All day long, my mind has been coming back to this poem by Czeslaw Milosz -
- and I don't quite know why. Maybe it's because we've been discussing our nonfiction picks at Sundog this week - and so many of the ones that we're considering, this round, happen to be about death and loss. At our editorial meeting last night, we were talking about how loss always ends up being such a dominant theme in this particular genre. And also marvelling at how different writers use totally different tools to cope with the universal human experience of pain. Some people use white space or distance, some people use volubility or humour, others use precision and control... there must be a thousand different ways to do this work, of transmuting feelings that are too hot to hold into something knowable, or at least describable, again.
I wonder if I keep thinking about this poem because of my querying journey as well! I don't want to say too much about it, because processes are still underway. But the main thing is that increasingly, I am grappling with the realisation that my book really could be out of my hands one day, somewhere in the world. Right before I started querying, I experienced a few initial waves of grief related to this knowledge, which really surprised me. And the feeling sometimes echoes on inside me, even now - alongside all my excitement and happiness - as the future becomes more real.
I suspect that I am writing this blog post because I am trying to make that leap that Milosz describes, in the very last line of the poem - from sorrow to wonder, in the process of letting go. Maybe sorrow is about looking backwards at what has been, and at all that can be known for sure, because it has already been experienced. E.g. the past 4 years of writing my book, the parts of my life that I've managed to tell a story about. Whereas wonder is about looking forwards, at something beyond the periphery of the known world ("where are they going?")... something in the darkness of the "after", that you might not have the exact words for yet. I wonder what that would look like for me! I would like to keep my eyes out there, on the darkness - on all the possibilities that are the antidote for sorrow.
There's probably so much more that I could write about this topic, but that's enough for today. In the coming weeks, I'd like to revive my old Substack again to do a book or story review - I feel the energy for that task rising. I'll post again here, when it happens.
It's a lovely sunny London morning to be indoors blogging! But this morning I woke up with a thought on my mind, about the very first thing I ever published.
The first piece of writing that I ever published in a journal was this essay in berfrois, that I wrote when I was like 19 or 20 or something (if you scroll all the way to the end of the post, you'll see that I still looked like a baby - I still had the bangs that I used to have back in junior college in Singapore). It was an essay where I read the work of two artists, Gertrude Stein and Sebastião Sagaldo, side by side, and talked about issues of framing... and for a long time, thinking about this essay used to make me feel somewhat uncomfortable.
Inexplicably so, perhaps - since the writing itself is by all accounts pretty solid. But for a long time, the feelings were there, and I struggled to find a satisfactory explanation for them. In fact, when I was building this website two years ago, I struggled enormously to include this essay in my list of publications... wasn't it too pretentious? Too preening and bombastic? I had written this piece as part of a mentorship programme, back in Singapore, that wasn't a very good fit for my emotional needs as an artist at the time. And for a long time, I wondered if my bad feelings were somehow tied to the programme and the broader regrets that I still feel about it.
I've written on here before that for me, the temptation has always been to erase the past from my own artistic record, and present myself like a person who has always been fully formed - instead of as someone who has had to grow over many years, and discover what works/doesn't work for them. So it really amazes me to see that now - aged 30~ and finishing my first book - my mind has come back to this first baby-steps essay about Sebastião Sagaldo again. The core themes of the memoir that I have spent the past 4 years making - control, power dynamics, the complexities of the author-character relationship in a piece of literature or art - they were all there to begin with, in the very first thing that I hesitantly tried to put out into the world. It makes me think about this tweet that I recently saw, from the author E.J. Koh, where she says:
And that's something that feels important for me to hold onto - as a person who, generally, tries as hard as possible to run away from their past and past selves. Realising that I've come back to the very beginning again, after years and years of going on a journey - it puts me in mind of that famous Louise Glück quote where she says that people only look at the world once, in childhood, and the rest is just memory. Beginnings are important! In some ways, I'm starting to understand, maybe they are all that there really is.
Over the last few weeks, revisions for my memoir have really kicked into high gear. I've been getting feedback from beta-readers, solving the last few structural puzzles of the book by going back to old feedback from workshop groups and friends again... and I can feel that the book is becoming more and more like its final, finished self. Originally I wanted to start querying before the end of the year, but I'm starting to feel differently now that I realise that waiting can give me a chance to bring other people into the process, so that I feel like I'm not alone. Honestly, I never thought I'd be the kind of person to say this - but I would pick the feeling of having a community of fellow writers over the thrill of being first and fastest, any day. Ending off with another quote-tweet that I think expresses the feeling (or at least my own aspirations) better than I ever could:
It's been a hectic summer, and I haven't felt the urge to write here at all until today. I was going to do some general updates about new positions started, new activities I'm involved in... but I think that actually those belong properly on social media, not here.
