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One Step At A Time: How writing, like running, isn’t always the Olympics

One Step At A Time: How writing, like running, isn’t always the Olympics

I’ve never been an athletic person. As a child I hated PE lessons: I was the heavy-limbed, rotund child at the very back of the class, chest tight and miserable, suffering in the swamp that is Singapore’s idea of acceptable weather. Every year we had to take a national physical fitness exam consisting of six parts, and every year I struggled to pass the most daunting section of the exam for me: The 2.4-km (1.5-mile) run.  Six rounds on the inside of a running track, and I’d start walking in the second round. To pass you needed to finish the run within seventeen minutes; I usually took more than twenty.

I’m not good at running.

I hated running and PE lessons so much that the moment I got into college and exited the regimented timetables of public education, I stopped exercising altogether. For eight years I performed as much physical activity as a sea slug. There was an actual point where my body tried turning itself into one. I had to see a doctor for mysterious knee pains and she told me my thigh muscles had atrophied  so much my kneecaps had come loose and were grinding against the bones of my lower leg. Intervention meant doing squats and lunges and other things to strengthen the muscles of the legs. No running.

Eventually, as a working adult, I started going to the gym, doing weights and mat exercises and group yoga classes. Slowly, my fitness level improved. I went from turning into a limp noodle after the warm-ups for dance class, to managing to survive a whole hour upright. I thought, I’m alright at this. Working out is fun! It’s stress relief and I eat and sleep better and my mood always improves after a good hour or so of sweating. I kept at it and it made me happy.

When I moved to the UK, an income-less student clinging to her life savings in a currency half the strength of the pound sterling, I needed some way to work out that involved no money whatsoever.  I had my trainers tucked into one of my suitcases. My university has long roads and a sweeping green next to a lake. The answer seemed obvious.

The first time I ran the circuit encompassing dorms, university and lake green, I had to walk down stairs sideways for a week. After that, it got easier. My leg muscles adapted to the new demands I was putting on them.

By the markings on the map they handed out to new students, the route I run is just about 2.4km long, more downhill bits than uphill ones. I run it about two to three times a week, in the mornings when the student body remains stubbornly rolled in their blankets. The lake half of the run is always a delight. There have been sunrises in a hipster’s pastel palette, there have been rolling sheets of fog.  In subzero temperatures the spongecake ground firms up and the grass crunches with white frost. I take it easy, slowing on the uphill bits and speeding up going downhill only if I feel like it. Running along the green I always put on the Dragonborn theme from the Skyrim soundtrack to get myself pumped up.

For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying it.

I’m still a terrible runner. I’m slow as hell. 1.5 miles two times a week is practically nothing. Pushing my heart rate too fast will give me a migraine later in the day, so I make sure I never get too out of breath.

This morning, as I ran through a university still hollow and quiet at 7.30am, a man joined me as I hit the last stretch of the route, 300m uphill along the lake green. He was going a lot faster than I was. He came from behind, overtook me, and then continued going, footsteps sure and competent as he drew away from me.

I felt suddenly self-conscious, watching the red back of his shirt growing smaller in my vision. I thought, damn, I should try keep up. This leisurely jog isn’t even proper exercise. You suck at this running thing.

And then common sense took over, and thought, so what? So what if I suck at this running thing. I’m not running a marathon, I’m not training for the fucking Olympics. I run because it feels good and I enjoy it. Why do I have to measure myself against this stranger, who’s probably also enjoying his run?

When I was a kid, I hated running because there was a teacher at the end of the track, stopwatch in hand, timing every round and failing whoever didn’t make the cut. It made me afraid of running because measuring myself against everyone else’s abilities made me feel defective and worthless. The idea that I might just like running seemed unthinkable.

I’m glad I was wrong.

