2017: A Reflection on Writing

It’s been a long time since I’ve written for myself. So much so that whenever I get asked about my writing, I can’t help but to feel a tinge of guilt and embarrassment.

2017 has been a far bumpier ride than I hoped it’d be. After completing my Master’s in Creative Writing, I came home to Malaysia eager to get back into the workforce. I applied, and got hired, at a well-known advertising agency in the span of a few weeks. This was great news to me, because my degree came with its fair share of bills and I wanted to get right on to paying them.

My time at this agency was brief, but the ruthless highs and lows proved to be an eye-opener. It was here that I learned how to appreciate the art of brevity even more, which I guess was inevitable when my own words and ideas were constantly getting chopped up to pieces (the tagline needs to be punchier! And shorter!!). It was also here that I met all sorts of colourful characters – rough, irregularly-shaped and memorable.

Was the work satisfying? Well… yes, in some ways. Working in advertising gave me the opportunity to write and ideate for over 20 brands, an opportunity I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

Advertising.

There’s a lot to write about, but it’s hard to begin.

A great deal of rejection happens. When you fail at being smart, funny, informative or direct, you know. Maybe it’s your manager that tells you. Or the clients. Or the suits. Worse still, another writer. Or, you know, that crippling self-doubt that takes over during the hellish hours of the night.

When you brainstorm, be prepared for awkward silences directed at your ideas. Be prepared to direct similar silences to others. But when things get desperate, suddenly every idea can turn salvageable. Be prepared to form a certain special kinship with other creatives over this type of shared struggle.

4pm meetings will start at 8. You’ll drive bleary-eyed past midnight and you’ll live in sweats and cotton shirts. You’ll soon realize that dressing as a creative means dressing as how you would, first thing out of bed. And that’s perfectly okay. Some days it’s nice to be surrounded by rumpled hair and the smell of cigarettes. Some days, not so much.

When acceptance over your ideas and your words happen, the elation you’ll feel, however short-lived, will fuel you. Seeing your words on billboards and ads around town will fuel you.

They say teamwork is key and that’s especially true in advertising. Without the suits, without a good designer or an art director or your creative head, all your words and your ideas are nothing. You’ll see that whatever good presentation skills you have will come a long way. You’ll learn that people get pissy over Oxford commas and missing out a hyphen by accident. Never miss out a hyphen by accident. There is no room for accidents.

And on some days, you’ll wonder if creativity must translate to not having a structure. You’ll notice that advertising requires you to mostly be angry, hungry, well-spent. This is because it needs all of your energy, which in turn you’ll give because your ego wouldn’t want to cower in the presence of other well-fed egos.

But I’ve done my time and I’ve moved on.

My current job is still in the area of copywriting, but on the client’s end this time. Without meaning to, I somehow managed to find myself in this line of work. In one way or another, I managed to sway my life decisions towards the direction of being a writer. Be it ad copy, press releases, speeches, or stories, I’ve somehow survived this far doing something I genuinely care about as my bread and butter. For this, I am grateful. To be fair, the term ‘writer’ still makes me heady. It makes me feel presumptuous to refer myself by that coveted title when there’s still a long way to go. But eh, I do feel proud about making it through thick and thin the way I have so far.

I’d be lying to say that these jobs don’t give me writer’s fatigue and that they don’t affect my own writing. It’s much easier to write for brands than for myself. For brands, it’s not about what I like. Instead, there are given restrictions and guidelines to work around. But when I find myself facing my own blank page at the end of a workday, the possibilities can suddenly feel vast and foreign. What do I like? And how do I begin to separate my work voice with my own? Where does it end, where does it begin?

But I try, or at least want to. Maybe it’s just the part of getting older where things don’t have the same sense of wonderment to them or I just get tired a lot easier. On days when I feel jaded by my surroundings, I can’t help but wish that I have the same eager naivety I had years ago. Decisions just feel a lot more measured these days and time feels like a privilege that’s not always mine to own.

Advertisements

Strong tunes, serious feelings.


There are many things they don’t teach you at school.

Like how to tell when somebody is lying, or how to get over feeling small when others belittle you, or how to conceal the unflattering bluish-purple of dark circles (and dark secrets), or how to deflect extremely personal questions from mak ciks, or how to stop blushing when you realise that that gawky boy has turned into a handsome man, or how to be assertive in the face of uncomfortable situations, or how to deal with heartbreak at 3am, or how to have enough confidence and self-love to understand the art and angles of taking your own lit selfies.

