Today, I took out my old, type-written manuscripts. I typed these nearly a decade ago, and each one of these manuscripts made me smile. Who knew that I had written 12 short stories already? Who knew that I already had four half-written novellas in the can, just waiting to be completed?
I began writing when I was 12, in a blue book with a dog on the cover — a gift from my father. My first story was about a woman who decided to take a flight to nowhere … so that she could die in the air. How appropriately morbid for my teenage angsty self. But I also wrote a romantic little tale about a young teenager meeting a hot dude at Lake Toba. I brought that type-written story to school one day and it ended up being passed around my classmates. “Where’s page five? Where’s page seven?” I still remember them calling out.
It was at that moment when I realised that I really love this writing thing. I didn’t think about being published, I didn’t think about agents or fame or even money. I wrote because I wanted to and because I just simply loved it.
But something change when I went to college. I took up Literature, marvelled at the great writers of yore and after a classmate — he’s a bit of a moody poet, that one — said that I shouldn’t “waste my time writing trash”, I tried writing “literary”.
Eventually, the thrill, and excitement I felt at the typewriter waned as I tried to contort my imagination to suit what I perceived to be “superior fiction”. The short stories I wrote during that time were mostly about characters whinging about their existence … I frankly can’t stand people like that in real life, and when you dislike your characters immensely, you know that you’re in trouble.
Eventually, my favourite hobby was sapped of all joy and excitement, and I just stopped creating original worlds because I thought I couldn’t.
Although I continued writing – I’m a journalist, you can’t not write — creating new, fantastic worlds seemed difficult and impossible. So, what did I do? I turned to fanfiction, borrowing characters from television and writing them into my stories. I did it simply to let out steam, and because my urge to write fiction was overwhelming.
Writing fanfiction was fun because the pressure I felt about creating the “great Malaysian novel” was gone, and I enjoyed the process so much that I ended up writing a novel, and four novellas over the years.
It was only after interviewing Louise Penny in 2008 that I had an epiphany. From my article:
“I think I really set myself up for failure.… For some reason I felt that I should write the best book ever. If it wasn’t going to best book ever then why bother? I became hypercritical of what I wrote, I was paralysed.”
“I was riddled with fear and anxiety. … When the critic is writing the book, you should show her the door and let the creative side do it,” she (Penny) adds.
My eureka moment came when Penny told me that she “finally got an idea of what kind of novel to write when she saw the big pile of mystery books on her bedside table. It was then that she realised that she could write a “fun yarn,” the kind of book that she would read, instead of the “best literary fiction the world has ever seen”.
My “fun yarn” is science fiction and fantasy, mysterious and supernaturally-tinged tales penned by writers like Rudyard Kipling, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robin Hobb. All these years I’ve been trying to write something I wasn’t into — literary fiction — just because it was deemed “better” and more “worth my time”.
I really resonate with what Clare Langley-Hawthorne wrote in her post, Write what you love, not what the market does:
It took a while before I could set aside my misconceptions (that I should write what will sell, that I should write something ‘worthy’ etc.) Eventually I sat down and wrote what I loved, what I actually wanted to read, and you know what, it showed…(and, thankfully, it also got me published!)
It’s really very simple, dear writers: Write what you love, not what you think you should write or what people/the market/lecturers/readers/parents/your pet parakeet think you should write.
Who cares if the taste-makers only acknowledge certain types of novels and stories? In the end you should write because you love it, not because you want to bag one of those gongs.