I think the same thing applies to writing. It’s something that I’ve turned over and over in my mind lately. It’s awards season, and that means watching all my brilliant friends win nominations for the amazing work they’ve put out in the past year. It’s a time of great celebration, but also a time of intense impostor syndrome. I feel an immense pressure to keep up, to write that story that will get you on a ballot, get you in a Year’s Best, get your name as a footnote in history somewhere.

But harping on that pressure will send me sliding down a rabbit hole of insecurities that has no bottom. I don’t want that. I don’t need that.

I write because I like writing. I write because I have stories I want to tell. I write because I want to share these stories with people. There’s nothing more to it than that.

If I keep trying to measure my writing up to some arbitrary standard, it’ll never end. There’s always going to be someone more brilliant, someone who writes more poetic stories, someone who writes more crowd-pleasing stories.  Wins more awards or wins bigger awards. The teacher at the end of the track will never be satisfied.

I know that if I treat the art of writing like the fucking Olympics it will drain all the pleasure out of it for me. Writing isn’t a sport. There aren’t winners and losers. You can’t come last in writing.

Recently I read an article in the New Yorker where Haruki Murakami talked about his running habits, and how it relates to his writing. It’s a great article, full of lovely insights (as expected of the man), but what I keep coming back to is this particular bit:

I think that I’ve been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: it suits me. Or, at least, I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue doing what they don’t like.

I realised I felt the exact same way about my running, even if what I was doing was on a scale miniscule compared to his (he runs marathons! That’s more than 40 km!)

I keep running because it suits me. And I keep writing because it suits me. If I try to make it anything more than that, I’ll ruin it.

And so it goes.

Do we count as real writers, too? (aka that thing about Clarion. that. thing.)

Do we count as real writers, too? (aka that thing about Clarion. that. thing.)

Before I begin, I must preface that these are entirely my personal reflections based on my very specific personal circumstances and are not quite meant to be a well-reasoned commentary on larger things, yet–

Here I am, dipping my toes into an ocean full of very large fish with equally large teeth to bite me with.

I want to talk a bit about Neil Gaiman’s tweet.

You know, that one.

Neil posted this a couple of days ago, and within hours of the tweet hitting the surface of the Internet the SFF patch of the pond was boiling over. The implication that attending Clarion, or a similar workshop, is a mandatory step on the path to successful writerhood, predictably went down like a lead balloon.

Many people rightfully pointed out that attending the Clarions, with their six-week, four-figure dollar commitment, is not one many can afford. Or are physically able to, due to health and disability access issues. I pointed out that this goes doubly hard for international applicants, who have to work in (often four-figure) plane tickets in addition to terrible exchange rates, deal with international travel, being in a different time zone, culture etc in order to attend.

Neil has since clarified that his tweet was meant, obviously, to be hyperbolic, and obviously you don’t need Clarion to become a writer! And lots of people had come on to Twitter to exhort their credentials (publications, awards, best-ofs), all achieved without the help of the workshops.

I fully agree. Said as someone who applied to Clarion West because Neil Gaiman was teaching that year. (I’d never heard of it before that. You’d be surprised by how few outside the pro/semipro SFF writing community know what it is.) “Attend Clarion/Clarion West/Odyssey etc. workshops!” is not even a feasible piece of advice I’d give anyone asking “how do I become a writer like you” because  it’s neither a helpful nor practical tip. I’d rather give them a list of markets to submit stories to and suggest they follow a ton of writers or writing blogs and also, read a fuckton of stuff and learn from it.

Yet.

Completely honestly? I know I would not be the writer I am today, if not for Clarion West.

This is not exaggeration.

I know what Clarion West did for me. Here: Before I attended, I had barely completed any short stories. I had no idea about submitting to venues outside of Singapore’s tiny writing community. I didn’t have beta readers I could send stories to for critique, or other SFF writers to talk to to bounce ideas off. None of my friends was in the business of regularly writing or submitting short SFF to anyplace. It was just me, alone, no idea what I was doing, no idea that it was even a sort of lifestyle that other people might do on the regular.

