For nearly all my life I had a very busy lifestyle. I like to do many things at one time, and I’m quite (maybe too) fast. When I was a medical director, I had many doctors and staff visiting my office, so I tried to save time by placing a clock ticking visibly before any visitor, so that he/she could see time literally passing quickly! My secretary would call me at 30 minutes into the meeting, to let us know time was slipping, and to hurry up. And forget lunch, it was bananas and bagels on the run, usually nibbled during a noon meeting. My son remarked to me, later as an adult, that, as a teenager he had come to visit me in my hospital office, and was amused to see me dash in, say hello, grab a banana, and dash out, still eating, as I walked, or more likely, ran out.
I suspect that this rush, rush, rush style began when I had to learn how to move fast and compete to get on the bus when I was a child, in the crazy hectic lifestyle of hyper-cosmopolitan and bustling Hong Kong. I had to learn to run very fast, with great agility, to navigate among a huge crowd of people who were not lined up in any order. There were often sadistic drivers who deliberately stopped in different places, before or after the designated bus stop, just to confuse people, just so the drivers could laugh at the crowd panicking to rush to the right spot to get into the bus. However, I learned to guess where exactly the double decker bus driver would stop, by estimating the car’s deceleration, unless he was super-devious, and re-accelerated again! Most of the time, as the likely smallest person, I would be the fastest to run right up to the door, and hop quickly into the bus; otherwise I would miss the bus and be late for school or home. My hyper-competitive spirit and city wits were born and honed in this way.
Even when I was young, my rushed life extended to food: since I did not want to waste a minute, I gobbled down my food so quickly, that I would always be the first at the dinner table to finish my food, so I could get to my beloved books. Often, I had to reluctantly tag along with my parents to the many late evening dinners that my dad was invited to, as a physician and church deacon. But, I would definitely be carrying my story books, and reading as I ate. Then I would quickly finish eating and retreat to some corner to finish off my books, usually missing out on lots of other presumably delicious dishes still to come. I remember later on in life, when I was doing medical missions in China, my staff assistant would laugh at my crude meal habits, accusing me of never even tasting the food; I just swallowed it, she claimed; which was sort of true.
As people like to joke, I never took time to “smell the roses,” it seemed. However, I did manage to write many scientific articles, more than 400 during my academic career, reflecting my rush, rush, life in academia, but also sort of my feeling that these were the roses I was given to smell on the way. Writings as roses, because I’ve always had a childhood writing dream. I dreamed particularly of being a writer of children’s stories, since I read voluminously as a child, and just admired those wonderful writers who so charmingly introduced me to their special worlds.
Many doctors might feel it to be a chore to write scientific articles, but actually to me as a scientist and physician, it was a joy. The dozen or so scientific books published under my name, all related to nutritional and health issues of children, so I could feel it was not that far from my childhood dream! I have participated in many more scientific books, probably over 40, as contributor of one or two chapters, all related to childhood diseases and nutrition, but I have finally given all those books away in our big move from Cincinnati to Seattle. Some people feel that is a pity, but, since they occupied a lot of shelf space (medical books are huge), I felt I “had to move on!” I have only saved a copy each of the books that were “my very own,” and they are partly on one book shelf proudly displayed in our new small condo home.
Contrary to those who feel intimidated by writing, my secret was that, in spite of a crazy schedule, I would lock myself in my office, and refuse to see anyone, emergencies excepted, for several hours each day, just like staying in a mini-prison (see my URS “Writing from Prison Story”), so that I could really write and write. I had a sign on the door, declaring “will reappear at 430pm” or whatever the time would be, when I would poke my head out the locked door. I know that some people can stare at the computer for days, and still not be able to write the first sentence. Fortunately, that wasn’t my problem at all, because I loved to write and write. Maybe it was just a variation of my love of a rush, rush, life? In fact, later on, when I discovered a good automatic dictation system that I could train, writing became even less of a problem, since I could just talk and talk into the microphone, and see the words just spill out onto the Word-Perfect page.
Whether I was writing a scientific paper, or, later on, an Uncle Reggie Story, the approach wasn’t that different. Let’s take the example of the story. Whenever a new story idea came up, I learned to quickly jot down a very brief outline of the proposed article on paper, laptop, or smartphone, and file the idea immediately, so I would not forget. Then, when I was ready to write up the topic, I would start to dictate quickly, talk and talk, according to this framework, truly as if I’m telling the story to someone directly in front of me, at coffee time (literally during “coffee with Uncle Reggie,” hence my book title).
Thereafter I spend lots of time editing and editing, usually 20 or more times. I can edit practically anything as long as it is written up, any paper even if it is totally unpolished, and even if it looks at first to be terrible. It always gets better, after each edit and finally, amazingly it becomes readable. It sure beats a blank sheet of paper with nothing on it!! You cannot edit nothing! That is probably a major secret of my writing.
This “system” of effective writing arose likely from my noticing that most people respond to real questions quite naturally, and often surprisingly well. For example, I had to appear quite often on TV to deal with health care questions regarding newborn sick babies, since I oversaw the neonatal intensive care units in Cincinnati, or to answer questions about nutrition research that I was involved in. At first, I felt this could be intimidating, but soon I realized it wasn’t much of a problem, since the questions were basically daily questions I handled routinely anyway.
And similarly, for others “put on the spot” suddenly to answer questions: if people are directly asked questions in areas of their expertise, they often easily answer the questions, smoothly and precisely. But if you ask them to sit down and write on “a topic,” even a subject they should be familiar with, but without specific questions, they just seem to freeze. They can’t even put down one sentence, sometimes. For me, during a nice coffee or sandwich with a younger person, while casually chatting, some question commonly arises that triggers a vivid reminder of past events, from my quite large reservoir of stories, and various experiences in my decades of travel, work and ministry. And from these prompts, the stories will later be “written up.” It’s all very “natural” and “organic,” and I would love my written stories to be just like I am telling you the story spontaneously, right in front of you, face to face.
When I think of my writing hero CS Lewis, I am actually totally befuddled and humbled to know that he barely traveled: I have traveled on record more than 3 million sky miles, visited more than 150 cities of the world, and have learned 20 phrases of 20 languages, in order to navigate in these cities, including fluency in 5 of them. And so, at first blush, it might seem that these experiences could be helpful to others.
But on further thought, it is quite possible that these are just a negative reflection of my rush, rush, rush previous life, where I basically had little time to even contemplate the complexities of life, let alone write them up in any meaningful way. You could even accuse me of “galloping horse, fleeting flowers, zou ma kan hua,” the traditional Chinese expression for people who just rush through life at high speed while supposedly seeing only blurry flowers. I feel so blessed right now, however that, better late than never, I do not now have to rush, rush, rush, but actually have some time to read, think, and write in a more focused way, trying to collect my thoughts from many decades, and crystallize them into some coherent principles, themes, and stories. My original childhood dream lingers…..
Literary types claim that my category of writing is “creative nonfiction,” where I am weaving a real story out of my life experiences, synthesized in a potentially meaningful way. It is fun to think of stories, after I write them, as traveling to who knows where, landing finally in some far-off place that I can only dream of, maybe even in a foreign language. Imagine it as a story that comes bobbing up to the seashore inside the legendary sealed bottle: I had the common romantic notion, as many kids might have, of writing a message, and throwing it into the sea. One day I really did that, into the South China sea, so who knows, that bottle might still be floating around in the huge, huge, oceans of the world. It would be my greatest joy if I should receive a feedback from that kind of dream! Send me a note if you do retrieve it, please.