Choosing to be a student-writer (full video and transcript)
Hi everyone, here's the full video AND transcript of a speech I gave at an NUS Literary Society event on 10 March 2017 about pursuing writing as a craft while studying.
Everyone has a story to tell
To begin, I’ll share a little bit about myself. My name is Alisa Maya, I will be turning 23 this year and I am in my last semester here at NUS. So if all goes well, I will be graduating with an honours degree in English Literature this July. My parents did not have the opportunity to go to university, so I will be the first person in my family to obtain a university degree.I am an only child, but I have a dog, who is my bests friend. My parents both work in schools and teach children with special needs. I think that their interest in social work and issues had a big part in influencing the kinds of topic that I took an interest in growing up, which eventually translated into the things I wrote about as well. I tell you all this about me because I want to highlight that I come from a very ordinary and average upbringing. Most of my work is written in my bedroom in my parents’ HDB flat in Jurong. So you don’t have to be from a certain kind of background to be writer. I believe that the best kind of writing is authentic; and as long as you are willing to tell a story honestly, you can be a writer.
It is not enough just to be smart and talented
Perhaps, it seems like I’m contradicting myself after what I said earlier. But I say this only because I believe that you have to actively seek opportunities and put yourself out there. Nobody is going to come up to you and say, “Wow this person is so talented, let’s get him or her to write for our publication” if nobody knows about your work. So at this point I’ll share a bit about how I found opportunities to practice my writing skills. So for me, my journey mainly started in university. In JC, I was an editor for my school magazine, but beyond that I didn’t have much time or energy to really pursue my craft. So I started out at the NUS literary society, writing for Symbal magazine. I mostly wrote some interviews, and some feature pieces.
At the same time, outside of school I heard about this group of young poets that called themselves Burn After Reading that I found out about via a Facebook post. It was basically bunch of young people, a number of them still in JC, who would meet regularly to write poetry together and critique each other’s work. We also organized some poetry readings where we’d invite some established local poets like Cyril Wong and Tania De Rozario to read their work, and at these readings, we’d also get a chance to read some of our own work. This initiative was supervised and set up by Joshua Ip and Pooja Nansi, both who are accomplished poets in the local writing scene and who have done some incredible work to promote local writing. In fact Pooja was just announced as the first Singapore Youth Poet Ambassador a few days ago. I sent in an application of my very amateur poetry and was accepted to join this collective. This was the first time, I think that I really learned that there was a community of like-minded people who truly enjoyed writing. There ARE many opportunities, but you have to take the initiative to find out more about them.
One thing leads to another…
At the same time, through some friends and also from talking to people at BAR, I learned about some artsy, literary magazines that had open calls for poetry and prose work. So I was very excited and I wrote a review about a play that I had watched. So at that point, I actually had no idea how to write a proper theatre review. I just knew that people often had the impression that the arts in Singapore were very stuffy and upper class. So in my review, I tried to link my comments about the themes of the play, to “real life”, how the play offered some insights into some of the social struggles that real people face in every day life. One day, soon after that review was published, I bumped into the deputy chief editor for The Ridge magazine, Fern, at an event. The Ridge is the largest student-run magazine at NUS. So she came up to me and was like, “ Hey, you’re the girl who wrote the review of the play right? I liked how you tried to relate theatre to real life”. So I was like yay! Then she told me that they were thinking of starting a new desk at The Ridge, for creative pieces, and she asked me if I’d like to come on board to be an editor. Okay, so how it works is that there are different desks in a magazine such as News, Lifestyle, Features. So the wanted to have a team focusing just on creative pieces like prose and poetry. So I was really excited and I said yes. I want to highlight how when you put once good work out, it can lead to other amazing opportunities. So I worked at The Ridge for a year I had fun setting up the desk and working with some really talented writers. We did photo essays, poetry and prose.
So by this point, a lot of my friends knew that I was “into writing” and one day once of my classmates, Mackie, forwarded me an email from her friends, and she said that these friends they wanted to crowdsource stories from people in Singapore, and write a play about it. Mackie told me that when she heard about this, she thought of me, and thought it might be something I would be interested in. So I went for a casual meet up, and at this point I didn’t know anyone else in the room. So eventually the idea for the play, evolved into something much larger, and a core group of students formed a social enterprise called UNSAID. Okay, so you may be wondering what is UNSAID and what does this have to do with writing?
First of all, UNSAID is a entirely-student-run organization that aims to tell the stories about people in Singapore, that are often swept under the rug, and they want to do that through the creative arts. So for the year 2016, the topic was women’s issues in Singapore and what are the struggles that women may face that are not always spoken about so freely.
