Are you what you write? (or, Machiavelli the playwright)

I just watched a documentary on Niccolò Machiavelli. You may know him as that scheming, deceitful, and generally rotten guy who wrote the political bible The Prince.

So infamous is he that his name has become an adjective synonymous with evil. Just see what Merriam-Webster has to stay about being “Machiavellian”:

suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli; specifically marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith

To be honest I never knew much about him – I’d heard of him and his book, but not much else. He lived in my mind vaguely in the same space as Sun Tzu and Zhuge Liang, and to a lesser extent political leaders like Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and Margaret Thatcher.

But watching this documentary gave me better appreciation for the man and his thoughts on politics and power.


It was the parts about his life, though, that really made me go: really?

You see, I always thought that Machiavelli was the right-hand man for the political leader(s) of his time and that he probably died as a martyr or as a grey-haired political advisor.  I never separated Machiavelli the man vs. Machiavelli the myth.

I always imagined him executed as part of a coup or something; which, come to think of it, would have been more romantic, no?

I had not realised that he was relatively young (~43) when he was deprived of his rather lofty official position due to transitions of power in Florence at that time.

It was only after that, as part of failed attempts to get back into officialdom that he wrote The Prince, which was his way of trying to get noticed by the new leaders. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work.

Eventually, he lived out the rest of his life writing plays. Plays. (Yes, plays.) 


Part of my amazement also lay in the fact that he still had friends after writing The Prince.

Though the book was published only 5 years after his death, he’d shared it among friends soon after first writing it.

Just imagine a modern day Machiavelli writing a blog on how to seize and hold on to positions of power, saying

one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

Who’d be friends with such a guy?


It also reminded me sometimes of my own literary voyages.

You know how sometimes you’d be in a really good mood and ready to take on the world. Just about anything you write about then will tend to be upbeat too (“Believe in yourself and you the world will be your oyster! They can hurt your body but they cannot hurt you!”)

But sometimes those days precede days where nothing goes right, and you’re in a life-is-awful-kittens-are-Satan mood.

Imagine the dissonance when someone who then reads my happy post gets all upbeat him- or herself, and then talks to me about it during one of these god-awful days, saying something akin to:

“I love how you can turn:
the good from bad;
the happy from sad;
the new from old;
and lead into gold!”

F*** off my eyes tell them.

And they have to wonder if the writer and me were one and the same.


Well, there is what I write; and then there’s me.

Please let me know if you have any questions

“Please let me know if you have any questions,” wrote I in an email I was drafting.

It has long been my signature email sign-off, but this time I was feeling a little reflective and reconsidered writing that line.

What did it really mean? 

But try as I might I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it made no sense. So I deleted it.

Then I re-read the e-mail.

Ugh. No, it didn’t seem right.

So I put it back in.

The thing is though, I couldn’t reconcile this fact: if the recipients had any questions I’m pretty sure they would have not hesitated hitting “Reply” and asking me those questions. Would having left that line out stopped the questions from coming?

Surely not.

Still, I added the line back in because it “sounded better”, and from then on just accepted that I’d never know and simply kept that line in without too much thought.

Then just today I came across this passage from the book Simply Said by Jay Sullivan:

When you write at the end of an email “Let me know if you have any questions,” you are writing that line for a certain tone. Clearly, the reader will let you know if she has any questions, regardless of whether you make that offer. You add that line because it seems like a pleasant, conversational way to end the message. You include it to set the right tone, just the way you start the message with some basic pleasantry like, “I hope all is well” or “Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.” Because email can seem so abrupt, it’s important to make sure we soften the tone of our messages.

I now feel extremely validated.

Turns out I’m just naturally inclined to be a pleasant, courteous person.

The number of books one reads is not as important as the number of times one reads a book

The last time I wrote I mentioned that I was reading the book Dedication – The Huawei Philosophy of Human Resource Management, by Huang Weiwei. Well, I’ve finished, and I must say that it was great.

