I don’t know exactly when I made the transition from regular writer to a consultant of sorts, but I’m thankful for the messages I’ve been getting. Most being questions on how they too can write for a living.
And the more I listen to to their dreams and circumstances, the more I realise something—that I’m not the best person to give advice, even if I were to continue writing professionally for another decade.
Why, you ask? Because I’ve had certain privileges growing up that you won’t have, and it’d be wrong for me to tell you to follow the steps I did without the luck I had.
So before I present you with unsolicited writing advice, let’s first explore the reasons why you’ll never be me.
1. English is my first language
There are certain nuances in the English language that require a certain command of it—preferably attained from a young age.
And thanks to my mother, who’d sat me down with English workbooks while I was barely old enough for primary school, I too had developed a skill I would take for granted throughout my life.
Sure, you can write with your second language—I’ve written in Malay for work, albeit terribly—but trying to hone your turn of phrase or the rhythms of the written word will come more naturally to someone with an innate understanding of the language.
So if you’re currently trying to write for a living, and you grew up with a different mother tongue, just know that you’ll always be playing catchup, just like how I would if I decided today that I wanted to be a professional musician.
2. I don’t have any other notable skills
Besides being able to string a couple sentences together, I have very few marketable skills. Okay, maybe I can speak in front of a crowd, and I could also give you a snazzy haircut, but other than that, I really have nothing much to offer the world.
That’s why I’ve clung to this vocation harder than I’ve clung to anything else before—and that includes my exes. I know I don’t have much else to fall back on, so I take my writing very seriously.
But being rather skill-less has bestowed upon me a blessing, and that’s the drive to work on my craft. Because if following my muse comes at the cost of not meeting my deadlines, then I should very well go back to being a hairdresser.
And I’d much rather write than cut hair.
3. I live in Malaysia
It’s easy to stand out in this country when you have a good command of English. At least that’s how things were when I first joined the industry a decade back.
Sure, we may not have a thriving publishing scene, nor the infrastructure to support writers, but I didn’t have to compete with a bunch of people equipped with MFAs, or even English Studies degrees.
Heck, writing was seen as undesirable when I secured my first writing gig, mostly because it paid little and the jobs were sparse. This was before companies started using Facebook too, so it wasn’t as if there was a demand for content writers.
But hey, while the prospects were low—especially when compared to industries like accounting or IT—at least I still had a high batting average for every interview I went to, and I’d like to think it was all due to point number one.
4. I don’t have anything to my name
I drove what I’d consider a jalopy for two decades, and I don’t own a house. Throw me out on the street and I’d still be me, sans roof over my head.
Of course, things can get awkward once I meet up with my peers, because they’d roll on in with their BMWs, talk about their latest crypto score, and show off the phones they bought with their latest bonus.
And there I am, with only a paper-thin insurance policy to my name, wondering what I’d do if I ever get seriously sick.
But I’m privileged in that I have a certain freedom from bills and shitty bosses, because while a responsible adult may stay in a job to support their lifestyle, I can pick and choose who I want to work for, or listen to.
Most of the time, that person is myself, and I’ll need to talk to him about bonuses and all, but you know what? Living a simple life is what I’d consider lucky, because I get that much more time to write.
5. I’m not educated
At least not when it comes to writing.
Fun fact: I didn’t even finish secondary school. Not to glorify illiteracy though. I think education is a one of the most important things someone can have, at least for the effect of learning on the brain, if not for the subjects themselves.
But I digress. I meant to discuss adult education instead, such as MFAs. I think not having those qualifications is a privilege because it’s bestowed me with a sense of freedom.
Without formal training comes the absence of student loans. And when I have one less bill to worry about, I can focus more on my writing. I think we’re going around in circles here, but that’s life, right? We can never truly separate one part of our lives from another.
Also, as someone who hasn’t been through the system, I haven’t been corralled down one literary path or another. I have the ability to just be me, someone who writes without knowing the rules. It’s a wonder I haven’t been arrested and sent to grammar camp yet.
6. I’m a master of none
I collect hobbies, and that’s why I flit from one thing to another. What’s worse is I like the peripherals more than the actual thing.
So when I got into rock climbing, I spent a good amount of my first months searching for the perfect pair of shoes. Never mind the fact that I wasn’t going to do them justice, since my climbing technique was poo.
But you know what I got out of all that pointless shopping and studying? The ability to construct random metaphors.
Because you see, writing is like finding your perfect pair of climbing shoes. It’s when it hurts that you know you’ve found the right fit.
Or it could be like your journey to improvement. You spend months on the wall, feeling like you’re not getting any better, then one day you realise that you’re climbing much harder routes and you can’t pinpoint exactly when you’d levelled up.
Neil Gaiman once said that writing is all about confluence, about combining two separate things in ways others never thought of, and I’m here to tell you that I can confluence the hell out of things.
Like how resilience is like batter (the more you beat it, the tougher it gets—thanks, baking), or how browsing for a series on Netflix is like trying to choose an ice-cream flavour at Baskin-Robbins (you spend all that time only to realise it’s still junk—thanks, bad decision-making).
So I may not ever reach the upper echelons of any one thing, but I see that as a unique advantage not many people have.
7. I’ve had terrible careers
One benefit of having jobs you hate so much that you’d rather just sit in the toilet to pass time, is that you tend to fantasise what you’d rather be doing instead. And for me, I used to picture myself writing for the magazines we had in the salon.
In fact, the thing that stoked my interest in writing for a living was an article about a writer from For Him Magazine, where he attempted to learn boxing in one week to spar with a professional.
That tiny thing would be my guiding light all throughout my career, and I would finally follow in his footsteps many years later, when I travelled to India to spar with the mud-pit wrestlers of Maharashtra.
I wish I had the writer’s name and e-mail so I could give him a proper thank you, but alas, those were the days of print, where writers’ bylines were quickly forgotten in place of the attractive images, and where digital archives were non-existent.
Had I enjoyed my first careers from the get-go, I’d never had even thought of becoming a writer in the first place. So yeah, having a sucky decade in the workforce was a privilege indeed.
You have your own path to take
Are you starting to see why I might not be the best person to give advice? That’s because I had certain opportunities that wouldn’t be available to you, and me saying ‘write for free if you have to’ may sound reasonable on my end, but might not work for you if you’re worrying about next month’s rent.
But here’s the catch. You see all the ‘privileges’ I’ve listed above? If you put on your pessimistic glasses, you’d see that they could be excuses to why I didn’t succeed as well.
I personally know a mother of two, who told me that her lack of time was exactly the reason why she made every writing minute count. She’d crank out a few pages—even paragraphs—while her children napped in her arms. She’d also make use of the midnight hours when they were tucked in bed for longer sessions.
And what did that get her? An award winning book, that’s what.
Me? I’d love to have been born in the United States, or to have experienced a good MFA programme, but you know what? This makes me me. And you’re never going to be me, just like how nobody else can ever be you.
So own your life—regardless of if you have a sick family member, three jobs to juggle, or if you write with your mouth like the iron lung guy—because at the end of the day, nobody else can do you better than you.
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