know of no writing advice that can approximate Balanchine’s prowess as a teacher more closely than the Cornell English professor William Strunk’s 59-word treatise on concise writing:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

This is writing guide elevated to art form: its construction demonstrates the very principle it’s talking about. And its intended impact is to leave readers convinced they’ll never be able to write as concisely. Strunk didn’t mean to demoralize them, however, any more than Balanchine wanted Baryshinikov to beat himself up for not measuring up. Both simply wanted to broaden students’ concept of what constitutes “good.”

I recently borrowed from Strunk the idea of crafting instructions on writing that would themselves be illustrations of the precepts of writing. On the surface, this note I wrote to a new student merely tells her how to prepare for class. Yet it also contains a lesson on how to conclude a piece. As you read it below, notice the way the last paragraph gives you a sense of completion.

“He who has travelled 90% of his journey has only completed half of it (行百里者半九十),” says the Annals of the Warring States (戰國策), a 2000 year-old text on the strategies of war.

One way to describe myself – and how I see myself in relation to you – is this: in the arena of English writing, I now have 10% left in my journey to travel before I can arrive at excellence; in your case, however, you are still at the starting point.

My job is to help you get launched in your journey, even as I push myself to finish the most arduous leg of mine.

How will all this work out in reality?

Below is my editing of a bad writer’s piece. She is still roughly at the starting point of her journey.

I’ll teach you how to write by

– doing to your copies what I’ve done to hers.

– writing in front of you, so that you can have a concrete idea of how to make writing work

So, prepare for your first lesson by

– reading through my edit of that bad writer’s copy 

– come up with an essay topic for me to write about. Give me the topic only when we meet on Zoom. I can then “perform” in front of you live.

In our first lesson. I’ll also present to you my edit of some of the writings you’ve done.

By learning from both good and bad examples continuously, you’ll figure out how to write well by osmosis. I know this method works because that was how I managed to cover the first 90% of my journey’s geographical distance.

When I waxed lyrical over Balanchine’s and Strunk’s cunning in elevating their teaching to art form, I left one thing left unsaid. They also taught me when I teach writing, I’m teaching about life too: to achieve something, we almost always need to invest a lot more effort than expected. So, the extra I throw in for my students – writing in front of them and letting them see me struggle – is of equal if not more value than any insight I can put into words to them.

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