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Taste

“It’s going to take a while.”

I’ve listened to this snippet from Ira Glass many times over, and every time I do, I can’t help but feel a little encouraged, and a bit more hopeful.

Everything he says here, regarding the craft of creating stories is spot on.

Not only does it take time to feel like we’re creating something even close to our own ambitions, but it truly takes, a huge volume of work. Between the time, and the work, it’s the work that keeps me humble. The amount of work I will need to churn out, just so my writing can sound a little more like what I have in my head is daunting.

Time feels like a luxury. Sure, we take it for granted, too. But in my particular case, time is hardly the issue. I have loads of it. (I don’t manage it well enough to feel like I do, but I do)

It’s the work, though.

The commitment to churning out draft after draft of likely bad writing, again and again, until it looks a little less like a deformed mass of jumbled words and resembling more of a properly executed, carefully crafted story. Something beyond just well meaning, but poignant. Something actually worth reading.

I don’t fear the work. I just get tired thinking about what it will require of me. The demand is great, and the worker is few – me.

Now, about taste…

That’s the other thing in which I take some amount of solace. Actually, with regards to taste, there’s a little bit of pride.

I am not ashamed about what I like. I do not mind sharing the books I’m reading, or recommending films worth watching, or plugging the kind of music I’d want the rest of my small world to tune into (likely, it’s jazz, by the way).

What I like motivates me to create something that would, similarly, illicit a sense of pride – that I, too, can come up with something enjoyable. That I can move someone to action, or challenge someone to think differently, with my words, in the same way much of what I consume, much of my interests, move and challenge me.

Right now, the “taste” that Glass is talking about – that’s all I really have.

The body of work has yet to be built. The time to do so has yet to be managed.

But the taste, to me, is there. To me, it’s my beginning.

Things are likely to look a little different around here. It’s probably going to be a bit messier. I’m going to be testing a lot more out. See what sticks. My more manicured, professional self has its own, separate place – over here. But here…here is where the work, the real, grind-it-out, raw material, will once again gain its footing.

So pardon the mess ahead, but I have a lot of work still to do.

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Adrift

Day 31, 500 words, 31 days

I confess, I may have romanticized this writer’s life.

I imagined entire days spent reading classic literature and taking breaks jotting down passages that inspired me, and maybe writing some of my own. I would start off with my morning cup of coffee, perhaps go for a run if I felt the need to clear my mind, and then get to work at a reasonable morning hour – 10, or 10:30. By noon, I would pour a second or third cup if I felt the afternoon hours baiting me into submission, and sleep. Chances are, I’d end up napping anyway, with a book resting neatly over the bridge of my nose or with its pages spread over my chest. I’d be in some Zen-like state, unconsciously generating original ideas to write about – the kind I’d punch into a blank Evernote page to park for later. And late in the evening, if I couldn’t quiet the restless thoughts running in my head, I’d sneak out of bed and write a little more – perhaps along with a little nightcap, and if I took it at the right time, I’d knock myself out for good after I typed up my final words.

This is, however, not the usual day.

The version I actually live usually revolves around running morning errands like stress-inducing trips to the market, or remembering to hang out the laundry at a reasonable hour – like 10 or 10:30. By noon, I’ve missed lunch and debate whether it’s worth putting on some pants to go to get Char Hor Fun on the corner, or if I’m better off fixing myself the driest sandwich imaginable. Somehow, I fight off the spell that is sleep and manage to be alert enough to Tweet something tweet-worthy or skim over Facebook for something other than a Buzzfeed list. (I click on the Buzzfeed list anyway). By nightfall I’m wondering where my day went, and realize I hadn’t written a single thing worth posting. So I hit my hardest stride before 10 in the evening, pushing through a post around midnight just so I can earn the satisfaction of uninterrupted sleep.

