“Maybe your writing sits better with westerners than with Asians,” Nick said, comparing between the lacklustre performance of my blog posts against the attention (read: more than five readers) for my Medium articles.
I nodded with reluctance, only half-agreeing. It’s not as if there wasn’t a thriving reading community in Malaysia, and there was also a good amount of westerners on WordPress.
But yet there was no denying it: I’d posted the exact same works on both platforms only to get much more traction on Medium. As much as I’d like to believe that hard work and talent trumps all, I’ll bet that more people will read this article on Medium than on my blog.
That got me thinking, how much of my success depends on the platform I use? Could it be that I’m barking up the wrong tree? And does luck affect my success?
It wasn’t my first time entertaining these questions. I had recently took up a job in Myanmar, learning and writing about the beautiful country during a two-week trip. This is where I first questioned my ability to survive anywhere in the world.
There I was, arranging words for money, while the people of Myanmar had to earn a living with a totally different economy and skill requirements. What did I have to offer the country had I been stranded there?
I could still try being a writer, or even fall back to my hairdressing skills, but something told me that those vocations wouldn’t be very high in demand there.
“I don’t know why I started writing. I don’t know why anybody does it. Maybe they’re bored, or failures at something else.”
Then I dived deeper. Would I still have been a writer had I been born in Myanmar? What about the inverse? Would I have had better writing opportunities had I been born in cities like California?
I didn’t like thinking about that, because that implied the futility of improving my craft, of hustling my entire life only to end up undiscovered at the end of it all. Much like Van Gogh, without the posthumous success.
You gotta dig deep
When I was in Mogok, a city known as the Ruby Land in Myanmar, I met a miner who’d spend his days at the unlicensed mines, digging through sand and gravel just to eke out a meagre living.
The sun was setting behind the overcast skies and a drizzle blanketed the area, adding a small bite to the chilly weather. He stood before two women—the middlemen who’d purchase gems from the miners before reselling them—hands in his armpits, face weary from an honest day’s work.
My guide helped me translate the tense dialogue between them.
“This should be worth at least fifty thousand kyat,” the man said. He was selling his catch of the day—an assortment of rubies, sapphires, and spinels—for some thirty US dollars. His words were peppered with hope but slathered with doubt.
The woman let the price hang in the air for a bit as she sifted through the colourful gems on the tin plate.
“Five thousand,” she said. “That’s the best I can do. Nothing here is of value, except this little ruby.”
The man’s shoulders slumped. He was about to go home with just three US dollars.
“Make it ten thousand then. Please.”
With a little feigned reluctance, the woman settled on her final offer: “Eight thousand.”
And that was it. About five dollars for an entire day’s work. I watched him clutch the money tightly in his hand as he boarded the community bus, grateful for that something he could take home for the day.
As someone who’s always worked low-paying jobs (my starting pay as a hairdresser was about two hundred US dollars per month), I did feel a twinge of pain for the guy. But this was life in Mogok, and as much as I always find myself on the bottom rung of the salary ladder, it was still nothing compared to the daily life in this area.
You gotta do what you gotta do
Harsh living conditions aside, the little glimpse of a miner’s life did highlight certain similarities between that and writing.
There’s the part where you put in the hard work without knowing what you’d get for your efforts. You dig for gems, you slowly garner a collection, and when you finally have something to put out, you present them to someone who’s hopefully willing to buy.
Most times you get shit pay. Then you stumble across one or two gems (though it might be hard to determine if it’s by hard work or luck) that are valuable enough to get you through the month. If you’re lucky enough, you get a star ruby that’ll turn your life around. Else, you just maintain this existence for your entire life.
And that’s where the faith comes in. Sometimes your mind tells you that there’s no reason to show up today. It’s just the same thing over and over. You’ll never be the top one percent. Why even bother?
“I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy, or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
But then you have that little voice inside your head that says there’s a chance you might actually make it. Many people stifle this voice, especially in writing, and they end up being an editor, a social-media executive, a journalist…
And every day, you—who’s handling the content for some company who doesn’t need writers, who’s always asked to amend sentences not for mistakes but for a boss’s personal preferences, who’s always under-appreciated—listen to this plea, but you’re burdened by the responsibility of making a living.
What would happen if you quit your job? If you downsized to a humble lifestyle so that you could finally finish that novel? If you took your savings to pursue an MFA? We’ll never know.
But one thing we know is that we have one life, and as Jim Carrey said, you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance of doing what you love.
You gotta have faith
So here’s where I’m at in life. I’m a Malaysian writer with the odds stacked against me. I’m trying to to breach into the competitive English market, saturated with greats from America and England who have privileges equivalent to what I have over the miners in Myanmar.
Yet that doesn’t faze me. I continue to grind, with only faith as my guiding light.
When they naysayers ask me to find a full-time job, and when the local market data shows how little English writers earn in Malaysia, I’ll still forge on because that little voice inside me says that it’s a path worth paving.
I’ll rest easier knowing that I tried hard enough to achieve my dreams, rather than living life the way society wants me to.
I don’t know what I’d do if I was born in Myanmar, or if English wasn’t my first language, but I’d be sure that I’d be putting my nose to the grindstone and working hard at achieving my dreams, whatever that may be, and maybe that’s all we need in life—the knowledge that we’ve pushed our hardest in the direction our passions.
Because in the end, it doesn’t matter where I am or what my circumstances are, as long as my heart’s in the right place, then that’s where I want to be.