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.
... is an extremely important part of my creative process. A long time ago - before the defining events of my childhood transpired - music was my truest, and best-loved, medium of expression. And even though I have a tenuous relationship with it today, I still often turn to it in my most vulnerable moments - using it to process sub- or unconscious thoughts, which might feel too strange or complex or fleeting for language.
Recently, I've been listening to this song by Samantha Crain on loop, while writing. Or, to be more precise: I've been watching a video recording that I took of myself, singing and playing this song on the guitar. Watching this video, over and over again, is slowly helping me to feel something new: a desire to look for beauty, and not potential for correction, at the forefront of my past creative actions. It's helping me to feel strengthened for the task that lies ahead - of re-looking at old work (and the old selves who produced it) again, without my inner voice of self-criticism firing up.
I could say more about this, but I don't feel like it. Here are the lyrics for the song instead - the song is in Choctaw, so these lyrics are a translation:
When we remain, we will not be like the beautiful bones of a forgotten city. When we remain, we will be the flowers and the trees and the vines that overcome the forgotten city. We have woven ourselves into the cloth of the earth. We have mixed our breath into the expanding sky.
Right now, I am in the midst of revising several old essays, in order to link them together. These essays go all the way back to 2018 - and some of them date back to the years before I started psychoanalysis, when my memories of my own life were kind of shadowy and didn't work all too coherently or well.
Because of what my book is about, the aim, for me, is not to get these old essays sounding as fluent or as perfect as possible. Rather, the aim is to journey towards recapturing the person who I was, at the time when I was writing: the deep insecurities, and the essential, if desperately glossed-over, hollowness that defined me. But also the incredible quantities of life force that kept me walking through the desert of my own mind for years, towards the distant outlines of a self.
This intention might be easy enough to describe here, in words. But in fact, I've found it very difficult to accomplish in person. Whenever I look back at past versions of my self, my first, anxious instinct is always to erase and correct - to fudge the facts and figures wherever possible, in order to pretend that I've always been the person who I am today. To furiously revise and cut and curate, so as to create a false impression of consistency over time.
So for me, learning to accept my old essays - instead of throwing them out, or brutally altering or censoring them - has something to do with overcoming this urge towards self-erasure and -correction. In many ways, it feels like the most important thing that I am learning, from my art: to see the past versions of my self with empathy, acceptance, curiosity, and grace, instead of only the usual bouts of hatred or judgment. So far, it's been the hardest part of the whole process for me! I feel tired, and at times very burdened. But I also feel sure that it's my direction of growth.
I'm not feeling very eloquent today. But I wanted to get this blog post down to register my thoughts. I'm starting a new cycle of freelance work at the end of this week - and it feels important to log where I am in my creative process first, before going out there again to field the rush of other people's demands.
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.
For the first two years of my writing life, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to pretend that I had it all together. On the surface, anyway, it looked liked I was doing all the right things: coming out with new pieces fairly regularly, sending them off to journals with an almost fiendish drive, and padding out my rota of publications. But behind the scenes, I knew the truth: which is that creative writing often felt bitter and painful to me. I knew that I was not, in fact, the thriving creative creature that people thought I was, when they looked at my website. Instead, I was goading and scolding and, more generally, punishing myself into writing these immaculate pieces - so much so that I felt quite deeply stressed, and steeped in self-loathing even when I did receive praise, or get published.
In the time that it took me to admit this to myself, I came to a realisation that felt both spot-on, and extremely upsetting to me. What I realised was: no amount of external validation would ever give me the thing that I had come to the writing desk in search of, in the first place. The thing that I was looking for, in my writing, was an authentically rich, joyful, and playful creative life. I wanted a ritual for making beauty that I actually enjoyed, and looked forward to practising each day. And this, unfortunately, had to come from inside me. It was simply not something that could be gotten from other people's praise, or from the ratification of any number of prestigious institutions. No award or gatekeeper would ever be able to give me what I most truly wanted - and had, in fact, shaped much of my adult life around procuring.
The joyful creative process that I wanted - I had to give it to myself.