I may have seen one too many movies of writer-types – the sort of miserly, unkempt professor of Wonder Boys or the manic-depressive one in Adaptation. There’s, of course, the feel good bunch too – the outcasted, but hopeful young writer in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or the diamond-in-the-rough discovered in Finding Forrester.

Reality is, I’m absolutely like none of those characters at all. I’m too fastidious about fixing the hair that I have left and I still actually put together outfits that don’t make me look like a child rummaging through his parent’s closet for “dress-up”. I didn’t fancy myself a writer when I was a kid, and I have a hard time believing I’ll be fortuitously discovered as one, as an adult.

The “writing life” and the “writer” itself remain such odd, though appealing, caricatures to me, but I find it hard to relate.

The truth about writing is that it’s just going to take a lot of work. It already has. The daily grind of it that brings about both magical epiphany and mind-bashing frustration. The practice and discipline of it make it more of a craft to be honed than a mere hobby to be dabbled with. The sheer effort it requires reminds me all the more that, like time itself, it’s never going to be free.

I’m already feeling the cost creep into my ideal, daily routine. I’m experiencing the quick loss of fresh ideas and concepts the longer my day goes without writing anything, because I’m too busy filling it with other responsibilities – like doing my own dishes or cleaning up after my cats or checking Facebook…for work.

All I know now, is that it will only get harder.

I don’t have the energy or patience to look back (yet!) at everything I’ve written. Measuring the amount of work (or words) I’ve amassed in the past month feels both daunting in task and in number. The “achievement” of which, doesn’t incite pride, so much as it does, genuine relief.

I stayed the course. I “ran the race.” I persevered through the really bad days and I capitalized, as best as I could, on the good ones.

I haven’t even begun to weigh what worked and what didn’t. But I suppose that sort of deliberation is for after-the-fact. Much after.

For now, I only feel the strong, unrelenting desire, to rest. Just for a while. Just long enough to get my bearings again – on the real day-to-day I’m about to experience once more, without this writing project tethering me to the anchors that were my tablet, keyboard, and desk.

After all, they have kept me afloat long enough. Now, it’s time to drift along.

On the Brink

Day 30, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s almost over.

What began as an exercise in commitment and discipline has since evolved into a daily battle of attrition. I feel mentally fatigued, pressured more than inspired, and a little too eager to begin other pursuits when this one remains unfinished.

Today was the most ordinary of days for me – the typical sort of easy-going routine that begins as I wake myself slowly out of my morning lull, hits a sudden and desperate halt for lunch, crescendoes with a short stint of productivity in the early hours of the afternoon, and resolves itself into smug satisfaction as I prepare to pick up my wife at school.

At different points of the day, I scoured for every day encounters to write about. Today, for instance, perhaps the friendly postman that assured me my wife’s postcard will make it to the U.S. on a ringgit stamp would have made for a decent story. Or the Muslim woman who sells me doughy ‘bao’ for a quick lunch. Earlier on in the process, I even dedicated an entire entry to my cats, though I haven’t mentioned them much since. I figured if they were the main characters of any given day of writing, it was probably a pretty uneventful day.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for Miles and Madu. Especially Madu, who, inexplicably, never really tires of me.)

This has been the most persistent challenge with this project – the task of making the most mundane things more than ordinary, knowing that every day doesn’t bring forth a riveting, raucous adventure. I’m lucky to have had some notable travels this month – to the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands during my wife’s winter break, passing through the historic (and culinarily famous) town of Ipoh, and of course, my own personal passage to India’s Kolkata, a remarkably dense city of unforgettable vividness and adrenaline-inducing energy.

But in between such excursions are reasonable – and necessary – breaks. January was an especially full month, which worked in my favor, as far as writing was concerned. Now that it has officially passed, I’m looking forward to not feeling a moral obligation to post daily, and hopefully, I’ll be exercising a keener, more judicious eye to scoop out the story when there doesn’t appear to be one. I’d hate having to resort to manufacturing some out of the blue…

Though, that isn’t a bad idea, entirely. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing short fiction, and maybe that’s a reasonable next project. Or compiling different lists. People like lists. Or launching an actual travel blog that only involves my jet-setting ways. Who knows?

