The literature of China as a whole presents us with a desert of short poems and short essays, seemingly interminable for one who does not appreciate them, and yet as full of variety and inexhaustible beauty as a wild landscape itself. We have only essayists and letter-writers who try to put their feeling of life in a short note or an essay of three to five hundred words, usually much shorter than the school composition of an American schoolboy. In these casual writings, letters, diaries, literary notes and regular essays, one finds here a brief comment on the vicissitudes of fortune, there a record of some woman who committed suicide in a neighboring village, or of an enjoyable spring party, or a feast in the snow, or boating on a moonlit night, or an evening spent in a temple with a thunderstorm raging outside, generally including the remarks made during the conversation that made the occasion memorable. We find a host of essayists who are at the same time poets, and poets who are at the same time essayists, writing never more than five or seven hundred words, in which a whole philosophy of life is really expressed by a single line.
— Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
“Read any good books lately?”
One of the young personal trainers hailed me as I entered the gym. He had learned through the grapevine that I was something of a reader, and he wanted to tell me about this counterfactual history series he’d been enjoying. He then mentioned that he used to write short stories when he was “a kid” (he’s all of twenty-four now), but had lost both the skill and the inclination, in his estimation. Well, I said, waving a hand around our environment, it’s not much different than here — it’s mostly perspiration. You have to show up and put in your reps. I suggested that, to get back in the swing of it, he should sit down and blatantly try to imitate some of his favorite writers. More than likely, I said, you won’t be able to do it, but after wrestling with it for a while, you’ll start to discover more of your own voice in the process.
He seemed to think this was some of the greatest advice he’d ever heard. He swore he was going to start doing exactly that. I’m now mentally preparing for him to eventually put two and two together and ask, “Hey, how did you come up with that idea? Are you a writer too? What do you like to write?” What would I tell him? I could say I keep a blog, but you know, I really hate the word “blog.” It sounds like it should describe an involuntary bodily function, or something gross like that. Familiar essays? I don’t really write at enough length to qualify. I guess I’d say, “You know what bonsai sculpture is, right? Well, instead of trees, I do that with essays. I take potential essays and prune them down to around three-to-five hundred words. I call it bonsai minimalism.”
Incidentally, I have decided that my mission here is to convince all of my readers to pick up a copy of Lin Yutang’s book The Importance of Living. His other books may earn you extra credit, but that’s the main one. There is a dearth of Yutang citations among all the neighboring blogs, so I aim to set that right. The quotations will continue until you finally give in. Resistance is futile.