Realising this prompted some slow changes in my attitude towards writing. Not all at once, but bit by bit. For one thing, I have come to accept that my creative process is different from most other people's, as far as I can tell. Maybe this has to do with the coping mechanisms that I developed around self-criticism, back when I was an underaged conservatory kid. But when it comes to writing, I can't produce drafts, and I can't do the usual thing of revising an unfinished work piecemeal. Instead, I go for six to eight months working at my day-job as a marketing researcher, not writing a single word. And then, one morning or afternoon or evening, I basically sit down with a gigantic flash of insight, and spill the finished piece out wholesale from my fingertips.
In the past, before I accepted the mechanics of this process, I used to hate myself so much for writing this way. I would force myself to eke out regular drafts, as everyone else seemed to do - mostly to falsify a feeling of control, and reassure myself that I was still on track. As a result of this, I would end up with all these beautifully-turned phrases that could be forcibly coagulated into essays - but that I knew were lacking in authentic insight, while skirting the true emotions and stories of my life. No matter how much I revised these drafts, I knew that they would never yield that through-line of authenticity that makes a piece of nonfiction writing pop. The ingredient that they were lacking - genuine selfhood - was something that I, personally, would only be able to access if I pulled myself away from the page, and sat quietly for a while without any expectations.
This year, I'm trying to relax into the knowledge that my process is what it is, and is beyond my control. Instead of spending those six to eight months chained to my desk, internally yelling at myself, and labouring away on Thesaurus.com, I try to spend them on littler creative gestures: doing paint-throughs on Youtube, cooking, painting my nails, and flavouring soaps. Cycling. Going to the beach to watch the sea. And now, perhaps, blogging. All this stuff might seem trivial, but it's part of a working process that I'm slowly learning to trust: one where beauty can materialise without emotional pain, and without the mechanics of self-flagellation and toil. It's not always easy, though! Right now, for instance, I'm processing an essay about my family that has been bubbling away in my thoughts since March - with not a single word to show for it. A part of me still feels uneasy, obviously - what if the tender yet sharp, complicated essay that I want to write never shows up? But increasingly, there is a counterbalancing voice inside me that says, also: Maybe it will and maybe it won't. It's okay. Let's wait and see.
I wanted to end this post with a picture of my writing desk - which I have turned into the most beautiful part of my flat, so that happiness might pool around it. But it's late, and I've just stayed up all night for the Tin House summer workshop (which I'll probably blog about at a later date!). I'll put the desk in a future post, and end this one off for now.
Some years ago, when I was a child and then a teenager, I kept a blog. I kept a blog like most people keep a secret. For a long time, I worked hard, squirrelling tiny, salvaged bits of my selfhood away to a place that felt simultaneously within the world's reach, and sacred to me.
For many years, the blank page with a blinking cursor felt like the one place where no one could take anything away from me. Where no one could compel me to give up my sense of self, in service to their own anxieties or fantasies. My blog was the place where I went to feel safe. It was the place where I went to feel like me.
When I turned 19, I decided to stop blogging in order to learn how to live more fully in the world.
It took me almost ten years to achieve this. Even six months ago, I would have said that I wasn't quite ready yet. But now, I've decided to start keeping a blog again, to test the tensile strength of what I've learned about sensing and exerting my authentic self. I'll use this space to talk quite generally about the writing life - to share my experiences around submitting, journals, residencies, etc. that might interest other writers who are just starting out (or who live outside of a big book market, like I do!). When it comes to writing, I've never been one for in-person connections - writing is something that I do best alone, away from the currents generated by other people. So most of what I've learned about the etiquette and nomenclature of the writing world came to me distantly, from online sources. I hope that my blog might help other writers who prefer a voice in the dark to direct connection - I am like you.
I might also blog on here about topics that interest me more broadly - like sound healing, psychoanalysis, poetry, and so on. I'll share new work that I publish, and discuss the process of journeying through a dense backlog of creative trauma, as a working adult. I can't promise that I'll blog very often - in fact, it's likely that I'll blog approximately twice per year, which is the same rate at which I write my essays. At a comfortable rate, in other words. At a rate that feels like me.
The year is 2021. Reader, welcome to my blog.