Capitalism and Freedom

Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was my companion during my trip to Australia recently. This book would challenge your capability to focus, if you read it in public spaces such as airports and planes like I did of some chapters. What impresses me most besides its content is its delivery, the meticulously articulated logic reasoning. Regardless whether you agree with the author’s verdicts, you can touch and feel the logical threads leading to them. I am not an economist nor a politician, but economics always fascinates me. Politics, exactly the opposite. This book broadens my view on the inseparability and strong inter-influence between economic freedom and political freedom. Later Milton Friedman added civil freedom to this dichotomy, in light of Hong Kong’s return to China from British sovereignty in 1997 and its subsequent development. In the book, Friedman also credited this instance for persuading him that: while economic freedom is a necessary condition for civil and political freedom, political freedom, desirable though it may be, is not a necessary condition for economic and civil freedom.

Describing what this book is about, Friedman wrote: its major theme is the role of competitive capitalism – the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market – as a system of economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom. Its minor theme is the role that government should play in a society dedicated to freedom and relying primarily on the market to organize economic activity.

Friedman wrote the following on the role of books like this one: First, to provide subject matter for bull sessions….The only person who can truly persuade you is yourself. You must turn the issues over in your mind at leisure, consider the many arguments, let them simmer, and after a long time turn your preferences into convictions. Second,…to keep options open until circumstances make change necessary. There is enormous inertia – a tyranny of the status quo – in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. Both arguments are convincing to me.

To summarize my overall understanding upon reading this book: increasing the economy freedom and decreasing the governmental intervenes in an overly governed state is the direction for further prosperity. Many policies do not deliver the outcome that aligns with our intentions when creating those policies at the first place, for example, minimum wage. A social environment that promotes diversity is far more advantageous than the ones not. Purely my extended understanding of the messages: while in doubt, it is better to rely on the free market mechanism than political interference in the long run.

A few more discussions from the book that I quote here and I think more people would benefit from reading, even if not reading the entire book:

The great advances of civilisation, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government….no one of these opened new frontiers in human knowledge and understanding, in literature, in technical possibilities, or in the relief of human misery in response to governmental directives. Their achievements were the product of individual genius, of strongly held minority views, of a social climate permitting variety and diversity.

A common objection to totalitarian societies is that they regard the end as justifying the means. Taken literally, this objection is clearly illogical. If the end does not justify the means, what does? But this easy answer does not dispose of the objection; it simply shows that the objection is not well put. To deny that the end justifies the means is indirectly to assert that the end in question is not the ultimate end, that the ultimate end is itself the use of the proper means. Desirable or not, any end that can be attained only by the use of bad means must give way to the more basic end of the use of acceptable means.

Fundamental differences in basic values can seldom if ever be resolved at the ballot box; ultimately they can only be decided, though not resolved, by conflict…The widespread use of the market reduces the strain on the social fabric by rendering conformity unnecessary with respect to any activities it encompasses. The wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer are the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement. In turn, the fewer the issues on which agreement is necessary, the greater is the likelihood of getting agreement while maintaining a free society.

A businessman or an entrepreneur who expresses preferences in his business activities that are not related to productive efficiency is at a disadvantage compared to other individuals who do not. Such an individual is in effect imposing higher costs on himself than are other individuals who do not have such preference. Hence, in a free market, they will tend to drive him out. This same phenomenon is of much wider scope. It is often taken for granted that the person who discriminate against others because of their race, religion, color, or whatever, incurs no costs by doing so but simply imposes costs on others. This view is on a par with the very similar fallacy that a country does not hurt itself by imposing tariffs on the products of other countries. Both are equally wrong. The man who objects to buying from or working alongside a Negro, for example, thereby limits his range of choice. He will generally have to pay a higher price for what he buys or receive a lower return for his work. Or, put the other way, those of us who regard color of skin or religion as irrelevant can buy some things more cheaply as a result.

The more capitalistic a country is, the smaller the fraction of income paid for the use of what is generally regarded as capital, and the larger the fraction paid for human services…The great achievement of capitalism has not been the accumulation of poverty, it has been the opportunities it has offered to men and women to extend and develop and improve their capacities.

Finally, I uphold my decision of not writing about China. But that is not to say I have no passion for my motherland. To the contrary, I eagerly wish that China progresses towards the right directions in all the economic, civil and political arenas. I part you with a passage in the preface written by Friedman in 2002:  

The introduction of market reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the late seventies, in effect privatizing agriculture, dramatically increased output and led to the introduction of additional market elements into a communist command society. The limited increase in economic freedom had changed the face of China, strikingly confirming our faith in the power of free markets. China is still very far from being a free society, but there is no doubt that the residents of China are freer and more prosperous than they were under Mao – freer in every dimension except the political. And there are even the first small signs of some increase in political reform, manifested in the election of some officials in a growing number of villages. China has far to go, but it has been moving in the right direction.

 

The Elements of Style

This little book, the Elements of Style, originally by William Strunk and later revised and expanded by Elwyn Brooks White. Strunk taught an English course with the original version of this book as the required textbook at Cornell University in 1919. White was one of the students took that class. Decades later, White was asked to revise and contribute to a new edition of this book, after Professor Strunk passed away.

The version I am holding in hand now is the fourth edition from 1999. Multiple sources have informed me that this book has been broadly adopted as one of the required readings for certain college classes in the USA. In my opinion, anyone who communicates in English would benefit greatly from this book.

It is my general observation that in the business setting we generate and circulate far too many badly written, confusing at best, and often misleading notes and documents. We do so on the grounds that we do not have spare time to improve our writings or the luxury to do so in a fast-paced work environment. Bad writing unfortunately often leads to a great loss of productivity. Unwillingness to improve one’s language skill and laziness to communicate with clarity is evil, as it adds a great burden on the readers. I highly recommend reading this book. I envisage myself revisiting it many times again in future.

The process of reading this book was filled with both delight and anxiety. I have been frightened and ashamed that many errors and bad practices of written English listed here were committed by me previously. I have also discovered many jewels of good practices.

Chapter one covers the elementary rules of use of the English language. I spotted one misuse often made immediately. It is “Charles’s friend”, not “Charles’ friend”. That is the first rule: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s. People also often confuse “it’s” the contraction of “it is” with “its”, the possessive. Another mis-use I committed often many years ago and Daniel Rueckert helped me to overcome is: do not join independent clauses with a comma when forming a single compound sentence from multiple clauses that are grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction. The correct punctuation is a semicolon.

Chapter two focuses on principles of compositions. The book suggests:

    • Choose a suitable design and hold to it;
    • Make the paragraph the unit of composition;
    • Use the active voice;
    • Put statements in positive form;
    • Use definite, specific, concrete language;
    • Omit needless words;
    • Avoid a succession of loose sentences;
    • Express coordinate ideas in similar form;
    • Keep related words together;
    • In summaries, keep to one tense;
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

At the level of composing a sentence in English, I must have violated the last rule here many times before, as I was blindly unaware of this, despite my knowledge and practice of placing the most prominent sentences at the beginning and end of a paragraph. One pair of examples given in the book:

  1. Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
  2. Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

The second option clearly places more emphasis on the “hardly advanced in fortitude” part of the message.

