August sipped away like a bottle of wine

I’m taking a leave of absence this fall!

Perhaps, as early as May, part of me already sensed that I didn’t want to do another semester of remote learning—especially not during my senior fall. I got sad thinking about doing the last year of college on Zoom. It felt anti-climactic, disappointing, a poor facsimile of what it could have been.

Truth is, I’m not in a rush to graduate at all. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, through conversations with friends back home and a simmering creative malaise over my fundamental ability to write fiction.

What is it I fear? The prospect of graduation isn’t scary, what is is the official entrance ticket to the treadmill of busyness and conformity, turning on the axle of capitalist productivity. What’s scary is the 9 to 7 weekdays in office cubicles, two-week vacations per year for the next couple of decades, housing mortgages and tax bills, and coming eventually to terms with the fact that—despite every lofty ambition growing up—my life will unfold exactly the way I don’t want it to. The fear of a mediocre life, of living too cautiously. At this age, mediocrity hurts more than failure.

In some ways, taking the semester off to continue writing whole-heartedly is a gamble against those fears, to give myself a real shot at the kind of life I aspire for when there isn’t that much to lose (yet). The existential crisis has never really quite left me, as my old blog posts remind me (e.g. Sophomore me confronted my worldly fears amidst recruiting season; in Junior fall, I was grasping for ANY inkling to answer “What do I want to do with my life?”—I stopped pretending that it was anything other than writing).

I am still a work in progress. A part of me knows if I were to die next year, I would spend the next 365 days writing a novel. That’s the only thing I felt destined to do, ever. So, I am trying to understand what the writing life is like by taking this semester off and deconstructing the in-built drive to fill up the time with internships, research stints, etc. But, another part of me still doubts. A few days ago, I went to read the first 20,000 or so words in the current draft of IDOL and was gripped by an eroding sense of insecurity. I’ve been staving off the instinct to edit for as long as possible so that I can first get the words out on the page. But, over these past couple of days, I’ve been writing very few words and knee-deep in editing because my style is so flawed that I kind of want to crawl into a hole and bury myself. (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a good antidote for the onslaught of writing woes BUT it’s no panacea—HOW CAN I WRITE BETTER?!? HOW DID I NOT REALIZE MY WRITING VOICE IS SO STILTED???)

Here’s a short reading list of what I plan to read/reread/finish reading in September, to get past the rut (may a bad writing week not turn into a streak):

Dear reader, is there a novel that you loved for its voice and style, on top of its plot? I’m hungry for recommendations, feel free to send me titles ANYTIME!!! 🙏

Lastly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DADDY!!! 亲爱的爸比,生日快乐 🎂🎉✨ The other day I was going through my childhood books. Many had been lugged back by my dad from his overseas trips—Chinese novels, math olympiad books, hardback fairytales, poetry collections, history tomes, comics… Each time I went to the bookstore with my dad, the two of us wouldn’t be able to leave without making a purchase. I owe my love for words—both English and Chinese—to my parents, who feed my imagination and indulge all of my creative urges.

Writing is a very uncertain thing, lonely, patient, chaotic, private; whoever observes the process from the outside might be mystified. Apart from word counts (which are quite helpful for establishing routine and utterly useless in relation to the actual substance of my words), my parents don’t quite know what I’m doing with my time. Occasionally, my dad asks me about how the novel is going and I don’t quite know how to tell him. Yet, still they have chosen to support any of my life decisions with trust, respect, and love. For that, I am eternally indebted to them.

谢谢爸比妈咪, 感恩有您们~ ❤️ 

Another month with G and J in IDOL begins!

Lots of love,

Happy National Day! // my cover of “Home” by Kit Chan

“Celebrations Together”: Artwork by Khong Ka Yeung, Rulang Primary School

Happy 55th birthday, my dearest Singapore! 🎂☀️🇸🇬

Each year, NDP (National Day Parade) is special partly because of the songs that I grew up with. I remember singing the NDP songs in school halls, classrooms, on the bus, with friends, teachers, family, strangers—all in unison and at the top of our voices. Tanya Chua’s Where I Belong (2001), Stefanie Sun’s We Will Get There (2002), Kaira Gong’s My Island Home (2006)… Funny how I know all their lyrics by heart.

