When I was a teenager and not playing competitive piano anymore, I spent almost all my waking hours either:
a) Running around with a smile on my face, desperately trying to please everyone and preserve my own psyche in the process.
b) Crying in my bedroom alone while reading many, many poems about sex and death.
I discovered the poet Alison Townsend while doing b). A poetry Livejournal site that I followed would periodically reblog her work - probably not realising that halfway across the world, a Singaporean teenager was growing increasingly emotionally dependent on each new update. I read Alison Townsend poems about divorce, and bodies, and depression, and the many things that a person might be capable of living through, in order to later write about. Her writing gave me hope that there was another side to whatever this thing was - this thing that I was still in the midst of, and didn't yet have the words for. I remember looking her up on the internet one time, and learning that she was a professional poet, and thinking: How do you get to be like that? The distance between where I was and where she stood seemed truly staggering - especially for someone like me, who felt pretty much denuded of a story to tell.
Yesterday night, I found out that because of our adjacent surnames, Alison Townsend and I are sitting next to each other on the Notables list for this year's Best American Essays:
Even though the placement is a total coincidence, this feels like such a huge moment for me! I'm so happy, and teenaged me is totally flipping out. This essay isn't one that I feel a ton of resonance with, at this particular point. In fact, I think I may want to revise it somewhat in the coming months - or at least write around it - because so much has changed in my feelings around race, and my husband Thomas, and myself, over the last two years. But I never thought that I'd someday be on a list of writers with this person - and also, it makes me happy to know that the essay in its current form continues to bring people something valuable. It's been a wild fucking ride to get here, from my days crying and reading Livejournals in my bedroom, to knowing my life story well enough to write about it - just like the artists I admired from afar. I hope that this path will go on. :-)
"The Story of Body", an essay that I wrote about my ex-life as a child concert pianist, has just been accepted for publication! Because of the speed at which these things operate, it's coming out in the Spring 2022 issue of Colorado Review - which feels way too slow for me, since this is an essay that I can't wait to share.
Because this is a piece that deals with childhood trauma (and the ways that it recurs in adult life), it was really difficult to write. But putting it out in the world has massively changed things for me, both personally, and as a writer. When I shared it with people and observed their responses, I started to gain a clear sense of who was, and wasn't, invested in my journey towards self-recovery. Articulating the parts of myself contained in this essay helped me to pause some relationships that were hurting me, resuscitate once-dead ones, and restructure the dynamics of others that had been around for a long time, but without actually serving me. I got new tattoos; I made new friends (or got to see new sides of my existing ones surface in response to a more forthcoming me); I bought my dream wardrobe; I danced to folk-pop bands from my teenage years while making dinner in my flat. I began to feel that every version of my past self - terrified child me, religious teenaged me, messy young-adult me - were all part of the same person, and all on my side, spurring me on to tell the story of how things came to be. With this essay, my life has slowly begun to look a lot more on the outside like what it has always felt like on the inside - time in its totality rising to the surface of my body, and staying there to make a home.
On the writing front, this essay has made me reconsider what I'm doing with my whole book project. Once "The Story of Body" arrived on the page, I knew with 100% certainty that this was what I wanted to be writing about - this topic, this part of myself. Which made me wonder if the other essays - which I had previously thought might be coming together to make a book - were really nothing more than practice pieces... rote exercises in shoring up history in language. This isn't a question that I've fully resolved yet! I wonder if there isn't some value, after all, in sharing practice pieces with the world - something in it that has to do with being real and vulnerable and human. When I was a child in the piano conservatory, I was often forced to play practice Czerny pieces at public recitals and masterclasses, as a form of intentional humiliation - to show that I wasn't ready for the "real thing" yet. But now that I'm an adult trying for authenticity, and not impressiveness, I'm beginning to think that these metrics of shame don't apply to me in the same way anymore. I don't have to be ashamed of my behind-the-scenes learning, since all that I've ever done, and all that I've ever been, can matter to the journey. Can be worthy of being seen.
So right now, the question of whether there will be a book or not remains an open one for me. I want to see where the work takes me, and what it wants to become... I'm proud of "The Story of Body", and of all the changes that it's brought into my life! And I feel excited for when I'll be able to put a link to it up on my website.