Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream

There is a certain amount of wisdom in this life that filters in from the strangest, least anticipated directions, and even more surprising, ends up informing one’s work. I have come by three writing principles this way, through tributaries that emanated from a single wellspring, a man I met in pre-Tiananmen Beijing: Mr. C. C. Ng.

I had tagged along on my husband’s business trip and C. C. was assigned to be my escort. Fortunately, we got on well, and with nothing but time on our hands, we explored the city together. He hailed taxis, barked addresses, picked the hole-in-the-wall dumpling shops, bargained in the alley, shooed chickens from my ankles, steered an elbow, kept beggars at bay, and all the while doled out cautionary advice, which he apparently thought I was in need of.

It’s a shifty world. Thieves abound. You can be taken. Look there, that basket you want to buy. No good. Bad lid.  And those almonds you eat. Too bitter. Poison inside.

And when at last, wearied and hot, we took refuge on the porch of the hotel, he snapped his fingers at a sleepy waiter, and ordered drinks. No ice, bad for the health!

Avoid the broken.  Avoid the bitter.  Avoid the cold. That’s what it came down to, and his serious, sweet delivery was touching.

Now, some twenty-odd years later, his words still bob like irrepressible corks in the stream, floated a long way now from the source. And what he once spouted as instruction for daily life has evolved now into guiding principles for a writing life—for at this point, there’s very little separation.

He was right—about all of it. Sure enough, that lid never did sit properly. Chew too long on a mighty bitter seed and you certainly will weaken. And, as a New Englander, I can assure you that a person can take only so much cold.

These are words to live by but they are also words to write by. If it’s broken, if it’s bitter, or if it’s cold, it’s not going to make good writing. These things just mess up a life and get in the way of the art.

Photo credits: Chinese dragon – Eva Heinsbroek, sxc; Chinese basket – Andrew Beierle, sxc