Sometimes when my head feels a bit clearer and I am not so pessimistic, I feel convinced that so many things can be solved (or made better) with the help of music. The right song, at the right moments, can reveal or help through so much. Maybe someday I’ll find an eloquent way of describing what it feels like whenever I listen to (Sandy) Alex G – the easy comfort, the instant love – but in the meantime all I want to do is to listen and listen and listen.

Rindu.

Take me back to a time when we needed less. Back to not having enough to count as fancy, not enough to count as poor.

Badly-ripped mp3s and crumpled bills. A 2-day old sweater reeking of cigarettes. Mouths moving tunelessly in the dark. Midnight buses to nowhere. Nerves before making a phone call. Eating ramen outside of 7-E by the side of an alleyway. Asking strangers to help with taking our pictures. Falling in and out of love far too often, far too hard. Absent-mindedly singing along to Frank Ocean in an old Mercedes. Sun on skin on skin on skin. A time before selfies. Quieter conversations that paid for themselves. More time to read. Less people to miss. Poorly-drawn brows. Writing for no one.

Take me back to a time when we needed less.

Tired boy.

“I love you.”

He imagines the relief of finally telling her, the surprise registering in her beautifully narrow but clear eyes, her forehead slightly strained in displeasure. A warmth extends from behind his neck to the front of his face at this very idea.

If he can muster the confidence, he’d tell her after her work shift on Friday. Doing it on a Monday would set the tone all wrong. She might not be able to focus on her job all week. That wouldn’t do.

With a slight start, he shifts in his seat. His phone had fallen off his lap with a loud thud. In the shower, he finds himself staring at the bar of soap, wondering if he’d washed himself, or if he hadn’t (he had). He lathers himself with soap and thinks, with some conviction, that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

That strange sensation of relief and humiliation hits him again. It’d felt more real than things have felt. More real than staring blankly at job briefs. More real than watching his conniving colleagues and how their mouths move. More real than his recent bank statement.

Never mind that he’s only met her twice. Both times she’d walked over to say ‘hi’. He thinks, with worry so slight it’s nearly non-existent, about the ambiguity of her expression and of risking a confession. If not for the outcome, then perhaps for the chance to feel something. Something, anything, to break the past monotony of his recent days.

The energy cuts off. He finds himself alone, cold, naked, slippery. Vulnerable, and covered in soap suds.

The illusion of being alone.

In my years of growing up, I’ve gotten used to being alone. It’s during these times that I’ve felt most at home, bare of pretence and the need to be civil. It isn’t always pleasant or easy, but I accept it as a need all the same.

My need to be alone is negligible (or so, I’d like to think) but necessary. I indulge in solitary activities; long lunches alone, detours on walks back home, solo trips out of the country (or state), hours spent reading until bad posture jolts me back to reality and force me to move – anything to get in touch with my subconscious, recalibrate and understand myself better, something which seems to get trickier with age. Not many people are okay with this need. For some reason, there exists a certain stigma in being seen without a group, as if it’s capable of stripping away one’s dignity. I’ve received countless weird looks when I mention my preference to go out for solitary meals and how going to gigs by myself isn’t that big a fuss. People shirk away from being seen by themselves as if it’s a valid cause for embarrassment, as if their skins are so thin.

Don’t get me wrong; as much as it can be insightful to indulge in activities alone, there are many things that should be enjoyed with others. A good movie, an excellent meal, a barbecue, a trip to an amusement park, birthdays, dates – these are all better spent in the company of a loved one. And now that I’ve experienced what it’s like to be in a stable relationship, I understand how easy it is to attach oneself to another, as if the other person is a limb that has suddenly grown from the body. Once a person has experienced this, there exists a new sense of absence without the presence of another and being alone by choice sometimes feels out of the question.

 

But it takes years and effort to understand things and I think it takes even longer to understand our own motives and desires. Perhaps the reward is in the process. Perhaps others can see that sometimes being alone isn’t really about being lonely at all.

The Mourning After.