But because I attended Clarion West, I found a community of friends to talk to about writing. I joined a neo-pro forum (Codex) which taught me about submitting, about rejectomancy, helped me create new stories (some of my best-received stories started off life as Codex contest stories). Having a support group, a group of excellent beta readers, kept me writing and submitting enough that I began to sell stories. And then started being asked to write them.

Getting to know people in the community meant that I actually had reason to attend conventions, and it also meant I was asked to be on the programming at conventions when it came out that I was attending them.

Getting to know people in the community meant getting to know editors and agents. And that’s important if you want to be a writer.

Without having attended Clarion West,  would I have been able to break into this SFF community that I’m part of right now?

I’m really, really not so sure. No question I’d still be writing, but I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be writing as often. Opportunities to have stories published in Singapore are a lot fewer, and they tend to be for very very small print runs. We don’t really have much in the way of online zines.

What would people see when they looked at me? “I’ve never heard of any of these things you’ve been published in. Are they even any good?”

Would they consider me “a writer”? Eh. What do you think?

So. Million-dollar question. Am I saying Neil’s hyperbole was actually right?

I want, desperately, to say no. Of course not! That’s such a terrible idea!

But I feel that saying that would be lying to myself. That for somebody like me– living and working outside of the UK or US– different culture, different continent, different context–  breaking into the SFF publishing scene, getting people to actually sit up and notice you, even getting better at your craft, is extremely. fucking. difficult. Selling one story, or two, or even five, is not enough (see my previous whiny post on this topic).

For somebody like me, attending a major workshop like Clarion is an instant way to break down that giant, looming, daunting barrier. And that helps. That helps so much.

But, as I said, I’d never give that advice to anyone who asked me for advice, because IT IS TERRIBLE ADVICE. Even if you could get the funds (and the Singapore government is good with disbursing grants, especially if you can convince them of how prestigious the workshop is), it’s six fucking weeks, and who can take six fucking weeks off work and family and life??

I wouldn’t say that. I would say– Go. Write. Submit. And then pray. Pray that the Nameless Deities of the realms of publishing smile upon you. Then I would send the young hero-to-be on their way, and try not to think of the long, merciless desert roads ahead of them, and hope that they would not come to hate me.

The point of this post– if it were to have a point, and not merely be a rambling collection of thoughts– is not that workshops are necessary to become a serious writer. The point is that for people who don’t have easy access to a support system, it feels like it’s necessary in order to break into the global SFF scene. And it shouldn’t be.

The question is, then,  how committed are we to diversity if we rest so much of a person’s legitimacy as a writer on the same old systems that are skewed, if everything that we consider SFF is still largely tied to the Western, Anglophone publishing sphere. Where do writers from backgrounds like mine belong, unless we break into that system?

Do I have good answers to this? Fuck no. I’m just some schlub who has no idea what she’s doing. But I’d like people to think about this, at least. Because we are here. We exist. And I’d like to think we count as real writers too.

 

 

The National Library Board

The National Library Board

If I were a cleverer and more eloquent writer this blogpost would be coherent, it would have a beginning and a middle and an end, it would have a point and it would stick to that. But I am not that writer, and my feelings over the past few days have oscillated from annoyance to anger to disbelief and back again so many times that that pendulum has broken and rolled a death spiral onto the floor coming to rest somewhere near “tired”.

I’m tired.

I could tell you what it’s like. It’s having someone you thought was a friend – somebody whom you thought loved you and supported you and would welcome you no matter what – having that somebody stand in the harsh light and turn into this stony, unreachable figure, expression unreadable. You root for them and you root for them until the truth hits you in the face and you can’t deny anymore that your trust was misplaced.

It’s scrolling through your Facebook feed and seeing one person after another after another after another get in on the bandwagon, and then ministers are listening and political newsmakers are getting involved, so all of a sudden you’re hoping that something might change and a happy ending might come out of this, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and it all comes crumbling down in a media circus and empty rumbles of “””community norms.”””