This year, on Singapore’s 55th, I want to do a cover of Kit Chan’s Home, which came out in 1998, the year I was born. It’s one of my favourite NDP songs. Earlier today, when I was thinking about how to write this post, I was looping Home and then, it occurred to me that this song says everything I want to. The moment the instrumental begins, it’s like my heart clenches reflexively with pride, homesickness, and belonging. Or as one Youtube comment says, it’s “the feeling whenever my plane touches down at Changi airport.”

To Singapore: Thank you for being my home, my sanctuary, my anchor, and the place I will always return to. In times like these, with closed borders, suspended plane routes, slowing trade, the rise of internet sovereignty, and stay-home quarantines within four walls, home takes on a whole new meaning.

This song is for you:

Home by Kit Chan (cover by Selina Xu) ❤️

Whenever I am feeling low
I look around me and I know
There’s a place that will stay within me
Wherever I may choose to go
I will always recall the city
Know every street and shore
Sail down the river which brings us life
Winding through my Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

When there are troubles to go through
We’ll find a way to start anew
There is comfort in the knowledge
That home’s about its people too
So we’ll build our dreams together
Just like we’ve done before
Just like the river which brings us life
There’ll always be Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

For this is where I know it’s home
For this is where I know I’m home

Lots of love,

“Staying United”: Artwork by Goh Kate Lynn, Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School

July things

July is…

  • staying indoors all month (except for the momentous excursion outdoors to the polling station on July 10). My hermit life continues with my mom — neither of us have taken a step out of the house for months. Life meanders: the whole morning wrapped in blankets, my mom’s home-cooked lunch right after light breakfast, reading while eating fruits and chocolates, and writing after the sky turns dark in the hum of evening bustle, the breezy night, the shadowy hills, and my favorite sort of quiet — the feverishness of midnight when I seem to be the only human alive.
  • uninstalling social media apps. Forgive my excruciatingly slow replies, my digital antenna is sluggish. I am a texting turtle. 🐢
  • trotting out of the house with my dad on July 10. We queued for thirty minutes, went through rounds of hand sanitization, deliberated for a millisecond before stamping on a polling card, slotted it into a box, and trotted back home. With that, I finally exercised my right as a citizen.
  • absent-mindedly reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor and naturally the time I watched her five-hour-long Cleopatra on the flight from Boston back to Singapore) and All The Light We Cannot See (the writing is exquisite but somehow I can’t get into it).
  • listening to Taylor’s folklore. ❤
  • writing IDOL. This month, I wrote a total of 20,001 words.
  • ending with the last revolutions of the clock. For the final moments of July, here’s a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (posting both translations here because they move me in different ways — or, in Walter Benjamin’s words, each liberates the language imprisoned in a work in its re-creation of that work):

This world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet.

我知这世界,本如露水般短暂。
然而,然而。

With love,

a late-night love letter to taylor swift’s folklore

for taylor swift

when was the last time I listened to an album from the first track to the last, no pauses, no skips, no shuffling, no multi-tasking, and with my eyes closed? maybe it was six years ago when “1989” came out on my graduation night from nanyang.

folklore,” in its entirety, is sixty-three minutes. i can’t imagine trusting another artist this much, to take her hand and enter into a sonic world of her making, leading me through sixteen snapshots of her stream of consciousness. i can’t imagine either caring enough to discern each lyric in a song, afraid to miss a word. it isn’t often that words move me in a song; i’ve always been more of a melody person. but when it comes to taylor, her lyrics are everything.

i still remember at the age of ten when my classmate called me on the landline and screamed over the phone that i had to watch the music video for a song called Love Story this very instant — not a moment more, she was going to hang up now, and i had to do so in the next breath. i did. i fell in love instantly, with how i could hear an entire story in a handful of verses and how iconic a bridge could be (Romeo proposes, thank God). even now, i close my eyes and the flashback starts.

her lyrics have done more than simply accompany me through my childhood and teenage years; they amplify the highs and the lows, putting into words what i don’t know how to say — I’d Lie for how I would never confess a word about my crushes in elementary school, The Way I Loved You for new year’s eve resolutions, Come in With the Rain and Cold As You for angsty bus rides and fights with best friends, Long Live for vibrant encounters and nostalgic goodbyes, Breathe, If This Was a Movie, Back to December and All Too Well for nonexistent heartbreaks and youthful melodrama, Enchanted and You Are in Love for moments brimming with attraction and racing heartbeats. taylor isn’t the most poetic lyricist out there but the most relatable.