It’s that part of the night where nothing and everything happens. You’re sitting on the edge of Craig’s lumpy white couch, the one that’s slightly sunk in the middle and isn’t exactly white anymore, uncomfortably refreshing all the social media apps on your phone. Your throat is parched from the cigarettes. Music is playing in the background. It’s a band you don’t recognise; you’ve stopped checking up on music in the last three years and no longer spend money on music festivals. You can barely work Snapchat and try to conceal your annoyance as you see people trying to make their night more interesting than it really is. It’s starting to embarrass you how often your parents still bail you out of sticky situations. And you’ve been working hard, trying your best not to quit even if the job kills you, because you can’t afford to jump jobs anymore since that track record isn’t looking too good. The way you are dressed now, in cotton tees and less form-fitting pants ever since the beer caught up with your belly, has less thought invested into it than the Nudie jeans and Supreme sweatshirts you used to wear.

You’re tired, you think, as you watch the crowd flock this cramped living room. There is a more exclusive group of smokers starting their own party outside whereas some are lying belly-down on the floor. Some things don’t change. Craig looks forever young in spite of his premature balding. It’s in his full-bodied laugh which makes it sound like he is genuinely bemused by everything. He drinks like it’s his first year of college – relentlessly, unapologetically, as if there is no tomorrow waiting on him.

It’s been awhile since you’ve fallen in love but you gaze at the sea of pretty faces glimmering in your half-sober state. All these lovely tiny mouths, like little flowers. It feels lonely here, listening to the shimmery sounds of laughter and watching everyone exchange pleasantries that won’t last the night. You think of your past relationship and how you mistakenly thought it’d end in marriage. The both of you don’t go to the same places at the same time anymore, or try not to anyway. The city is too small to avoid each other forever. You used to love all the ways in which she moved, the way she fiddled with her fingers when she got nervous, how her eyes lit up whenever she had an entertaining story to tell, the way she would tip her head slightly when she was feeling flirty, the way she held her cigarette daintily. You see now her movements were never crass, or at least not during the prime of her girlhood. When was the last time you’ve felt the way she made you feel? Not since Tinder exploded, surely. You remember again how dating is hard. Where do all the decent people go to and,

was that even love? One day you will forget the way she smelled, the texture of her hair running through your fingers, the way the both of you belonged to the other during quieter moments of the day. A few days ago you found out Prince died. The both of you used to love listening to his music together. He was a hero, one you always thought of as ageless and eternal, just like Bowie, but he too has passed.

She, too, will age, and so will you. The both of you will find refuge in other bodies again and again. But on some days you will always still be caught in a more innocent time, so far away, when little else mattered except getting through the days running errands, savouring meals, and listening to music in the company of the other.

The prince doesn’t save her.

The first time they painted her face, she’d wanted to cry. She didn’t understand how the art of making a person beautiful transformed her instead into a caricature. Her coral mouth looked clownish, her silver-painted eyelids accentuated the purplish tint of her dark circles, the mascara transformed her lashes to look like the many tiny sprawling legs of a spider. She couldn’t afford to cry at the time, not as aunts with pinched smiles watched and told her she looked beautiful. Later at night she would wipe everything off and wonder if the problem was in the makeup artist or in her, the subject.

The first time she appeared wearing a kebaya in her first year as a woman, her mother’s eyes crinkled with pride. Beyond her slender waist and wider hips, she carried the same rare beauty her mother had glimpsed in other women. It was in the easy way her daughter’s laughter would complement her eyes, in the way she bowed slightly for a salam encasing hands older than hers with all the warmth and grace she had to offer, this time no longer as a child but as a burgeoning woman of her own, in the attentive manner she would listen, so attuned, before she spoke to others.

The first time she went to a concert, she saw the magic in which music could augment the beauty of another. Before her eyes was a boy she’d seen many times but was never drawn to in previous days. A seemingly plain boy, a seemingly simple boy. As the music began and enveloped them in its warmth, she noticed the way those boyish limbs moved, the milky white flash of neck under dim lights, the way he closed his eyes to embrace the kinship that filled the room, how he savoured every beat as if it filled him up. All this watching made her shy. As she took in the smell of sweat and alcohol in the room of moving bodies, she realized that what she felt was the ecstasy of attraction.

The first time she knew it wouldn’t work, she wondered if it was anybody’s fault or if it was just people in the 21st century that gave up on people too easily. She needed for things to end, she thought. She needed to ache to understand; not to stop seeing the beauty in past lovers but to stop yearning for that beauty too much. She’d heard stories of arranged marriages with longer lifespans than marriages of people who were crazy in love and wondered how much of love was about perseverance and how much of it was truly organic in nature.