I want to say intelligent things. I want to argue that fixating on the pulping of the books is a pointless exercise because whether the books would be destroyed or kept in a locked box in the basement is immaterial and we’re turning an issue of bigots exploiting state apparatuses for their own means into a paean to the sacred physicality of books. I want to shout at every person insisting this is not just about gay rights but really about the all-encompassing and universal right to read because no the whole thing is SPECIFICALLY about gay rights and it was SPECIFICALLY gay-themed titles that were targeted by a specifically anti-GLBTQ group out of the thousands and thousands of books that the library carries so to pretend otherwise is massively erasing of context and telling gay folk that their struggles aren’t important enough to warrant their attention unless it affects you also.

But I’m tired.

I see more and more reports cropping up on my newsfeed: From BBC and BoingBoing and WashPo and the like. I see boycotts and calls to arms and guerilla read-along sessions. I see the writing community I hang around more worked up than I’ve ever seen them. There is a fine frothing anger being worked up and spilling over the rims of the bucket they’ve tried to put us in.

But through this all I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s no happy ending in this. Even if the library recants after all this pressure, puts the books back on the shelves, it feels like too little, too late. Things have been said. Boxes opened and bridges burned. We’ve seen where priorities lie. And we don’t know if the bigots will strike again–and maybe this time they won’t make the mistake of crowing about their achievements.

It feels like the world is telling me, over and over again this year, that no matter how much progress we make there’s always people committed to rolling that progress back, people who openly compare queer folk to cancers and oppressive state apparatuses too afraid of change that are always willing to give them the time of day. There’s no happy ending in this.

And I’m tired.

 ETA: A convenient news tab that collects a smörgåsbord of news articles pertaining to the NLB’s pulling of the books off the shelf. Background, development, ministerial comments, letters to the editor…

Of A Ross and Its Associated Thorns

Of A Ross and Its Associated Thorns

Ross smaller

On the 28th of February, the last day of early-bird discounts, I finally gave up my dithering and bought a pass to LonCon 3. The convention, I had decided, would be my  Big Con of the Year.

That was also the day it was announced that Jonathan Ross would be hosting the Hugo awards.

Things then happened at the Speed of Internet and then very quickly, he wasn’t anymore.

That link from Bleeding Cool exemplifies a lot of the responses I’ve seen to Ross’ resignation from the post. A lot of “he’s a SF/F fan, Neil Gaiman asked him to do it, I am ashamed that the community I’m in bullied him off like that.”

Neil Gaiman has now commented to say that he is “very disappointed” by the Twitterstorm that was sent Jonathan Ross’ way, and he has taken his Hugo pin off his lapel as a result.

Oh dear.

First things first:  I have  attended an event that was hosted by Mr Ross, a closed-door press conference for The Walking Dead at Comic-Con in 2012. (I present as evidence the shittily-taken iPhone picture above as proof!) Yes, he is as big an SF/F nerd as claimed, and no, despite his reputation he said nothing that morning that set my teeth on edge, sensitised as I was already from a day full of racial microaggressions (that entire junket was not one I enjoyed). Had he remained as host for the Hugos, I still would have attended, just with a critical ear out for anything problematic he might say (as I always do).

Neil  was also one of my instructors last year at Clarion West, and I respect him greatly as a writer and as a consummate navigator of the storytelling industry. In his week with my class, I found him to be an incredibly generous and warm soul who, above all, listened. Even to us tiny baby writers! I am sure he made the suggestion to Jonathan Ross in absolute good faith, and I can understand why he would be disappointed by the outcome.

I still think they’re wrong.

I take issue with the way the events have been framed: A bullying mob, reacting with unwarranted anger, sending mindless vitriol to Ross. They’re not the only ones who have put it this way – lots of people have – but they are certainly the most visible.

But putting it this way invalidates the concerns of the people who rejected Ross as a host for the Hugos. Their opinions and feelings, too, deserve respect and consideration, even if put in a harsh manner.

