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On Writing (II)

A few more I recently shared:

1. Strings and bows
    • Decorate your writing with colorful details. When you write about a person give little anecdotes, minute eccentricities, tidbits of otherwise unimportant information. This is when reading biographies can be helpful. I like noting down the habits of people, what they owned, their favorite meals, the name of their pets, those little things that make stories real.
    • An example. I had a talk with a "stranger" a few nights ago. He's a headwaiter in a dim sum restaurant I frequent. He's been there since I started going to the place five years ago, and got promoted around a year ago. He wears the same olive green or peach shirt every time I'm there, and from the looks of it owns the same number of ties. He smiles a lot, asks me about the same things (if I still go to the bar next to it), and already knows what I order (hot congee and pork buns). Over a cigarette a few nights ago, he shared his problems with me (I don't know why I am a magnet to problematic strangers). His wife had left him, and she has started seeing someone else. I saw how hurt he was. Nothing is more crushing for me than to see a grown man cry. They've been married for seven years, they have a daughter who is confused with the set-up now. He's in debt and thinking of finding another job. He has not been able to pay the registration for his motorcycle.
    • In around ten minutes I saw the storyline of a man. His relationships, his work, his problems, what he owns, what he cries about, what he cannot do something about. But it's always the little things which make us human: the dim sum and the motorcycle, the olive shirt and the tears during a smoke by the balcony of a dim sum restaurant. These surreal details only real life can provide.
2. Keep notes
    • Remember, remember. It is easier to remember all the details of what you can use as material in the future by keeping notes. Our memory all too often fails us; and nothing can be more frustrating than trying to recall a line, a story, an insight or idea that you need at the moment in class or in writing. And the greatest loss is when you know you had an original idea in a drunken or sleepy moment that will be gone forever.
    • Notecards. We all know that keeping notes for school or for research makes reviewing and writing a lot easier. And I was, and still am, an obsessive note-taker. When I started graduate studies, I began the system of taking down key or interesting passages in notecards. They're handy, cheap, and you feel nice in organizing them in neat card boxes. I have kept the habit till now, though I've not been as faithful as before. (I use page markers more often because I don't write on my books). When I researched for my thesis, to illustrate, I ended up having around a thousand notecards. I still use them today. 
    • (Wittgenstein, it is reported, brought his notebooks to war. Nietzsche, as is well known this time, wrote a lot of his aphorisms during his long wintry walks in the woods [that's why they're at times short].) 
    • Now I use a phone app (Evernote) if I'm not within reach of blank cards. But I nevertheless put cards in strategic places: beside my bed, on my desk of course, in some of my bags, and even in other places I no longer want to mention. 
3. Read for style of prose and tone
    • There are some authors you read because you enjoy their insight and what they say, but there are also some authors you should read because of their style and how they say whatever it is they say. 
    • It doesn't matter if you do not understand most of what they say (i.e., the French writers), but as long as you admire the rhythm and cadence of their words, their turns of phrase or vocabulary, the gravity, you should keep on reading them to give you models of style. 
    • I rarely understand Greene or Hesse or Nabokov, but I like how they sound (Oh "Lolita"!). I barely survive a Marion reading, but I so admire the sharp turns of his paragraphs. I love Heidegger not only because I think him profound, but because I find his pretentiousness at times amusing. I love Camus above all because of the eerie silence of his sentences only to be shattered by a short powerful line.
    • Do not copy content, but do not be afraid to imitate styles. ("Good artists copy, great artists steal.") Be like the apprentice of a master painter who is precisely taught to imitate the master's hand. What will be on his canvas, after all, will be his own painting, what will be on yours though painted in a similar style will still be yours. 
4. A room of one's own
    • It has often been said, and for good reason, that you must find that writer's space. If you can find a small table away from your bedroom and/or office, away from distractions and temptations, write there. You will immediately see the difference.

Jan Ekels II, "A Writer Trimming his Pen"



  1. That is A LOT of notecards!

    I find Evernote useful too. I also use Dropbox to sync my files from one device to another. Do check it out if you haven't yet.

  2. Anonymous8/31/2011

    Hi. :)
    I agree with what you said about keeping note cards. Some thoughts, lessons, and realizations are too precious to be forgotten. Immortalize them by writing. :)
    As for being a magnet to problematic strangers, I guess you have a way of showing, though unconsciously maybe, other people that they can trust you. Someone who can actually listen and not just hear. I find it interesting whenever I meet people who possess that kind of aura. But since I don't personally know the owner of this blog, I can only draw assumptions based from your posts and answers to my questions (no matter how silly they are most of the time). =))

  3. To be honest I am happy, and at times proud for no clear reason, that quite a few find me "approachable," whether it be the quiet student or the grandmother who sits beside me on the plane, a lonesome man in the bar I go to or the food server in a restaurant. (Just last week the young man who served us in a restaurant in Hong Kong, whom we were quite fond of because of his cheerfulness and attentiveness, invited me and my sister for a smoke after his shift and before he went home.)

    I am also very selective of those whom I talk to. If you say you can read auras, I do that too most of the time when I encounter strangers. I can generally see immediately who I won't mind talking to, or even approach: and I choose to talk to those who are honest, those who seem good-natured, those who are gentle, and not those who deceive you for one reason or another--the genuine ones. I am fond of these people: reminds you that all is well in the world. Those who are not, I usually avoid; before them I become what I can be most of the time: quiet, a bit snobbish for some, and even "masungit."

    You can also do the same thing in reading one's writing. But that is more challenging. It's never the smileys or the use of cheerful words; it's the honesty in choosing the words you use. And for whatever it's worth, I feel that in what you say and how you say it, dear stranger--no matter how it may be "silly" for you (which it isn't for me).

    Oh no, look how long this is already. Got carried away, and that usually happens to me in the morning. My apologies.

  4. Anonymous9/09/2011

    Just read your reply to my comment, it's been a crazy week for me.

    And yes, I do find you approachable. Well I'm not really a problematic stranger who's seeking for an advice, it's just that there's something that gravitates me to your blog. Or maybe I just want to talk. :) It's not like everyday I find an honest and intellectual stranger to talk to.

    But then, who knows? I might bump into you one day and meet you personally. :)) Okay I'll stop here, my replies are becoming more and more unrelated to your post and I sound creepy already....

    Take care! :) I'm not in any position to say this and I'm not forcing you in any way to do so..but if ever you, at one point, become the "problematic" stranger, (but I'm not hoping that you'll be!) I can be the listener. :) that's the most I can do for giving honest-to-goodness answers.

  5. I appreciate your fun words--I say fun because they lighten the heart. I enjoy these little exchanges with kind strangers who, because they are precisely strangers, can really do care. Sometimes the care of a close friend is given out of obligation and duty: you appreciate it, of course, because ultimately it can be traced back to love, but they may lack color and fun. You even feel you owe them after.

    But back to you. I thank you. Do know that I can be the same to you, equally nameless friend. Kind nameless people deserve the most.

    Hope things decompress the following days. Cheers.


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