Expression and Consequence – On Writing and Growth

Photo by Tom Rogerson on Unsplash

I pen my thoughts about picking up writing, continuing to write from a place of vulnerability, and what ramifications it might have for my work as a writer, as well as its impact on my loved ones and I. I also think about a path forward, although I cannot guarantee that I can take it.

Writing as Liberation

For those who know me in real life, it is no secret that I have been writing for a very long time. Even though I started writing poetry relatively late into my life, I’ve always had dreams of eventually publishing my work – any work – in a book of my own one day. I longed to see my name on a shelf, even though for the longest time I could not put my finger on why.

When I first started writing poetry, I was only posting them to small sites where my friends and I could read each other’s work without much real criticism. Arguably, we did not criticise each other’s work because we simply did not know how to. All we could say was ‘good’, and laugh over little in-jokes. Complexity was always a winner, even if the substance was simple. We, too, were simpler back then.

What it felt like. Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

After all, the study of literature and the practice of it were distinctly different things. In Singapore, creative writing is something often seen as taught for younger students, and not something as seriously explored once we reach the tail-end of our teenage education. For the lucky few who went to programmes such as the Creative Arts Programme, even fewer continue writing past their twenties.

Conversely, there was a lot of emphasis on ‘critical thinking’ – although this, too, came within its own framework and boundaries. We were expected to know how to craft a solid, exam-ready argument, which is oftentimes nothing like how an actual argument should go. There was always concession of some sort, even when there was no real need for it. It was, in its own way, reflective of what it meant to be a Singaporean in today’s day and age – the constant need for balancing, centrism, to say everything and mean nothing at all.

Writing poetry, then, was liberating in the sense that it was like sex (haha jokes in my blog post?) – we know of it generally, we learn of it in class, yet nothing can prepare you for when you try it out for yourself. No-one expects to be great the first time they do it – and that is where the pleasure lies.

Like sex, whatever work that was made was great to us, solely by virtue of existing. There was nothing more that we really needed other than to experience it, again and again.

Rising Standards – A Reflection

Yet, the more voraciously we read and write, the higher the standards we hold for ourselves. I eventually moved beyond the sites I used to use (goodbye, Ficly, and my short stint at allpoetry.com). My first time participating in SingPoWriMo felt like a wake-up call because there, there was no obligation to be nice.

What I meant is that there was no participation trophy, no placid comments about how a poem is ‘good’ without saying anything more. With the benefit of all of us having been strangers, there was no reason to hold back on criticism. I found other talented writers from my own country – shattering the commonly held myth that there was ‘no good Singaporean literature’ – I found people whose work I loved and admired deeply.

I got deeper and deeper into the community. This also led to me joining a writing group, as well as making most of my current (and longest-lasting) friends. In such an environment, we became more demanding regarding not only the work we read, but also the work that we produced. Perhaps this, too, was a symptom of the Singaporean mindset – that there is Competition always and that one can always afford to be better.

Golden Point Awards 2019

Eventually, this grew into awards and competitions (again, the Singaporean mindset of kiasu?). They were good – the money funded many things I found to be necessary to me – but they also left me with some severe imposter syndrome (who am I to be here when the people I admire are not?). And then there was the additional pressure of trying to constantly put out ‘quality’ work. I scrapped many a draft because I could not see it developing into something I would be proud of for having written it. I felt pressure in not regularly publishing pieces in journals. I felt stressed that I simply wasn’t writing at all.

I already had a bit of pressure trying to write pieces which felt ‘true’ to me – much less trying to churn out ‘quality’ work. It was evident that I needed to change my approach to writing, and the process behind it, which was partially why I started doing Freewriting exercises. When I first did freewriting during my exchange in Dublin, I admit that I found it silly. The writing club, spending 10 minutes to churn out something random that nobody had to read? But over time, I found the joy in it again – to simply write whatever you wanted. There was no pressure at all because nobody had to read it. You could write anything you wanted to.

Then I realised – isn’t that true regardless of the freewriting exercises? IF anything, you would be even freer without the freewriting classes (because we had to write to a prompt). I realised that I lost sight of writing as liberation, even though I focused so much on writing as expression. When I had nothing ‘real’ I wanted to express, I simply could not write, but writing can be simpler than that. It should be simpler than that. It should not have to come from a need to fill a hypothetical book, it should not always have to come from a place of pain. Who is out here putting these arbitrary rules on when one can write or not? Nobody.