The fact of the matter is when one has a sizeable media presence (like Neil and Mr Ross do), one is automatically conferred certain amounts of credibility. Media presence gets you listened to. Media presence gets your side of the story told in major publications like The Guardian and The Daily Mail.

This post by livejournal user a-d-medievalist lays it out very well. It’s not a simple case of bullies versus the bullied: Neil and Mr Ross come from extremely privileged positions in the SF/F community and beyond. The phrasing of the term “disappointed”, shaped around patronising tones, is especially problematic  in this regard. It’s something a parent would say to a child. It doesn’t say, “I see you as a human being with thoughts and concerns as equal to my own”; it says “why didn’t you behave in a way i find acceptable?”

I think it would have been interesting, in the fallout to this, to discuss things like the difference between public and performative personas, or how accountable one should be for things that are said in jest. Unfortunately, I suspect the tidal wave of disappointment will overwhelm and overshadow anything else in its way.

Our problems are way bigger than Amy

Our problems are way bigger than Amy

This is going to be a post about racism. Buckle up, I promise it’ll be short.

There was Amy Cheong, who until yesterday was a fairly unremarkable marketing-type person amongst the teeming masses in the country. One (or three) public Facebook posts slamming noisy Malay void deck weddings and insinuating that they are cheap and morally unworthy later, she became a household name, or at least a trending topic on social media. In quick succession, her employers, the police, and the heads of government got involved. She got fired, had a sedition charge laid against her, and became a issue that even the Prime Minister felt he needed to comment on. You can see screencaps of Amy’s original posts here, and read a timeline of the events that happened here.

It’s a hideously complex matter with a lot of angles to consider, but I’ll get my personal thoughts on it out of the way:

1) What Amy Cheong said was vile and racist, and her reactions to people calling her out on her racism included a tweet where she said her “generic post” was getting a lot of “hateful and cruel responses from strangers”– this after she cut and pasted several dozen identical apologies to anyone who even mentioned the issue. She wasn’t sorry about being racist, she was just sorry she was getting flak for it.

2) I won’t demonise the people who highlighted her publicly-made comment to her employers, particularly since a large part of the comments I saw being made on Facebook were made by members of the Malay community, who have every right to be slagged off . I especially dislike the term “lynch mob” used in this context because… you know, the original lynch mobs were actually made of racists.

3) I don’t agree with NTUC’s decision to fire her instead of, say, sending her for counselling or enrolling her in community outreach programs. It’s not going to help anyone, and it certainly isn’t going to help her overcome her racist mindset.

4) At the same time, I recognise that it was NTUC’s prerogative to decide whether they wanted to keep her on the payroll or not. If it’s reasonable to reject job applicants on the grounds that they hold values that are not in line with the company’s, then it should also be reasonable to fire people on the same basis if such information comes to light.

5) Bringing this incident up to the Prime Minister/lodging a police report? What is that really supposed to achieve? (Yet you knew it would happen anyway, because people.)

 

What galls me more than any of the above, though, is this line from PM Lee’s response to it. I quote. “Let us treat this incident for what it is: an isolated case that does not reflect the strength of race relations in Singapore.”

 

 

An isolated case, Mr Prime Minister? The only thing “isolated” about Amy’s comments is how much attention they got. I can assure you that racism does happen, each and every day, at all levels across society.

It’s boys who were from my predominantly Chinese, middle-to-upper class junior college making mat jokes and poking fun at Malay accents. It’s someone openly justifying not hiring Malays and Indians because they are “lazy”. It’s getai MCs broadcasting unapologetic apu-neh-neh jokes in an open field next to HDB blocks that, thanks to our ridiculous ethnic quota policies, are guaranteed to have Indian families living in them.

It’s my dad making “terrorist” jokes every time the mosque across the road is mentioned.

It’s growing up being told to behave while in public or “Indian men will come and catch you and sell you on the streets to beg for money”.