Is it possible to be approaching the end with both eager in anticipation and cringing with dread? Does that sound, to you, a lot like graduating from a prestigious program, or for others, their wedding day (and others still, their wedding night?) I’m having trouble pinning down what exactly it is I’m feeling now that this whole ordeal is winding down.

Maybe it’s like a glass of whiskey…

(No, no I’ve made that analogy before, and this time, I wouldn’t have any idea where to go with it)

Perhaps it’s more like the relief you feel after stopping a wound from bleeding with a band aid. At that moment, you couldn’t be more grateful for a way to plug the thing from gushing out the life source inside you. That is until you you pull off the band aid a little too early and see the scab as it’s still forming. And yet, you’re just glad you aren’t staining your shirt anymore with your own blood.

Yes, a little like that.

When it’s all said and done (and soon, at that), I dread having to re-read all of these entries as if I’m being forced to flip through my middle school yearbook. But a lot like middle school, I’m just glad I survived it at all.

On Grit

Day 24, 500 words, 31 days.

On my wife’s Facebook wall today, I came across an interesting article that unpacked the importance of a particular quality in becoming successful at what you do.

Grit.

The article couldn’t have been more timely. There are just several days left until this writing project officially comes to a close and while my restlessness makes for numerous ideas floating about in the mysterious space between my ears, it doesn’t always translate into actual material.

I mean, good, worthwhile, storytelling material.

Some days are like, today.

Nothing particularly eventful or interesting, just a day in which I let myself languish for the sake of “recuperating” after a draining week. I got my coffee at the usual spot, had a nice, long conversation with my friend, the owner, came home and putzed around for half the day, looked up airline flights I can’t afford, picked up my wife at school, and then we got groceries, fries, and some porridge. That about sums it up.

For several days, I had more than enough to work with – the rapid pace of traveling and unfortunate twists and turns that made our trip far more an adventure than it was projecting to be – that made for some decently compelling stuff. I could barely keep my eyes open to write, but I had more than enough to get down on paper before my body shut down for good.

Today, I’m struggling. I’ll admit it right now.

I suppose like any story, this project, too, has a beginning, middle and end. And within that trajectory there are rising things and falling things. There’s excitement, and then, there isn’t. There’s suspense, and then there’s the pending resolution. It’s, for moments, mostly interesting, and then, clearly, not at all.

Right now is one of those dips in the plot arc that the reader, you, might be trying to avoid before you sink into a quicksand called boredom.

It’s one of those days when the only thing that motivates me is what I said I’d do from the very beginning – to stay the course, and finish.

There are moments, long, arduous, baking-under-the-sun sort of moments, when the well runs empty, and the well was the only thing I dreamed about reaching so I could stop panting.

That article I read described “grit” as

“the ability to sustain interest and effort to complete long-term goals”

. I wasn’t completely satisfied with that description so I turned to the dictionary, and it gave me something a little more uplifting.

Grit, noun. Firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck.

My favorite of those is “pluck”. That’s the sort of word that wins you games in Scrabble. But the first definition was probably the most heartening.

I needed to hear that grit referred to character. It is the quality you could equate to tenacity. Mettle. Internal fortitude.

In my particular case, it’s precisely the sort of steadfastness I was praying for when I decided I’d start writing – everyday.

To be fair, there are far more things for which this quality of grit could serve an even greater use. Life and death sort of matters, like, well, life and death. Like war. Or championship matches. Or a most riveting game of Scrabble.

To consider how much grit I need to stay the course on a daily writing project that’s about to end might sound a tad overdramatic. And it is. But if I didn’t attribute to this cause so much importance, if I didn’t feel the weight of not finishing bear down on my shoulders like a biblical yoke – well, then I wouldn’t bother finishing at all. In fact, I’d have stopped a long time ago, long before things ever got mildly interesting.

