Monday, September 14, 2015

A Few Words on Writing

Young Taiwanese are often willing to fork out tens of thousands of NT dollars to be taught how to write. That’s a complete waste of your time and money

I’ve lost count of the number of times since I relocated to Taiwan ten years ago where I was asked by a Taiwanese if I could teach him/her how to write. Taiwanese society seems to have a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare’s language, yet many are those who, for pragmatic reasons surely, want to learn it. In this culture of the cram school, the belief seems to be that if you (or your parents) throw enough money at it, a linguistic skill will automatically be acquired.

I am sorry to disappoint, but that’s just not how one learns a language—especially not how to write. Many Taiwanese will pay NT$800, perhaps even NT$1,000 an hour, once or twice a week, on an expatriate who may or may not be qualified to teach anything. For many, one’s skin color, rather than education and background, is the main factor in selecting a “teacher.” This practice has yielded results that should not surprise anyone: English literacy in Taiwan is deplorable.

Conversation is one thing, and if, by dint of practice, one becomes more confident speaking a foreign language, then the investment might be worth it. However, I have strong reservations when someone tells me that the art of writing can be taught. It just doesn’t work that way.

A few weeks after I arrived in Taiwan, a friend of a friend, who had ambitions to study abroad, asked me to do just that. We did that for a while before his military service put an end to our meetings. I hated it. Yet this brief effort made me realize that writing cannot be taught. And it made me think about the manner in which I, now a writer, learned how to write in English in the first place (my mother tongue is French).

In my experience, one learns how to write; one isn’t taught how to do so. I first learned English because, as a child, I wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons but didn’t want to spend the ludicrous amounts of money that the store was charging for the French translations of the rulebooks. Soon after that came my interest in literature, mostly horror at the time. H. P. Lovecraft was my favorite, and I quickly felt that it was silly to be reading French translations, that my experience would be all the more satisfying if I could read his novellas and short stories of supernatural terror in their original language.

It was around that time that my ambitions to become a writer emerged. As a mere toddler I’d written short stories (mostly adventure and science fiction) on my parents’ Olivetti typewriter, but I had been too young to realize that this would one day define what I wanted to be. During high school I wrote my first short stories in English. Those were abysmal affairs, mostly, and mere attempts to copy the styles of Lovecraft, Moorcock and others. I realized that if I wanted to do this properly, I’d first have to master the basics of English, as it were. So I enrolled in the only English-language CEGEP in Quebec City, St Lawrence’s College, in the arts and literature program.

I did somewhat poorly at first, partly because of the language barrier, and I will always remember the professor who told me that if my English didn’t improve fast, he had doubts I could complete the program. This certainly caught my attention, and I did the necessary to ensure that such a thing would not happen. Failure was not an option. I had always been an avid reader, but now I had a purpose, and I made the conscious decision to read classics. What better way to learn a language, I thought, than by studying the masters of prose? Yeats, Conrad, Steinbeck, Greene, Woolf, Dickens, and of course Shakespeare, who initially was complete Chinese to me, became my teachers. Through my classes, I learned to appreciate style, tone, voice, point of view, structure, and what makes good storytelling. Whenever I read a book, I’d jot down the words that I didn’t know, would look them up in a dictionary, and commit the meaning to memory by writing it down. Nobody taught me that; I learned it.

My appetite for English literature became even greater after I moved to Montreal to pursue studies in English literature at university. There I was first introduced to wordsmiths who have had a lasting influence on me, writers like Orwell, Nabokov, Naipaul, Rushdie, Ishiguro, Waugh, Ellison, Le Carré and others. I also expanded my horizons by reading world literature (usually translations into English or French). It was thus that I became acquainted with the likes of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, Mahfouz, Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez, Kundera, Klima, Mann, Kadaré, Camus, Farah, Mishima, Tanizaki and Murakami, among many others. It was also around that time that I became an avid reader of newspapers and magazines, from the New York Times to Scientific American, the Economist to Nature. I also read scientific works on human evolution, epidemiology, astronomy, and life sciences by greats like Edward O. Wilson, Carl Sagan, and Oliver Sacks, who unfortunately passed away recently. Later on, when I became interested in politics, I started reading biographies, history, and several books about political science (back then the McGill University bookstore had a very rich selections of books in its political science section). I read Hitchens, Ignatieff, Said, Halberstam, Kapuscinski, Kaplan, and so on, and never missed an issue of Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. By the time I graduated in 1996, I had read hundreds—several hundreds—of books.

