“Do you write when the inspiration takes you?” you ask. No, I say, I write every day, whether inspired or not. Otherwise, I’d never finish my novel. You look surprised. It’s obviously not what you expected to hear.
I am perhaps fortunate, I add. Some people say they find it hard to begin writing. I have no such problem. I simply sit in front of my machine, and write. Just like with this blog-post.
The act of searching for words, of putting them together to form sentences, does something to my whole being. When I write, it’s not just my brain which is engaged – it’s also my heart. I see what my characters see, feel what they feel. Writing awakens my soul.
With each word comes a new idea. Or a memory long cast aside. Often, the thoughts and ideas and memories appear in random order, yet there are nebulous connections between them, strange pathways I can use or store as I wish. Sometimes, it’s not a thought I tap into, but the reservoir of emotion I know is there. The act of striking little black keys on a silver board unleashes a side of my psyche that has been kept in check for many years and can’t wait to be let out.
It isn’t always so. In everyday life, I often can’t find the words. But when I write, I inevitably find the words. Even if it takes half a year.
The words sometimes come in dreams. I have only ever remembered a handful of dreams, yet I’m conscious of writing parts of my novel when I sleep. Or of adding to and subtracting from it, as I’m doing now. I will wake up with the exact phrase I had been searching for, which happened to come while I was still asleep. It’s uncanny.
I’ve known for a long time that I have some sort of talent for creative fiction. When I was nine, I was runner-up in a national essay competition in Malaysia (in the English language). There were only two submissions from my school: mine and a classmate’s. We both wrote about tragedy; my essay was about a girl who survives a plane crash, his about two children who are involved in a boat accident with their father. Mine was pure fiction, inspired by the tale of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes. My classmate’s story, on the other hand, was based on his first-hand experience of surviving a terrible boat accident in which he watched his father drown while trying to save him and his sister. I still remember the title of his essay – Labyrinth of Fear. I handed my story in and thought no more about it. To my amazement, I was named runner-up nationally while my classmate was left without a prize. I felt embarrassed at the result. How could a made-up story trump real-life experience?
I thought of giving my classmate the trophy I won, but something held me back.
As I grew up, I put story-writing away. There were too many other things in life. I continued to write, but only articles full of facts and figures. In the early years, they had titles like ‘The Quasiparticle Lifetime at the Mobility Edge’; later on, they described companies and the different elements of capital that could fund them. My pieces were lengthy tomes which required grammatically correct sentences, proper syntax and punctuation, but which had neither soul nor heart. In them, the equations and facts were more important than the writing. Yet, it was my words which stood out. Colleagues would comment on how well I wrote. I acknowledged their praise before promptly moving on. There were still too many other things I wanted to do.
Somewhere inside though, I must have stored all the words I have ever heard in my life. Because when the moment came, I was able to retrieve them.
It started on a low day. Months after my final chemo session, I felt desperate. My hair had come back, but my energy hadn’t. What is life, I asked myself, without energy? When you lack the energy to move, life passes by in slow grinding motion. I slept, woke, read, went back to sleep, woke again, listened to the birds in the study, returned to sleep. Always, sleep overcame me, as if I had never slept before chemo and would never sleep enough again afterwards.
I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to regain my footing. My body had survived the ravages of illness and of drugs, and I was supposed to be well. Yet, I felt far from any state of equilibrium. “Why don’t you write?” my counsellor at MacMillan Cancer Support suggested.
Reluctantly, I began. I felt all of the inertia which writers speak about, the resistance to sitting down with a blank page. It was a beautifully sunny autumn afternoon. I made endless cups of tea before carrying my laptop into the dining room where I wouldn’t be disturbed by the chirping of birds. I had only a vague idea what I would write about. Just start, my editor friend had said. So I did. I embarked on a short story involving four students who shared a house in a university town.
And then an extraordinary thing happened: I became immersed in the world of my characters. When I next went to the gym, I found myself imagining the scene to come, tweaking words in my head. I couldn’t wait to get back to my story.
In the fifth decade of my life, I finally experienced that cliché known as the creative spark. With every word I wrote, I felt my body becoming stronger. I commenced on a novel that had long lain dormant, and by the time I had written three chapters, was a rejuvenated person. Writing became as natural as breathing. No longer could I sit back in this life and not write. I now have to write to live, and to suffer all the consequences of this art in their full-blown form.
Ichtyandr is a young boy who needs a life-saving operation to survive. His father, a surgeon, implants a set of gills onto his lungs. Thereafter, Ichtyandr is able to live in both water and on land, but he must keep this a secret from his friends in Argentina where he has his home. He moves surreptitiously between two worlds: one full of beaches and open fields, the other a silent world in which the only sound is the gurgling of his breath.
Invented by Alexandr Belyayev, Russia’s equivalent of Jules Verne, Ichtyandr appeared in the novel Amphibian Man in 1928. I often feel like Ichtyandr as I scurry between the folds of my imagination and the vast terrace of day-to-day existence. My real life is quiet, while the world my characters inhabit is full of noise, and bustle, and people…always so many people everywhere. It is also full of food – that central plank of Malaysian identity – and I’m constantly hungry when I write. I smell the garlic and lemongrass being pounded in a grey granite pestle-and-mortar, see the juicy roasted ducks hanging on spits. Unwittingly, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I will taste the saliva in my mouth. “What to do lah?” as one of my characters would say. “Of course must eat!”
Sometimes, being in two worlds or even three makes me schizophrenic. I can understand why writers become cranky. It forces me to look at Malaysia and at myself in a new light. I often imagine the characters in my novel as they would have moved around Ipoh, the tin mining town in which my story is set, a hundred years ago.
They were all alive then, going about their lives in rickshaws. If they could see Ipoh today, they would be astonished by the changes. There are many things I think they would love, and also much that would make them sad, as I am sad.
But sadness is not what I wish to dwell on here. Rather, I want to describe the sheer exhilaration of being able to tell the story I’ve kept inside my head all these years. I make up characters and sometimes I kill them; I find the words, thread them into sentences, move paragraphs around.
All this I do, so that I can guide my reader into a world that once was, down the very street she or he may still live on.
“You write and you erase. And you call this a profession?” says Nicole Kraus in her novel Great House.
No, I don’t call it a profession. I call it a miracle. And I’m thankful I have the vitality to share in this miracle, however imperfect my participation may be.