Is Writing Viable, and Other Questions: Answered

A: “You’ll never make it as a writer, mark my words. You will never succeed.”

B: “You should be more involved in your son’s studies instead of doing this. You only care about your own success. You’re selfish.”

C: “You sit home all day writing stories? How many copies must you sell for this to become a viable career?”

D: “The theme is too continental, the spelling is too American, the premise is too international.”

Since I made the announcement about my book deal(s), I’ve received overwhelming support that’s really touched and humbled me. Most people who’ve been around since the start of my publishing journey are aware that I worked very hard on these projects, especially the sequel. But many who reached out were also curious if “being a writer” would be as smooth-sailing as I made it appear. “You make it look effortless,” one said.

Really? I thought. I have to confess that hearing such remarks made me reflect on my writing journey, even way back before Tea in Pajamas, when I was just a young girl who was hungry to write anything and to get a byline in any publication.

I don’t think many people know that I wanted to be a journalist when younger. Unfortunately I didn’t do well enough in my A-Levels to get into a certain course at a certain local university (the only communications degree available at the time). And so I got my B.A. degree in Sociology and European Studies (which I don’t regret one iota) and took a “we shall see” approach when it came to writing as a full-time job.

A was a magazine editor who’d taken a look at some press releases I’d written and thought I had a flair for writing. I was 23, fresh out of uni, and working at a PR company until I could find an opening in the media industry. When she offered me a freelance gig to write an F&B listing in her magazine, I was ecstatic. All I needed was a pseudonym and an Internet search engine, right? That’s what I thought anyway. Unfortunately, Google back then wasn’t what it is today, and I had not thought to fact-check contact information with an alternative directory. When the article was printed, readers had apparently called in to the magazine to complain about a few wrong phone numbers, which made A as editor look bad (and me like a complete noob). I received her call in the middle of a work day and sat through a venom-laced tirade about my unprofessionalism, her regret at trusting me in the first place, my idiocy, and how I was never ever going to make it as a writer—not on her watch anyway.

Even though I proved her wrong by going on to write for several magazines after that encounter, I took special care never to apply for any opening at the company she worked for. That deep sense of shame stuck with me throughout my brief stint in magazine journalism, and always made me feel as if I were an imposter pretending I could write.

As it turned out, my zest for a journalism career burned out pretty quickly when I realized I didn’t enjoy churning out copy about things I didn’t particularly care for, nor interviewing personalities I wouldn’t even read about, let alone talk to. The disconnect I felt from the only passion I’d ever known made me both confused and depressed. That’s when I made the choice to step back from writing. Perhaps that’s why I went into editing after that (it’s still what I do today).

Writing Tea in Pajamas was my coping mechanism when trying to come out of some disordered behaviors around eating, exercise and body image. It was the first time I was writing something I wasn’t commissioned to, and to be able to do so on my own terms, with no deadlines or no expectations, was liberating to say the least. Through this creative outlet, I found my groove again.

But not everybody gets why it’s so important to me.

Such as B.

B is a family member who never could and still cannot understand why I write if it’s not a 9-to-5 job that pays the bills. To her, any time away from work should be purposefully devoted to ensuring my children excel at school. Because I don’t have it in my DNA to be a Tiger Mum (believe me, I’ve tried), my parenting skills are regularly called into question. The fact that I would take things further by nurturing my own passion is entirely inconceivable—selfish, even. Growing up, all I ever wanted was for B to be proud of me. But as a 38-year-old grown woman, I’m finally ready to let go of my need for her validation to feel like I’m “enough.” I suppose at some point I woke up to the truth that if I don’t believe that I’m enough, then I’ll never be.

And we have C, who represents how some people react when they first hear I’m an author. I get that the whole idea of writing can seem shrouded in mystery, but come on. Firstly, I don’t “sit home all day” churning out content like someone would have a marathon Netflix session—I write whenever I can. More importantly, stories aren’t conjured from thin air: a lot of thought and prep goes into anything I put out—even on this site. Next, I have no idea how many sales I have to make in order for “this” to become viable because the truth is, I’m writing because I want to, and not because I need to. If I ever gave up my day job to write full-time, maybe I’d start seeing writing as a career and consider if it’s viable, but something tells me I’m not going to enjoy it if it becomes a job. You know what I mean?

I understand where D (who stands for a few publishing insiders) is coming from. I can recognize immediately what is unsaid because I’d thought about it even before the words were uttered. I’m a Chinese Singaporean author: what business do I have writing a story about Caucasian or mixed race characters in a European-esque setting, doing very strange things that are far removed from my own country and culture? Plus this US spelling of “pajamas”? Nobody will get it.

These are all valid points, and I get it 100%. But the whole spirit of Tea in Pajamas is about breaking the mold—drinking coffee out of a teacup and wearing PJs in the middle of the afternoon, and going against the grain. Who cares if it doesn’t play by the rules? As for my race and ethnicity, I never believed it prevented me from telling a good story, though if that’s a problem for readers, I can only hope they are a minority. My point is, if I ever wanted to write a novel about Singapore and Singaporeans, I would. What I wouldn’t do is try to change a story into something it’s not.

