Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘John Jeremiah Sullivan

A writer first, a journalist second

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Some writers, wanting to write, get into journalism. They like writing, and journalism offers them a place to do it. Think of Hemingway who started out as a cub reporter on The Kansas City Star, or Malcolm Gladwell who spent ten years as a reporter for The Washington Post before going on to create exploratory narratives for The New Yorker.

There are writers like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Jennifer Egan (A Visit From The Goon Squad)  who are both novelists and accomplished magazine journalists. One of my favourite writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan, plies his trade in this journo-literary tradition.

Then, there are journalists who love the reporting. They like digging out facts and unearthing truth, the power to tell hidden stories, and exposing wrongdoing and injustice. These are bloodhound reporters, ambitious, and sometimes noble; the world-changing pen-warrior. Examples include John Pilger, Robert Fisk, and in broadcasting, Orla Guerin of the BBC.

Thirdly, there are journalists whose passion lie not in journalism at all or even writing, but who are just very smart, very organised and very competent. I’ve known a fair number in Beijing who fall into this camp. I won’t name them but imagine Oxbridge and Harvard graduates, or cosmopolitan bi-lingual Chinese, who fill the echelons of Reuters, the FT, the WSJ, and you might get the idea. Some of this camp just happened to drift into journalism, blown by circumstance, and who had the right skills to fulfill their accidental fate. They can write and report to a very high standard but don’t necessarily regard it as a vocation.

If I were to put myself into these three rough categories I would say the first group is the one with whom I identify the most, even if I may not share their talent.

I studied journalism at degree level because I had some interest in writing. Later on, I did more writing, and journalism was the arena in which I practiced it.

These days I’ve broadened out so that I do more writing that’s not just journalism.

For example, lately I’ve been working in an ad agency writing a story and script for a promotional campaign for a German automaker. It’s fun, highly creative, and quite well paid.

I still do journalism, freelance, but mostly I confine my writing focus to working on a novel. Writing fiction has taught me a lot about story, narrative, and much else; far more than journalism does, but I’m still glad that journalism gave me some rigour and practice. But I’m also glad that I jumped out before the sentence structures of journalism became completely ossified and entrenched.

Writing a novel is no route to riches and is a difficult road without any guarantees. But I’ve definitely enjoyed learning the craft along the way. Copywriting is a fascinating process too and a neat addition; something that is complementary to the life of a professional writer.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 27, 2017 at 11:02 am

Writing what you want to write vs. writing what editors want you to write

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Some years ago, when I was in my last year of university, there was a house party. At this party I got talking to a French girl, who was eloquent and charming. I reached a point where I got talking about journalism, my ambitions, who I’d already written for, and all the fine journalism pieces I’d written — the kind of things you might say when trying to impress a French girl.

She listened with interest but after I had finished my spiel, she looked at me and without a pause said simply: “But what do you write for yourself?”

This memory and those words have stayed with me ever since.

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The perfect story: do all journalists want to become novelists?

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I’ve written one “perfect” story in my life. It’s a bold claim but it’s ironic because the story in question is a Japanese fable about Perfection. I wrote it when I was 15 years old. Before the story materialized I had spent the previous two weeks or so thinking about it late at night while I was in bed. Slowly the rough outline or arc of the story took shape and I kind of vaguely knew how it might turn. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know what the story was or what the story would be. But over the two weeks it was what I thought about during the day and before I fell asleep.

Hemingway and a small tiger. Hemingway started his career as a journalist.

Ernest Hemingway and a small tiger. He started his career as a journalist.

Then one afternoon at school, while I was in some form of detention, I decided to write the story, for an English assignment. I was in the library with a few other miscreants. And I just started writing – in longhand, with a blue Biro on lined paper. And what came out was 99% perfect. The story was rounded, full, and did what the story set out to do. My English teacher read it out in class and I distinctly remember the enraptured silence as the story gripped my fellow pupils, and the applause once it ended – the applause! And she showed it to the other English teachers who also praised the story.

But before you tire of this anecdote, here’s the point: I have never, in the 11 years since, been able to reproduce anything approaching the same level of effortless flow, the ease with which that story seemed to shape itself, the logic and momentum, the plot and the ending all taking shape as the Biro made its way across the page. As if brain, arm and pen were one single entity all directed toward the inevitable creation of that story.

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