4. Writing
Jason Kuo asks: "How did you develop your style, your "voice", as a writer? I respond:

You ask about how I developed my "voice" as an author/writer. Putting it that way is good, because indeed I meant to be an author/writer long before I became any kind of scholar. I was writing verse and stories by ninth grade (good English teacher during year in Santa Cruz) and even more while at Berkeley High (very good English teacher)--ambitious things such as an attempt at a comic play for the annual school performance. I was president of the Manuscript Club, won a poetry prize, etc. As a young undergrad at U.C. Berkeley (early 40s) I was more engaged in English (and German) classes than any others--not good in math or science. Studied Japanese only to have a comfortable berth in the army (advised by a close friend about how to get into the Army Jap. Lang. School in Ann Arbor--if I apply after taking only one course, I'm automatically admitted.) Went on writing voluminously while in Army; with lots of free time (waiting in lines etc.) read through great amounts of English and other literature (bawled out numerous times for bulge of pocket book--Oxford World Classics--inside uniform; meant to carry small India-paper Browning over heart if ever in battle, to stop bullets, as Bible was supposed to have done for others). After return to UCB to get BA degree (in Oriental Languages, late 40s, intended to become a translator of Japanese and Chinese literature (would have been poor competitor to Keene, Seidenstecker, Burton Watson etc.) Just at the point of getting BA degree (1950) Ed Schafer pointed out to me a notice of the Hackney Scholarship for Chinese painting studies; had been around for five years, no qualified applicants. Applied, went to Freer, then to U. Michigan. On to career.

My first book--well, not really the first, which was a small one for Japanese publisher), the Skira Chinese Painting, 1960, was praised by people who said it "read like a novel." I took this as praise. It has also been taken as criticism--those who think I construct art-historical situations too neatly, etc. I've always believed (and told students): if you write and nobody reads it, what's the use? But there's no question that my literary ambitions carried over into my scholarly (and popular) writings. If you can convey to readers, through devices essentially literary, a rich structure of meaning and information, in whichever subject, you've done something worthwhile. I came into the field, ca. 1950, just at a time when Chinese painting studies were about to take off--but when most others of the leading figures, mainly for reason of not being native English writers, weren't capable of producing good, absorbing English prose. I also proved to have a knack (to slip into immodesty) for conveying complex relationships and nuances of style etc. in a way that initiate people into new ways of thinking about the subject. I wish I had kept a folder of letters from people who say that I have somehow changed their lives, added a dimension, etc. (The letters will all be there in the Freer archive, but not collected.)

Second question from Jason on my writing style: Have my strategies & style changed, "developed" over the years? if so, why? What are the factors ... (etc.)

The first thing to say is that I have virtually never written anything except as a response to some invitation, occasion, whatever--a new acquisition by the Freer (Ch'ien Hsuan), a request from a journal or publisher, an exhibition or symposium, etc. So all my writings should properly be understood, just as works of art should, in some context. I wouldn't have attempted a general book on Ch. ptg so early if Albert Skira hadn't turned up suddenly asking me to do it (I was still working on my dissertation.) So, changes in my style and strategies have to be related to changes in the situations and stimuli. At the Freer I wrote as a museum curator, mainly, I think. At U.C. Berkeley, exposed to other kinds of art history (Svetlana Alpers etc.) I began trying new kinds myself. Teaching a two-semester course in Chinese painting several times emboldened me to attempt a "history of later Chinese painting"--since I have it worked out in such detail, both info. and arguments, why not just write it down? (Not so easy, as it turned out.) A lot of my papers can be correlated closely with the conferences and symposia for which they were written (would I have written on pilgrimages to Huangshan, or Dong Qichang's Northern & Southern theory, except for those symposia or conferences? probably not.) And later, from the late 70s on, the invitations to do lecture series (Norton, Bampton, Murphy, Reischauer, Getty) forced me to attempt large formulations in language that will get through to lecture audiences--no dreary expanses that will put them to sleep--and that necessity has a lot to do with the character of my later books. In turning a lecture series into a book, one tends to keep much of the language and form of the lectures. And so forth.

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