A Note on Writing Like a Man

Both men and women artists and writers must, in my opinion, sort out motivations.

On the one hand, there is the sheer pleasure of making something from a well constructed and bigod, grammatically correct sentence above a low upper bound of complexity, to a limning on a gesso ground of “the nimbus of the baptized God” in tempera, to a musical improvisation of serenity power.

And then there’s the thought of Recognition which sounds cool unless you happen to talk to a real “celebrity” or a therapist who specializes in their care. Ponder upon Lindsay Lohan.

There is in other words a tension in Hegel’s chapter on “Lordship and Bondage” in his rib-tickling and almost, but not quite, incomprehensible Whopper, The Phenomenology of Mind.

The chapter as expertly boiled down by Alexander Kojeve is nothing more than a story about a boxing match, a Thrillah in Manila, at the dawn of history. The Master and the Slave fight for mutual recognition but fighting is not, as Mom would know, a way to get it. So the Master puts the Slave to work, and history starts.

The slave, however, gets the last laugh because like me, like my brothers or my Dad he learns the anhedonic yet real satisfaction of working his ass off, and seeing his Humanity reflected in a well-wrought computer program, a brain free of cancer, or cars delivered without a scratch (harder than you might think) in a blizzard.

The Slave makes the World while the Master is kickin’ it.

So…as an artist or writer or musician, ask yourself. Do you seek Recognition or Work?

OK, now, as to writing.

I discovered that my writing when I was 13 got Recognition, a scarce good in my family of origin, from Mom and Dad. But I also discovered what most poets know.

You can’t sit down and say, time to write a poem. Yes sir, let’s get to work.

You need a Form, a daemon. And that can be anything from Alexander Pope’s bright idea of completely transforming Homer’s sea-washed, wine-dark Greek to trumpet and drum 12-syllable rhyming couplets, to a sudden association of words, like the French word for bread, and the English word for pain.

Or some irony, such as the Brits meekly sailing away from Hong Kong after having left a pearl of great price in the form of the rule of law, dammit.

It can also be a sudden need for spare cash and a demand from a Shickander for a low entertainment involving a Magic Flute.

Now, my own daemon was I only wanted, after my early experience, to write ABOUT something. I found it uniquely hard to read most quality fiction because in my imagination, the authors of quality fiction were creating worlds ex nihilo, worlds of feelings and I couldn’t connect, I wouldn’t give myself the time.

A work of fiction had to reach out and grab me in the manner of Pop fiction. In my twenties, I encountered Frederick Exley, a drunk who was too, well, drunk to write more than one good book, A Fan’s Notes, and I connected with his half in the bag celebration of drunk-assed Chicago and the Near North side of the 1950s for I drank in its ruins.

Or George MacDonald Fraser who failed, just barely, to be Pop. He was too smart and his books never made it to films, there being only one bomb made with Malcolm MacDowell as Flashman at the Charge. And there is addition to great scholarship a darkness in Flashman which makes it hard for Pop audiences, who want clear cut good and evil.

Writing made no sense to me unless it was about something outside writing. I could write huge reference manuals for the software I created, and beautiful comments inside source code.

But my book, “Build Your Own .Net Language and Compiler” (Apress-Springer 2004) hasn’t been commercially successful, and there were times when my ability to write good manuals got me in actual trouble.

Back in the 1970s, software and hardware came with great whacking books. I found it amusing to study the book before taking the machine out of the box or installing the software.

But in 1984, I bought an early Macintosh. I was guided not by a Book (I cannot even remember if a manual was in the box) but by simple sheets of paper and clear images on connectors that either fit or didn’t, and when they fit, they did so nicely. It was almost a religious experience.

Today and as a result, you get images and a few words (in many languages) when you buy an iPod. It can be rather frustrating to wait as most new iPods charge up and Apple, rather blithely if you ask me, expects you to have Internet access. D’oh.

Everything comes down without words from the Cloud.

