On writing

As I run the tail end of my college career, I’ve been spending so much of my time mulling over my relationship with writing. How much I love it, how much it stresses me out, how much it helps me relax, how I don’t feel like I’m good at it or have what it takes to be good at it, how much I absolutely hate it when I know people are reading what I write but also how much I love it when people tell me they relate to something I say. I am not trying to sound like a moody tormented artist here because I’m so not the type but I do genuinely love writing for pleasure in a way I don’t love anything or anyone else because nothing else is as “mine” as writing is to me.

I was talking to my friend Clare on Friday and at one point of the conversation, we talked about Marina Keegan’s posthumously published book, The Opposite of Loneliness (we’re both a huge fan of the book—I highly recommend it). As we spoke, I realise a lot of what makes a good writer lies outside of the act of writing itself, and more in thinking and observations of daily life.

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Joan Didion

This brings me to Joan Didion. I’ve read a couple of Didion’s pieces for my non-fiction writing class and I’m quite enamoured by her. Most recently, I read her piece, On Keeping a Notebook and she talks about something I absolutely love doing: taking notes about random thoughts and observations. I have always asked myself why I do that, because what usually happens is I think of something and I say “oh that’s a good one” and I quickly type it into my Notes app but rarely ever do I go back to my notes and compile them and turn them into anything. They don’t amount to anything, they don’t get read by me or anyone else, and I almost just write them down just to keep them. But why? Why do I do that? In her aforementioned piece, Didion kind of weighs in on that:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Basically, she’s also saying that she isn’t quite sure why she does it and that it’s an explicable compulsion she has. Then a few paragraphs later, she says:

We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. […] The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful [reflections]; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

I know our generation is probably a lot more narcissistic than Didion’s probably was. We are now taught to believe we’re unique and important. But still, I think, there’s a sense that our public lives aren’t meant to feel interesting and special but in private writing, it really can be. And all these random scribbles don’t need to amount to something huge, they don’t need to be a means to an end but an end in itself.

This reminded me of Marina Keegan. Marina was a very recent Yale graduate at the time of her death in 2012. She was poised for a job at The New Yorker. She was and always will be an amazing writer. When she died, I think her parents and one of her professors (I might be wrong about this) got together to compile some of her best pieces which is what became The Opposite of Loneliness, titled after the very popular last piece she wrote for the Yale Daily News (read it here). Anne Fadiman, her first-person writing professor wrote the introduction to her book and in it, Fadiman says Marina applied to her class with this:

About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.

It just comforts me so much to think that I sorta kinda share something with these very established writers. I mean, obviously, I’m no where near there but it’s nice to know that even though I sometimes don’t feel good enough, I have an intention and an inclination that is good and reflective and creative. Of course, I think writers don’t become great writers because they just have talent or creativity. I totally believe the creative life involves as much discipline as anything else does—it also means sitting down at your desk with your laptop or your paper day in, day out—but that much I feel have control over.


More Joan Didion: Here’s What Joan Didion Can Teach You About LifeJoan Didion on Keeping a Notebook.

More Marina Keegan: Remembering Marina KeeganThe Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan.

An infinite set of Russian nesting dolls | Summer 2016

If you follow this space closely (and I don’t know how many actually do, but if lah kan) you would know that I’ve been writing short posts everyday for the past month, about something that makes me happy on each day. It has been an interesting experiment/challenge so far because first and foremost, it is a level up for my discipline muscles—sometimes I’ll be half asleep and remember I haven’t written anything and then I scramble for my phone in the dark to (admittedly, hastily) publish 100 words or so.

Second, it makes me realise that I need public exposure to remain accountable… which I don’t really like about myself. I want to be able to do things I say I will do just because I say I will do them. I know if I told myself to write in my journal once a day, I wouldn’t be as good at keeping it up as I have been on this site because I know no one will see it other than me. Then again, maybe I should be easier on myself and think of this as training wheels, and perhaps I should phrase my earlier statement differently: I have learnt that making things public helps me maintain accountability, as opposed to it being something I depend on. Wah, look at that positive spin. Proud of myself. Tepuk tangan. Hair flip. Ok, enough.