Just thought I’d pen down one more of the passages that I thought made great sense and felt extremely relevant to me, and one in which I would want to reference again in future years (you cannot believe how many times I’ve sought reminders on important passages in books through edonn.com), as I seek to hit my 30 books target on goodreads.com:

To me, the number of books one reads is not as important as the number of times one reads a book. If one reads a lot of books but does not review them, he or she may not gain a thorough understanding of any of them… the more you read [corporate documents that embody the wisdom of the senior management team], the deeper your understanding will become. For example, you can read corporate documents once a week. If you want to become a manager in the future, it is important to learn from other people’s experience. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand the documents after your first reading. The more your read them, the more accurate your understanding will be.

I read this passage just as I had started re-reading one of my favourite books, Team of Teams, by General Stanley McChrystal; this after being reminded of the book while reading Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, in which there was a chapter on a McChrystal interview.

So many good books, so little time!

On Blogging and Slogging

Ah, it’s been a while since I last published anything here. Feel a little guilty, but thankfully not too much. Crazy work commitments in the months prior (man, I’ve been busy) followed by a two week holiday (to America!) meant I couldn’t devote as much time as I’d have liked to writing here.

Taken on the way to Hollywood!
Taken on the way to Hollywood!

Which reminds me of this article I read just earlier today, When Blogging Becomes a Slog (unfortunately I can’t recall how I got to know of that article), which I think many writers would be able to relate to. It’s about how a couple started writing/blogging on home renovations as a hobby, became uber successful at it, and made it into a job/career, only to realise the jobification of writing pretty much made them lose their writing mojo.

I sometimes get that feeling here at edonn.com too. The only thing is that my demarketing of edonn.com, deliberately keeping readership low (ha! if you believe that), has ensured that even if I skipped a week or two or twenty, I don’t really feel pressured to feel pressured.

Trashing the first draft

He looked at my screen, saw the first draft of an e-mail I’d been penning, and shook his head.

It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t read well. The message that should have been communicated within the first line was placed below another eight lines of filler. And to think I’d been working on this for the last fifteen minutes.

“My god,” his expression told me, “that’s a bad piece of e-mail.”

I sighed.

“It’s only the first draft,” I told him. I knew it was bad, as my first drafts almost always are, almost on purpose. You don’t look at a skeleton and think now there’s a good-looking guy/girl, do you?

I know what I’m doing, was my implied message.

As it turned out, the first draft was soon discarded — it’d served its purpose — and the polished second (and final) one crafted. In less than five minutes, I might add.

The first draft is, for me, always a piece of sh*t. It’s not meant to be read. It’s meant to get the ideas floating in my head down in one place, where I can physically see and play around with them.

See my final draft and make a judgement if you want. But until then, just let me work my magic — the magic of iteration.

How to write shorter, better e-mails

Each time I complete writing a lengthy e-mail, I save it in my drafts and let it sit there for a while (sometimes, just a minute or two would do). Then, returning to it, I look at it through the eyes of my recipient, and imagine how I’d read it if I had only ten seconds to do so, and had plenty of other work commitments on my mind.

Almost always, I’d find that e-mail unclear, unpersuasive, and unreasonably long, leading to a rewrite that’s clearer, more persuasive, and shorter by 50% to boot.

This change of perspective, though simple, can provide you with a dramatically better e-mail.

On the need to write, to write.

Words excite me. Really, they do.

The prospect of writing something good tantalises me like the prospect of having good sex. My pupils enlarge; my breathing gets shallower; my hands get all balmy.

But as much as I love to write, I haven’t been writing lately. Probably because I’ve been finding that there’s hardly anything to write about. I’m a strong believer in the saying “if you’ve got nothing to say, don’t.” And if you’re got nothing to write about…

The thing is, not writing tends to become quite a bit of a habit. The less you write, the less you’ll feel like writing; and the more you write, the more you’ll feel like writing.

It’s a little bit of a catch-22: though I want to avoid bad writing as much as possible (and having nothing to write almost definitely leads to bad writing if it is forced), it has been said that bad writing inevitably precedes good writing.

I suppose that’s the reason why I wrote my last post about the Bon Iver music video and my wanting to go Iceland one day, even though It wasn’t something I particularly felt I had to write or share about.

I just knew I had to write something. And whatdya know, one thing led to another, and here I am again.