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.
- 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.
- 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"|