No original thoughts: Schoolchildren copying notes about ancient Egypt, at the British Museum, picture by Francis Chin, 2004

Write thoughts, not words

An entry in the Visitor's Book (on the contents page of this Web site):

Friday, July 18, 2003: “Thank you for sharing your wonderful work. I am from Los Angeles, and love the diversity of people and ideas out here, but as you can guess (since fashion and movies reign), I also struggle with maintaining my spiritual balance. I was first drawn to your site by the Love is Stronger Than Death entry (a wonderful, touching piece that I am glad you recorded for your future visitors), and over the course of days I will spend some time with your other thoughts you have generously shared. Since I am trying to get my writing path firmed up, I seek to find some inspiration among the words on your pages.” – Christopher

Dear Chris,

Thanks for your encouraging e-mail on my Bystander Web site.

There's no need to firm up your writing. I know it sounds repetitious, but you write the way you talk to yourself – that's the only way you can read back your writing 12 months down without blushing.

Whatever I've written in this Web site (and even right now composing this e-mail), is the result of talking aloud to myself. As I write, I argue and discuss loudly the points that come to my mind while tapping the computer keys. With myself, I am forced to be honest, to cut away the bullshit, and the pretention, because I know myself best – and who am I trying to kid, with elegant, pontificating, grand words and phrases?

I try to transfer this raw honesty in self-communication to my writing, so that as I talk to you reading this stuff, I am also talking to myself.

No doubt this is a mental trick, but it works for me in keeping my writing simple, clear and fun, at least for myself when I read it back. If I don't enjoy reading my own writing, I don't think any one else would.

Sometimes, I would get carried away and would write nonstop, but at the end of the passage I always read the text back and forth, trimming words and phrases along the way until only the ideas and thoughts shine through, with the language invisible. 

So, there's no secret in good writing, just lots of honest writing and talking to yourself. You are the best auditor and censor, to check if your ideas have been corrupted, crippled or confused by your writing. If so, cut-and-rewrite, and cut-and-rewrite (that's the way Ernest Hemmingway wrote).

I almost forgot to mention this point: your ideas and plots must be worth expressing out loud in the first place. And they must be your own personal, original, authentic ideas and thoughts, not what you have borrowed from articulated friends and expressive books.

This is the temptation I frequently fall into: some idea or thought is so well-expressed, so elegantly crafted from a printed passage or a passing remark that I want to take it and pass it on to others as if the glitter were mine. During my teenage years I used to copy reams of rhyming poetry and smart prose, memorise the text and incorporate many of the expressions in my writing. Thankfully, I woke up one morning, read my youthful musing and blushed crimson (in other words, I was so embarrassed I wanted to bury my head under a pile of cow dung). Gawd, I quickly destroyed those mushy writings before someone saw them and ridiculed me to death.

Another point I realised was that many of the "intellectual" and "morally uplifting" stuff I stole were actually worthless motherhood statements. Richard Lim, my former section editor in the newspaper office where I once sacrificed two decades of my waking and sleeping hours, pointed out that my writing often consisted of motherhood statements, as idiotic and barren as “breast feeding is good for you”, “the customer is always right”, and the worst of all, “time heals all wounds”.

As Microsoft would point out to you, the customer is always wrong, even if they are right, and especially when they are right! And when your heart is broken by a thoughtless pretty girl, and your legs are broken by a thoughtless drunk motorist, time certainly won't heal all wounds.

I think you get my drift... write your own ideas and plots, not words. I won’t go on and on about the art of effective writing because you can read such statements in the fat, expensive tomes on writing that Reader's Digest periodically published and left permanently on the self-improvement shelves of bookshops. I used to be a sucker for self-improvement books until again I woke up one morning and realised my savings were enriching some publisher far across the ocean without any prospect of enriching myself in return.

In short, writing doesn’t pay well, not even for journalists in thriving newspapers.

Keep writing, anyway, and re-writing, and trimming, and weeding, until only your real thoughts and ideas and plots and story plots are left.

– Francis Chin, July 21, 2003

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Schoolchildren copying notes by a mummy in the British Museum, picture by Francis Chin