the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Month: September, 2012

Do people exist?

by MDY

We forget what we leave behind. Milestones, exhortations, fair-weather friends. Good writing can memorialise the debris, but it too has a tendency to fall behind. Lavosier’s principles apply equally to words and hand-made birthday cards. When I look myself up on the Internet, I see at least seven cached personalities gradually receding in smugness and hair length. There’s a school captain who takes his primary responsibilities very seriously, as well as musician allegedly making racist comments about the French. It only takes two iterations for a budding young writer to resemble the gin-sardonic pen-for-hire he once thought cool. Like the soldiers sent by Mars’ governor to contain his Californian equivalent, it’s hard to tell what’s real. We think Descartes enlightened, but he never had to study Stoppard in English 2.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Take one part steel and four parts concrete, and you can end up with anything from Atlantis to a Fortune 500 corporation. I sometimes have trouble distinguishing my reader’s smile from the :)’s in her text messages, or the ones sinking fast into the loam of my subconscious. The characters in my mentor’s latest novel are composed almost solely from their trace elements, and I’m struggling to apply myself after months spent grazing exclusively on 500-word opinion columns. Reverting to a cached version might do the trick, but it’s not yet worth running the risk of irrevocably corrupting time and space.

We write ourselves into existence. I often wondered about the practicalities of English lessons until one teacher yelled at us after an hour trying to guess a poem’s subtext, “You’re not reading! Read!” It’s often easier to conjure up someone’s letters than their smile or the softness in their eyes, but doing so bears its own risks to time and space. Good characterisation requires the writer to capture a certain wholeness of being but without any idiosyncratic loss. Take one person and infinite perspectives, and you end up with a story or a funeral. We leave behind what others will remember.

Writing speech

by MDY

It’s like a fingerprint in space. Odd syntactical constructions, catch-phrases, tending to “like” rather than “you know” – they never just happen once. Of course it can be controlled – hence the idea of formal register – but even then certain heuristic traces will remain. Even if you give two people the exact same words, the sounds will be different, and not just when comparing between Singaporeans and South Africans. It’s relatively easy to capture the uniqueness of diction, but tone and inflection are not as acquiescent.

There is no truly lossless format. What has said cannot be retracted, but will start to change shape if we pay it enough attention. It sloughs off its marginalia, recomposes itself into something more refined and polished but with the same meaning – or with a shift so slight that we might never notice. When you try to capture it with paper, it behaves like a cat in a box. If I omit a cough while transcribing from tape, does it still sound like a falling tree? Too many “um”s can make the erudite look dense; when caught in writing, a trifecta of “well”, “you know” and “I mean”  spells obfuscation. There’s nothing self-explanatory about he said/she said.

My approach is being true to one another. Just like with cats in boxes, the relativity of a goal doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. The hardest part is when your fingerprints are coming loose from too much backspacing, and all you want to do is a vague sketch instead of careful tracing. But like truth, karma is chameleonic: misquote someone, and you’ll never know what fate your words will meet in a dark study or when. The main thing is remembering that neither sound nor its absence ever signifies nothing.

Only after many hours of close listening will you realise how dull most people sound. Then you have two choices: change the station, or keep listening. When doing the first, remember both the best and worst fictive dialogue sounds exactly the opposite to how real people do. Only do the second if  it begins to sound like song.

Managing expectations

by MDY

Nobody ever makes the first jump. Only once I finish a paper draft do I begin to edit, proof and format. Paper forces you to not look back. The more you second-guess your words, the more the terrain comes to resemble a battlefield, carved up by the caterpillar-tracks of surreptitious strike-outs and adjectival regret. Word-processing is too much like Teflon. It also tracks your word-count, which is a distraction I can do without alongside chocolate and equestrian flamenco. My first drafts are measured in pages, or hours. If I get fatigued or restless, I remind myself that I’m writing not paratrooper-ing and it’s okay if I don’t make my next checkpoint in time. But I always do.

The first sort is the specific: write these words by this time, so that this person can react this way. Some things aren’t physically possible – I cannot type more than 2500 words in an hour, or do a bench-press – but a surprising majority are. You build up your fitness with exercises and repetition, like with marathons or equestrian flamenco. My first press-release took me 5.2 hours to write. After a while, you can load and aim and fire without breaking a sweat or the surrounding furniture. The other sort is the general. Find true love, look after your health, make responsible choices for the future. You build up to those with time.

The tragedy of Icarus is that his father would’ve loved him no matter what. On the particularly knife-edge days that punctuate most winters, my fingers stiffen up and have difficulty moving – a legacy of youthful novel-writing and flamencos played on oversized xylophones. I’ve learnt to wear gloves and buy clothes with warm pockets, but adaptability runs a distant second to prevention. Blunt trauma forces you to not look back. Making everyone happy is a fool’s goal, especially not since everyone wants to be. Sometimes, the hardest ones to manage are the ones you set yourself.