I’d have stopped on a day like today, and I have many of them, believe me.

But I haven’t. I’m proud of that. I’m also foolish and naive and scared everything I’ve written here is the most self-absorbed rambling I’ve ever coughed up in my life.

But I’m glad I have a little bit of that grit. Just enough to last a few more days maybe. So long as I finish, I’ll know there’s more than just wandering thoughts stirring the little engine inside.

Routine

Day 15, 500 words, 31 days.

The coffee is always best within the first few sips. After a few minutes, it becomes the lukewarm, less bold version of itself and I have to remind myself to enjoy it just the same.

It is also best, black. Every time the cashier offers milk or sugar, I give a smug little smile, as if I know something that she doesn’t – which is the way to have a proper cup of coffee in the morning. I hope she’s not thinking I’m flirting with my silly grin. Only that I’m mysteriously wise.

It’s been a while since I’ve visited my neighborhood cafe in Tanjung Bungah. Gusto Cafe was started by a former teacher who used to work at my wife’s school. He’s a local with some “international” sensibilities – he invited me to join his fantasy football league and he makes a mean burger. I’ll probably have to sit down with him another time when he isn’t working the grill and have him explain his life story to me again, so I understand.

Having a serious cup of joe here is a treat – mainly in that it costs more than three times the sweet, milky concoction of “kopi” I can get at the shop on the corner. I want to make a clear distinction here between “kopi” and “coffee”. One is the Malaysian way, the one mixed with a generous amount of condensed milk, which I genuinely enjoy for what it is. The other is the way I expect it to be – smooth, black, and delivering of a surprising kick of alertness an hour later. Which is right about now.

I was hoping that stopping by Gusto would be more routine than what it is, but every time I visit, my friend, Jason, the owner, always asks me where I’ve been or if I was out of town. It’s the sort of question that makes me feel both welcome and distant, implying that it’s good to see me, and yet I’m not seen often enough. So I plan on making it more of a habit to be around, even if it means shelling out RM6 for a long black Americano. Suffice it to say, they make it well, and hence, it’s worth the trip.

Soon enough, I’ll get to the point where I can start ordering “the usual”. In fact, I already tried ordering this way once, and I received a blank stare from the new hire behind the register and realized then and there how I had made it fantastically awkward for the both of us. It’s going to take some time.

The routine is supposed to go a little like this: Say “Hi” to Jason, Order the Long Black Americano, Deliberate on the Best Seating Option Available, Make Myself Comfortable, Bring Out Choice Reading Material, and Stay for Hours.

So far, I never have the courage to take the more comfortable, cushioned seats downstairs because there isn’t anyone down there and I don’t like mosquitoes. Also, I tend to take my iPad with me, assuming I’ll be around long enough to get some reading and some writing done.

I set out Bird by Bird on the table, but immediately resort to checking  my e-mail on my tablet instead. This is the trouble with Wi-Fi. E-mail always becomes the first option.

Somehow, my mornings at Gusto get more productive than I intend for them to be. They’re supposed to be blocked off time for intentional nothingness and yet, I get about 3 things done that I didn’t account for, and all of a sudden, I feel compelled to remain responsible for the rest of the day.

I came across few articles on Flipboard I just had to post on Facebook – for work, of course. I wrote some people back via e-mail on my thoughts about the optimism around the Warriors because most of my friends are from the Bay Area in California and I feel the need to still try and relate. I checked who’s playing today and who isn’t. I made my daily perusal of the New York Times.

And after I did all these things, I realized, I was in the middle of the cafe, the only person drinking cold coffee by himself. It was time to go.

All in a Day’s Work

Day 14, 500 words, 31 days.

For the past several days I’ve stayed home in the mornings and afternoons, preparing a presentation I plan to give when I go to India next week.

