If one could choose, I would like to be a quick witted person. But I am never a quick witted person. Oftentimes, after I say something, something much more felicitous would come up, that I wish I could have said it in the first place, but that precise moment to dispatch has forever past.
In retrospect, life has been full of such belated sparks that never got to properly ignite and start. It feels as if I am forever in a state searching for the right words, in order to get that specific piece of notion accurately across.
For this reason, Toby Ziegler (played by Richard Schiff) in The West Wing, who befits my penchant for a wordsmith, is one of my favorite characters on TV. A half-bald guy with a grumpy look, he serves as lead writer for the President. I suspect he might not be the most pleasant type to deal with in real life, but he has this peculiar fondness for language precision, that makes him appear to be almost sexy. He would spend a whole night wrestling with the wording for a routine greeting card, until it feels precise enough to pass.
And nearly 2,000 years ago in China, there was a great painter specialized in portrait, who was the example of an art-smith. He was often to leave the eyes blank in a portrait. When people asked why he didn’t paint the eyes, he said the life of a portrait breathes entirely through the eyes, so it is just too important to put in the eyes.
Once he did a portrait of a remarkable poet, and he added three facial hairs to the image in the painting, although the poet had no whiskers at all. Upon being asked what those extra hairs were about, he said they represented the poet’s talent. After a closer examination, everyone had to agree that the three bristles effectively highlighted the gift of the image indeed, better than if no whiskers were involved.
Everybody on earth is in pursuit of their individual version of precision. A chef tries new combo of flavors to create his idea of delicacy. A runner exercises different ways to improve his pace. A cowboy actor practices gunspinning skills. A janitor perfects the art of toilet scraping. A comedian goes out of his way to pinpoint the most titillating spots …
As for the writers on WordPress, I imagine that in the interval between your last piece and the next, you must be like an obsessive birder peering through a long-range camera, anticipating the migrant to return, or some rare-breed of a peculiar species to come into view. Or you’re simply like a cat squatting with bated breath beside a small dim hole, vigilantly awaiting the mouse to come forth.
And you spend a lot of time gazing afar, over some foggy mental lake, trying to identify an unnamed creature lurking beneath the surface – is it that curious monster in the myth, emerging from the unfathomable deep water, finally?
Most of the time, you’re like a chimpanzee rummaging through a tangled mess of long hair, extirpating ticks and fleas one by one, fending off angst and uncertainty, trying clumsily to smooth all the indecent thoughts into proper words …
It must be torturous to live a life as painstaking as a writer. You have this constant desire to better your craft. You can’t rest until you get it done precisely the way you want it to be. You just have to make everything delicately attuned to your heart’s intricate liking and your mind’s peculiar leaning.
What would be the price for a perfect choice of word? A story in ancient China sets the price high up with some bars of gold:
A few thousand years ago, there was a powerful statesman, who wanted to be a force in the literary world. He hired 3,000 top-notch writers to ghost-write a series of book in his name. Then he had the books displayed in public, alongside 1,000 taels of gold, about 2.5 million in today’s dollars. Anyone who could revise one word of the books for the better, he said, would be rewarded with all the gold. No one dared to challenge his authority, but people from everywhere had made a special trip to visit the exhibits and investigate the books up close … Ever since, 1,000 taels of gold has become the legendary worth for one perfect choice of word.
Imagine if Toby Ziegler were among the onlookers, how itching he would be to locate that refutable word, and revise it toward unquestionable precision. Not necessarily for the gold, but simply to scratch the well-hidden itch to the heart’s content.
This deep-seated unrest a writer carries within, to settle it has been his most pressing need in life. Every once in a while, with a stroke of luck, you might pinpoint that obscure spot and pacify it to the best, only making it worse. An itch well-scratched may be the most satisfying sensation in your life, only it never lasts. In all likelihood, the act of scratching gives rise to further misery …
There is something vicious in this whole scheme of things. OCD comes in all forms and sizes, at one with your core self, truly being the root cause of suffering in life. It would be ideal if we could live with the idea of writing alone, without getting into the laborious, frustrating, unpleasant process of writing. Would it really?
There is a saying by Zen master Ajahn Chah: “If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will have complete peace.”
Most people want to have a lot of peace, they just can’t have complete peace. It’s considered a luxury in life if you never settle, always with unfinished sentences pending, forever in search of the right words, in order to get whatever notion you have in mind across. The pleasure of expression, lies in the pursuit of precision. As long as you continue to stir, the best just might occur … For what else could you do?