If you want hard truths, this is one: Singapore can pretend to be racially harmonious all it wants, but the fact remains that racism deeply rooted, and will continue to be as long as we ignore the truth of racial inequalities in the blind pursuit of “meritocracy”. People are shocked that Amy Cheong got fired over a Facebook post because it seems like such a small thing, one banal thing that is not fit to lose a job over. But that’s the problem. Everyday racism isn’t long vitriolic manifestos on nutjob websites, it isn’t a lone guy shooting up a dozen people in the name of hatred. It’s things like Facebook posts and what you say to your friends and what you think in private that affects the way you do things in little ways. It’s banal, it’s boring, it’s everywhere.

And as long as those in positions in power continue to deny this truth, it’s never going to get better at a national level. This is something that needs to be talked about. This is something that should be part of any national conversation we hold.

But I’m not betting on it happening.

C is for Cultural Imperialism

C is for Cultural Imperialism

This post was kindled into being thanks to the brilliant and talented Aliette de Bodard (whose excellent story Immersion on Clarkesworld is a must-read if you haven’t already). The germ of this was born over Twitter conversations, and she gathered a bunch of like-minded SF/F writers & interested parties to come up with this: The Western Cultural Imperialism Bingo Card. (ETA: Aliette pointed out that Charles Tan first mooted the idea on Twitter, and then gained a life of its own!)

To be quite honest, I wasn’t around for most of this project’s gestation – I was away, covering a local by-election for work – but I feel the end product echoes a lot of what I have seen, read and experienced, particularly as someone who has worked in the media and news industries for a number of years.

As a diasporic Chinese Anglophone born in a former British colony – and whose parents were in fact subjects of the British Empire when they were born – I am all too aware of the slings and arrows of Western cultural imperialism. I’ve only skirted around the topic briefly on this blog; for me, acknowledging that Western cultural imperialism is actually A Thing took me a long time, and many many years. “West Is Best” is a difficult mindset to shake off, particularly when it’s insidiously drilled into us everyday. I think it’s important to have conversations about this, since it’s an “ism” that often gets overlooked, especially in its more subtle forms. Rest assured that this is not the last time I’ll bring up the topic on this blog.

So. Without further ado:

Presenting the Cultural Imperialim Bingo Card

If you think colonialism is dead… think again. Globalisation has indeed made the world smaller–furthering the dominance of the West over the developing world, shrinking and devaluing local cultures, and uniformising everything to Western values and Western ways of life. This is a pernicious, omnipresent state of things that leads to the same unfounded things being said, over and over, to people from developing countries and/or on developing countries.

It’s time for this to stop. Time for the hoary, horrid misrepresentation clichés to be pointed out and examined; and for genuine, non-dismissive conversations to start.

Accordingly, here’s a handy bingo card for Western Cultural Imperialism–and we wish we could say we’ve made it all up, but unfortunately every single comment on this card was seen on the Internet.

Card designed by Aliette de Bodard, Joyce Chng, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, @requireshate, Charles Tan, @automathic and @MizHalle. Launch orchestrated with the help of Zen Cho and Ekaterina Sedia in addition to above authors (and an army of volunteer signal boosters whom we wish to thank very much!)

 

Related links:

On ROH
On the World SF blog
On Joyce’s blog
On Rochita’s blog
On the Cogsmith
On Aliette’s blog

Feel free to signal-boost, repost, make suggestions, and generally talk about it!

NO NEED TO PRESS SO HARD?

NO NEED TO PRESS SO HARD?

NO NEED TO PRESS SO HARD via Chen Jiaxin

Singapore is in an uproar. The news has broken that SKL0, a local street artist – identified in the press as a 25-year-old woman – has been arrested for vandalism. Public outcry, strongly driven through social media, has been pointing out all night and morning: “See. See, this is why we can’t have artistic things.”

I have been trying, and failing to come up with a coherent response to this. On one hand, I am shocked and saddened by the arrest.

On the other hand, I understand–and sympathise with–why it was done.

(No, really. This is true.)

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