Typically, I spend good chunks of my time at home wearing the same clothing I wore to sleep the night before. For hours, I’ll be seated in the same position and in the same place – slouched in the corner where the two halves of my couch converge to a ‘T’ usually – getting up only for the occasional restroom break or a refill of my cup of coffee or water. Many times I’d almost forget to have lunch, that is, until I start to smell whatever’s cooking next door. I try to imagine what they are having, then proceed to look for whatever that might be, among the hawker stalls down the street from our apartment.

The cats take turns chasing each other rowdily, like little children at an amusement park, or an open parking lot. It doesn’t really matter that our apartment isn’t open and large because there are several rooms for them to jet in and out of, and the furniture that we have sitting around only end up serving as an obstacle course the cats turn into their personal playground.

When they are finished exhausting themselves, they nap. And cats absolutely love to nap. When they are in this sedate state, I start thinking I have a legitimate chance at calm and constructive working conditions to last me the rest of the day. That is, unless I can manage to keep the t.v. off, or the tab of sports scores closed, or my tummy in check as it growls for more food. If I can prevent myself from indulging in these things, I could, potentially, get some work done.

But watching the cats nap is a beautiful thing. It is also rather sleep-inducing and often, I find myself getting coaxed into stretching out on the couch and letting my eyes get some shut-eye – some needed rest from too much screen time. The cats are bad, bad example.

Today, it was a miracle from God that I worked for two hours straight – likely my productivity ceiling for most days. Working those two hours made me feel like I had accomplished something significant, as if I had never gotten paid to sit in front of a computer for an entire day, before. Makes me wonder how I managed to string together eight of them on an average working day, back when there was an actual office and an actual commute to be had.

Feeling as though my day didn’t go to waste, I was satisfied enough that I spent the remaining half hour finishing up chores before picking up my wife from school. My wife, whose day is never lain to waste, is often exhausted by the end of it. She, unlike me, is actually standing for most of the day and moving her limbs as she explains basic mathematical concepts and how to properly sound out vowels to little children. By the time I fetch her at school, I concede, in my mind, who’s more tired (she is), and by the time I reach her classroom, I do my best not to say how little I had actually done. It just wouldn’t be good for either of us.

This afternoon after she finished up her prep work, we drove over to Georgetown, where the pet store is. This is not the only pet store in Penang, and there’s far more to Georgetown than visiting this pet store. But some days, we go all the way to Georgetown, specifically for this one pet store. Usually, we leave with one or two items – cat litter or vitamins to mix in with their food.

Thankfully, the store is situated near a large outdoor food court called New World Park. We decided to have an early dinner there. We both ordered a bowl of Mee Suah, a type of thin, wheat flour noodle. I had pork, and she, duck. It wasn’t bad – though it had a more herbal flavor than we had both anticipated. We ate it all anyway, mostly in silence.

By the time we were through, the plastic chairs around us were left mostly unoccupied. The noise of the food court settled into a hushed, undecipherable murmur. The sun prepared for its quiet exit behind the horizon. Meanwhile, the sky was turning a deeper orange, with the slightest suggestion of blue. And that was our cue, to head back home.

Toiling Away

Day 11, 500 words, 31 days.

I’m more than a third of the way in. The last couple days have been more challenging than the first few – a test of my resolve and commitment to this particular project.

On one hand, I’m just glad I haven’t let up.

On the other hand, there’s still such a long way to go. And by that, I don’t just mean this project. I mean the whole, writing thing. There’s still so much more to learn, to unlearn, to fail at and succeed with. For me, I keep telling myself that this has got to get past the 31 days.

But for now, the project is exactly the sort of short, intense mental workout I need to build the right sort of habits. Now if only my commitment in this area of my life could mirror that of my commitment to my health and physical well-being…

Jeff Goins gave us writers a nice little encouragement today. It was he, after all, that challenged us to take on this 500 words a day project, so it was only fitting that he told us:

“…you are enough. You are a writer, and what do writers do? They write. And all of you are doing just that. You’re showing up, availing yourself to the Muse, and doing your work.”

