Venture Deals

My book this week is Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. The most valuable lessons from this book to me are demystifying the funding process, sharing the “secrets” about the venture capital industry in a plain and clear way, and providing many very concrete recommendations on what matters more and what does not deserve much energy dwelling on. The return on the investment of purchasing this book and reading it would be immense, if creating a startup is one’s plan.

Brad and Jason have decades of combined experience in the venture industry. I also infer from the writing that they have different strengths. This book is a great piece of collaboration between them, with the entrepreneur’s perspective contributed by Matt Blumberg. Matt’s perspectives are insightful and direct in conveying what the content covered in each section would mean to an entrepreneur or one to be. I appreciate that the authors share with us many real examples and great advice on handling numerous scenarios. It is impressively informative. During the last few days we experienced an extreme heat wave around Sand Hill, broadly the whole bay and peninsula area. It would have been much more miserable, if not for the pleasure of reading this book.

The book explains the language of the venture industry. This serves as a great reference book to novice entrepreneurs and to those who want to be. It is centered on the economy and on control. First, covering the process of raising fund, how to, who to target, and what to expect as a typical process. Second, dedicating a great amount of writing to the term sheet, perhaps the most critical component if seeking venture funding. Third, explaining the capitalisation table, the pros and cons of using convertible debt. It also has a chapter talking about the recent phenomenon of crowdfunding. The chapter on How Venture Capital Funds Work helps the entrepreneurs to get the perspective from the other side of the table and know how to cooperate or leverage on that knowledge. The chapter on Letters of Intent informatively explains the potential acquisition stage.

Many insights from this book are applicable not only when you try to raise fund for your business endeavor, but also in many other professional and personal scenarios, especially the chapter on negotiation tactics. This book shows that being a good entrepreneur requires a varied set of skills. Although one can aim to develop as much as one possibly can, having partners to work together as a team through the journey potentially would stand much more chance to succeed, barring the numerous cases where the team has severe frictions and falls apart.

Below I select a couple of instances of specific advice among the many from the book.

On negotiation:

There are only three things that matter when negotiating a financing: achieving a good and fair result, not killing your personal relationship getting there, and understanding the deal that you are striking….Pick a few things that really matter – the valuation, stock option pool, liquidation preferences, board and voting controls – and be done with it….When you are going to negotiate your financing, have a plan. Have key things that you want, understand which terms you are willing to concede, and know when you are willing to walk away. If you try to determine this during the negotiation, your emotions are likely to get the best of you and you’ll make mistakes. Always have a plan.

Having an open and collaborative approach with your VC in the context of an acquisition…Being clear with your investors about what is important to you and your team early in the negotiation can help set a tone where you and your investors are working together to reach the right deal structure, especially when the acquirer is trying to drive a wedge between you and those investors. A negotiation in a state of plenty is much easier than a negotiation in a state of scarcity.

On raising money the right way:

Don’t be a machine. Be Human. Be yourself, let us get to know you, and become inspired by you. As the average length of relationship between a VC and entrepreneur lasts longer than the average U.S. marriage, this is a long-term commitment.

The authors’ advice on patents is very pertinent to me, as I had worked on filing a bunch and perhaps overemphasized the value of patents.

When you are working on software, realize that patents are, at best, defensive weapons for others coming after you. Creating a successful software business is about having a great idea and executing well, not about patents, in our opinion.

The authors recommend “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Business Law” by Constance Bagley and Craig Dauchy as the best book ever written on legal issues for entrepreneurs. I shall append it to my list of books to read for 2018.

The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins mentioned his concern about people’s misjudgement of the book because of its title. Unfortunately, I was one such plonker. This book sat on my bookshelf for many years. I did not want to touch it because I shallowly inferred from the title that the book is about finding justification in biology for selfishness and moral degradation (if I may, as a far-fetched extension). Reading it might shatter my strongly held view that we human should promote altruism and not be selfish. I opened it one day recently, not remembering when and why exactly. It has proved to be a fascinating read and has demonstrated my pre-assumption to be completely wrong. Dawkins mentioned in the book that, retrospectively speaking, he should have named the book The Immortal Gene instead. I would have benefited from this book many years earlier if that were the title. The fault is all mine though. I learned the lesson to not make the verdict based on the title alone.

A few thoughts occupied my mind while reading this book. There is no answer applicable to us as a group. I think each individual would have one’s own opinion. Also I would like to point out that I am not a biologist at all, merely one who is interested in the subject.

We are the manifestation of our genes to certain extent. I understand gene survival theory as that we maximise the chance of prolonging the existence of any given gene by producing and bringing up offsprings, or helping to increase the chance of survival of that gene as carried by our family members. Last year, when my father was in a coma and in imminent danger for a lengthy period, I, against all my scientific and atheist mind, was praying madly with uttermost sincerity that God would let me give up 30 years of my lifespan in exchange for 30 more years for him, or an even better deal if God is cruel and unjust, 30 years only for 10 years. It was not an attempt to preserve my genes, because it does not propagate back to prior generations at certain ages. It was not altruism either. Did I want him to live because I could not cope with the possibility of losing him? Or, did I want him to live because I truly think he could enjoy many more years of life that would be more relaxing and peaceful than one at working age, despite the prospect of being severely disabled? Looking back, I dismissed the second question fiercely and wanted father to be with us regardless of the medical conditions. I could not cope with the future of living in endless regrets that I have hardly looked after him. Damn me that I have not taken him travel around the world as I wished! Curse me that I have not done X, Y, Z for him! A very long list of unfulfilled wishes. To cope with the fear of not having a chance to give back, I had a belief that he must live. That was a strong and very selfish belief. On one hand, I find this book very convincing. On the other hand, we are so miniscule in the biology evolution, our thoughts and behaviors are greatly influenced by other factors besides the genes. This kind of non-gene-survival related influence appeared to be more dominating than the survival theory in the relatively constrained timeframe.