This was a general tendency in software. My 1970s “vision”, if that is what it was, was more me as the Scary Guy on the Monitor in the 1984 Mac “Super Bowl” ad. I’d be the writer of the Law. But precisely as the ad came out, I myself was changing, and looked more like the girl runner in my red shorts running around what’s now Google Headquarters, and identified with her. As I learned real customer service working with Bell-Northern Research engineers, I gave up my dream that software was a form of dual writing, both code and verbose English.

The best software self-documents.

But I still like to write practically and about things, starting with things. In teaching writing I teach the five senses approach. It’s hard to teach writing in China! Students are told to suppress their voice, and then thrown into required classes in writing and many teachers want to blow their brains out after trying to teach writing here.

I have had, on the fly as it were, to create a distinction between adjectives that only seem to be sensory but have a high “judgmental polarity”. For example, “beautiful” is a word like “good” such that it’s good to be good, and almost always good to be beautiful (save in a tragic fairy tale).

But try, I say, to assign a tertiary color to morning. It’s more “evocative” (explain that word!) to speak of a BROWN morning than a PINK morning. I don’t tell the kids what’s lurking in my brain, that this has a reason in information theory, for the very good reason that I confusing enough as it is, and my reading in information theory is out of date.

The mistake most teachers of writing is, then, not finding something for each student to write with passion ABOUT, and not extracting hard information-theoretic information. What color is the morning? OK, she’s beautiful, so what? I mean, is she Alice in Wonderland beautiful or Mulan beautiful.

It is stepwise refinement whereas educational “authorities” in Hong Kong and world-wide expect us dregs to throw the whole thing out at once. This is because most ESL teachers and education majors have no mathematics.

I have just enough to irritate most mathematicians save John Nash, who was beyond being irritated by much at all, and to whom I spoke minimal words, having been admonished by my boss at Princeton to watch my ass.

Mathematics (especially in the Intuitionist tradition of Brouwer and Heyting) is about stepwise refinement to any scale including infinity. The numbers in a calculus sequence converge to something that drives you crazy because you have to understand it as “the smallest real number that is greater than zero” (don’t try this at home).

The software program is in the words of the late hero computer scientist Dijkstra “a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing in harmony”.

Likewise, you can teach kids to write like Shakespeare: have them write a thought such as “school sucks”, “Bruce Lee”, or “kill teacher”.

Then show them how to add connective, adjectives or nouns stepwise to get

My school doth suck so much that I could spew

The Dragon kicks the ass of triad guys

etc. You have to teach that a verb can be strengthened with “does”, etc.

It is stepwise, and it works better in one on one tutoring as opposed to classes, but one on one is too expensive for many parents. In a classroom I use the projector to walk the kids through the process.

But the bottom line is that writing, especially for boys, has to be about something out there.

For example, US Grant, the Union general who won the Civil War by turning it into a meat grinding prototype of WWI, was a very good writer. But the only reason Grant wrote was, during the Civil War to draft accurate instructions that he knew could get people killed, and later in life, to write his best-selling Memoirs while dying of cancer so his family would have some money after he passed.

There’s a rather touching story about this. Grant, in many ways always a holy fool, accepted Charles Scribner’s standard contract without change, doubtless to the amusement of the flash chaps at Scribner’s, for it was tacitly a baseline designed so that Scribner’s wouldn’t get screwed by greedy and less competent authors.

Mark Twain, a friend of Grant, read the contract and marched down to Scribner’s, threatening Scribner with mayhem. Twain got a much better contract for old Sam.

The result? Grant’s writing, like that of another writer for the workaday world, the holy traveling salesman John Bunyan of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is hard and solid like a rock.

