the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Month: February, 2013

15-minute writing: one down, two across

by MDY

My 15 minutes:

At an early age, Xiao Wang found that he had a natural aptitude for crossword puzzles. Every week, he would buy a copy of the English-language newspaper and flick to the back, seeking out the Cryptic and setting an egg-timer to chart his progress against the riddles ranged against him. He particularly liked clues which played with the letters of words, breaking the usual covalence between characters and meaning in a way which made him forget other, less favourable parts of his life.

One day, Xiao Wang saw an advert listed above the Cryptic in the Sunday newspaper. A competition. When he’d finished the last clue (“In a glass, shadowy – 8”), he promptly sought a terminal at the town’s Internet cafe and signed himself up for entry via correspondence. The first few rounds were easy: returning completed crosswords to the newspaper’s offices via post-paid envelope. Those were the qualifiers. Then he was invited to compete in a live time-trial against others, held in the newspaper’s local bureau. A television crew was there to broadcast the proceedings, and while few watched Xiao Wang triumph over Old Li in a tense decider (quite literally, in fact: the victory came down to Wang’s slightly more acute knowledge of the differences between perfect and past continuous), the semi-finals drew far more attention; the prize money (more than the worth of a small town) may have been a factor.

Two days after he’d won the finals, Xiao Wang returned to his town. He was greeted by a few more people than usual, but there was no gross outpouring of adulation here: most of his neighbours had known him since childhood and, while affording him their friendliness and respect, could not think of him as anything apart from plain old Xiao Wang. Which left him alone, and quite pleased in a melancholy sort of way.

Xiao Wang went to a coffee-shop with his copy of the papers and ordered a coffee from the waitress at the counter. She gave him a glance with dark eyes but made no additional remark. Once he was seated, Xiao Wang tried to concentrate on the crossword, but he found his gaze drifting back to the waitress, trying to decipher the meaning to her actions. Another glance at him, fingers running past the hair drifting down her neck. A pause at the coffee-grinder. The up-twitch of a bottom lip unadorned with rouge. What did those clues mean? For all his experience with the intricacies of English phonetics and logician’s turns-of-phrase, Xiao Wang was at a loss to decipher this new puzzle. 

My response:

I tried typing instead of handwriting and it shows. Almost three minutes left to spare (2:52, to be exact) – a poor gauge of timing. The first half is mostly superfluous – why do we need the competition? It reveals nothing apart from a few lukewarm turns of phrase – and my own lacklustre knowledge of Cryptics is apparent here. Write what you know: not always good advice, but when it comes to subjects of technical detail…

The final paragraph is acceptable. And I guess the competition acts as prelude to that crisis of understandings, one which I’ve been wrestling with of late. Can one transfer knowledge of one thing’s intimacies into another’s? I like the ending sentence, except for the phonetics and turns-of-phrase bit: very clunky wording. “Quite pleased in a melancholy sort of way” is something I’d probably reuse in a more valuable piece but I’ll likely forget it before then. Is the covalent bonding reference too obscure? Letters as language on the atomic scale, the crossword an act of fissile egress? My writing that is probably evidence that the best writing doesn’t always come from a pressure cooker.

If you’re wondering, the cryptic clue has no answer; I had to make it up.Anoth

The task: I set myself 15 minutes to write something, anything. Then I critique what I’ve written and give you a chance to do so as well. This is a compressed variant of one of my old regimes and a useful habit if you’re aiming to improve your writing especially under time pressures. Like weight-lifting (which I abhor), repetition is the key.


How to be a freelance writer

by MDY

Last week I interviewed two pretty well-known figures in the Australian start-up community as part of an article I’m working on. One is a few years older than me, the other about a year younger, and both have accomplished far more in a few short years – resettling in San Francisco, rebooting a corporate career – than most people aim for in a standard lifetime.

I started out my career as a freelance writer. When I was seventeen, it was a source of precious liquidity at a time when my contemporaries were mostly waiting tables or reloading cash registers. As I fumbled through university, it offered me the credentials for marginally bigger things: temp work, internships, even experience to base my essays on. Eventually it became a highly lucrative venture which translated into a full-time career.

When you’re a freelancer, you’re a business owner. The business is you: your skills, knowledge, and work ethic. Managing that business and making it profitable can take you to some pretty interesting places, and open up some otherwise-unimagined doors. While I’m nowhere near the league of the two women I interviewed, I’m proud of what I accomplished in those years as a bootstrapping opportunistic pen-for-hire.

To those of you who want to write professionally, I ask: what’s stopping you? Get an ABN or your country’s equivalent. Go online and fight the nameless and faceless for commissions offered by the nameless and faceless (but hopefully not penniless). Offer free trials to get that crucial first gig. Learn how to negotiate a pay-rate and how to bid against the entire Internet. Send your portfolio to every magazine that’s still selling and still solvent. Learn to ask the right questions, and practise your listening face. Enjoy the quasi-legitimacy of “freelance journalist” that lets you call up highly accomplished individuals and ask them about their life stories just…because.

Freelancing will not get you rich, but it’ll get you started. The lessons you learn from it – everything from time management to tax compliance – will serve you well, whether it be in corporate or creative or your world-domineering enterprise. And the people you meet and the places you go have more value than anything you can tape to your CV. You may lose sleep, perhaps all of it. You may fail.

You may also change your life.

All writing is travel writing

by MDY

I’m not very good at holidays. I’ve never been to Disneyland, my bags are always lighter upon return, and you’ll rarely find photographic evidence that I left in the first place. One morning in Hong Kong, I spent an entire morning scaling the escalator up past SoHo and into the wallpapered jungle of the mid-levels. On the descent, my only stop was a small shop which appeared to sell ethically-sourced grooming products for dogs. I probably spent at least five minutes locked in a staring contest with a russet Alsatian-cross who happened to be gazing listlessly out the window one floor up (I’m not sure who won, or whether we called it a draw). Despite having trouble with a urine-streaked alley on the way back down, I considered this a morning well-spent. The most interesting details of a place are rarely found in departmental stores (although there are, of course, always exceptions).

Travel helps with writing, and writing helps with travel. I always enjoy looking through in-flight magazines to see what others find curious or noteworthy, then applying similar filters to what I know back home. Is it strange that on Australian escalators, the “overtaking lane” corresponds with that of the roads*, but in Hong Kong the two are opposite (but only on escalators, not in traditional stairwells)? One of my whimsies this year is to get on a plane and find my words waiting for me in the back-of-seat pocket, but that will of course rely on the strength of my story propositions and annual leave dates. I feel a particular affinity with Japan despite (or because of) not speaking the language, having been there thrice including an all-expenses trip based on my writing credentials and a far more senior correspondent’s passport expiration date. Writing can take you places, but the real value comes from seeing your home anew.

All writing is travel writing. When we write, we have a responsibility to bring our readers somewhere new – even if it’s a space or time  with which they think themselves familiar. “Dawn in russet mantle clad” is something we’d all have seen at least once – either from staying up to see the sunrise or waking to outrun its curse – but when you put it that way, it becomes something foreign and delicious. Waiting at a subway station becomes an anxiety sublime; the smoke from a back-alley exhaust pipe twists itself into an omen of the New Year to come. Words can reroute our neural circuitry so that something we’ve never experienced before becomes familiar or maybe not so much. The further out you go, the more you realise the less you know.

*The right-hand side.