I am particularly drawn to Dawkins’ meme theory and more keen to find out more about further research on memes. Meme is the name given by Dawkins for a new kind of replicator. “It conveys the idea of a cultural transmission, or, a unit of imitation. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

The following paragraph from the book gives us great hope of the legacy we could create in our very trivial and limited lifetime in the long evolution river:

When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.

The end of the first edition was very upbeat and positive: We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

It is a book well worth reading. Do not let the title stop you.

Never Give In! – Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches

I grew up in awe of Winston Churchill, for his second to none wartime leadership during WWII, his mastery of writing, oratory and painting, and for his character, including his flaws. It would not be an exaggeration to state that most of us today across many countries owe our sheer existence to Churchill and the victory of WWII.

Some years ago, I went to visit Churchill’s birthplace Blenheim Palace and his family home from 1922 till end of his life Chartwell House. There was a small museum in the Palace dedicated to Winston Churchill then, giving us a glimpse of his early years. Chartwell revealed significantly more of Churchill in my opinion. Chartwell is also more pleasant to visit, to appreciate Churchill’s paintings and literature work, to soak in the history surrounding the Churchill family, as there are much fewer tourists than Blenheim Palace. Churchill’s painting studio with many of his paintings on the walls is also uniquely located in Chartwell. Churchill famously said a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted. I left Chartwell with a few thoughts in mind. First, if we let each individual develop his/her true talent to the fullest and tolerate his/her flaws, we as a group would be much better off than other scenarios, for example, pushing everyone to achieve the highest scores at school and becoming uniform in our pursuits. Second, we are truly only limited by our limited thoughts. If Churchill thought that “I am a good writer and that is enough for me as professional. One cannot possibly be both a great writer and a statesman, or to paint as well”, we either would have very different world history, or, not have his volumes on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, many great speeches and other writings. We are blessed that he did not think that way. Nor should anyone have one’s thoughts jail oneself.

Over two years ago I was listening to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives program, Churchill was reported saying that this is what we fought for after receiving the news that he had lost the 1945 election. Those simple words inspired great admiration from me. To me it says much about Churchill’s vision for his countrymen versus his personal ambition.

Churchill was a great orator. He gave many magnificent speeches during the war time. The National Churchill Museum makes a list of them available online. In the limited space and time, I share excerpts from a few with you, particularly Churchill’s three famous ones around the Battle of France in 1940. May I alert you that I found tears swelling in my eyes every time I read these out loud or hear them quoted on the radios.

Churchill’s first radio broadcast as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940

Having received His Majesty’s commission I have formed an administration of men and women of every party and of almost every point of view. We have differed and quarreled in the past, but now one bond unites us all: to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be.

Excerpt from Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, also known as the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech:

That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion…

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the House of Common on 4 June, 1940:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the Parliament on 18 June 1940, known as the “This was Their Finest Hour” speech:

If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

….

I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

English language is not only marvellously beautiful, but also immensely powerful. Churchill showed us that. I, among many, hold the belief that Churchill’s mastery of oratory lead us to win the war. I conclude this post with one last quote from Churchill. He wrote at the age of 22:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.

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.

 

Jane Eyre

It is dark outside. A cool breeze through the window feels very pleasant. Here I am with Jane Eyre, a quiet, plain, poor governess with great strength, rock-hard discipline, strong will, and determination of following her own mind. She is more beautiful than any conventional beauties. It is my firm belief that a life without a strong will is not worth living.

Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre in 1847 using the pen name “Currer Bell”. The novel begins when Jane Eyre was 10 years old, living with her uncle’s family after losing both of her parents as an infant. Jane Eyre was abused by her cousins and her aunt during that period. She was then sent to Lowood school, an institution for poor girls, some time after the death of her uncle. It was a harsh and oppressive place. At Lowood school, Jane developed a friendship with Helen Burns, who sadly died of tuberculosis, known as consumption at the time. Helen, to me, symbolizes a way of thinking and resigning to life, perhaps more typical in a female than male. Her conversations with Jane revealed a great amount of her character and philosophy. Jane later became a governess at Thornfield Hall, owned by Mr. Rochester, teaching a young French girl Adèle Varens. The rest of the story followed the central characters Jane and Mr. Rochester, with three newly gained cousins of Jane’s, the death of her aunt, a Miss Ingram, Mrs Fairfax, the haunting wife of Mr. Rochester and others. I should not spoil the ending for you, if you have not read Jane Eyre before.

I first read Jane Eyre (translated version) when I was a young girl myself in a boarding school. It lent me great strength and help me tough up. The boarding school I attended had very bad living conditions but was not oppressive. In recent years, I listened to BBC radio’s adaptation of Jane Eyre a couple of times. As an adult female, I appreciate the portrait of the protagonist Jane Eyre more fully: her passion, strong will, an acute sense of conscience and freedom, her independence, and her quiet yet formidable strength.

Brontë wrote dialogues and first-person narratives meticulously well. Both are very challenging to accomplish. To me, there is much to be learned from the character Jane Eyre. Some of my favorite passages are quoted below.

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come was objectionable: “I must keep in good health and not die.”

Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain, – the impalpable principle of light and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man – perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph!…with this creed revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.

Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!

I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane – quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.

I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.

Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Approaching 5am now. My animal friends start to wake up and sing in chorus what a glorious morning will come. I wish any of them could make me a cup of strongly-desired tea.

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.