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.
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.
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).
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.
My new essay about being a teenager and running away to Israel, and making new friends and eventually losing my religion, is out now at Southeast Review! You can find it by following the link here, or in the "Work" section of this website. I love this essay deeply, and have waited a long time for it to come into the world... I'm so happy that it's finally ready!
I spent yesterday reading the new issue, and it's full of brilliant pieces. One of my other favourites is this amazing piece by Toni Mirosevich about competitive ladies showing off new fur coats at church (which lol, opened up a whole drawer of squashed memories in my mind). Grateful to be keeping this company, and really recommend the whole issue if you're looking for a good lit mag to pass the time with.
The other thing I want to do with today's blog post is share a resource that has been helping me.
I've come to realise that overall, there are a ton of books and classes out there on how to skill-up your actual sentences, as a writer. There are also countless resources that help you to create space and discipline in your life, to maintain a regular practice (e.g. writing groups).
But I've not found many resources that pertain to the part of the writing life I struggle with most: the inner feelings of safety, confidence, and security that matter alongside these other things, and in fact, form a necessary precondition for them to flourish. I've heard some people refer to this part of the creative life, a bit cheesily, as "Sanctuary"... at any rate, it seems to be something that's more difficult to talk about candidly, because it's so intensely personal and requires many years of sustained emotional (as opposed to intellectual) effort to build up.
So periodically, on this blog, I would like to share some resources that have been helping me in this area of creative life! Today's piece is this conversation on self-doubt between the writers Sarah Painter and Joanna Penn, which I came across on Youtube some weeks ago.
I really empathise with what Sarah Painter describes here - about how self-doubt is a feeling that comes from within and, in its essence, cannot ever be quelled by any form of outside achievement. She talks here about how the bar will keep rising, no matter how much glory you achieve - unless you turn inwards, and fight that feeling of "I'm not good enough" from within you. I laughed out loud when she described how she told herself that she would finally qualify as a "real writer" once she got an agent... and then once she got a book deal... and then once her book was on the front table at Waterstones... and so on and so forth, chasing the ever-receding horizon line into madness. She talks about the many tricks that she's learned since then, to overcome that horrible feeling of "I'm not good enough"- and the whole conversation is really lively, vulnerable, and relatable. I enjoyed it, and I hope that you might too.
One of the reasons why I made this blog is because I'm trying to learn to sit with the discomfort of saying: I'm in the middle of something. I don't know how it ends. I don't have a smooth, finished story about my journey to give you.
But I want to be present anyway. I want to talk to you.
One of the cardinal rules of memoir-writing is "give it time". I was in a class recently with Natalie Lima - who wrote this essay, one of my favourites of the last few years. And she was talking about how it would have been impossible to write this essay a few years - or even a few months - before she did. When you're standing too close to something, she said, it's hard to see the shape of the story that it ought to take.
She's totally right, of course. But I wonder, from my own experiences, if there isn't also a flip side to this rule. One about what happens when you give life too much space - when you're always waiting and waiting for that perfect accomplishment or anecdote, that can tie your efforts up in a neat little bow, and make them seem meaningful to other people. When you're always waiting for the story to end before opening your mouth, so that you can guard against the vulnerability of potential embarrassment.
Maybe something gets lost too, in a life lived that way. When you're living "a life by publishable essay", so to speak. I don't know why other people write blogs - but increasingly, I'm realising that I made this one to outrun (and outwrite) this particular tendency in myself. I don't want to be that person who waits until the big book deal, to write a major precis of every success-oriented step they took over the past five years. That kind of writing is so, so important, obviously, and really beneficial for the writing community - I'm grateful that it exists! But it's not what I came here to do.
I came here to be messy. And a person who's trying - and potentially, failing - in a semi-public space. It's a different kind of emotional muscle - and not one that I have much experience flexing. I hope that it brings other people (and most importantly, myself) something, to see me use it like this.
I've just received the galleys for my new essay at Southeast Review! This piece is one that's close to my heart. It's about the time when I came back home on the last day of my A-levels, and used a bunch of money that I'd secretly been saving to buy a plane ticket to Israel... to live in a convent with some nuns that I'd met on the internet. Teenaged me, as you can tell, was going through A LOT. I'm glad that she didn't fall apart, while ping-ponging through her life. And that she managed to pull this one off.
The rest of my feelings about my time in Israel reside in this essay. I'll put up a link to it, whenever the issue drops... the Southeast Review is an amazing publication and, honestly, one of my favourite literary journals ever. I'm happy that I'm going to be in it! If you're curious, you can read their last issue - with pieces by Victoria Chang, Taylor Byas, Brandon Taylor - here... I personally think it's wonderful.
The last few weeks have been mad, exhausting writing weeks for me. So I'm walking through life a little more dishevelled and unfocused than usual, with that supercharged feeling of something more interesting happening in another room, just out of sight. Right now, it feels like all my creative energy and focus is going into one place - i.e. into my memoir, and into regenerating the thought processes/emotions that powered me through its constitutive experiences. This is kind of a new feeling for me - and I don't want to scare it away by trying to over-explain its mechanics. Let's just see where it leads.
I've recently become a creative non-fiction & fiction reader for Exposition Review, a journal based out of LA. We had our first reading meeting for the upcoming issue, Flux, last week - and I loved it. We sat quietly on Zoom and read through the slush pile together. And then we talked about our favourite books. I feel lucky to be a part of this team.
There was a time (not too long ago) when seeing other people's creative work made me feel fearful and anxious. But nowadays, it mostly fills me with joy. I suspect that this change has something to do with me realising, deep down inside, what kind of art I want to make, and why. Knowing who I am - and feeling secure in the shape of the work that will, naturally, result from my own life experiences and personality - means that I don't have to feel threatened by other people's expressiveness anymore. Nowadays, I feel energised when I can witness the things that other people are writing, drawing, building, and making. And for the first time in my life, I've also started seeking out friends & groups who can give me this feeling - of power and connection. I'm trying to work around my pride, and ask people who I admire out for coffee. I ask, What are you making? and genuinely want to know the answer. I try to find out if there are things that I can learn from their journeys, and their relationships with creativity. I've also (and this is far harder for me, for personal reasons) started saying no when I can sense that the dynamic of a relationship is twisted in some way, and actively inhibits my access to the thing I want most - i.e. to receive what I need and want for my own life and practice, not only provide implicit psychological service to others.
It took me a lot to get here! And it feels good to be in this space - as both a writer and, more generally, as a human being who feels empowered enough to choose their own community.
Beyond all that - if you write at all, then I encourage you: consider submitting to Exposition Review! I applied to be a reader for them because I read this essay ('How to Survive a Genocide', by Lori Yeghiayan Friedman) from one of their previous issues, and felt an immediate pull. The work that comes into this journal gets treated with so much respect and care - and I feel that it shows. I'm excited to be helping to put the new issue together.