I had limited myself to writing about a few key themes, even though I knew that I could no longer truly associate myself with many of them, simply because I had a manuscript I was working on. And if the dilemma is that I didn’t feel true putting these poems in this form, then isn’t the solution simply not to do so? There was never an obligation to continually write in this mode, just as how there is never an obligation to write anything at all.

Working Through Trauma

Likewise, my work had been defined chiefly by a few themes. I find myself writing about my family a lot, as we had a lot of family troubles when I was younger. I had issues dealing with my feelings – about myself, my body, about love in general, about the future.

In fact, I even identified myself as a confessional poet – while I wrote purely fictional pieces about spotting trains in Jurong and escapades that a regular university student would never realistically be having. It made sense to me, to express what I felt through the medium of the impossible.

Writing was thus a way of exploring my trauma and navigating my feelings. But what happens when you have successfully done so?

As I grew as a writer, I also grew as a person. I learnt to forgive my parents, to express my emotions in a healthier manner, to talk to people about how I felt. I learnt to open up. I learnt to fall in love, and I did. I forgive myself for many things. I made amends. I apologised where I had to. I strived to do good. I worked through everything.

Would it be right to dig up what has already been buried? To reanimate the past as a marionette. I don’t have much confidence in writing beyond what I have already experienced. Most of my ‘good work’ is based on that. And often from somewhere that hurts. It feels like extracting a thorn – painful in the moment, but blissful when it is all done and allowed to heal. I know that there is no true pressure to keep writing in this mode – I have to discover how to leave it.

A Heavy Conscience is Only Heavy When You Try to Lift It

I suppose my conclusion is this. There is no real pressure to do anything. A heavy conscience is only heavy when you try to lift it, and feel its weight with your own hands. But, to extend the metaphor, that means we choose what we value, and in turn, what gives us stress.

For me, I still dream of putting out a manuscript. However, now I wrestle with how to do so in a way that is responsible. I wouldn’t know how I could publish some of my ‘best work’ in a permanent, physical format when it could bring painful memories back to the fore.

I also wouldn’t know how such a book would impact the loved ones around me. I mean, I even met the love of my life through this writing group. I could not bring myself to hurt her, even if it means not publishing certain pieces – and same goes for so many others. My family, my friends, even myself.

I know that there is no real pressure to produce work of a particular flavour now. But I have chosen these restrictions for myself. I still want to publish a book eventually. It is, and has always been, a dream of mine. My struggle, now, is to do so responsibly – in a way that is true to myself, and in a way that does not hurt any others.

A Muddy Path

Photo by Brandon Duford on Unsplash

In conclusion, my problem is that I cannot lie. I have a problem with putting out a manuscript of my work – even if it may eventually be deemed worthy of publication – that does not represent who I am as a person today. Especially when this could hurt others.

Yet, I find I have so little to write about who I am, about my life, because I am constantly living it. I am constantly in the moment of being. My life is great. I have almost no need to write about how I am living now. I enjoy a cordial relationship with my parents. We can make jokes. There is peace. I have made good friends, I have found love. I might not be happy every day, but I am happier. I don’t have anything ground-breaking to say about that, nothing poetic at all.

I suppose this brings me back to what I wrote about education. How we are always thought to ‘balance’ our arguments, even when in reality that doesn’t make as much sense. Initially, my manuscript, Nervous System, was all Sad (albeit in different flavours). After Manuscript Bootcamp, I considered writing a manuscript that started in trauma and ended in growth, liberation, enlightenment – but isn’t that, too, just another act of balancing?

For now, I have no answers to these questions. I have no choice but to return to the Work, and to give it my soul.

Filed under: blog

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A member of Singapore-based writing collective /stop@BadEndRhymes ("/s@ber"), Valen dwells in the swamp of poetry. He has been published in various publications, including Anxious Poets Society, Eunoia Review and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. He has performed his work at the Arts House, the Singapore Art Museum, and in various dingy bars.

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