Third is something I’ve realised over the past year since I started this blog: I have been writing in my personal journal less and less because I write so much here and that’s a little annoying because I write so much more personally and honestly in private. But on the flip side, I linger over each word and sentence much less (if at all) when I write in private, which means I don’t confront my writing as much as I do when I write on my blog. Each post on here takes me up to 2 hours to write because I fuss over things and re-read and abuse the “edit” button and re-write until I’m happy. I guess those are just the expected pros and cons, but attempting to balance writing in public and in private has been an interesting thing to work on and I enjoy feeling as though I’m developing myself in a very personal capacity as opposed to only at school/work.

Fourth, doing the 100 Happy Days challenge really has pushed me to see more of the upsides in things which isn’t always easy because our brains tend to bend towards whining and sighing. A girl who reads my blog, Lu (hey, am I saying your name correctly? let me know hehe) told me she heard that completing the 100 Happy Days challenge makes you a happier person and I guess I can see how it helps. It consistently and patiently lays a new brick for building good habits bit by bit everyday. I make a conscious effort to take more pictures of little happy things throughout the day to help me document and remember.

Fifth, it has forced me to confront the fact that I love writing for pleasure and could do it everyday. I previously didn’t really like saying that because I personally feel like writing comes with a responsibility to write well and… well, that’s pressure and who likes pressure? But writing everyday means that these days, I’m always “writing” on some level—most times in my head. I’m always scribbling one liners and stand-alone paragraphs which read out like they were plucked out from a longer piece in my head waiting to be birthed.

Which brings me to what I think I want to say, which is… lately (and when I say lately, I mean for the past 8 months or so) I have this constant craving for creating content. I feel like there is a book in my head, a talk show in my mouth, I feel like I see photographs waiting to be taken whenever I look around. I don’t want to sound like Kanye West on a Twitter spree claiming he’s a genius who Mark Zuckerberg should start investing in; God knows I do not share his hubris. I just can’t help but to marvel at everything: every story, every conversation, every view, every person and then feel compelled to reach for a pen, a camera and turn it into something….

…And right there’s my problem. I want to turn the things I see into something else except, what is that something? And how do I do it? How do you live in the suffocating space between feeling so inspired and so unskilled? And more importantly… why do I feel like I should/could do something, anything? Like, who do I think I am anyway, right? But then again, why not me? Isn’t that the beauty of it all; that anyone can do it? Questions reveal themselves like an infinite set of Russian nesting dolls.

For now, all I can say is that I crave creating things pretty much the same way I crave buttercream frosting on cake when I’m on a diet and the same way I pine for a cold bowl of cendol on a hot sunny Philadelphia day. I think about it when I wake up and sometimes it keeps me up at night because it feels like a sum of all the times I’m thinking of a word that’s at the tip of my tongue but can’t quite put my finger on it. To somewhat satisfy my cravings, I’ve been scouring the internet for blogs, photo essays, vlogs. It helps keep me inspired, I think. It makes me so happy to see other people creating things, materialising ideas and making (what I consider) art*. Accessible, relevant, meaningful art.

I’m sorry this post was so boring. I’m just thinking out loud and didn’t even know this post would end up here… I didn’t really think it through. Actually, I’m not sorry. Why should I be sorry? This is my site, I can do whatever I want. Wait no, actually, I am sorry, I took on the responsibility to make this site something I and other people will find meaningful and I don’t think I’m living up to that.. and now I’m doubly sorry for over-thinking out loud and for being annoying. Or maybe I’m not sorry, because everyone goes back and forth like this too and maybe you relate? I DON’T KNOW. BYE.

(I’m okay, I promise. Haha.)


*A side note: I think it’s possible that everyone creates “art” in one form or another and you may disagree, but I urge you to realise the complexity that lies in everything we externalise: from professional portraits to Instagram selfies, from poetry to Facebook statuses. I mean, let’s not get too philosophical here, but whether you realise it or not, each of those things and everything in between comprises of like a gazillion choices made either consciously or subconsciously. I am always so amazed by how a bunch of ideas and choices (lighting, composition, word choice, tone, length, size etc) make up a whole greater than a sum of its parts.