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Tag: why I write

Writing to Remember

by MDY

We are sitting in a lobster pot down Soho way when she asks what I think of food photography.

“I don’t think it’s good or bad,” I say, “more just a remediation of how we’ve always sought to both capture and share the ephemeral. I guess food is just a prime target for that human urge to remember: it’s beautiful, it evokes new feelings in our senses, and it is by definition perishable, unable to retain its corporeal presence in the manner of clothes or jewels. Food makes us think and feel better, and I think it’s instinctual to want to try and hold onto that by passing it on as best we can.”

I’m writing this because I, too, want to hold onto something fleeting. I want to remember the way she brushed a stray sprig of lavender across one leg as we grazed on leaves in take-away trays. I want to remember the easy way we could laugh as we meandered through Studio K, and the raucous direction-giving and insinuations about our relationship from the trio of her compatriots who we glanced into at one station of many. I want to trace back everything we said about the perks of being a food blogger, the impossibility of befriending dumb people, the intricacies of love and friendship and loneliness and sacrifice that we spooled out along the train tracks and cobblestones in our wake, like breadcrumbs leading us towards our better selves. I want to write down everything we said about writing, and what the words mean to us.

“It all comes down to social proofing,” she says sometime on, as I splinter open a lobster claw. “Have you seen that comic where the guy tweets about a druggie in the toilet, and as he sits waiting for the RTs to come in he’s in exactly the same posture as his erstwhile subject? But what happens when that social validation becomes what we define ourselves by, not by the experiences we document but the metrics they generate?”

Only later, now, do I remember traces of a lecture long past: the act of inscription is the act of definition. We didn’t say the things I wrote we did. At one point in the lobster pot, I float the idea that I prefer writing because I’m no good with talk, my thoughts trip over each other like tourist-herds stampeding down sooty high-streets, whereas on paper or screen I can order things the way I wish they could be.

Which is, of course, exactly what I’m doing now. I’m editing as I go, summarising lengthy discourses, eliding tangents, connecting logical spaces. So my words, as a transcript of our day, are not perfect – more like the opposite – yet to anyone apart from us they would seem to be, like a photograph of a macaron tower that falls the second after the flash.

“The idea is that words have power,” I tell her, about a work in progress, “so what if we could really create things with our words? Like, if we sang a poem about Xanadu, it would rear up in front of us with stately decree?”

“How do you come up with ideas like that?” she asks when I’m done. “Where do those linkages, those syntheses come from? You say there’s nothing new under the sun, but then why do we always crave the next story? And why is it that the feeling of originality can still exist?”

The thing is, I don’t feel original. I feel like for everything I say to her, there’s so much more I can’t put into words. Like I’m brushing up against the limits of common vocabulary and the only thing to do is venture into the uncommon, the juxtapositions and patois and absurd images that I can only draw on paper, outside the far-too-fast-for-me stream of everyday life. To say “I care about you”, I make a basilisk await a human child’s return for all eternity. Instead of “it’s lonely without you” I conjure up dementia and robotic swans. Everything I write is both a memory of how I’ve felt, and a wish that I could say it better. Perhaps one day, I’ll know how to speak words as crisp and clean as a photograph, saying everything I want to tell her at the moment I need to. Until then, I’ll struggle to catch up on paper, filling in the blanks that each day leaves behind.

 

Mark Yeow

London

9 June 2014

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Why I used to write

by MDY

I used to write for money. I kept a little purple book in which I hand-wrote all my invoices, as a backup for tax time in case the Internet broke down before then. In it, words dissolved, sank from view, and re-emerged as numbers at the ratio of 5:2 (ex. GST and ancillary expenses). Sleight-of-hand, but it felt magical at the time. My contemporaries, struggling with the (entirely unremunerated) weight of academic essays, looked upon me as a mildly horrifying demigod who remained perplexed by the magnitude of his powers. You heard it all the time, of course, but nobody really believed that by doing what you loved the money would follow. Yet somehow the words kept coming, and the numbers kept sidling into my bank account like malapropic thieves in the night. After a while, I started to dream in press releases. You heard it all the time, but nobody talked about what happened if you fell out of love.

I used to write for recognition. The first prize was a revelation that people apart from my parents (hi, Mum and Dad!) could think me talented too. I was no stranger to accolades, but these were different. My writing was not born of fortunate upbringing or ready-made opportunities, or so I convinced myself: I had built my craft, word by constipated word, and it had made me a self-made man. Stories gushed forward like lovelorn blatherings, seeking out blandishments with big sniffing noses and wagging snippet-tails; there were no prizes after the one. So I learned to feed my ego in other ways: through grade-point coups and the roll of digits in my monthly statements. The magazine I’m in talks with, more people submit stories than read them. I know that this hunger for recognition, mirrored a million plump young aesthetes too uncomfortably like myself, threatens to overturn the entire economy of human emotion, but how can I resist the urge to feed?

I used to write for love. I scattered letters, poems, tales of wanton dedication, like seeds that I hoped would take hold and grant me…what? Writing is the loneliest calling (except for biohazard disposal) but giving up that solitude is perilous beyond belief. When you’ve been the narrator so long, letting another voice tell your story is like stepping backwards off the edge of the world. I spun romances and courtly melodramas in my head, so sticky and dense that not even the most intrepid explorer would want to cut her way in. Then I wondered why I couldn’t get out.

Now, I try not to write for any of these reasons. More often than not, I still do.

Writing from experience

by MDY

They say write what you know. When I first started with short stories, I used to structure them around swathes of luxurious dialogue in which my characters would ponder the quandaries of war, God, and double dates. These weren’t very good, because I didn’t actually know how to talk a lot. So I moved on to writing stories where the characters wouldn’t speak at all, and those were better. Then I began writing in the first person because I do a lot of thinking, but without any increase in dialogue because I still don’t like talking. The only person I feel truly comfortable talking to is myself. Blogs are surprisingly well-suited for interior monologue.

They say write what you don’t know. When I was in high school, all my protagonists were intellectual-leaning teenage boys who were sweet on unattainably beautiful women and would often partake in swathes of luxurious dialogue about war, God, and double dates. But that was boring, so I moved on to cybernetic assassins, telepathic trees, and little girls who wanted to be chefs. For a long time all my protagonists were male, until I realised my understanding of men was about as poor as that of (invariably unattainably beautiful) women. So I started writing about animals. Sometimes knowing is half the battle, but it may not be the winning side.

I say write what you want to know. My illustrator wants to know more about learning to teach, and teaching to learn. One of my friends writes about God, and fashion, because she wants to understand both better (though her allegiances, like mine, fall squarely on one side). I write about writing. Words are thoughts, made close-to-real. They give us something to hold onto, and something to build from. You don’t have to know what you write, but it helps knowing what you’re writing for.