It's perhaps a bit redundant if I start by introducing the works of Nguyen Nhat Anh - The "little prince" of my heart and many young generations of Vietnam alike. He rarely gives interviews, always admitting that he is not tactful with words. It makes journalists frustrated at times: “Good God, how is it that someone not good with words can write hundred of books?!?”. Maybe, “The older people get, the less they talk. They think more. ” (Tôi là Bêtô)?
Nguyen Nhat Anh’s literature is loved not only by children but also by adults. In his words, one finds shelter for the heart. When life gets too unbearable, reading his soulful lines full of compassionate love makes readers feel strangely safe and relieved.
It has been almost 40 years since he published his first long story (Trước Vòng Chung Kết, Mang-Non Publishing House, 1985). Nowadays, he still writes four to five hours a day, every day. He has published over 100 books for children, teenagers, and young-at-heart adults.
Almost every story he has written was based on his own life, childhood, and adulthood. Yes, everyone has stories to tell, but what makes Nguyen Nhat Anh's stories sought-after and dearly loved from generation to generation?
During our recent conversation, my question was answered as he casually told me: “Writing a book is like loving someone, kid!” Aha! Let me flip through some of his books to learn how Nguyen Nhat Anh loves, and figure out how he writes, of course.
To love someone, or to tell a story...
Firstly, we have to do it unconditionally. Tell a story (or love a person) just for the sake of the story or the person. Do not rush into thinking about what you will get back from this task; readers (or lovers) can easily see through you right away.
It is not difficult to see that Nguyen Nhat Anh tells his stories because he loves them. From very cheeky details like being forced by the editor of the class newspaper to write love poems for the fiercest girl (Hoa hồng xứ khác). Or the student from the countryside rides a cyclo in the city to earn his pocket money (Còn chút gì để nhớ). Nguyen Nhat Anh tells his life stories lovingly without any hidden agenda. Like loving just for the sake of love, as it should be.
As mentioned above, everyone has their own unique stories. But to tell them with love and empathy requires the writer to be loving and benevolent to every detail, every character. The weight of empathy and compassion is so palpable in most of Nguyen Nhat Anh's writing. Especially when he describes sadness.
As we grow, we have to experience heartbreaks and loss as an unavoidable part of life. Have you ever felt like drowning in sorrow whilst knowing you mustn't give up? "I am a small fish, swimming in sadness. Sadness as immense as the sea, I swam all night and still didn't get out. But I still swam quietly, pensively, alone, occasionally swishing my long tail, causing milky foam bubbles to appear like small stars." (Mắt Biếc). His sadness is as gentle as a dream. Reading his words reminds us that: this too shall pass.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
We need to be able to laugh at ourselves. Get out of our heads to look at our own shortcomings squarely in the face. Not to torment or judge, but to understand with tolerance. Like how Nguyen Nhat Anh borrowed Beto's (one of his dogs) story to talk about humanity: “When one person is treated more special than others, he naturally becomes a thorn in the eyes of the rest. But after all, no one is evil, be it himself or those who don't like him." (Tôi là Bêtô)
This life of ours is finite, as is our understanding. Be happy and gentle to learn, gentle to love, and gentle to write. If an adult ever interrogates Nguyen Nhat Anh: "How do you know how Beto thinks? Please provide science research proving that dogs can contemplate this way?" He would laugh and say: "Why don't you ask Beto yourself?"
But be honest
Nguyen Nhat Anh's literature is timeless because each of his stories is a serious investment of creativity and thoughtfulness. His stories are not seasonal and never have scandalous factors. He wins over readers’ hearts with intimate details, emotional layers that are very human and sincere. “Love is not an act of gratitude, much less an act of charity. It does not come to us in wheelchairs, with hands and feet in casts and call for mercy.” (Ngày xưa có một chuyện tình)
Look at the simple things around you with love
Sometimes we prepare grandiose ideas in our heads, then comes the time to write, we keep trying but can't find quite the right words to describe them. We either quit halfway or produce some mediocre work.
Instead of trying to chase a strange and frivolous muse, why don't we look for her in familiar things around? Try taking time to contemplate, ponder, and then write from the original point of view within yourself. Because, “Being indifferent to where we live, after all, is like being indifferent to those we love. And if we continue to be indifferent to the people we live with, so we can go on an annual leave to spend a few days with a stranger, will we ever be at ease ?" (Người Quảng ăn mì Quảng)
Know when to tie up loose ends
Beautiful love stories are often difficult to last. Either they end or evolve into another emotion that can endure. And the truth is, along with this life, at some point, everything will come to an end. However, for a love to be truly beautiful, one shall not think about its ending whilst being in love(!)
Nguyen Nhat Anh wrote with that knowledge. His stories are beautiful down to the last details. Sometimes if it weren't for the right half of the book getting thinner, we wouldn't have noticed (and couldn't help feeling a little sad) that the end is near.
Knowing when to stop and how to stop is very important when we write, especially a long story. And the most important thing is to end well.
This beautiful ending is probably the most difficult thing when the writer has to untie the knots in the story to satisfy the readers whilst being compact so that the story is not dragging.
The ending should neither be abrupt nor become a lengthy narrative. It needs to be well balanced, like tightrope walking. A memory of a beautiful story (or love) should only linger like precious golden dust, just enough to add a bit of poetry to our everyday life.