But notwithstanding remarks in the likes of A, B, C and D, I acknowledge that I’ve been very blessed in this writing journey. I remember each and everyone (friends, booksellers, schools) who opened doors of opportunity for me when they could’ve just as easily shut them in my face. And I’m so grateful for my small but supportive community of friends and readers who are my cheerleaders in this mostly-lonely endeavor that is writing.

In the sea of noise, things are far from smooth-sailing. Most times, I struggle just to stay adrift and not lose sight of my end goal which, for a long time, I’d believed was publication. Lately, however, I think that’s changed.

I just wanna keep on writing.

Photo: Pinterest

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I got a book deal!

Hello, I have some exciting news…

I’m pleased to share that I’ve signed a book deal with Marshall Cavendish to publish Tea in Pajamas and its sequel, Beyond Belzerac!

Both titles will be hitting all major bookstores very soon—the first book in September and the sequel around November of this year. Yep, that’s right, in time for Christmas!

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at both covers. (Book 2’s cover is still a work-in-progress, and not a final draft.)

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Shelter from the Storm

In June of 1988, I caught my first glimpse of a gray winter sky.

It didn’t look much different from any overcast day in Singapore, the eight-year-old me had reckoned, though I was sure I was far from home. Where we came from, poufs of mist did not escape your mouth every time you spoke or exhaled. Also, no one bundled themselves in this many layers of clothing. I was wearing a robin-egg-blue cardigan my mother had hand-knit especially for this family trip, but it was buried too deeply beneath layers of pullovers to be seen.

“Where’s the snow?” I’d asked Mum, hoping she could explain why we hadn’t stepped into a Christmas-card-worthy snowscape which to my mind was synonymous with wintertime. For her part, my mother was too preoccupied with the logistics of collecting our luggage from the coach we’d just alighted. I never did get an answer as to why winter was gray and not white.

While waiting to enter our hotel for the night, I studied the streets of Christchurch. In place of falling snow were dead leaves. They were everywhere, blanketing the ground and swirling in the air. On this dramatically drafty day, passersby hurried about with their faces shielded from the onslaught of leaves, their hair blowing in all directions.

I didn’t mind the wind so much. I was eight with a chinadoll bob, also known as a permanent bad-hair-day. No weather condition could do further damage to that.

___________

This morning, thirty years and two months later, it felt like  NZ c.1988 all over again. On a walk around my condo grounds, a familiar scene played out—same leaden sky, same blustery wind, scores of dead leaves scattering about like confetti. Under other circumstances, I’d take that as a clear sign that a storm was imminent and head back indoors. But this morning, I was in the mood to linger just a little.

Sure enough, the rain soon came pelting down in sheets. Together with the cleaning and landscaping crew, I ran for the nearest shelter. But while I revelled in childish delight, I couldn’t say for same for the janitors and gardeners, whose dismay was apparent on their faces.

They’d after all spent all morning painstakingly clearing away fallen leaves and branches, scrubbing and hosing down dirty spots, and tending to the beautiful greenery my condo is known for. And a fifteen-minute downpour was all it took to undo all of their efforts. This was not an uncommon scenario, but it still bummed them out every time it happened. Once the sun came out, the place would be littered leaves and foliage, with slush and wet bird droppings added to the mix. The results of their backbreaking work only ever lasted until the next turn of weather.

When today’s mini-storm passed, I ventured back outdoors to resume my walk. Only a handful of the maintenance crew had returned, however. Can’t say I blamed them for sitting it out a little longer. In fact, if I were them, I might just choose to tear off my cleaning gloves and call it a day.

I began to imagine an alternate scenario. Suppose I decided a large garden was just too much to handle and instead cultivated a tiny garden in a sheltered area. There’d only be enough room for just a few plants and maybe they wouldn’t grow as tall and luxuriant without direct sunshine, but I’d make up for all that with conscientious care and landscaping. Protected from the destructive winds and rains, my tiny garden would always be immaculate. Most important of all, I’d always be in control.

Except, how boring would that be?

Isn’t that large garden we spend our whole lives slogging to make perfect a whole lot more exciting, even if storms constantly reduce it to a grubby mess? Why should the thought of a little rain hold me back from enjoying so many more plants and trees? Do I love them only for looking beautiful, or do I love them for the potential they have to grow and flourish under my care?

As I gave up the idea of the tiny garden, I saw more cleaners and gardeners return. They picked up their equipment and resumed whatever they were doing before—mopping, sweeping, cleaning, pruning and trimming. Some were whistling, as if the rain hadn’t happened at all. The gardens would always be restored, I reckoned, for these people wouldn’t have it any other way, whatever the weather conditions.

On my way home, I realized I had the answer as to why the New Zealand winter of 1988 had looked gray instead of white. The country’s coldest months are June, July and August, but I was there only at the start of the season. There’s a time for rain, as there is for snow.

___________

It finally snowed towards the end of our trip—one morning we woke up and saw the frost on our hotel windows and the roads beneath. It’d snowed while we slept, and we’d missed it.

But just as I’d imagined, winter was white.

Image via Pexels