the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Tag: how i write

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.

The Definition of Success

by MDY

Nowadays, I cannot remember my wristwatch’s whereabouts. When firmly attached to my wrist, I have no problem: give thanks for small mercies. But when I remove the watch – which is often, as its removal acts as a synesthetic trigger for increased mental concentration, and has done so ever since when I first began mounting it on the side of my high-school examination desk – then the problems begin. The other evening, after a long day at work, I spent nearly seven minutes searching for the watch, eventually locating it in an area which I thought I had already perused. Memory does not decline uniformly: I can still scan and recite alphanumeric strings (passwords, credit card details) losslessly. My mother attributes these lapses to my professional duties, which take up so much of my mental space that I have little left for other, less salient affairs. I know she is right but emails give no mercy.

I write by numbers. Too long, and the reader drops into the abyss; too short, and ideas struggle to find a handhold. The trick is to aim for less, then exceed expectations. A good day is 1000 words before noon; if the sentences are coherent (let alone say something worthwhile), even better. Volume is the hardest part. Quality can come after. Once the words are there, I can repair hole-ridden arguments, or remove them entirely; rearrange syntax and cadence like odd-fitting pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. When writing, I count my words then make them count.

It’s a Newtonian question. There are the usual things, but also others. Going to your favourite noodle joint and finding there’s no queue. Reminding someone how to smile when all they want to do is cry. Finding something you thought was lost. And of course there’s the issue of valuation: how do you compare paying your child’s tuition to falling asleep to Miles Davis at 10pm on a Sunday night? Nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of striving upwards only to find the world isn’t flat. The more I use the trigger for success, the more likely it is to get misplaced some day.

Achieving it is its own reward, and therein lies the tautology. Like “memory” and “lost” and “watch”, the word only has what meaning it gets given. It’s hard to ascribe value when you don’t know what counts. The trick is to aim for less, then exceed expectations.