folklore” is a complete pivot from “Reputation” and “Lover,” in a good way. no more trap, slick synth-pop, EDM, radio-friendly bubblegum pop! taylor’s quiet storytelling is back, stripped to the bare minimum, the closest we can get to hearing how the song sounded in her head. it’s no longer as angry or dreamy as her previous two albums. it’s a sad, moody album — contemplative, introspective, and strangely (for a swiftie) no longer as autobiographical. as taylor herself writes, in her prologue letter below, these songs are an escape into fantasy, history, and memory. this time round, she inhabits characters, excavates their untold, innermost thoughts, and writes them out in the sky for all to behold. and maybe because she is in the skin of these characters, the lyrics are more vulnerable than ever — subtle but still plaintive, unencumbered enough to be truly intimate. the lowercase aesthetic of the album (every track is in lowercase!) suggests a chill nonchalance: at last, taylor swift doesn’t care; at last, she eschews the ‘I’ (à la bell hooks). she frees herself from the intense scrutiny on the self to simply tell a story.

the hazy mistiness of “folklore,” from its black and white album image in a forest (taylor diminutive amidst giant tree trunks) to the dusky piano by the flickering fireside in Cardigan, permeates the lyrics too. her songs this time are rambling, no longer as precisely engineered.

i love the ambiguity, the messiness, the open-endedness. what matters is not the kernel but the haze, as Joseph Conrad tells us:

…to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine

Heart of Darkness

my favorite points of the album are those hazy moments, lingering on the periphery of a chorus, hitting me in the gut.

***

the 1

the best taylor swift album opener since State of Grace (“Red”).

“In my defense, I have none / For never leaving well enough alone.”

the last great american dynasty

the delicious tidbits!!!

a life story in three minutes and fifty seconds. the devil’s in the details, truly — i guess when you own an infamous mansion with provenance, you can write a hella good song about even your house? reminds me of Starlight (“Red”), which is about Ethel and Bobby Kennedy.

i can tell that taylor admires Rebekah Harkness, her unabashed wildness, shamelessness at being called the maddest woman in town, and most of all, how she had a marvelous time ruining everything.

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green

the neighbor is Dali. i rest my case. she is a genius.

exile

one of my favorite songs on the album. the duet with Bon Iver is devastating. the analogy of exile for heartbreak is pitch-perfect.

I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?

You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out

I can see you starin’, honey
Like he’s just your understudy
Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances
Balancin’ on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

seven

the folksiest, most spectral song on the album. also a solid favorite. i love the whimsical whispers, the garden and space imagery (“Love you to the moon and to Saturn“), the wilderness and nostalgia. gives me sad, wistful Bridge to Terabithia vibes, which i cried over as a kid.

Please picture me in the trees
I hit my peak at seven
Feet in the swing over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
But I, I was high in the sky
With Pennsylvania under me

Please picture me in the weeds
Before I learned civility
I used to scream ferociously
Any time I wanted

august

surprisingly, the line that guts me the most isn’t the gorgeous sentence in the chorus— “August sipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine” — but the part in the bridge.

wanting is enough. so true, isn’t it?

Wanting was enough
For me, it was enough
To live for the hope of it all

this is me trying

And it’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound
It’s hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you
You’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town

the cinematic motifs have been constant throughout her career — If This Was a Movie! — and the line above is like a one-horse town moment.

and this one line: “I got wasted like all my potential.” oof.

illicit affairs

the last verse saves the song. i wish i came up with this line: “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”

And you wanna scream
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me
You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this idiotic fool that you made me
You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else
And you know damn well
For you, I would ruin myself
A million little times

invisible string

in chinese folklore, the lunar god of matchmaking connects a red thread of fate between soulmates (千里姻缘一线牵,万年修来共枕眠), no matter the distance — an invisible cord that may tangle (knots symbolize hardships and obstacles) but will never break, leading lovers to their destined encounter. the mythic imagery pulsates in this song, winding through curious, mystical, wondrous time.

also, the bridge is taylor swift at her peak:

A string that pulled me
Out of all the wrong arms, right into that dive bar
Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire
Chains around my demons
Wool to brave the seasons
One single thread of gold
Tied me to you

mad woman

makes me think of Wide Sargasso Sea (reviewed in on my desk) and Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. women and hysteria are perennially linked themes — madness is often essentialized as a female trait, a defiant subversion of the patriarchy that must be suppressed, and dubbed a “wrong” in the face of scientific rationality which grounds modern civilization. the mad woman, as a literary character that haunts the texts by numerous female authors and now taylor, is the author’s double, the incarnation of rage that finds no easy release without violent protest.