I strongly disagree of shorthand spelling of some English words, for example, writing through as thru. It is bad practice and unforgivable, even on road signs. Laziness of spelling should not be tolerated. If we choose to be lazy with words used to describe our thoughts, we would inevitably end up in a downhill spiral and find ourselves eventually becoming too lazy with clear thinking.

White added a new chapter on An Approach to Style to this little book. White describes:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.

White’s advice on what style is not about:

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is non-detachable, unfilterable.

On how to approach style:

The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

Further, White gives us a list of suggestions to help us find our way to the desired style:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs. (Not with adjectives and adverbs.)
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs. (for example, tiredly, tangledly.)
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words. (I observe that technical writings from non-native English speakers often tend to use fancy words, which in turn hurts the readability of the papers. Better to use the simple ones.)
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear. (Clarity is the top priority, regardless of the form of communication, speaking or writing, in my view.)
  • Do not inject opinion. (This is very challenging.)
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Avid foreign languages.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

I am grateful that teachers like Strunk and writers like White pass their knowledge on the usage of English language to us in a meticulously concise and precise writing style conveyed in this book. Without it, I might stay much longer ignorant of the errors I made and would not be able to progress.

The Founder’s Dilemmas

In the last a few years, multiple friends recommended The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman to me. I did not pick it up till my recent trip returning from Canada. One evening, a friend, A.J., compared the startup environment in Canada with that in Silicon Valley. He commented on how this environmental difference affects the success and failure of startups, besides many other factors. That conversation reminded me to read this book.

The subtitle of this book tells the gist of it: anticipating and avoiding the pitfalls that can sink a startup. It consists of three major parts followed by a conclusion. The first part talks about the pre-founding career dilemmas faced by the entrepreneurs. Part two presents the founding team dilemmas over multiple chapters: the solo-versus-team dilemma; relationship dilemmas – flocking together and playing with fire; role dilemmas – positions and decision making; reward dilemmas – equity splits and cash compensation; the three Rs system – alignment and equilibrium. Part three covers dilemmas beyond the founding team, specifically hires and investors: hiring dilemmas – the right hires at the right time; investor dilemmas – adding value, adding risks; failure, success and founder-CEO succession. Finally, the last but one of the most distinctive points I learned from this book: the wealth versus control dilemmas.

Some messages presented in this book read familiarly, as I previously read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One and various others, and the Creative Entrepreneur: Innovation Through Design Thinking programme I attended at Stanford referenced the Founder’s Dilemmas extensively. Taking an extensive research approach adds great credibility to the findings and arguments presented this book. I realize there could be many flaws in these studies. But the essence of reading a book like this is not to follow its prescription, but to establish a certain amount of awareness of the unknown based on others’ experiences, and when appropriate to integrate those options into our knowledge set to be called upon when the time comes. To be fair to the author, there is no trace of intention of prescribing any rules for the entrepreneurs-to-be in the book. Furthermore, as the author put it: we know amazingly little about the chief perils that beset the entrepreneurial activity we so often acclaim as the very heart and soul of the economy. So for the scarcity reason alone, this book is worth a read.

My takeaway from the book is: know yourself and your options at each stage of founding a startup, the potential consequences following each of your options, whether and how you can adapt yourself to match with the varying demand from each growth stage assuming you have not failed yet, the inevitable influence from being wealth-driven or control-driven, ways to adjust your approaches and mitigate the danger of failure.

A number of passages are fresh and educational to me. They either break down my old belief or broaden my view by providing arguments from new angles. Here are some examples.

Each of these founders aspired to build a high-impact startup, but “impact” meant very different things to each; to the financially motivated, it tended to mean a large gain in wealth, but to the control motivated, it tended to mean that the startup would bring to the world the product or service they envisioned.

Accumulating more experience is far less valuable if that experience does not shape the mental model in relevant ways (or, worse, if it shapes the mental model in counterproductive ways)….A broad range of work and educational experiences is indeed associated with a significantly higher willingness to become self-employed.

Among the founders in my dataset, only 18% had management experience before founding their startups, including 19% of technology founders and 15% of life science founders. (This is consistent with another study that found that technical founders tend to lack prior managerial experience and may even lack interest in developing managerial skills.)

Founding a startup requires the knitting together of all of the functions required to make an organization run effectively, from product development to marketing to sales to finance to human resources. Having prior experience in those functions arms the founder with the ability to understand how each one operates on its own and as part of the larger whole.

Prioritization is even more important in a startup than in a stable business. I realized that I needed people to not only prioritize what to do, I needed them to create not-to-do lists. It was easy for people to find new products for us to bring to market, new pieces to add, new customer segments to go after… when you are smaller, if you go after something, it takes precious resources. You are also moving a lot faster, so you can harm the organization…There’s much more at risk, much more damage you can do.

One hears a lot about “following your passion.” Potential founders should avoid the mistake of thinking that their passion excuses them from a rational assessment of their circumstances…. The heart is forever making the head its fool.

I learned that leadership is all about taking in information and making a decision – shared information but not shared decisions. Make decisions yourself and live with them. Another key is speed. I want a single decision maker, even below me. If I have a VP of operations, he makes the call about operations.

There are three recurring categories of founding-team decisions: relationships, roles and rewards – each involving trade-offs and tensions.

Researchers have already observed that specific founding experience is more valuable for startup growth than are overall work experience and educational human capital.

Knowing for sure that someone has to go is hard, but I have learned that if I start thinking someone needs to go, they need to go. It is always the right call to upgrade when you realize someone can’t or isn’t succeeding.

One of the most critical inflection points in the evolution of a startup: the “succession” from a founder-CEO to a “professional” (nonfounding) CEO.

Managing a technical team is quite different from managing multiple functions that must interact and with most of which the CEO has little direct experience. At this point, the startup’s finances and metrics also become much more complex, requiring a level of financial sophistication possessed by few founder-CEOs. The leap from leading product development to leading a multifunction startup challenges not only the founder’s skills, but – perhaps even more profoundly – his or her values.

Founders who refuse to give up ownership and control in either or both of these ways will be less likely to attract the resources they need and thus not be able to fully pursue the opportunities they envision. It appears, then, that each of our founding dilemmas is also a dilemma of what resources to acquire at what cost in ownership and control. This is the dilemma behind all the other dilemmas.

My analyses also suggest that founders who keep control personally give up a significant amount financially. Such founders tend to build a less valuable startup while keeping a larger share of equity in it, but it turns out that the value-seeking founder’s “smaller slice of a larger pie” is generally greater than the control-seeking founder’s “larger slice of a smaller pie.”

The hardest decision a founder, inventor, or entrepreneur needs to make is “when do I give up some control to grow the company”.

Hegarty on Creativity – There Are No Rules

Rule number one of traveling to a new place is to visit its museums. I wish some museums offer lodging service, for example, one could happily spend three days and nights of a long weekend in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rule No. 2 is its independent or secondhand bookstores. I have a very soft spot for secondhand book shops. Sadly it seems that I have not come across many of them outside London. Rule No. 3 is to see its cemeteries. One I visited recently is the Mountain Cemetery and its adjacent Veteran Memorial in Sonoma. I was struck by sadness when I saw the empty space left for future names on the memorial stone. It is indeed practical to plan for further additions, nevertheless upsetting to think about the inevitable. These are the rules to be exercised with flexibility and a priority ordering given the circumstances.

