This was a piece that I wrote on 22 Oct 2011, in 6 hours.
I remember because it was how I spent my birthday that year and I recounted to others, amused with how I didn't celebrate it with the traditional nonsense like drinking.
Writing was celebrating enough, I guess?
This was my first significant attempt to explain the meta-processes behind my writing.
I have been a rather serious student about art in the recent few years. My “serious” efforts include putting myself through related courses and undertaking other forms of research.
My interest in the arts started with my chance discovery of the Surrealists. I was surprised to find how they articulated what I was intuitively doing with my stories then. For example, Rene Magritte was explaining his concept of mystery: “The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” I could relate to this with my story about a bear with a biscuit face (close to Magritte's painting of men with apples blocking their features from the viewer). A bear with a biscuit face was also a curious juxtaposition of elements, which is a surrealist theme. I was already practising automatic writing, a technique which I later came to learn was Surrealist as well.
Learning what they were consciously doing helped me realise better what I was unconsciously doing with my writing. For example, I was interested with how in different readers’ mind, the phrase “bear with a biscuit face” conjured up in some the image of an oreo biscuit, or chocolate biscuit, as opposed to my image of a “ritz bitz” biscuit. The minimalist writers were writing with sparse descriptions so that the audience's imagination would fill in the gap (e.g. they would articulate these things in an article or interview). The critiques of the Surrealist movement would also point out limitations of the way I was writing in (e.g. it was likely to be obscure and taken as random arbitrariness). In this way, I was able to quickly develop and evaluate my approach or concepts.
Wanting to know more about other art theories, I attended Dr Sian Jay's appreciating western art course (at NUS extension) thinking it would be a crash course to “download” the knowledge into my head – as opposed to reading 300 art books myself. Through this course, I gained confidence in my way of interpreting art and art theories, and learnt how to think about art more systematically and effectively – in other words, I learnt how to learn better.
(On Art and Writing)
As writing becomes more important to me, and developing my writing gains higher priority, I try to learn more about art and explore new concepts.
Prior to this attempt, I have never tried to explain how art influences my writing in words – not even my private journals, not even in my conscious thought. It had been a very organic process, which I hope it would still largely remain to be.
I take in what I learn, I absorb what I can, and it becomes a part of my brain. It's like how I eat a plate of char kway teow and it becomes a part of my body (as in the nutrients and fats would fuse with my cells and become a part of my body forever after). In the same way all the char kway teow I’ve ever eaten in my life will come to affect the way my heart beats – my art education (or any other experience) will fuse into my thoughts and state of mind, affecting the way I produce anything and what I produce.
Honestly, I'm not sure if putting this process into words would ruin it. If the words are ill-chosen, the idea would be “set” in the wrong way. If ideas were gems or precious stones, then words that articulate these ideas would be the gold or silver that encases and frames ideas to highlight their brilliance. Passages and poems are crafted jewelleries, then. My role as the writer is akin to the jeweller – we’re both craftsmen, and we both have to search for materials – ideas and words or gems and metal – that we can be inspired by and will (here, i want to use "will" like "wield" because I think it's a better verb to mean "wield").
Rather ironically, the above two analogies in my “disclaimer” already hint at how art affects my writing. When I study the arts (like the art of char kway teow or the art of jewellery making), I study the philosophies or states of mind of the artists (who are also like the cooks and jewellers) that may distinguish them and affect their paintings or sculptures (like their char kway teow or jewelleries).
When I look at a painting from an artist, I try to imagine what he's thinking, appreciate his sense of aesthetics, and decide where I agree or disagree with him. From these processes, I develop ideas and my aesthetic sense. In addition, having “consumed” the painting, it will affect my thoughts and state of mind, which will in turn affect what I produce.
(On Ideas, Reality, Images and Words)
Another concept that I have is, in part, influenced by Michel Foucault’s This is not a pipe where he discussed some theories on the relationships between reality, images, and words, with reference to Magritte’s paintings; that is, words (being just words) and images (being just images) only refer to the idea of what that is real; the idea is also distinct from that which is real. The word “pipe” refer to the idea of a pipe which refers to a real tangible pipe.
