the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Tag: journalism

Writing out of Practice

by MDY

I haven’t written for the past three weeks. Last Sunday, at the time when I would usually be composing my weekly tamago, I was asleep on a bus bound for my former-home-town. I remember when I was on my first (and probably only) media tour, the news reporters would be typing up stories on the bus from city to city, and occasionally you’d see them waving their wireless dongles around in the air like prospectors fossicking for particles of airborne gold. Being yoked to a monthly magazine was a luxury which earned me more than a few envious remarks – though some nights, after dinner and before drinking, I’d hammer out a thousand words to aid my future self. I never had the stamina nor the hell-bent grimace of a real journalist. Then again, I always preferred fiction.

Writing, or at least good writing, can’t be accomplished with brute force alone. There are obstacles – narratological dead-ends, deaths of character and plausibility – that can only be circumnavigated, not overrun. They require an acuity of tone and awareness of flow which atrophy far, far faster than they regenerate. When I write again for the first time, I feel like I do when I’m returning to the water after long illness. Instead of gliding past me, the words clench at my sides like mordant treacle; the harder I exert, the further away seems the diving-block of that next full stop. Dialogue sinks without sparkle, clichés excrete themselves with neither panache nor irony to redeem their turdish sheen.

Writing out of practice is immensely frustrating and I try to avoid it as much as possible. Tamago has probably been the best remedy: it forces me, through the dyadic couplet of routine and guilt, to maintain regular movements no matter the weather or amount of fibre in my diet. I’m trying to do the same with fiction now. As I grow and grow older, there will likely be more sleepy bus trips and I won’t have as much chance to write for a living. But I’m hoping these habits will keep my writing alive.

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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.

Writing about boring things

by MDY

The trick is to remember what Hamlet said. My first writing job involved me putting together encyclopaedic entries about antiques. Very few seventeen-year-old boys have a natural interest in antiques. I was not one of them. But after completing only a few of these entries, I realised that antiques weren’t just antiques. The process of intaglio, for example, has much to do with Walter Benjamin’s arguments in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, while the term “campaign furniture” (the subject of my very first entry) draws for its etymology a long process of utilitarian evolution going right back to Julius Caesar’s ill-fated invasion of the British Isles. I was writing about so many more things than just old jugs, and while younger more nubile ones might have commanded greater attention, it didn’t matter, because antiques weren’t boring. Once you realise everything is tied to everything else, you can write about anything with passion and vigour.

Writing helps you understand. Unlike most journalists or professional writers, I don’t have a particular area of expertise which I’m most comfortable with. If anything, my area of expertise is my writing – and I’ve not particularly exemplary in that regard. But I can only write effectively about something if I understand it – and not just the superficial “A does B and B does C and therefore impending apocalypse” understanding, but the sort which tries to really get what’s going on and what’s at stake and exactly how a bunch of wires can enable some cute-looking cone of expensive hardware to single-handedly (-wiredly?) arrest a 12,000-mile-per-hour descent and plonk itself down in a crater on a red and dusty and entirely alien world.

So I talk to people who do understand. I ask them questions, and read their books, and follow them around, and do my darnedest to gain a smidgen of the understanding which they possess. Terrifying? Yes. Boring? Never. And it also works for academic essays (understanding a concept), job applications (understanding a business), and longform fiction (understanding a life which is not your own). Too often boring is a synonym for incomprehensible. Too rarely is writing a synonym for learning.

I have trouble with repetition, though. Even the most interesting subject in the world gets dull once you’ve written about it more times than there are rings in Olympic iconography (which, if you’re having trouble counting, is still a single-digit figure). I treat these occasions like weightlifting – painful, and potentially sweaty. But just like a body-builder, I know that “doing reps” is a necessary part of my development. Repetition ensures the understanding you’ve gained doesn’t disappear. It renders you more fluent in what you’re writing on, either by dint of familiarity with your subject matter or the ability to present it to different sorts of people. It gives you the chance to improve your writing technique by strengthening old things or trying new ones.

My pectorals are not much bigger than when I was a seventeen-year-old. But that’s not what my daily work-outs seek to do. They help me write about a world where ab can be a preposition, a testing framework for start-ups, or a latitudinal core strength indicator  of which I currently possess approximately 1.07. There’s nothing boring about that.