I wandered into Ben McNally Books in Toronto one late afternoon last week. The bookshop was beautiful and private. There were very few people there probably because it was a workday. Exploring its collections felt like being spoiled in a private library of one’s own, although I would remove probably three quarters of novels from the shelves and replace them with science and engineering books, but leave the other categories untouched, if it is my library. There I was browsing randomly. A small book with lemon yellow cover and neat design caught my eyes. Hegarty on Creativity – There are No Rules, I picked it up without any hesitation. Judge me if you wish. I cannot resist a book as elegantly presented as this and especially one with such a title. I must find out what is inside and who is Hegarty.

The interior design of this book is as beautiful as its cover, if not more so. Many drawings and compositions fit appropriately with the content. The writing itself is witty and humorous. A subject like creativity that could potentially be very dry and abstract is discussed in a delightful way.

The author states clearly at the beginning: this book is about how you get started, how you keep going. Not what you want to create. It contains 50 provocations on creativity, on nurturing it, sustaining it, and harnessing it. Hegarty gives the definition of creativity as: the expression of self. This is true in the art profession. Perhaps in the science and engineering world, it is the expression of self (into which the intuition acquired through experience falls into) and knowledge. I suppose having certain knowledge is a state of being, so it could be part of the self too. If we interpret self broadly, I would agree with this definition.

Whatever you’re creating, simplicity is the ultimate goal. The power of reduction, as we say in advertising, means taking a complex thought and reducing it down to a simple, powerful message.

Stop thinking. Start feeling. Creativity is an intellectual process, but it is also one driven by the heart. Irish writer James Stephens summed it up perfectly when he wrote: What the heart knows today, the head will understand tomorrow.

Words are a barrier to communication. If it’s a race to get into minds and stay there, then it’s the artists who make their points faster, smarter, and more thought-provoking that will be the ones to succeed. I particularly like the example Hegarty quoted to show the power of pithy phrases: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I like the visual simplicity and profound impact of the Levi ads that Hegarty and his team designed, with the phrase “when the world zigs, zag.” You must see the sheep visually yourself to see its beauty. Here it is in the BBH website. As Hegarty pointed out: that single line of text was added to reinforce the point made visually in this image.

Hegarty wrote about the relation of technology and creativity: Technology is not an idea. It’s the means to express an idea. So under no circumstances should you become overawed by it. No matter what piece of technology has been invented, from the camera to the computer, or will be invented, and no matter what value it claims to deliver, if it can’t in some shape or another deliver the full impact of a well-told story its worth will eventually diminish. I suspect there are not many computer scientists who are afraid of technology. On the other hand, would technologists be fearful of exploring art domains leveraging their technology expertise? My belief is that profession or expertise could be as fluid as we want it to be, or as rigid.

Hegarty’s writings on cynicism, collaboration, mixing with the best and respecting but not revering echos my experience at AMD Research. Creativity grows in a nurturing and positive environment. No idea is stupid, no question is silly. We can extend, build upon, mix with each other’s ideas. The complementary skillsets and diversified views allow us to bridge the gaps and generate the best as a team. Even someone like me raising far more questions than most people never felt that I have gone too far. In that kind of positive environment, creativity thrives organically. I cannot help sharing the quote by H. L. Mencken: A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. The contrary is true too, the right place for creativity is where we smell compost, we think how delightful and fragrant the roses will be, once we use the compost as fertilizer.

One more “provocation” from this book that I was drawn to: good is the enemy of great. Within this maelstrom of thoughts veering all over the place, it can be easy to settle on something that feels right. Something that seems to make sense of all the confusion. You’ll feel relief when you get to this point. You’ll think you’ve cracked it. You’ll feel good. But then you have to take a step back from what feels really good and ask: But is it great?…Park that good idea and keep going. Trust in inspiration to come up with a great idea – that idea that’s going to put everything else in the shade. 

When Hegarty was in a life-drawing class at art school, his teacher pronounced: “When a drawing’s going wrong, what you don’t do is turn over the page and start again. You keep working on that drawing until it’s right. Only then do you turn the page over. That’s how you learn. I suppose I’m talking about life as well.Never move on until you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.

Without elaborating in length, a few more arguments I like in this book are common sense at the surface but great to be reminded of in an artistic and playful storytelling way by Hegarty:

  • Keep your focus!
  • Practice only makes perfect if you make progress.
  • The importance of editing. In creative work it really is hard to be both subjective and objective. A great idea comes from a subjective point of view but then it has to be reviewed objectively to see whether or not it will work. This second objective stage is called editing.
  • Creativity has to be nurtured, cared for, invested in. Money just wants to exploit your career, without any concern for its longevity or future.

At one point in the book, Hegarty wrote “Yes, we’re all artists. But some of us shouldn’t exhibit…Just because technology has made it easier to create and express yourself does not mean you’re any good at it. Every day I’m inundated with badly written, poorly structured, uninformed blogs. Please. STOP. Do us all a favor and find something useful to do.” What about this blog and all previous ones that I wrote? I wonder. On the bright side, at least the large amount of quotes that I relayed to you from the great works that I read are not badly written.

 

Story Craft

Up and in my home office. It is 3:12am. Again around 3am. Here I am with the book Story Craft – The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. Am I eternally cursed by some dark magic force of 3am? I first fell victim to this probably in autumn 2005, living in Paddington, just north of Hyde Park in London. The frequency of early wakings varied, with far more in some periods than others for either external or internal reasons. I am happy to remain so though and to continue exercising the freedom to naturally wake up early and work on what interests me. Knowing that I have this choice, I am very grateful. It is wonderful to have taken great pleasure in reading or working on a subject of interest before the dawn; by the time the dawn cracks, hitting the road for a jog and seeing the world around me slowly wake up to a new day, I secretly think to myself that I am ready for this new day. One benefit of starting the day early is that it helps to direct attention to truly important topics during the day. To think that I have been very much immersed in certain subject a few hours before the typical start of the day, it would be insane to waste the rest of the precious day on any trivial matters. It is the third 3am over a week time that I have been accompanied by this book. It is not a hard read. But it is far away from my area of expertise that so much of it feels very fresh to me such that I like re-reading some passages.

 

You may find this very encouraging, if you are concerned about the lack of experience and talent for narrative nonfiction writing: One of the other things I discovered during a quarter-century of working with nonfiction storytellers is that successful popular storytelling demands neither blinding talent nor decades in a writer’s garret. If you’re interested in exploring the art of true-life storytelling, don’t let lack of experience intimidate you. Time and again I’ve seen writers with absolutely no narrative experience grasp a few core principles, find appropriate story structures, and draft dramatic tales that moved readers. Some of those virgin ventures into true-life storytelling achieved far more. At the Oregonian David Stabler, the classical music critic, plunged into his first narrative, a series on a musical prodigy, and made the finals for a Pulitzer Prize. Rich Read’s first narrative won a Pulitzer Prize….The only real requirement for great nonfiction narrative is determination to master the craft.

