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.