When I entered grad school, my passion for the written word continued, and even though I was now working for the Canadian government and spent days writing dry reports like threat assessments and files on intelligence targets, I made sure to keep reading fiction and non-fiction. When I moved to Taiwan in 2005, I brought with me about 2,000 books, a number that has nearly doubled in the ten years since. I am not suggesting that anyone who wants to become a writer should weigh himself down with such large quantities of books (and yes, there is Kindle now, a medium that, conservative me, I abhor), but there is no doubt that all great writers that I know of and who inspired me to become one, were avid readers. Hitchens, Orwell, Vargas Llosa, Nabokov, all of them read as much as they could, and they never limited themselves to the comfortable literary traditions of their home country.

So, rather than spend huge sums of money being “taught” how to write by foreigners who likely are looking to make easy money, I’d do the following:

Lesson #1: Read, read, read. And read some more. Choose topics that you like, but do not limit yourself to one genre. Mix fiction and non-fiction, and open yourself to different cultures by reading books from abroad, even if they are translations. There’s a whole universe outside books on how to be a successful businessperson, which (sadly) are the usual bestsellers in this part of the world. Explore different traditions of storytelling; soon you will see how and why Harry Potter and The Brothers Karamazov are different, and why both succeed in their own way. Discover why shifting points of view and non-linear storytelling can affect how we respond to a story. Read biographies by your favorite writers, see how they learned the trade (they didn’t have tutors, I can tell you that). Learn how non-fiction also involves storytelling and why popular science writers like Sagan, Gould, Hawking and Sacks, to name a few, were also such successful storytellers. Writers improve by seeing what works and what doesn’t; the best way to learn is by experiencing it for oneself. Remember that writing is a reflection of the mind; if the latter is poorly organized and ill trained, it won’t be able to produce anything of value. It needs to be filled with something first before it can make its own contributions to the world. Set aside the money you would have paid for a tutor and use it instead to buy books. Lastly, know that reading can be fun and extremely rewarding (I’m addicted to it).

Lesson #2: Write, write, write. At first, one’s writing will seek to emulate the works of one’s favorite writers. Mine initially was very similar to Lovecraft’s overwrought and adjective-laden prose, which I eventually outgrew and now find rather unbearable. Then I started mimicking Conrad, then Greene, then Orwell, until, through multiple series of triangulations, I found my own “voice” and style. Undoubtedly my style is the result of all those influences and will continue to shift, ever so slightly, as a consequence of my current and future readings (for example, when I read Rushdie or French literature, my sentences tend to become longer and more complex; a good corrective when I risk going too far in that direction is to pick up Hemingway or Orwell). The more you write, the better you get. Between 2006, when I joined the Taipei Times as a copy editor, and today, I’ve written more than 2,000 news articles, editorials and book reviews, as well as five books. Progress occurs over time; it’s subtle, but it becomes evident years later when you re-read your early work (which is why writers rarely do so, as it makes them cringe). It’s like weightlifting, really, and explains why even someone as prolific as I am will struggle to write anything publishable if I’ve not written for an extended period (a couple of weeks is enough for those muscles to atrophy). Set aside one or two hours every day to write—write anything: short stories, an autobiographical rendition of the day’s events, op-eds, book reviews, letters to friends real or imagined. Know that writing can be fun and extremely rewarding (I’m addicted to it).

It’s that easy (and complex). There is no magic bullet. Writers get good through emulation and practice, and by opening their minds to the world of letters and taking in as much as possible. It’s a process that never ends, which is also what makes it so fascinating. Reading the classics (and contemporary literature in some increasingly rare instances) is your safest bet. Don’t be daunted by names like Vargas Llosa or Dostoyevsky; jump in and learn what you can. It’s like adding intellectual weights: you need to challenge your brain just as you’d push yourself in long-distance running or weightlifting. I’m always shocked when young people tell me they want to learn how to write and yet they don’t read more than 1.2 books annually. I read, on average, five to six books, and several dozen articles, per month, and I try to vary my selections by alternating between fiction and non-fiction, English and French. You don’t necessarily need to read this much, but one thing is certain: you won’t learn a thing, and certainly won’t learn how to write, by playing videogames on your smartphone, even if you pay a foreign tutor tens of thousands of NT dollars. 

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