 

In talking about what this book is about:

The entire media marketplace is in upheaval, and young storytellers everywhere will face unprecedented challenges. The most entrepreneurial will adapt to changing technology, finding new ways to combine print, audio, and video in a digital environment. But the most successful will also carry with them the unchanging, universal principles that apply to all stories, regardless of the technology used to deliver them. Those principles are what Storycraft is all about….to share what I learned in the trenches….

Speaking of the wide application of storytelling:

Ultimately, I don’t think the source of a great true-life story matters much. When it comes to learning by example, where a story appeared is far less important than how well it was told. Skilled, passionate storytellers will excel at their craft in whatever medium allows them to reach an audience. The story and craft of good storytelling even transcend the mass media. As Ted Conover demonstrated, both ethnography and nonfiction narrative share immersion reporting as a core technique. Lawyers attend workshops on constructing narratives that will persuade juries. Psychologists use storytelling in therapy. I hope Storycraft offers insights valuable across the spectrum of narrative possibilities.

Storytelling has such wide application because, at its root, it serves universal human needs. Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action heads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives. And it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.

To support that narrative is part of our fundamental nature, the author quoted Barbara Hardy:

We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.

This scientific evidence included in the book suggests that mastering storytelling would be great for non-literature, for example, in our case, the discussion of technology and leadership topics too:

Most human beings have a better grasp of narrative than other forms, that narrative delivers a clearer message to the majority of readers, and that readers prefer narrative presentations. Research also demonstrates that we remember facts more accurately if we’re exposed to them in a story, rather than a list, and that we’re more likely to buy the arguments that lawyers make in a trial if they present them as part of a narrative. We see our own lives as a kind of narrative, too, which may explain why we’re so fascinated by the narratives of others. Psychologists have studied the way we picture our own life stories. They’ve found, according to the New York Times, that each of us has a kind of internal screenplay, and that “the way we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but also how we behave.”

 

To write a good piece of narrative nonfiction, the first step would be to identify and choose a story to tell. So what are the roots of a story?

At its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions – the actual story structure – to overcome them. That’s a succinct expression of what’s generally known as the protagonist-complication-resolution model for story…a story follows when “a character we care about acts to fulfill his desires with important consequences.”

In Writing for Story, Jon Franklin defined narrative nonfiction as:

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.  

 

After reading this book, my understanding is that the key ingredients of a good story are its characters (or protagonists), a sequence of actions (including narrative and plot), complications and resolutions.

  1. The protagonist is the person who makes things happen. Jack Hart advises us to choose a sympathetic character over a dark one, for the reason that it helps the readers to establish the connection with the protagonist. He also advises to not shift point of view too much and that it is better to stick with one through a single character.
  2. Narrative is about a chronology of events, whereas plot is about the cause and effect, or the force that supports the story to take certain trajectory.
  3. Complication is the trouble that our protagonist has to deal with. There is no story without a complication, on the other hand, complication alone does not make a story. To demystify the choice of complication: not every complication has to have life or death consequences…“The great dangers in life and in literature are not necessarily the most spectacular,” Janet Burroway says. “The profoundest impediments to our design most often lie close to home, in our own bodies, personalities, friends, lovers, and family. Fewer people have cause to panic at the approach of a stranger with a gun than at the approach of mama with the curling iron.”
  4. Resolution: the ultimate aim of every story. The resolution releases the dramatic tension created as the protagonist struggles with the complication. It contains the lesson that the audience carries away, the insight that the story’s readers or viewers or listeners can apply to their own lives. It seems to me, we too often err on the side of dragging the resolution for too long when we should have put the final stop to the article or book. It is more appealing to hint the reader with a very succinct “telegram” that prompts the reader to do the thinking rather than spelling out the full message. When I read articles like that, we feel more involved in connecting with the story and contributing to the creation of that resolution.
 

In creating a story, one technique recommended is to list the plot points and use them to plan the story’s trajectory. To illustrate what a plot is and how it is different from mere narrative:

A plot emerges when a storyteller carefully selects and arranges material so that larger meanings can emerge. A plot, says Burroway, “is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” For Eudora Welty “Plot is the “Why?”” Or, as the novelist E.M. Forster famously put it: the narrative is that “the king died and then the queen died.” The plot is that “the king died and the queen died of grief.”

 

A lot of the messages in this book are larger than being guidance for writing narrative nonfiction. For example, “You can resolve a complication…by changing the world or changing yourself.” Is it not true in every aspect of the universe? “A compelling story must immerse readers in another world, carrying them away from their mundane daily cares.” This applies not only to written stories, but also to other forms of inputs, like technical writings, maths deductions, music, paintings, presentations and so on.

 

After educating us on the principles of story structure, Jack Hart dives into the practical specifics in the rest of the book. It teaches “how to convey character, action, and scene”, helps the readers to explore the point of view, find the voice and develop his/her own style of narrative writing through sharing a large amount of excellent examples and the author’s first-hand experiences.  

 

The last chapter of the book discusses ethics. Jack Hart leaves us with his fundamental principles: Be honest, get it right, keep everything transparent. Don’t fudge, ever, even if a tiny departure from reality produces a huge payoff in drama, clarity, or style.

 

This book challenged me, like a number others I have read this year. But then, what is the point of reading or doing anything, if it does not challenge us to be better?

I hear birds are singing. Time to get out for the fresh air of the beautiful dawn.

Reading as a Writer

This past week, I attended a one week Reading as a Writer program at Stanford, led by Jonah Willihnganz, Director of the Stanford Storytelling Project. There were about twenty of us, in a cosy seminar room up in the fourth floor of Sweet Hall, with gorgeous views of the campus. There are two beautiful windows, very large and round, taking up nearly two full walls of the room. Through the window to my right hand side, I could see the eastern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The architect who designed Sweet Hall must have planned the views for us. For one moment, I imagined myself like a kite flying out the window towards the mountains and having a grand tour of Filoli and Crystal Springs Lake from up in the air.

This is going to be a beautiful week”, I thought of that when I stepped into the seminar room on my first day there. After a round of self-introduction, agony and self-consciousness hit me briefly: “I have no idea whether I can survive this week. Look around, sitting around me are real real real writers….Well, if I am not good enough to be here, that means I would be able to learn a lot this week from the pros by being here. Is it not wonderful? Yes!” Sometimes, having a skin as thick as the Great Smog of London in 1952 is of great benefit to me. Jonah is a great teacher. He is very good at leading interesting discussions and encouraging us to discover and share freely, without any stifling atmosphere that one would imagine for courses on English or any other languages. To some extent, it is the exercise of one writing principle of “showing” without “telling”. I am grateful to Jonah’s detailed and insightful explanations in answer to my many questions. I am also thankful to my fellow classmates for their patience and their not throwing me out of the window like a kite without a string.