It brings us to the question then, what is it that a painting is trying to conjure? And how that compares to what is it that a written story is trying to conjure?
In my haste, I could over-simplify and say a painting and a written story are similar in both trying to conjure ideas in the audiences’ mind. The idea in the audiences’ mind – becomes new and different altogether – being neither the reality, the image, nor the written story, nor my idea in the first place. And this process is another very important factor of a story – not that which is described explicitly with words – but the ideas it intends and manages to conjure in the audience’s mind.
(On state of Mind, Soul, Heart)
And how effectively the art work (story or picture) conjures up an idea in the audience’s mind and heart can also be affected by the quality of the art work’s soul or heart – which is in turn, affected by the state of mind, soul, or heart of the artist.
I know I’m being confusing, suddenly introducing more elusive things like “heart” and “soul” here. But “state of mind” seems to only refer to the intellect and reason, which is somewhat lacking. I am really referring to the heart and soul, which besides the mind, are faculties capable of creating ideas, albeit of a different nature, property, and cultivation.
This is where the char kway teow analogy is effective. Have you tasted the char kway teow of a master who fry his kway teow with heart, with concentration and sincerity? Compare his kway teow to another that’s fried by his son while chatting to his friend about going to the casino? The difference in the taste between both plates of noodles is just the stuff of how state of mind and heart of the artist affects the soul of his work.
(On Chinese Art)
In a way, tasting char kway teow cooked with heart (referring to how we say in Chinese, to use one’s heart to do something, and not how Westerners say “I heart New York”), would help to cultivate my sensibilities and discernment. In a similar way, studying the arts and contemplating how artists paint with their heart, helps the cultivation of my heart. I hope you know what I mean, these matters are very difficult to explain.
In the process of cultivating myself, I also turn to Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian art. To me, the artist’s heart is especially prominent in Chinese ink paintings, perhaps due to how they’re created. Usually a painting would begin with spontaneity and completed in a single sitting. Because of the properties of the paper, every stroke or dash is irreversible. When things are created spontaneously, implying that it comes instinctively, there is less room for planning ahead, and the heart takes over. Because there is no room to retract any move, the heart must be skilful, not to make mistakes and will (wield) the ink skilfully.
Moreover, my Chinese lifestyle and environment predisposes my ideas, aesthetic sense, and my general state of mind, to be similar to those of Chinese artists. Despite using English as my writing and reading language and consuming a lot of American and European culture and education, I realised that there was a large part of me who can’t empathise with Western culture. I really have an Asian soul, you know. If I die and become a ghost, I will be a Chinese ghost (who can speak in English), but I will have the properties of a Chinese ghost (which seem to differ quite a bit in properties of being from that of an Ang mor ghost). Of course, there is still much to learn from the Surrealists and the other Angmors, but say Chinese ink painting really relates to the part of me that has been fed by the soya sauce that I’ve eaten all my life (and really, there’s soya sauce in everything in our diet, including char kway teow). Surrealism is really like French food, or mayonnaise, which, frankly, I still don’t quite understand because my grandma doesn't know how to use it in her cooking. It’s interesting, but cannot take the place of soya sauce in my life.
Being in caught in the mundane East-West conundrum of modern Asia, I need to amalgamate East-West ideas. But what that is more important than how East-West are conflicting and complementary, is that after I’ve consumed them, they’re a part of me, and they’re no longer just East or West – they’re my left or right brain, right or left lung, and I only have one heart.
So, I write, then I learn things, I change, and then I write about different things differently. Being aware of how this process works helps me grasp the concepts and learn and change faster. For example, being aware of how art affects my writing enables me to use art better. For another example, thinking about how ideas, reality, and images differ helps me understand how ideas, reality, and words differ. My stories conjure ideas in the readers’ mind which are different from my idea. How effectively my stories (or essays) conjure these ideas in my readers’ minds also depend on the cultivation of my state of mind, heart, and soul. (This summary, for example, does not conjure the same ideas as what was explained above with analogies and details.) Studying Eastern and Western art cultivates my perspective and my heart from which I write.