Some big news is that I've started new editorial positions at Sundog Lit and Exposition Review - two lit journals that I absolutely love, because they publish the kind of work that makes me feel happy to be alive and reading. Submissions open soon for both - and if you're reading this (and a writer), I hope that I'll get to see you in the queue!
What I really feel like doing is taking stock of things for a minute, writing-wise.
I finished writing my book two weeks ago, on a very warm Sunday. I could feel - deeply and with absolute certainty - that the book was finished, in the sense that it had finally managed to become the thing that it wanted to be all along, in its bones. It isn't polished yet, of course - there are still lots of loose ends that need tucking away. But fundamentally the book now exists in the world, and is entirely itself. Which is an incredible and magical thing for me to think about, after almost four years of writing. I felt so light and airy on the day I finished.
Since then, though, something strange has been happening to me. Not many people talk about what it feels like in the weeks right after you finish writing a book, so I don't know if this is how it goes for everyone. But for me, what I feel is the return of a much older version of myself. This version of myself tends towards self-critical, with a sharp eye for her own flaws, and an overdeveloped ability to articulate how and why the things she makes might be broken.
It's surprising to me, actually, that this part of me still exists! I thought that at some level it had been eradicated by the last year and a half of my life, when I felt more creativity and joy than I've ever felt as an adult. I feel like the next lap of my book journey is going to be about learning how to coexist peacefully with this inner critic - without letting her overpower me - so that I can rely on her keen eye during the next few stages of editing.
And so far it's been a struggle! I can feel that there is a part of me that wants it all to be over quickly - that wants to just chuck the whole thing off to some higher authority, like an agent or publisher, so that I don't have to keep facing myself in revisions. In one of my favourite recent essays about the writing life, Carmen Maria Machado describes something a little similar - where new writers sometimes give in to the urge to "go pro" too early, almost as a shortcut from doing the necessary work that their book requires of them. This feeling - it is real, and I feel it. I'm also glad that essays like this one exist, to help me fight my own impatience and know that I'm not alone.
Let's see how things go.
I haven't been blogging at all recently, because too much has been happening.
But briefly, my biggest writing life update is that I gave my first-ever author interview! Megan Lear, my interviewer at Colorado Review, was an absolute star, and asked me about so many topics that I care about - from the place of play in my creative life, to the radical uses of memory in nonfiction and memoir writing. I enjoyed giving this interview so much, and feel pleased to see it out in the world... in general, it has been really heartening for me to see the impact that "The Story of Body" has on other readers and writers! It makes me feel glad that I pushed through the struggles of the past three years, to write the piece.
I hope that you might enjoy reading the interview - please let me know if you do!
Some other lit-life updates are:
As a general life update, I post a lot about my writing life on Instagram nowadays - something in me has shifted, and this feels easier for me than blogging at the moment.
I hope that everyone is having a lovely summer!
I made a Substack!
It's a fun little side project that I've decided to work on, alongside my main manuscript! I've called it The Recovering Creatives Book Club - because it's a newsletter where I recommend books that have helped me to process my fears over the past few years, and become more settled in my own skin as a creative person/writer.
If you read this blog regularly, then you'll know that I come from a place of intense creative trauma, and have spent most of my adult life so far recuperating my senses of play and joy. Books have helped me so much along this journey! They give me a boost every time I worry that I might alone, and remind me that other artists struggle with the same weird complexes that I do.
In my own non-writing time, I mostly read fiction and graphic novels to decompress from writing a memoir. So most of my book recommendations fall into those two genres. My first issue, for example, is about Noah van Sciver's Fante Bukowski series, and tackles fears around pretension, imposter syndrome, and the myth of the Artist's Lifestyle.
Writing this newsletter has honestly been so much fun! I've found that alongside working on my own book, it brings me lots of joy to create something of definite value for other creatives... to provide people with a solid and helpful service. And because I read at the speed of light - and am such a huge psychology/psychoanalysis nerd to boot - this feels like exactly what I can bring to the table.
If you're at all interested, you can subscribe to my newsletter here! You'll get an email directly in your inbox, every time I write a new post. I don't have any real plans re: frequency yet - but a good estimate is say, one dispatch every three or four weeks.
Other updates - I'm currently attending Grub Street's Muse & the Marketplace digital conference, which has been such a stellar experience. I might write more about it in a future blog post. But the long and short of it is that I have learned so many new things about publishing a book - particularly about the nuts and bolts of coming out of the writer's cave, and taking an actual product into the world. I would highly, highly recommend this conference to anyone else who's trying to make it in the industry (and who is maybe, like me, also slightly intimidated by the business side of the whole process!)
