When commitment is what it takes to get you through
At one point, all writers have to do is to sit there and struggle.
The first time I heard this line was from a musician who was talking about his process of writing music. I thought, wow, that was commitment. The truth is that this level of commitment is equally required for writers who write with words.
As Sep 16, the closing date for Chinese Writing Contest 2023, is approaching, it’s worth reminding all aspiring Chinese language writers that, sooner or later, all you need to do is to sit there and struggle.
It seems that today, compared to watching streaming or playing video games, everything else is a commitment.
Wherever we go, restaurants, airports, public waiting areas, we see either a big screen somewhere or many small screens in people’s hands, or both. We’re drowned in all kinds of entertainment that is easily available. That makes doing anything that is not passively consuming content hard.
Even reading, something give us so much stimulation and pleasure, has become a commitment.
There is this guy who boasts on social media about how he has tricked his son to read books. He gives his son a dollar for each book he reads. “I have given him 12 dollars so far this year.” he boasts, “The best investment I have ever made.”
Will his son grow up loving books? I doubt it.
How will these books impact his son’s life? To get some pocket change for ice cream might be the biggest impact ever.
His son might demand two dollars per book next year, and five dollars a year later, so that he can make the same amount of money or more with minimum time spent. Until one day, his son quits reading because he is no longer interested in making money this way. It’s not best use of his efforts.
This is the wrong incentive and the wrong encouragement.
Unfortunately, it is not limited to this one guy on social media. It happens in teaching and learning Chinese as well.
Around 2015 - 2016, there was a hype for learning Chinese. Even Barack Obama, a former president of the United States, called for one million students to learn Chinese in the US by 2020. The UK soon followed, calling its students to learn Chinese.
As a Chinese teacher, I was all for it, except that this hype was built on the wrong incentive.
According to The Economist, an international survey taken in 2016 showed that the most common reason people studied Chinese was to improve their employment prospects. In other words, learning Chinese was considered an investment. It fitted very well with the narrative of China’s economic growth at the time.
However, back then people couldn’t foresee how world affairs could change.
Instead of encouraging their students to learn Chinese, American and European leaders now talk of “decoupling” or “de-risking” with China. This is huge shift in narratives.
In this hostile environment, anyone in the West, who has spent years learning Chinese for future job prospects, is not likely to recoup their investment, unless they choose to work for their governments as spies. Spies look glamorous in a movie, but might have terrible experiences in real life because of all the lies they have to tell. Human beings are not wired to tell lies all the time. It messes up our brains.
I hope Chinese Writing Contest presents a different kind of incentive for people to read and write. That does not change the nature of reading or writing.
Reading continues to be a significant commitment, asking us to spend hours with a book and engage with its text.
Writing is an even more significant commitment, asking us to spend more hours with blank pages, to first come up with our own text, and then to edit it again and again. The good news is that it is a rare chance for us to reach deep down into our soul and search for that spark that makes us tick.
If you got it, the next thing might be presenting it clearly and precisely as you’ve envisioned it through pure commitment, which could be as simple as sitting there, struggling.