There were a number of reading assignments that I can safely say that I would never have read in my lifetime if not for this program. Take as an example Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle. No offense to T.C. Boyle though. Under ordinary circumstances, the old me (before this week) would not have liked a bit of Greasy Lake, for its coarse language and dark stories that I found very hard to relate to even using my imagination. I realise that fine and coarse, dark and bright are all relative. The old me would be thinking: get on with life, stop roaming around and squandering the invaluable and very limited youth you have, do something constructive. My judgement kicked in, limited my thought process and my capability of appreciating the work. It was wrong of me. After hearing a few people praising Greasy Lake highly and appreciating it so much, I had to confess to the room that I did not enjoy reading Greasy Lake but I was eager to hear their views and find its beauty. I realise “beauty” is a very over-loaded word. Again, my apology to T.C. Boyle. You see, I have to pick an example to make my argument concrete. On Thursday, Roxane asked me whether my opinion about Greasy Lake has changed. It had indeed and I explained to her why. However, the point is not what exactly I started to appreciate about Greasy Lake. It is through reading we experience what we never ever might come across, especially the works that are out of our comfort zone. I had too restrictive a set of criteria for selecting my reading materials before. Not only has this program made me realise that limitation, but it has also convinced me of the benefit of much broader reading, for the small set of reading materials this week have broadened my view tremendously. It felt like the improv exercise that Katie led us to do in Stanford while lying on the ground with eyes closed: imagine you are Stanford, now imagine you are Palo Alto, next you are California, now you are Northern America, now you are the earth…it keeps on going. Reading as a Writer program have sent me off to explore new territories.

We read a couple of dozen great works recommended by Jonah and had in-depth discussions about many of them. Through close reading some selections in the program, we focused on examining each piece for the five typical components of creative writing: the plot, setting or description, dialogue, interiority, exposition or summary. The plot or action typically include stasis, inciting incident, conflict, reversal, climax and resolution. Some writings may omit a couple of these elements.

Jonah also led us to analyse the texts according to three axis: architecture, tropes and prose. Prior to attending this program, I was mostly aware of the tropes and prose, but not seeing the architecture as a main thread, for non-technical writings. We typically take the architecture for granted. For the purpose of writing, it is instrumental to design the architecture before being trapped in the word choices. The architecture choice helps create the plots and develop the characters. It cover linear, modular or other design choices, time management, point of view, central intelligence, psychic distance, suspense and surprise, epiphany, kairosis and so on.

We read works by Peter Taylor, Ernest Hemingway, John Didion, Naomi Shihab Nye, Monica Wood, T.C. Boyle, Michael Pollan, David Quammen, E.B. White, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Sherman Alexie, Dave Eggers, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, Grace Paley, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Cheryl Strayed, Pico Iyer, Alice Munro, Anthony Doerr, George Saunders, Ta Nehesi Coates, Tobias Wolff, Eula Biss, Jhumpa Lahiri. It is impossible that I would ever read great works by so many writers in so short timeframe, if not because of this Reading as a Writer program by Jonah. To say “thank you” is an awful understatement on my part.

You may find the textbook recommended by this program helpful. I only read the first two so far. But given what quoted by Jonah during the program from the latter two, I would like to read them too when I get a chance.  

Reading Like a Writer – by Francine Prose

Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction – by Jack Hart

Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction – by Catherine Brady

Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form – by Maddison Smartt Bell

I thought about what are my favorite readings of this program. It is very tough to rank them, if at all possible. Each one is very different from the others. I am glad my mind was opened up to appreciate the styles that I was not used to before. If I must leave you a couple readings for your leisurely consumption, I would choose these very short ones for you (in case you are a computer scientist as I am). The volume of the body absolutely does not correspond to its depth and impact though.

Am I Blue?  – by Alice Walker

Fiesta, 1980  – by Junot Diaz

Indian Camp – by Ernest Hemingway

Kindness – by Naomi Shihab Nye

Disappearing  – by Monica Wood

 

Will I ever be a writer, besides writing technical articles which I profoundly enjoy? I do not know the answer. This week has opened a new horizon though. None of us needs any qualification to be allowed to do what we would like to do, within reason and provided we do not harm others. Like the rose garden I created a couple years ago, it taught me that anyone can be a garden designer, you simply just do it and learn in the process. The outcome is beautiful rose bouquets, lighting up many households of neighbors and friends besides my own. Rose gardening is therapeutic. Reading and writing are too.  

     

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius

 

I first read George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” many years ago when I was in the process of learning English which turns out to be an everlasting endeavor. Some time last year, I picked this book up again, after listening to some BBC radio program that quoted George Orwell from this work. Recently while reading the English and their History by Robert Tombs, I noticed that Tombs frequently cited passages from George Orwell’s works, especially The Lion and the Unicorn at length. It naturally intrigued me to read this again. If previously I grasped mostly social, political and cultural knowledge about England and the English during the two world war era, this time I appreciate something new. George Orwell’s skills of writing sharp and exact, yet elegant and at times humorous prose, developing arguments that are both convincing and bold without any nonsense. This work serves as a great example of the practices that George Orwell advocated in Politics and the English Language.

If you are wondering what happened to the English and their History, why have I not written about that giant of 1040 pages? It is indeed being brewed. It seems impossible to tackle that book without going back to the Lion and the Unicorn first.

The Lion and the Unicorn was first published in 1941. It consists of three parts: England Your England, Shopkeepers at War, and the English Revolution. It is set in the World War II era, but traces history back to previous wars that England went through as well as its previous social and political struggles. All three essays deserve to be read closely. The kind of thorough and detailed reading taught by Francine Prose in her Reading Like a Writer serves very well here. Here are a selection of passages to share with you.

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip.

Hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen.

One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

The reason why the English anti-militarism disgusts foreign observers is that it ignores the existence of the British Empire. It looks like sheer hypocrisy. After all, the English have absorbed a quarter of the earth and held on to it by means of a huge navy. How dare they then turn round and say that war is wicked?

Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in ‘the law’ as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like ‘They can’t run me in; I haven’t done anything wrong’, or ‘They can’t do that; it’s against the law’, are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else.

Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.

One is the lack of artistic ability. This is perhaps another way of saying that the English are outside the European culture. For there is one art in which they have shown plenty of talent, namely literature. But this is also the only art that cannot cross frontiers.  

More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed…What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together. The unjust distinctions remain, but the real differences diminish.

This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges…The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.

It is not true that public opinion has no power in England. It never makes itself heard without achieving something; it has been responsible for most of the changes for the better during the past six months. But we have moved with glacier-like slowness, and we have learned only from disasters. It took the fall of Paris to get rid of Chamberlain and the unnecessary suffering of scores of thousands of people in the East End to get rid or partially rid of Sir John Anderson. It is not worth losing a battle in order to bury a corpse. For we are fighting against swift evil intelligences, and time presses, and history to the defeated May say Alas! but cannot alter or pardon.

No political programme is ever carried out in its entirety. But what matters is that that or something like it should be our declared policy. It is always the direction that counts.

I only know that the right men will be there when the people really want them, for it is movements that make leaders and not leaders movements.

Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.

“Come the four corners of the world in arms

And we shall shock them: naught shall make us rue

If England to herself do rest but true.”