an excellent essay on the topic is Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

betty

teenage me would gobble this up. now, it just makes me nostalgic for the Tim McGraw and Our Song days, when i had short hair and was anxious about bumping into certain boys from across the bridge.

hoax

“Stood on the cliffside screaming, ’Give me a reason'” — listen for this single line.

another go-to breakup ballad for the ages. i love this song so much, gets better with every listen.

and thus “folklore” ends with these final lines:

My only one
My kingdom come undone
My broken drum
You have beaten my heart
Don’t want no other shade of blue but you
No other sadness in the world would do

***

like taylor, in isolation my imagination has run wild. how to pull from solitude the utmost depths of ardor? taylor confesses, weaving magic: embody other lives, dream about past selves, wonder about missed turns and broken glances, delve into parallel universes, brush the dust off aged secrets and forgotten desires, and follow the thrust of emotion towards its unfinished expression.

thank you, taylor, for your music.

and also, thank you to your music for always being so crushingly, achingly, gloriously romantic.

lots of love,

[Writing Updates] June 六月

整个六月都在室内度过,三点一线的生活:床,餐桌,还有皮沙发。我倚着餐桌打瞌睡,在床上看小说,在皮沙发上码字和偷吃零食。窗外有烈阳,有蓬勃生长的仙人掌,依山(很矮的武吉知马山)傍水(游泳池嘻嘻)。

这个月至少读了十本小说。我流着汗,也流着眼泪,滴答在屏幕上,流成故事。

📚

The whole of June happens at home, facing rolling green hills. A defence camp hidden somewhere inside.

Every day, I write (though you can easily spot some bad days 😓). In June, I’ve written a total of 20,498 words.

I conceived the idea for IDOL last summer in New York and started thumbing it out in the iPhone Notes app before sleep. After the summer ended, I had mostly character sketches. In the fall of 2019, I enrolled in Claire Messud’s Advanced Fiction workshop. Over the course of a semester, I completely redrafted the first two chapters with drastic changes to both plot and character, and it became IDOL V2.

Early this year, however, after weeks of traveling over winter break, I was stuck in a rut. Everything I wrote tasted insipid. My main character, G, kept floating out of reach. A silhouette in a mist. The closer I got to him the hazier he was. Over and over again, I asked myself, What’s the point of this story? I wasn’t in love with my characters and didn’t know how they were going to grow as the plot developed.

Around the end of February, one morning, I sat up in bed feeling like I had just woken up from another life. A dream that stuck to the skin but was receding with each passing moment. Frantically, I typed out whatever I could remember. Version 3 was born in first person. I started afresh on a blank GDoc. I had crossed over the rut to the other side of the bank.

13,683 words and two months later, I felt good about the story.

On the third day day of this month, I was gripped by a scene in my head: a glittering product launch for a new tech, electrifying audiences like Steve Jobs’ legendary iPhone presentation. It blanketed every previous thread I was trying to sew into the story. I realized I had to sit down and rewrite, starting with this new scene that easily toppled the previous chapters as though they were a house of cards. Introducing, IDOL V4. The 13,683 words were now in the trash.

I carried on with V4 for the first three weeks. Then I collided into the inevitable. Where’s the story going? I knew the tech, the conceit, the style, the world but when it came to the plot, I rammed up against a cliff. I finally accepted the sad truth: Without a detailed chronological, chapter-by-chapter plot outline, IDOL was never going to go anywhere. Subconsciously, I had sought to delay it. Many writers write without a plot outline and, instead, allow the story to organically emerge. Me? Three discarded versions of IDOL accumulating to over 50,000 words are a testament to my inability to proceed beyond the first three chapters without a plot outline:

Plotting is arduous. It’s my major weakness and also what impairs every novel I have started but never finished over the past decade. In the hard-disk of my laptop, there are over at least thirty novel beginnings that were abandoned, virtual detritus accumulating dust.

In the past week and a half, as I plotted everything chronologically (a plot that stretches over twenty years), IDOL genetically mutated into a foreign creature. The bones are still there: future of entertainment, idol, ghostwriter. But the rest of the animal has gone wild. In July, my goal is to finish writing the plot outline in detail (by Week 1). Then, IDOL V5 shall begin.

Another 20,000 words for July — ready, set, go!

Stay safe, with love,