A Tale Of Two Panels
Over the course the ten-day long Singapore Writers Festival 2019, I tried to attend as many sessions as my (limited) time and energy permitted. From the scintillating festival prologue by Marlon James on “What constitutes a story and who gets to tell it” to the soft but haunting lecture by Claudia Dey on “Mothers as makers of death”, there was much to appreciate.
For a more pragmatic perspective, I attended two panels — one on the Plausibility of Passion where three writers (Felix Cheong, Elaine Chiew and Jon Gresham) discussed the annoying but essential question of “Can you make a living as a writer?” The answer, a resounding and unanimous ‘no’ from the panelists must have been disappointing to the young writers who filled the room beyond its seating capacity.
The entry barrier to writing may be low, but so are the rewards. All of the panelists had held lucrative jobs prior to making the switch to prioritise their writing. Most of them made a living from jobs that were either in the writing sphere or complementary to their writing lives. While the non-material rewards to writing may be priceless, most things in life come with a price tag. The key takeaway for me was — Don’t quit your day job. Yet.
As a ‘not-formally-trained’ writer, I have often felt that journalists have it easy. Not only do they write for a living, they have the training and experience to move into creative writing at any time they choose plus, most importantly, they are the ones with the right connections to get published.
From the Writing as Author-Journalists panel, it was clear that while these authors, Ashwini Devare, Akshita Nanda and Jo-Ann Yeoh may have had the training, they faced a different set of challenges some of which included unlearning the tricks of the trade that made them competent journalists to begin with.
Fiction writing is a different beast compared to broadcast or print journalism. Pleasing a copy-editor needs entirely new skills when compared to pleasing picky fiction readers. As Akshita Nanda, a well-respected columnist for the Straits Times who has recently turned into a fiction writer pointed out so endearingly, “I went from a journalist read by thousands to an author read by dozens.” A sobering thought for writers looking to become celebrities.
After attending the Singapore Writers Festival this year, the biggest surprise for me as a prose reader and writer, was this realization — Poets (and poetry) rock!
I was blown away by the clarity of speech, electrifying performance, and sheer presence of poets such as Danez Smith and Cyril Wong. I was left speechless as Smith’s impassioned words filled the rafters of the Chamber, a spacious room that occupies two levels at the historic Arts House. How can one remain unmoved? I have made a vow to attend spoken word poetry events soon.
There was much to grasp from the handful of sessions I was able to attend.
· Learning can happen in any setting
· Lessons do not have to be complicated
· A guru does not have to be an old man in flowing robes and a long white beard
Of all the lessons I learned from established writers with impressive resumes, there was one key lesson to good writing that stayed with me.
The bright-eyed, super-impressive spoken word (and now published in print) poet from Malaysia, Melizarani T Selva earned my respect by self-deprecatingly describing herself as “too dark for TV and too woman for radio” in a session titled “When writing saves lives” and left me with three unforgettable words as a mantra for good writing.
Brevity is key.
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