It is right enough, if you interpret it rightly. But England has got to be true to herself. She is not being true to herself while the refugees who have sought our shores are penned up in concentration camps, and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax. It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging ‘democracy’, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

     

How to live on 24 hours a day

 

In 1910, Arnold Bennett wrote a small volume of non-fiction titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. It is probably his best-known work among dozens of books that he wrote. I listed this as my book of this week. I would be cheating if I do not inform you upfront that I have read this book before, perhaps four times over a decade. But this week I picked it up again. It is one of those books that deserve a permanent space on my bookshelves, whether residing in north America or Europe. Hopefully this article will lead you to see the reason for that.

On the surface, the writing of this book seems archaic as it was written at the very beginning of the 20th century. I remember it was a rather awkward reading experience at first many years ago. From that first reading, I got the gist without quite comprehending Arnold’s humor and the cultural references in it. Reading it again this week, perhaps thanks to reading it aloud to myself, I re-discovered the propositions he put forth, the idiosyncrasy of the English society, and more importantly the beauty of his lucid and amusing language.

First all, why did I pick this book up again? I was very disappointed and frustrated by the slow progress on an important business with one large service vendor X, whom I shall not name here, but I have been and will continue giving them feedback in the hope that certain improvements could be made. One evening, frustration compounded with exhaustion took hold of me. I reached this imaginary cliff and asked myself: Is there anything further I could do to improve the situation besides what I have done? Is it feasible to stop working with X and find a new vendor Y in the very limited timeline? To both questions, the answer was a very straightforward no. There I was, standing in front of shelves of books, telling myself: Dong Ping, you MUST detach yourself from that dreadful business at least for a couple hours and find a better way of spending this evening. There is no book more appropriate than How to Live on 24 Hours a Day for the occasion.

This book examines the ways we spend our 24 hours a day and prompts us to see how we let time pass by without either consciously noticing or putting much effort into anything constructive for our own well-being and growth. I know very few full-time workers work 8 hours a day in Silicon Valley, but let’s just assume that is the case for general public globally. That leaves 16 hours for other daily activities. How we spend that 16 hours has much more influence on our life as a whole than we usually realise. Next time, before we say “let’s call it a day”, we should think twice and perhaps say that only as far as the employment contract is concerned.

Arnold pointed out that there are so many discussions and writings dedicated to how to manage one’s finances, but not on time.

I have never seen an essay, “How to live on twenty-four hours a day.” Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time you can obtain money – usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloakroom attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.

We all know what time is, to some extent, the importance of it. Yet this book leads us to view time in a completely new light.

Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say: “This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

In the case of living in London, it is common that we spend 45 minutes or more commuting each way. We all read in the tube or the bus. You see free newspapers such as Evening standard, Metro, other subscription-based papers and magazines, paperback books, or ebook readers. There was a time that reading a newspaper on the tube was very helpful towards my learning English and engaging in timely social conversations with people. This book does not oppose reading newspapers and magazines at all. After all, Arnold himself reads multiple newspapers daily. The point is to be aware of what your time is spent on, specially the part seen as regular daily routines. For example, Arnold suggested that one could concentrate one’s mind on a subject and do some serious thinking during the walk from home to the tube station, waiting on the platform, boarding the train and so on.  He urged us to control our mind:

People say: “One can’t help one’s thoughts.” But one can. The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious brain is patent. This idea is one of the oldest platitudes, but it is a platitude whose profound truth and urgency most people live and die without realising. People complain of the lack of power to concentrate, not witting that they may acquire the power, if they choose. Any without the power to concentrate – that is to say, without the power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience – true life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of a full existence.

Arguing against the typical excuse of lacking time to do more beyond an ordinary day’s work and the exhaustion after work, Arnold talked about beginning the day early and employing the engine in activities beyond the ordinary program before starting the work day. He went on debunking the importance of long sleep. A dear friend and mentor of mine taught me that sleep is overrated, among many other wisdoms that he generously shared with me. For both his friendship and guidance, I am eternally grateful. On the matter of how few hours that one needs to sleep per day to still be very productive for a long working day and to be the smartest person anywhere he goes, I forever aspire to reach his level. I did not do too badly today though, having started reading at 4am today (Saturday).

I am convinced that most people sleep as long as they do because they are at a loss for any other diversion…. “Most people sleep themselves stupid.”… Nine men out of ten would have better health and more fun out of life if they spent less time in bed.

He parted us with this final advice on beginning with what we would enjoy doing at our leisure time at small steps:

The last, and chiefest danger which I would indicate, is one to which I have already referred – the risk of a failure at the commencement of the enterprise. I must insist on it. A failure at the commencement may easily kill outright the newborn impulse towards a complete vitality, and therefore every precaution should be observed to avoid it. The impulse must not be over-taxed. Let the pace of the first lap be even absurdly slow, but let it be as regular as possible. And, having once decided to achieve a certain task, achieve it at all costs of tedium and distaste. The gain in self-confidence of having accomplished a tiresome labour is immense. Finally, in choosing the first occupations of those evening hours, be guided by nothing whatever but your taste and natural inclination.

I confess that I do not agree with the advice above. I found myself being more driven by the opposite view: set the bar high, beyond your dream, beyond what is seen as realistic, and run towards it. I may fail miserably with badly damaged confidence. It would force me to search within myself the strength to carry on. I may be pleasantly surprised that strength exists. I may find nothing, sob but get on with the misery. At least I know I have tried. I was honored to meet with Regina Dugan recently. She is very inspiring for young professional women. Her advice on embracing the fear resonates with me greatly and I hope to do more of that. Spending part of an evening with someone like her truly is equivalent to reading a great book, dare I say, (forgive me, Arnold Bennett), like How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

Finally, I leave you with one more quote from the book to ponder:

It is better to have lived a bit than never to have lived at all. The real tragedy is the tragedy of the man who is braced to effort neither in the office nor out of it.

 

Night

My book of this week is Night, written by Elie Wiesel and translated by his wife Marion Wiesel. Elie wrote about his experience of being deported from his home town Sighet in northern Transylvania  to concentration camps  towards the end of the WWII in 1944, at age fifteen. Elie’s mother and sisters were separated from Elie and his father after arriving at Birkenau, the first stop after deportation.

In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.

“Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and space where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand….My hand tightened my its grip on my father. All I could think of was not to lose him. Not to remain alone.

 

Elie and his father went through Auschwitz and Buchenwald together. Elie’s father was beaten by the Schutzstaffel officer and bullied by the other inmates.

The victim this time was my father. “You old loafer!” he started yelling. “Is this what you call working?” And he began beating him with an iron bar. At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning. I had watched it all happening without moving. I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What’s more, if I felt anger at that moment, it was not directed at the Kapo but at my father. Why couldn’t he have avoided Idek’s wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp has made of me…

The health and spirit of Elie’s father both declined considerably and Elie became his caregiver. After a lengthy period of suffering, Elie’s father gave up fighting and lost his hope of survival.

I could have screamed in anger. To have lived and endured so much; was I going to let my father die now?…He had become childlike: weak, frightened, vulnerable…This discussion continued for some time. I knew I was no longer arguing with him but with Death itself, with Death that he had already chosen.

