NON FICTION: Different is bad, so you’re bad

Trying To Fit In

I may have romanticised the writer’s life way too much. I’ve always pictured the typical writer as a broken but attractive soul, shelled up in his (or her) study, surrounded by books and way too many mahogany chairs. He’d stare out his window, lift his finger in exclamation, and break out his trusty typewriter (a Remington, of course).

The writer would tap away as the scene fades into a new picture—him holding his new novel. The book becomes a bestseller, the writer takes his earnings, throws a party in his mansion, and gets an inspiration from said party for his next novel.

I’ll be honest. The above paragraph is somewhat in line with my life’s dreams, and I still keep the fire stoked from time to time, though external influences might have knocked my expectations down a couple notches. If my description was the World Cup, then I’d be happy if the kids picked me to play at my local football field. That’s where I stand in my literary career.

While I’m a huge proponent of achieving the impossible, it’s hard to ignore the mediocre pay scale of publishing. Wages in Malaysia barely cover living expenses, and freelance fees hover at USD0.10 per word. Slather on the general unpopularity of reading, and you have yourself an industry with a pool of underappreciated talents.

The harsh reality of writing is that it’s unglamorously tedious. You rarely get eureka moments, and you just grind out word after word after word. Then you go back and do everything all over again because your first draft sucked.

That’s what’s been keeping me from blogging lately. The nature of the job leaves me wordless by the end of the day. Some days, I try to force myself to blog, but I might as well package what I wrote and sell it as a cure for insomnia, because I’m pretty sure it qualifies as top-notch drivel.

Still, I’m grateful for this blog, because it’s always here for me. It never begs for attention, or chastises me for casting it aside. But when I actually do have something to say, it sits down and listens. It’s like the totem in Inception, tethering me to reality. It makes sure that I’ve not wandered off into another world, unknowingly losing myself.

And boy do I need this totem. Since my first day getting paid as a writer, my voice has undergone more changes than Malaysia’s language of choice for teaching maths and science. Different publications have an idea of what ‘standard writing’ should be, and the only way to bring home the bacon is to comply.

Keep it informal to engage the readers, some would say. You need a mature voice, others add. Trust the reader to find things out, don’t patronise them; there’s not enough detail, I don’t understand. Keep things short; your sentences need more length because this isn’t a children’s book. Of course, this discounts the usual feedback such as: rewrite the story again. I don’t know what it is, but it’s just not good enough.

It really is no different from my hairdressing days (I’m starting to see a recurring theme in my life), having to create styles that were in conflict with who I wanted to be as a stylist. Seeing how hairdressers earn almost as much as domestic help—with the accompanying hours—if a customer was dead set on a mullet, you gave them a mullet. You literally couldn’t afford to reject their demands.

Which brings me to my next point. Unwillingly performing tasks for work is unfortunate, but being told how to live your life is downright hazardous. I’ve been told that I should stop eating instant noodles for my health, usually through mouths wrapped around a lit cigarette. I’ve also been told to stop being such a hermit, stop drinking coffee, and my personal favourite: get a proper job.

However, offhand life advice is only half as grating as putting other people down for their good habits. You’re eating salad? How boring your life must be. You meditate everyday? Boy you really need to get a life. You’re going back to college? But you’re old!

And therein lies the danger. Perhaps I am too old to study, you’d think. Maybe I should spend my time and effort elsewhere. Maybe I’m setting my sights too high. Maybe I won’t ask for a raise.

It’s really no different than the way circus elephants are trained. There they are, hulking beasts towering obediently over a small post. They never break their shackles because they’ve tried it before—when they were young and weak. They learned to see the post as unmoveable, despite being able to tear it right out the ground, thus accepting their fate.

Everybody has their own ways of doing things in this world, but society is set in a way that ridicules those who don’t fit the cookie-cutter. People who speak out, are different, or have an uncommon way of processing information gets pummelled into thinking that they don’t belong. We champion individuality, but impose our values on other people’s lives. I’m not saying it’s every man for himself, I’m just saying that maybe the gothic kid you’re pre-judging is better at maths than you.

And we all have our own paths to find in this life. Not everybody can be a doctor the same way that there’s just one Obama. Your abstinence doesn’t mean that everybody else should give up alcohol. People should be allowed to explore who they are as a person, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else.

And I guess that’s what I want to say. I might not end up as a best-selling author (perhaps I’ve become the circus elephant myself), but I still have my blog. All I hope for is to influence one person, and if that person is you, then to you I say, “Keep doing you, because you’re fine just the way you are.”

Unless you’re the one telling people how to live their lives. Then screw you.

4 thoughts on “NON FICTION: Different is bad, so you’re bad

  1. Don’t turn yourself into the elephant circus please. I’ve read your pieces and it has inspired me a lot. Although my pick of my way of life isn’t as daring as you did; more on the safe side, I’ve gone through quite myself too. I’m currently living away from my family, and my loved ones too. After a while all this “glamourous” life I’m living isn’t something I felt contempt to. Yes, I got great career, I traveled a lot, I met a lot of people, but deep inside, I don’t feel the satisfaction. May sound ingrate, but life isn’t made up only by those title. It needed its essence to flourish. I’m taking leap of faith this year. I’m thinking of leaving my current job, leave this country and go back to Malaysia. I’m gonna be near to my mum, my family and start new life as a wife too later half next year ( of which is challenging me to try leaving this hectic life for a mundane life of a stay at home wife 😑) Anyhoot, you go do whatever you think give you most of your life, I’d be here waiting for new exciting story from you!
    Good luck!

    • Hey Fars! You reaching out has made my day, and I’m super grateful for your comment.

      You sound like you currently have an exciting life. Wishing you all the best in your life decisions, and here’s to welcoming an awesome person back to Malaysia!

  2. “We champion individuality, but impose our values on other people’s lives.” -That is so true. I can totally relate to this post of yours, especially after my own working holiday hiatus. There are so many people trying to tell us how to live our lives – I think I’m guilty for being one of them too, at least until I’ve experienced living life the non-cookie-cutter way myself – and it’s scary how the things they say creep into our heads and eventually turn us into circus elephants. But to hell with the naysayers! My newfound motto in life now is: Nothing happens unless first we dream; and I’ve got the words “Dream big” inked on my wrist just so I’m reminded to do so at all times. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – You’re a bloody good writer =) Whether or not you end up being that best-selling author (all you need is a little luck, really), rest assured that you’re doing a great job just by fighting for your dreams. I’m cheering for you!

    p/s Eh meet up someday to exchange stories la
    p/p/s Yes, I still read your blog despite your unresponsiveness on Whatsapp =.=

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