Writing is not just about writing news articles and poetry; make your skills relevant
So remember I said before that we wanted to put up a play based on true stories? So now we were doing a whole bunch of other things, like photography, video series, interviews and articles. So I learnt how to write Facebook Status updates to advertise all these initiatives, how to write PR, how to write to sponsors, who to do social-media marketing, how to conduct interviews and many more other skills that are related to writing. And these are all skills that relevant to many marketing and PR jobs today. So my point is that don’t think of writing as just a past time, something that you think of as secondary, if you can make your skills relevant, you can continue to write in some capacity even when you go to work. I would just like to say that because I was writing abut social issues, and because I had the chance to work with many talented people, I consider my work with UNSAID to be some of the most important work that I have done to date.
The sweaty creative
So now that I have shared some of my experiences, it may all sound rather exciting. But the reality is that 90% of the time there is nothing glamorous about being a writer. Most of the time is spent thinking of ideas, pitching ideas, writing and re-writing – it is a long process before anything gets published. You have to believe that you will get better, and you have to believe that your work is important. I did some work that was party of an exhibition at The Arts House Singapore last year, and I was very determined that this was something I wanted to do, even though it was very time-consuming.
My exhibit was a multimedia interactive work that consisted of a lot of boxes.Obviously I didn’t think through how I was going to transport the boxes to the Arts House. So taking a taxi is expensive and so I took the MRT. So I borrowed two of my mother’s IKEA reusable bags and carried them in the train from Jurong to City Hall and then from there I walked all the way to the Arts House in the hot sun, to set it up. And the thing is, I was really exhausted, but I was very sure that I wanted this experience, and that is what motivated me to push through. So, what’s important is to find your motivation, it will carry you through.
Another thing to remember is to manage your time well. When you are a student, school often takes up a lot of your time and it’s hard to imagine how to find time to pursue our interests outside of school. But the reality is that I think we waste a lot of time, either worrying or on YouTube or whatever it is, and I think that if you are motivated enough and believe that hey, I want to become a better writer, you will make the time.
My worst nightmare comes true.
I just said that you should try to plan things and arrange your time. But the reality is that there are many things that you may face not only as a writer but also in life that you have no control over. And for someone like me, who is in many ways a control freak, this is a terrifying prospect. So what happened is that some time last August, I wrote an article about race issues in Singapore, and it was published on an online magazine, that wasn’t particularly famous at the time. I didn’t think too much about it at first, but then the article started making its rounds on the Internet. So within two weeks, it was shared 4, 100 times. I even received comments from people from as far as South Korea and France. So as we all know, the Internet can be a very cruel place. I read the comments on the article, and people were frankly quite awful a lot of the time. There were people saying horrible things about me personally, expressing views that I found very narrow-minded and exasperating. At the same time, there were of course, people who responded positively. Many emailed me stories about their own experiences with racism, many many Facebook messages.
I was very overwhelmed by this series of events. And so I did the only logical thing, I switched off my computer and ate a lot of McDonald McWings and potato chips and ice cream. So I share this story, because I believe that this experience for me embodied many of my worst fears about writing that I think is also what makes many people afraid of putting their work out there.
NUMBER ONE FEAR: The fear that what I write doesn’t matter, or that people are going to criticise me and invalidate my experiences.
So this is my worst fear as a creative person, that someone will say my work is crap. So when it happened, I had to learn how to deal with this. So I watched a talk by one of my favourite writers Brene Brown about dealing with criticism and this is what I picked up from it:
“If you’re going to put your work out there, there is only one guarantee. You will get your ass kicked.”
Something in me shifted after that. I realized that I had to accept that when you write something, not everyone is going to agree with you. There are people who are going to disagree with you, especially on social media where you can be anonymous.
Good criticism comes from a place of love—it comes from the belief that you can be better
From this experience, I also learned to make a value judgment on whose criticism you want to take. If someone wants to give you genuine criticism about my writing, or you want to discuss points that you genuinely disagree with, I am all ears. But if you’re a troll on the Internet, I’m not interested in your feedback.
I realized that I don’t know everything, I can’t know everything— But it is important for me to take criticism, to learn from people who are better than you.
If not you, then who? If not now, then when?
Ultimately, there are a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t pursue your passion in writing. We always think what we have to say is not “enough”—not important enough, relevant enough, interesting enough. Perhaps a good question to ask is, “Who do we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror?” Sometimes it seems audacious to dream big. But we can choose not to listen to our fears, and take a risk.
Be kind; be grateful
Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, no matter the struggles, it is always a privilege to wake up every day and have the chance to do what I love—and I am always grateful. Being kind, honest and grateful go a long way to help you establish lasting connections with people in the industry.
Carpe Diem, seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary
So in conclusion, whether you choose to pursue writing or other creative fields, I’d encourage you to grab every opportunity you can. You won’t be young forever, so make the most of your time in school to learn more about what you like and dislike. Believe that your work is important, and that most importantly, you are important.