 

Elie’s father became very ill soon afterwards. Sleeping on the bunk above his father, Elie woke up one morning and found his father was no longer there and his place was occupied by someone else. It came to Elie that he must have been moved to the crematorium overnight, burned maybe still breathing.

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…

Reading this book, I experienced an overwhelming amount of mixed feelings: loving, frustrating, sorrowful, abhorrent, disgusting, longing, inconceivable and others. The original book that Elie wrote was over 800 pages. Elie’s writing went through rounds of editing and many difficulties of its publication. As a comparison, the version I have in hand, also the most commonly known and read one has just over 100 pages. Elie called this book his deposition. Is this an eyewitness account, a memoir, fictionalised-autobiography, non-fictional novel or fiction? I cannot help thinking what was cut and lost in revision and translation from its original Yiddish writing, what was washed away by the flow of the time river from the occurrence of the events to being written down in words, what could not be communicated via any language that we are not able to read and indeed the gap between our comprehension and the writing itself. I read it as a faithful depiction of Elie’s experience in the concentration camps during WWII. Throughout the book, we can see the loss of faith, innocence, love, decency, and other emotional and physical beings.

As a young boy, Elie was a devoted believer. However, in multiple sections, Elie wrote about the slow death of faith throughout his time in the concentration camps.

For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?

Why, but why would I bless Him (God)? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine Altar?

In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.

Reading this book brought back the memory of my visit with my dear friend Laurent Risser to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin years ago, not long after its completion. The memorial has over 2700 concrete slabs of varying size, organized in a grid pattern, located in a very large site. It was a beautifully sunny summer afternoon. We walked around it silently for some time. I felt the weight of history and humanity crushing on me like those thousands of concrete slabs. How could humans do this to other humans? The sun cast many shadows, shifting slowly, until the shadows prolonged and covered all. It was a place in which we are reminded that we should never forget how unjustly those killings and tortures were, not for the purpose of revenge but for our own survival as humans; never think that other people’s sufferings are not your own business; never let our consciousness escape us.

Below in italic are some more passages from the book that I found myself reading again and again, slowly being etched to me like those numbered tattoos on Elie’s arm.

As a rule, our townspeople, while they did help the needy, did not particularly like them. Moishe the Beadle was the exception. He stayed out of people’s way. His presence bothered no one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant, invisible.

Every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer.

Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks him. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand his replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.

And why do you pray, Moishe? I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.

There are a thousand and one gates allowing entry into the orchard of mythical truth. Every human being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the orchard through a gate other than his own. That would present a danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are already inside.

“You don’t understand,” he (Moishe) said in despair. “You cannot understand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where did I get my strength? I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still time. Life? I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me…”

People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers……Most people thought that they would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.

The shadows around me roused themselves as if from a deep sleep and left silently in every direction.

The women were boiling eggs, roasting meat, preparing cakes, sewing backpacks. The children were wandering about aimlessly, not knowing what to do with themselves to stay out of the way of the grown-ups. Our backyard looked like a marketplace. Valuable objects, precious rugs, silver candlesticks, Bibles and other ritual objects were strewn over the dusty grounds – pitiful relics that seemed never to have had a home. All this under a magnificent blue sky.

There was joy, yes, joy. People must have thought there could be no greater torment in God’s hell than that of being stranded here, on the sidewalk, among the bundles, in the middle of the street under a blazing sun. Anything seemed preferable to that. They began to walk without another glance of the abandoned streets, the dead, empty houses, the gardens, the tombstones … on everyone’s back, there was a sack. In everyone’s eyes, tears and distress. Slowly, heavily, the procession advanced toward the gate of the ghetto.

The street resembled fairgrounds deserted in haste. There was a little of everything: suitcases, briefcases, bags, knives, dishes, banknotes, papers, faded portraits. All the things one planned to take along and finally left behind. They had ceased to matter. Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb.

We were ready. I went out first. I did not want to look at my parents’ faces. I did not want to break into tears. We remained sitting in the middle of the street, like the others two days earlier. The same hellish sun. The same thirst. Only there was no one left to bring us water.

“Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!” The Hungarian police were screaming. That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first faces of hell and death.

The few days we spent here (ghetto) went by pleasantly enough, in relative calm. People rather got along. There no longer was any distinction between rich and poor, notables and the others; we were all people condemned to the same fate – still unknown.

We mustn’t give up hope, even now as the sword hangs over our heads. So taught our sages.

Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?) So that was where we were going. A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults. I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps … Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…

 

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The absent no longer entered our thoughts. One spoke of them – who knows what happened to them? – but their fate was not on our minds. We were incapable of thinking. Our senses were numbed, everything was fading into a fog. We no longer clung to anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had all deserted us. In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.

“Remember,” he (an SS officer) went on. “Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or crematorium – the choice is yours.”

Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever… And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice: let there be a camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive….These were the first human words.

The stomach alone was measuring time.

The bell. It was already time to part, to go to bed. The bell regulated everything. It gave me orders and I executed them blindly. I hated that bell. Whenever I happened to dream of a better world, I imagined a universe without a bell.

We were the masters of nature. The masters of the world. We had transcended everything – death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth.

Nobody asked anyone for help. One died because one had to. No point in making trouble.

He awoke with a start. He sat up, bewildered, stunned, like an orphan. He looked all around him, taking it all in as if he had suddenly decided to make an inventory of his universe, to determine where he was and how and why he was there. Then he smiled. I shall always remember that smile. What world did it come from?

The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.

Yet at the same time a thought crept into my mind: If only I didn’t find him! If only I were relieved of this responsibility, I could use all my strength to fight for my own survival, to take care only of myself … Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself forever.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.

Let us not forget history. In Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation and entrepreneurship, while striving for success according to personal and societal measures, we should also read some history and not forget that technology alone could not create us a better world.

 

Reading Like A Writer

Prose introduces her book as “the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

Reading Like A Writer talks about close reading, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraphing, plots, creating characters and so on, through many examples from the masterpieces. However, to me, this book itself is a great place to start practising close reading. Prior to reading this book, I find myself drawn to languages: at first Chinese (my mother-tongue, unfortunately I do not converse, read or write in Chinese nowadays but no doubt that I could re-gain that capability if so wish), and later particularly English which although not my first language it is the one that I think, dream, read, speak and write most comfortably. The English language delights me in many ways. It is hard to clearly depict which portion of my fondness for English is owed to the English culture and which to the language itself. Most people probably would agree that culture and its language are inseparable. I love the English language for the freedom to explore, its non-judgemental attitude, the beauty of its words and compositions, the subtleties, and its lyrical and descriptive power. Reading Like a Writer shows me how to read closely and learn from the masterpieces. Prose’s own analysis and writings about the cited works are great to read slowly word to word. The precision of the choice of words, how she structures her sentences and conveys her opinions are all wonderful to note. It opens my mind and allows me to view the works in English more in-depth with detailed dissection, which brings more joy than would otherwise have been available, for example by reading for the storyline alone.

The book itself contains eleven chapters, including close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narrations, characters, dialogues, details, gestures, learning from Chekhov, and finally reading for courage. It is such a brilliant book that I run the risk of citing most of it if I attempt to cover the full book here. For brevity, here I only share with you three topics from the book, close reading, characters and the last one reading for courage.

