When I was fourteen, my father passed me a draft essay he wrote; he was entertaining the thought of submitting it to the News Straits Times.
Even though I was regularly reading books then I lacked sophistication or depth in my reading. I read books but I was not a reader of books. There was no nuance or refinement to my reading; I simply chased through pages to know what happened. At the time, I enjoyed crass popular fiction and had no interest in non-fiction or essays. I had not yet discovered the classics, poetry, the diverse landscapes of fiction, the greater countries of non-fiction, and the greater world of foreign literature (translated into English, of course).
In short, my reading abilities had not yet matured. Back then, I laboured under the impression that if I did not understand what I read that meant the material was of superior quality. The thinking went: if a moron like me didn’t understand it, it must be better than me!
“I want you to read this and tell me what you think.”
“Of course!” I replied enthusiastically.
“Can you get back to me tomorrow?”
I took it to my room and read it. It was not long. He typed it out in two A4 pages. It consisted of no more than ten paragraphs. I don’t remember the words anymore but I remember how it felt reading it.
Reading it provoked a strange but not a wholly unfamiliar feeling: I understood the words by themselves but when I read them as my father arranged them they somehow lost all meaning for me; I couldn’t make sense of them. I read and re-read his draft but still could not make sense of it. It was English alright but it was still gibberish to me.
I gave up after a while.
I tried again in the evening and made some headway in the sense that I understood a few sentences but an understanding of the whole continued to elude my grasp like someone trying to catch a wet eel with soapy hands.
Satisfied with my efforts, I tried no further.
The next day my father asked me what I thought about his essay.
“It is very good,” I replied.
“Why do you say it is good?”
“Because I don’t understand it.”
“What?! If you don’t understand it then it’s not good. You are supposed to understand it. Do you, at least, know what the essay was about?”
“Yah, something about royalty.”
“Okay, at least you got that part.”
“But I am only fourteen. I’m sure an adult would understand it all.”
“No, that’s not it. Whenever you write something it should be so clear even a fourteen year old understands it. Younger, even. If you can understand it then an adult must understand it. That means I am not clear enough and have to revise it some more. Thanks.”
I think he was a little crestfallen. Looking back, I don’t think it was my father’s abilities that were wanting; it was mine. I concede I was not the sharpest tool in the shed then; I was the tool you didn’t know what to do with. Having come some way since then, I now appreciate my father writes well and wished he wrote more.
But that’s the standard I aspire to in my writing these days – so clear and easy to understand even a sixteen year old can understand; because to do that for a fourteen year old me is setting the bar too high, even for me.