I felt like doing a blog post this evening, to share an incredible writing resource that I recently discovered. It's The Creative Independent - a giant treasure trove of candid interviews, where people talk through their personal creative journeys, and also share the workarounds that helped them at various points in their careers.
I've said somewhere on here before that it can often feel difficult to access emotional - as opposed to practical - resources for artists... especially if you're like me, with a fixed bandwidth for social interaction. This website is perfect because it delivers genuine, deep, and personal insight, but via a medium that lets you read and digest in your own space/time. I honestly love it, and come back to it whenever I feel the need for nourishment.
As a side note, I particularly loved this recent interview with the writer Rebecca van Laer, where she talks about trusting the work to grow into its own perfect shape, in its own time - instead of constantly trying to hurry it out into the world. This is a quote that really resonated with me:
As soon as I read this, I thought - Damn, I've been there too! When I first started working on the essays in my manuscript, all the way back in 2018, this was pretty much what I did with everything I wrote. I really struggled to access validation from within myself; but I was also in a huge, career-driven rush to get published and noticed. As a result, I was constantly Whatsapping bits and pieces of my writing - half-essays! paragraphs! sometimes even single sentences! - to other people, and begging them to tell me that they were okay.
I assumed that if I heard the word "okay" enough times, I would feel justified in shoving all these bits I didn't feel good about into the rough, hasty shape of a product. Of course, what I've discovered in the years since is that it doesn't work this way. At all! Other people's feedback has its own important place in the creative process. But it isn't a workable replacement for the voice inside your own head, that needs to fire up first before you put things out into the world. The one that says: This is finished now. It's everything it should be.
My husband - one of the most patient people I have ever met - often reminds me that good things take time. And it helps me to remember that, whenever I feel the pressure to achieve more and faster. When it comes to creativity, it can take a lot of time to feel out the true, inherent shape of the product that you're making. And there's no substitute for that time; it's crucial to the whole. Personally, it took me three years and a half years of waiting to understand what my book wanted to be. And now that I know it, I no longer feel such a constant urge to keep asking for validation. Increasingly I feel strong, and clear, and grounded when I write.
Anyway, hope that you enjoy reading The Creative Independent! There are lots of other great interviews there besides Rebecca van Laer's, on all kinds of topics and hangups and personal journeys... there's bound to be a piece of advice in there for everyone. If any of the interviews speak to you at all I'd love to know.
"The Story of Body", my latest essay, is out now in the Spring issue of Colorado Review! I've dropped a link to it in the Work section of this website - it'll take you to a page where you can purchase digital (or, indeed physical) copies of the journal.
Writing this essay changed my life! I've talked about that a lot already, in previous blog posts - so all I want to add now is that it's in great company. The writing in this issue of Colorado Review has one of my favourite qualities in literature, overall... it's kind of hard to pin down what it is in words, exactly! But it has something to do with psychological truth and depth - the kind of insight that it's hard (even impossible?) to fake, when someone is writing about their own, or someone else's, inner world of feelings and motivations. Reading this issue reminded me how vast and complex consciousness is - how selfhood can sometimes feel like it's stretching back across generations and spilling across gulfs, in even the smallest of interactions with another human being.
Some of my favourite pieces are Ariel Katz's short story, "Disaster Management" - which is about a couple navigating their relationship's dynamics, and felt very relatable to me. I also loved Caroline Schmidt's "Nocturne" - it has a feeling running through it that made me tear up mid-read, because it reminded me so much of an earlier version of my life.
I honestly couldn't have asked for a better home for "The Story of Body".
I haven't been blogging because I haven't been writing much, this last month. Stuff is happening in my mind, though, underneath all the layers where I'm doing things for other people... I'm curious to see what these next few weeks will bring.
Inside & outside
I thought about writing something on here for my 29th birthday, but then I thought - maybe this ought to be an Instagram post instead? Which isn't a sentence that pops into my mind very often... to me, Instagram can feel like such a daunting place, because of the immediacy of responses that it allows and provokes. Increasingly, though, I'm beginning to feel like I can allow this dynamic a place in my life, too - alongside whatever it is that I get from my other talking spaces, like this blog, or my manuscript. Acknowledging this feeling and running with it feels like personal growth, in its own way: admitting that I would like to learn how to exist alongside the demands of other people, even while holding on to the central pieces of myself.