Close Reading

For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.

Like most – maybe all – writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.

Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.

….

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

Writing about the school assignment she was given to study the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear: Long before the blinding of Oedipus or Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see and deny what was right in front of one’s eyes. Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent – all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness.

We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.

Each word of these novels was a yellow brick in the road to Oz. There were chapters I read and reread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being somewhere else. I read addictively, constantly.

Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.

Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one.

I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it had meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own – a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

Close reading helped me figure out, as I hoped it did for my students, a way to approach a difficult aspect of writing, which is nearly always difficult….They are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write.

Characters:

Chapter six discusses about how to portray characters, using the exemplar characters from The Marquise of O by Heinrich von Kleist, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Middlemarch by George Eliot and Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.

Here is the first sentence from Kleist’s The Marquise of O: “In M—, a large town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children, published the following notice in the newspapers: that, without her knowing how, she was in the family way; that she would like the father of the child she was going to bear to report himself; and that her mind was made up, out of consideration for her people, to marry him.”

An excerpt from Prose’s analysis about Kleist’s writing: Among the unusual things about the way that Kleist creates his characters is that he does so entirely without physical description. There is no information, not a single detail, about the Marquise’s appearance. We never hear how a room looks, or what the latest fashion might be, or what people are eating and drinking. We assume that the Marquise is beautiful, perhaps because her presence exerts such an immediate and violent effect on the Russian soldier that he loses all control and turns from an angel into devil. But we can only surmise that.

Kleist tells you what sort of people his characters are – often impetuous, wrongheaded, overly emotional, but essentially good at heart – and then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys. He has no time for their motives, nor do they, as they struggle, like the reader, to keep up with the pace at which one surprise follows another.

Through the dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen showed us. Using dialogue to establish the character, to delineate the personalities of the speakers, and to acquaint us with the people whom they are speaking about.

The portraying of characters of Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch is very different from the very minimalistic way that the Marquise and the Count were portrayed, more accurately, inferred by the readers in The Marquise of O. George Eliot wrote so well that after reading Middlemarch years ago, the mentioning of the two characters still arouse some anger and frustration for me. Reading the book as a young girl, I felt furious by Dorothea’s blindness of her own value and willingness to be manipulated by Casaubon who is purely self-centered and completely lack of any sense of love or passion towards other human beings. Perhaps that opinion of mine was only valid for that period of being very young and having black-and-white views of the world, and most likely I will see new perspectives if I were to read Middlemarch again.

Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is discussed in depth in this chapter too, particularly the protagonist Frederic. I have not read this book. Two short pieces quoted from the book below delight me enough for it to be added to my reading list.

Frederic Moreau: “The happiness which his nobility of soul deserved was slow in coming”.

In describing Frederic’s thoughts while observing Mrs Arnoux: “He had never seen anything to compare with her splendid dark skin, her ravishing figure, or her delicate, translucent fingers. He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were something out of the ordinary. What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; and even the desire for physical possession gave way to a profounder yearning, a poignant curiosity which knew no bounds.

Reading for Courage

Most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know – those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.

All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.

Literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.

Writers have often found it a little too easy to make the reader sympathize with characters who are beautiful and true and good, a little too simple to make us care about the innocent and the charitable. How much more of a challenge it is to attempt what Dostoyevsky accomplished in Crime and Punishment. We might not automatically expect to empathize with Raskolnikov, a student who brutally kills two old women. So what an achievement it represents not only to make us care about him but also to find ourselves hoping, just as he does, that he can be redeemed.

Discussing the pressure on writers to create likeable characters rather than realistic ones, Prose quoted the following passages from Gogol’s Dead Souls on the different fates of writers who create angels and those we describe human beings:

“Happy is the writer who omits there dull and repulsive characters that disturb one by being so painfully real… The delicious mist of the incense he burns dims human eyes; the miracle of his flattery masks all the sorrows of life and depicts only the goodness of man … He is called a great universal poet, soaring high above all other geniuses of the world even as an eagle soars above other high flying creatures. The mere sound of his name sounds a thrill through ardent young hearts; all eyes greet him with radiance and responsive tears…

But a different lot and another fate awaits the writer who has dared to evoke all such things that are constantly before one’s eyes…the shocking morass of trifles that has tied up our lives, and the essence of cold, crumbling, humdrum characters with whom our earthly way, now bitter, now dull, fairly swarms…Not for him will be the applause, no grateful tears will he see … not to him will a girl of sixteen come flying, her head all awhirl with heroic fervour. Not for him will be that sweet enchantment when a poet hears nothing but the harmonies he has engendered himself; and finally, he will not escape the judgement of his time, the judgement of hypocritical and unfeeling contemporaries who will accuse the creatures his mind has bred of being base and worthless, will allow a contemptible nook for him in the gallery of those authors who insult mankind, will ascribe to him the morals of his own characters, and will deny him everything, heart, soul, and the divine flame of talent.”

There is no doubt how great amount of courage it takes to write truthfully and realistically instead of pleasingly. Further from Prose, reading can give you the courage to resist all of the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way, or to follow a prescribed form. It can even persuade you that it might not be necessary to give your novel or story a happy ending….Nor, you may discover, is it necessary to have an ending in which every loose thread is neatly tied up, every problem solved, and the characters tracked into the future as far as the mind’s eyes can see. To quote Chekhov one more time, here is the ending of the Lady with the Dog, an ending which, I have always thought, could serve as the final few lines of every work of modern fiction. As the story concludes, the aging adulterous lovers are contemplating their future.

“And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning.”

Talking about bad writing days, Prose quoted William Burroughs: the temptation to tear up your work in little pieces and throw it in someone else’s wastepaper basket. She carries on: reading a masterpiece may be even less of a consolation when you first figure out, or are reminded for the thousandth time, of how much work writing is, of how much patience and solitude it demands from the writer who wants to write well, and of how the compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a “normal” life. And, as awful as they are, these doubts and terror pale beside the question of whether your writing will be any good, or of whether you will succeed enough to be able to do it in the first place.

My own experience of writing are mostly confined to technical topics, such as theses, technical papers and books. My creative writing is very limited. Reflecting on my experience of reading, Prose’s words above resonate in me. The solitude of reading in general, the stubbornness of chewing some passages dozens of times to think of and beyond the original intention, the strange yet mighty inner calling to wake up in the small hours and read during weekends. All these lead to a very abnormal life to others. Perhaps the big consolation for me is that, although my aim is high, I do not worry whether my reading and writing are indeed perceived as good by anyone, at least not yet. It is a lot of labor but full of great pleasure for me. A piece of writing from Isaac Babel quoted in the book talks about the hard labor of revision:

“I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it…I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out – repetition, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything … I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel … I take out all the participles and adverbs I can … Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless … A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun … Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard … But the most important thing of all … is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is … We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.”

At the end of the book, Prose lists the books to be read immediately for us. This list is available at the book’s wikipedia page. However, I did not verify the correctness of all titles on this page. Overall speaking, this book broadened my horizon of literature, reading and writing practices. Prose has done her part excellently of teaching us read like a writer in this book. It is up to us who have read the book to practice the art.