the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Writing to Remember

by Mark Yeow

We are sitting in a lobster pot down Soho way when she asks what I think of food photography.

“I don’t think it’s good or bad,” I say, “more just a remediation of how we’ve always sought to both capture and share the ephemeral. I guess food is just a prime target for that human urge to remember: it’s beautiful, it evokes new feelings in our senses, and it is by definition perishable, unable to retain its corporeal presence in the manner of clothes or jewels. Food makes us think and feel better, and I think it’s instinctual to want to try and hold onto that by passing it on as best we can.”

I’m writing this because I, too, want to hold onto something fleeting. I want to remember the way she brushed a stray sprig of lavender across one leg as we grazed on leaves in take-away trays. I want to remember the easy way we could laugh as we meandered through Studio K, and the raucous direction-giving and insinuations about our relationship from the trio of her compatriots who we glanced into at one station of many. I want to trace back everything we said about the perks of being a food blogger, the impossibility of befriending dumb people, the intricacies of love and friendship and loneliness and sacrifice that we spooled out along the train tracks and cobblestones in our wake, like breadcrumbs leading us towards our better selves. I want to write down everything we said about writing, and what the words mean to us.

“It all comes down to social proofing,” she says sometime on, as I splinter open a lobster claw. “Have you seen that comic where the guy tweets about a druggie in the toilet, and as he sits waiting for the RTs to come in he’s in exactly the same posture as his erstwhile subject? But what happens when that social validation becomes what we define ourselves by, not by the experiences we document but the metrics they generate?”

Only later, now, do I remember traces of a lecture long past: the act of inscription is the act of definition. We didn’t say the things I wrote we did. At one point in the lobster pot, I float the idea that I prefer writing because I’m no good with talk, my thoughts trip over each other like tourist-herds stampeding down sooty high-streets, whereas on paper or screen I can order things the way I wish they could be.

Which is, of course, exactly what I’m doing now. I’m editing as I go, summarising lengthy discourses, eliding tangents, connecting logical spaces. So my words, as a transcript of our day, are not perfect – more like the opposite – yet to anyone apart from us they would seem to be, like a photograph of a macaron tower that falls the second after the flash.

“The idea is that words have power,” I tell her, about a work in progress, “so what if we could really create things with our words? Like, if we sang a poem about Xanadu, it would rear up in front of us with stately decree?”

“How do you come up with ideas like that?” she asks when I’m done. “Where do those linkages, those syntheses come from? You say there’s nothing new under the sun, but then why do we always crave the next story? And why is it that the feeling of originality can still exist?”

The thing is, I don’t feel original. I feel like for everything I say to her, there’s so much more I can’t put into words. Like I’m brushing up against the limits of common vocabulary and the only thing to do is venture into the uncommon, the juxtapositions and patois and absurd images that I can only draw on paper, outside the far-too-fast-for-me stream of everyday life. To say “I care about you”, I make a basilisk await a human child’s return for all eternity. Instead of “it’s lonely without you” I conjure up dementia and robotic swans. Everything I write is both a memory of how I’ve felt, and a wish that I could say it better. Perhaps one day, I’ll know how to speak words as crisp and clean as a photograph, saying everything I want to tell her at the moment I need to. Until then, I’ll struggle to catch up on paper, filling in the blanks that each day leaves behind.

 

Mark Yeow

London

9 June 2014

Writing and Friendship

by Mark Yeow

“You’ll be best friends by the end of this,” says a customs officer as several hundred plans are turned to dust. And she, by matriarchal wisdom or just the number of cancelled flights she’s seen, is right. Flanged from departure gate to customs hall to motel lobby latched remora-like to the airstrip – “Welcome Home” drawl billboards as wide and tiredly sardonic as our layover – we swap situations, remonstrate at the incident’s handling, trade wise-cracks like the monotonous bullets of a drawn-out palsied war.

I meet a middle-aged couple, the wife peroxide blonde and the husband a frizzy grey stock of bushman, who have already spent a day in the airport after a crisis with their visas. They are both nature photographers, meeting counterparts in India for a hunt of the constructive kind. “Ahmed’s going to shoot all the bloody tigers before we get there,” the man says, without rancour. A woman my mother’s age says it’s for the best, nobody wants another MH code to live in infamy. It’s her first time cancelled and her son and I joke there’s a first time for everything. My closest counterparts are a Malaysian woman and her ang moh husband, heading to Kota K for a wedding followed by a week in Japan. By chance we find ourselves thrown together in buses, hotel queues, and replacement flights the next morning, and the two have a dry wit which I match with my own to while the hours away. We exchange chuckles and nods of déjà vs long onto the flight itself, in the way that only survivors of a minor trauma and its myriad ironies can.

