the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Category: Good writing habits

The Question of Everyday Writing

by MDY

“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.

The Economics of Proofreading

by MDY

I witnessed a robbery on Thursday. A girl in snug gym-tights and a smug grin waltzed out of a bakery while the mousey shop-assistant plaintively yelled “you haven’t paid!” and “she just stole!” and people tried not to look. “What do you want me to do?!” barked the Lebanese pizza-seller next door when the small lady begged him to act, or at least to see. There was a moment, as the girl was half-way to the exit, when I could have interceded. After a while, you can taste the timing of these things; you come to recognise the sharp tang of a fork in the narrative, and the sugary rush or mild bitterness that follow depending on which way you dive. I calculated vectors, loaded a script; weighed up the risk factors (hidden accomplices; concealed blade) against the limiters on force (non-lethal, incapacitating under which parameters?). I looked away and the moment passed.

My friend proofread for me that night. She made additions and we had a wry, fragmented discussion on the dangers of verisimilitude. I rarely get other people to proofread my work nowadays, except when I’m unsure of myself. Even when sending things to my reader, I make sure to hold off until I am as close to a finished, refined product as I can get. This is because reading something for the first time is a precious commodity. Once a reader’s fresh, untainted perspective has met with your words, they can no longer assess them with that same pristine clarity that is so valuable to figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Here’s how this works mathematically:

Let x = the number of people who can provide useful feedback (erudite friends, literary critics)

Let y% be the level of completion/refinement of your work (with a vertical asymptote at y = 100)

So taking dy/dx = k where k is a constant (varying according to the profundity of the work), x must increase at an exponential rate inversely proportional to y. But because writers only ever have 4.7 people at most who will proofread their work, x is a limited resource.

Therefore, save your readers for when you have a clear shot.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

I often think of my readers – not my audience, but my core pool of assessors and guarantors of whom my big-R Reader is one – as shotgun shells. When you fire one, it can cause massive impact, but you need to get as close as possible to the target before you pull the trigger. And, like 00-buckshot, you can only fire a certain number of times before you’re plumb dry out of ammo.

So like choosing not to stop a robbery, your timing determines whether you win or you die.

The Arse of Letter-Writing

by MDY

I wrote a letter last week. An old-school, inked-on-paper, stamp-licked letter. It was a terribly fraught process, for several reasons.

Number One: I am highly insecure about my handwriting. In high school, I used to get taunted by teachers and classmates alike for the hopelessly matted kindling that my letters formed. I was best known for the compactness of my handwriting, which apparently bordered on the pathological. How was I, as a painfully utilitarian Fourth-Former, meant to know that writing a 6000-word essay on A5 sheets of paper – even if they were all I had on the train from Nice to Paris – would be viewed as lunacy by the Music Department and all its denizens? Today, as a result, I only write in caps when writing for other people. But you can’t write a whole letter in caps. Isn’t it ironic that you need umpteen letters to compose a letter? And somehow infinitesimally tragic too, that sometimes no amount of letters are enough.

Number Two: this letter was also an original short story. Usually when I compose on paper, I commit numerous faux pas; scratch out entire sentences or word after word; and, in around 42% of cases, am simply unable to finish the tale because I have plotted myself into an inextricable corner. I couldn’t afford to do any of this here, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, I had the entire story planned out in my head (only happens in around 7% of cases), and I am very good at converting a’s into d’s, b’s into p’s, et c. when I realise that pen and brain are not in sync. Probably owed somewhat to the pathology of my handwriting.

Number Three: You can’t back-up letters. What if my envelope got rained on? What if the ship’s crew accidentally threw the mail-bag overboard? What if the ship got hijacked (I had watched Captain Phillips several nights prior)? What if the receiving Asiatic post-office didn’t understand the address, even though it was in very neat caps? What if the address was wrong, or it went to the wrong flat in the compound, or the owner of the flat omitted to mention its receipt to its intended reader? Releasing a letter into the ether is a leap of faith, and despite my long legs I was always a dismal long-jump failure.

I don’t think the letter has arrived yet. If it had, I would have heard. But if and when it does fall into its recipient’s much-deserving hands, all this arseing around will be worth it.