A while ago I was talking to an old school friend who also creates art, about how writing a book is kind of like talking to an invisible friend - encompassing this fantasy of being endlessly and thoroughly listened to, without interruptions, and without the imposition of any demands. Working on a book has felt like that for me: like a kind of retreat into my own little hidey-hole, where everything happens exactly as I say it does. But now, as I progress ever so slowly with the thing, I can feel that a part of me is trying to poke its head out into the open again, and reach for the sunlight... avail itself to the external world. Okay then - so be it; this stuff probably moves in a cycle for most people, anyway. Probably the dream is to have one foot in the world inside, and one foot in the world outside; that's what I want for myself personally, as an artist.
When I think of what it feels like at this point of writing, I think of that very famous Winnicott quote: "It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found."
In thematically related news, I've signed my payment forms, which means that 'The Story of Body' is coming out in print very soon, in the Colorado Review. This essay is basically the story of my childhood and my twenties, so I still can't make it through the galleys without tearing up. But in a way, I also feel relieved that other people are going to be able to read it soon. I feel very lucky to be here on planet earth, making art and making money and spending time with my husband, whom I love. Using all the beauty that is available around me, to tell the story of my life.
What a wonderful thing it is to be alive.
New year resolution; an amazing story
In 2022 I want to write towards a more uncomfortable place.
Back in my religious days, I used to be entranced by the concept of holiness: this idea of a white, scarring heat holding absolute sway. I'm no longer religious, but I want to move towards that same feeling as I write this year. Getting there involves a lot of discomfort for me - letting the words push me into a place beyond my own mind, so that a bright, bitter wind can blow right through me and tell me the whole truth about myself. It's scary but important to go there - I feel - in writing this memoir. If I can tap into that feeling often enough, I'll have a finished manuscript.
Feeling a bit curt overall because of the work that I'm in the midst of doing. I've reached the abyss stage of the hero's journey, in this memoir that I'm working on... and reliving this portion of my own life in writing has been such a massive drain on my energy. Anyway, I mostly started this post to share that I read an incredible story on Catapult today, which moved me beyond words. I literally had to lie down after reading it so that my thoughts could reboot. It's about genius and creation and friendship and the devil... also about the enormous lengths that some people have to travel, in order to assert themselves in the world. I felt it in my bones (and now want to read everything else that this author has written).
Life update; name.
I moved back to London yesterday, after almost two years away. It's cold beyond belief here, and gets dark at an astonishingly early hour. I'm writing this while jetlagging and waiting for the melatonin to kick in.
It feels surreal to be back in this city again, especially because so much has happened to, and within, me since I was last in this particular physical space. Yesterday, someone at work asked me for three words that I would use to describe my 2021, and I gave them "transformational", "expressive" and "authentic". I feel more like myself than I've ever felt before. And perhaps part of the challenge is keeping that feeling close to me, even when I have a chance to scratch it all out and reinvent my personality again - like I did very the first time I moved to the UK, from Singapore, ten years ago. This time, I packed some of my old concert pianist scores and written criticism from childhood with me, to bring back to our flat. It feels important to have the physical proof of who I once was here with me now - just in case I'm tempted to forget about the past again. I want to hold on.
Book-writing is going slowly at the moment! I've hit a section of the narrative that is difficult for me - that involves rereading some essays that reveal parts of my self I wish didn't exist, and being honest about them. At a lecture I attended some time ago, the speaker, Minal Hajratwala, talked about how finishing a book involves this interior process of "becoming the person who I need to become, in order to finish the book I need to write". That's exactly what it feels like for me. When I feel discouraged about the speed at which I'm progressing, I try to remember that it's not only about getting words down on paper; it's also about becoming the type of person who would be capable of writing these words in the first place, and situating herself comfortably within their truth.
Some days, I write three lines of dialogue and then I'm out for the day. So I do more paid projects; I go for walks; I lie around on the couch watching the sky, and letting my subconscious thoughts slowly rise to the level of utterance. I want to give myself the permission to be this way, even though it can make me feel like less of a success than I'd like to be.
Last week, the editor of a magazine asked me how my name ought to appear in its pages. They noticed that I styled my name three different ways in the content pages, the proof, and the notes. So I've decided that from now on, when I publish, I want to move my first name around - like "Shze-Hui Tjoa" - to avoid confusion for readers in other countries. Two years ago, something like this would have bothered me immensely - it would probably have made me rant on about politics and power. But I feel that as I gain more of a sense of self with the writing, little things like this have started to bother me much less. I know who I am, because my identity is there in my story, and alive in my body. What I want, these days, is to make it easy for other people to perceive me - even if that gaze can only come through a thin veil of fantasy or compromise.