I don’t know the names of any of these people. The details I have written are, apart from their faces and packing styles (photographer-couple is haphazard but inveterate, wedding-guests seem to have brought the house), the sole identifiers that we share with one another, as though by some unspoken covenant of anonymity in crisis. We part without fanfare, separated by the same divine forces (immigration queues, baggage reclamation) that spliced us together. Yet I feel as though I know them, in some ways better than people whose acquaintance I have held for years. You see a person’s true character in times of stress. It strips you of your status and your pretensions, forces out what’s beneath. Some cling to their facades with outrage and entitlement; others rage at the calumny of the gods; but most, surprisingly to me, accept their lot with a grin and a shrug. “It could be worse”. We, unlike the bird whose skull shattered some critical part of our 747’s engine, are not dead. That is good enough.

I’ve never been good at friendships. I like to think I’m a good friend, but I also let more friendships slide and atrophy than most people do. I leave people behind as I change, like first-draft characters who have served their purpose and will be remembered fondly for it, but nothing more. I’ve ended some friendships with harsh scribbling excision, others the quiescence of an eroding seawall. Some hate me afterwards, but most just keep asking why I’ve gone – and I can’t explain to them that in life as in narrative, timing is everything, and when the right time passes all you have is two strangers with an overlap of history.

Is it wrong to end a friendship when its value is gone? My fellow travellers and I came together by circumstance and separated naturally when it had run its course. We were in need of solidarity – the human urge for the group runs deep – but we also knew that to encroach on one another’s lives afterwards would, in some way, corrupt the narrative threads that we were flying to meet in the first place. Nobody wants the dark timeline. Sometimes, when it’s late at night, I hear my favourite characters speak, the homeless hackers and spirit-trees and unemployed skinchangers who I’ve shaped from the putty of my soul. Sometimes, more and more, I love them more than those of flesh and blood. Is it wrong to retreat to imaginary friends after a certain age? Or is it that the more you write, the more you see your friends as words?

The Question of Everyday Writing

by Mark Yeow

“Nulla dies sine linea,” said Horace. A pithy line from the poet who arguably invented pithy, and one with no small amount of practicality imbued in its chiastic concision. But, like all gnomisms, the wisdom is in what’s unsaid. Does it count if I only spend one day a week crafting fiction, and the other six churning out press releases? What happens to my neural pathways if I alternate between poetry and prose? Are we all taking the lyrics too literally? In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami draws a beautiful analogy between running and writing as activities which, if not repeated daily, will allow the clever beasts of our physical and mental muscles (which I imagine as resembling the beasts at the End of the World in Hard-Boiled Wonderland) to slack off and degenerate back to step zero. But is this sort of punitive regime essential to becoming a better writer?

I’m suspicious of anything that seems prescriptive. When instructed to complete reams of homework in Year 7 Maths, I took the view that I’d be fine if I just did the last five questions (the hardest ones) of any chapter. This cavalier approach served me well until I reached my final two years of high school, at which point I needed to complete entire chapters simply to understand the conceptual pedagogy at hand. While studying journalism, most of my cohort would speak in smug tones about the “connections” that they could leverage to realise their story ideas – typically high-powered executives or politicians who’d they’d gushed hello to at some networking event. These stories typically ended up imbued with less connectivity than a broken modem, so I took a different approach: cold-calling whoever I needed for story with witty emails and secretary-busting chutzpah. So I’m a big fan of short-cuts – but also acknowledge that many of my life-hacks themselves rely on significant amounts of repetitive effort.

I don’t write fiction every day, but I feel a sense of guilt at not doing so. I believe in the power of muscle memory for the brain, but I’m also – perhaps due to life circumstances – wary of over-exertion, and the heady tonic of “pushing the limits” that’s slurped down across my results-addicted social networks with disregard to its corrosive side-effects. So I write, and write often, but not with the monumental focus or endurance which Horace’s line hints at. I sleep more than I sketch, I get distracted by words other than mine, I stare out of windows more than I probably should. My writing style is more sprint than marathon – long periods of restless malaise punctuated by fiery bursts of productive obligation. Perhaps this means I will never be a Murakami, which will make me sad – but I have a ten-year head start, and I’m content just to make it to the finish line.

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