Thoughts on Writing

Hitting the high notes

At one point in her operatic career, Maria Callas became so portly that in a performance where she sang next to live elephants on stage – they were there as props – a critic joked he couldn’t distinguish her legs from those of the gigantic beasts’. Stung by these harsh words, Callas announced –  to the consternation of many – she would strive to attain the physique of Audrey Hepburn (“Roman Holiday” had just hit the cinemas and the Hepburn look was all the rage). Callas affixed an autographed photo of the actress to her dressing room mirror, and got on with her mission. Eventually, she succeeded in shedding almost half of her poundage. She never became as svelte as Hepburn, but still she managed to (in the words of Callas expert Bruno Tosi) “turn into a beautiful swan.”

This Callas story has never failed to uplift my writing self. Using exceptional writers as benchmarks is one of the best ways to learn writing, yet, intimidated by their out-of-leagueness, I don’t take this route often enough. But just as Callas in all likelihood wouldn’t have been able to transform herself into a swan had she not set her sights so high, so, even if I end up remaining far behind the writers I seek to imitate, I would still be writing far better than if I had never bothered trying to aspire to their level.

All the time I get confirmation that I’m on the right track when I keep my grubby hands on good writers. The other day, one of my writing students composed a piece on the government’s COVID-fighting measures. This was the introduction she wrote:

At the quarantine camps, the Hong Kong government served food that looked grotesque in look and texture. Some of those who ate the camp meals got food poisoning. We later learned the meals were very cheap, at around $17 per head. If I were under quarantine I would definitely order takeout instead.

This bland copy needs some spicing up. I came up with this rewrite:

Pork and corn meatloaf that resembled a brick of matter extracted from a can of expired dog food. Porridge that looked – and tasted – like vomit. Fried porkchop that exhibited the texture and color of soft stool. Even the plastic spoon that came with the meal was crooked. These are some of the foodstuffs the Hong Kong government expects people under mandatory quarantine to shove down their throats. A third-world airliner would have served better fare.

As I wrote the above, the model I had in mind was the British restaurant critic A. A. Gill’s famous comment on the foie gras served at L’Ami Louis, a storied Parisian bistro: 

“The liver crumbles under the knife like plumber’s putty and tastes faintly of gut-scented butter or pressed liposuction.” 

To be sure, my Gill-inspired copy lacks the same degree of ickiness, but I doubt I would have been able to write even that had I not used Gill as my reference point.

Another example. I’ve long admired Willa Cather’s portrayal of her protagonist Thea Kronborg’s mental growth from small-town girl to world-renowned soprano in “The Song of the Lark.” A few months ago, while working on a piece on the spiritual high one can get out of the act of artistic creation, I remembered a passage from Cather’s novel on the theme and decided to pattern a paragraph after it, going as far as copying the structure of one of its sentences (I’ve highlighted the Cather original and my copy in bold):

Cather’s text:

“Many a night that summer (the teenaged Thea) left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window—or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not onc bve all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation. It was on such nights that Thea Kronborg learned the thing that old Dumas meant when he told the Romanticists that to make a drama he needed but one passion and four walls.”

My clone of Cather’s text:

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 joys of making writing work can tell White was actually expressing appreciation at his good fortune of having been able to live his life stationed behind a typewriter.

Again, while it is true that my copy lacks Cather’s fluency and flair – even now, as I re-read my last sentence, I’m still not sure whether it works – I think overall, my version nonetheless manages to mirror enough of Cather’s sensibilities for it to qualify as (borderline) “good.”

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