His dispatches during the Civil War, wrote under great pressure, are in their own way works of art. Hegel saw Napoleon at Jena, and wrote, “the world spirit on horseback”. Well, here’s the world spirit at Vicksburg:

“Sherman’s advance has reached Bridgeport. His whole force will be ready to move from there by Tuesday at farthest. If you can hold Longstreet in check until he gets up, or by skirmishing and falling back can avoid serious loss to yourself and gain time, I will be able to force the enemy back from here and place a force between Longstreet and Bragg that must inevitably make the former take to the mountain-passes by every available road, to get to his supplies. Sherman would have been here before this but for high water in Elk River driving him some thirty miles up that river to cross.”

Note that old Sam could write a conditional sentence. Here, he knew damned well that a second rate general like Ambrose Burnside might not be able to hold a first-rater like Pete Longstreet.

Perhaps, and I’m going out on a limb here. The usual military leader, such as the clowns who got men slaughtered in World War I, may not have been able to construct a sentence properly that starts with “if”, and the arcana of the subjective, of possible outcomes in the dark rain, may have given them the willies as, in the rear with the gear, they’d wrestled with the fact that you don’t use the present tense in a subjunctive, you use the infinitive.

So they write “hold the line”. Their syntax consists of sentences that start with the active verb which means that the men under them are given no choice, like the second wave at Gallipoli in Peter Weir’s film of that name.

CEOS are in my experience the same. They arrogate to themselves “simplicity” as if they are gurus who’ve learned so much that they now know It Is All So Simple. But they do not.

I teach girls as well as boys, of course, and am guilty of focusing too much on the bright and attentive girls in the front row while letting the gangstas in the back do their gangsta thing.

But. Identity politics and being of a fashionable age, race and gender takes you only so far. I love reading and teaching nonwhite non male and young authors but this is not enough, any more than being a white guy was enough in the nineteenth century. You have to write ABOUT something.

Amy Tan writes about the reality of being ABC (American Born Chinese) which is unique, of course, since the basic problem is that while you might get Chinese language lessons, there’s no opportunity to use it except to fight with your Mom. This is parallel to the problem of my students in “The City of Sadness”, Tuen Mun and Tin Shui Wai: they get English classes but no opportunity to use it.

Xialu Guo had the marvelous idea of using Chinglish, while learning English herself, to write a novel (A Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers) and make some money, for she was already a successful author in Chinese: “Immigration officer holding my passport behind his accounted, my heart hanging on high sky”. Bingo! We understand it since we’ve all had that experience as expats: your heart does hang on high sky as the plane comes down, low and slow, over increasingly lower buildings, industrial buildings, pools of green slime, and then the runway, or the immigration officer, a half hour later, holds his stamp hovering above your passport (sometimes I think they do that for fun).

A very literate and highly intelligent Chinese friend loved that book when I showed it to her for its Chinglish replicates Chinese thought and language. The way it comes together is completely different from English and its Latin based complexities. It is thought more “down to earth”, but that is wrong. In fact, it can be more subtle and refined than English because its monosyllables and ideograms are what might be called Chomsky Type Zillion, very, very sensitive to context and ever changing for that reason. As best as I can understand in my ignorance of Chinese (I really should try harder to learn it) they are like pools of water that reflect each other. Is that right? Damned if I know.

But … as a white American male I have to write as such while also being a human being (reconciliation of levels). I don’t pander to women; there’s a very amusing, and very vile article about this in Taki’s very amusing and very vile webzine: pity I was booted out after nuking John Derbyshire’s racist garbage, I’d be coming in low and slow with snake and nape on the former article. Boom. Mushroom cloud.

The article about men who pander to women say they do so in a last ditch effort to get laid which is amusing and in a way true. We do, and we need to purify our hearts as artists and do art as a final end in itself (next stop the ding an sich: next stop eternity), a Krapp’s last tape.

Note: John Derbyshire ain’t my friend. But he also has cancer. It’s not as if I should have been kinder to him; he was wrong; fathers should never counsel sons to run away from anything. But, if he ever makes it back out to Hong Kong I would be honored to buy him a beer at the Island Bar on Lamma Island. For we are all mortal and we all treasure our children’s future, as Kennedy said.


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