I’ve kept my expectations relatively simple this entire time I’ve been writing since the new year – that is, to just keep on writing. To press on as if my day couldn’t possibly end without having tried. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t feel complete, and a void would be created, to be filled, only by the weight of words.

I believe there will be a time for more meticulous editing. For the doing-over, and the taking out, and the revising again and again. There will be moments when I read over what I just wrote, and realize, “What on earth did I even mean by that?” And then, my face, buries itself in the meaty cushion of my palms, covering my shame.

But for now, my objective has been simple and by grace, I’ve stayed the course faithfully.

This feels a little like I’m toiling, though I’m sure farm workers and day laborers and doctors would have some choice things to say upon hearing such a thing. But I guess I don’t want to take for granted the essence, and necessity, of the work. The day-to-day grind of coming up with something to write – regardless of how interesting, or funny, or God-forbid, neither.

Early on in the project my wife innocently asked me, “So, what exactly are you going to write about, every day?”

I’m sure I didn’t have much of an answer. But I do remember feeling really liberated, that I didn’t quite know. In fact, I feel that way still.

Surprisingly, it’s even been liberating to write, publicly. Something about not caring that any particular piece reads perfectly or is actually, engaging, is helping me feel free to keep writing. Now, I don’t keep track of whoever’s keeping track, but I have a vague idea of which of my friends have remained loyal, perhaps even to a fault – should they instead be, actually, laboring away on their cubicles, or classrooms, or…dare I say, smartphones.

To you, I say, thanks, for putting up with me. But should you decide 31 days is just too long, I totally hear you – and no hard feelings.

Explaining Myself

Day 8, 500 words, 31 days.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped wanting to tell people what I do for a living.

It always seems in flux anyway; I find myself explaining how I’m transitioning between projects more often than actually elaborating on what I’m currently doing. It’s generally just a lot of explaining.

My wife and I attended a function for her fellow teachers to usher in the school year as it begins again after the Holidays. We enjoyed a buffet dinner at a Japanese establishment we’d otherwise probably have never gone to – it’s a bit further than we normally like to adventure, and a bit pricier than we normally spend. In other words, it was a rare treat.

For me, however, I tend to dread these big gatherings, not because these teachers aren’t friendly or likable. If anything, they are precisely those things and it’s difficult keeping on an uninviting scowl when everyone is smiling at me for reasons I still haven’t sorted.

I just dislike the part of these interactions that inevitably begins with exchanging pleasantries having to do with, what I do.

I was probably one of the few people in the room that didn’t work for Dalat – my wife’s school – so having to explain what I actually do always gets me sounding like a college freshman – eager and unsure.

Normally the spiel goes like this: “I do social media management for an NGO. Like, Facebook and stuff. I freelance sort of. I also write. Yes…”

I almost always make sure to add that last part, about the writing – mostly because it sounds a lot more digestible than “social media management”. Truth be told, I’m still figuring out the best way to describe it. Sometimes I’ll tell people it has something to do with online marketing. Or that I get to be on Facebook for a living.

The “freelancing” part throws people off, I think. It’s not really the best way to describe what I do. It just goes nicely with being a “writer” but I have the least bit of a clue how to even begin that sort of a career. Other than, actually writing – daily – of course.

More often than not people just assume I have some tech skills that allows me to work remotely. This isn’t entirely accurate. I suppose blogging counts, but I try not to introduce that concept when having a conversation with someone as old as my parents.

In fairness to my parents, I think by now they know what blogging is, and bless their hearts, they keep telling me to keep doing it, whatever I’m doing.

The conversation about what I do hardly ever gets anywhere. I may talk about being able to travel here and there and that usually piques someone’s interest. It’s almost always more interesting where I say I’m about to go versus what I say I’m about to do. That’s ok.

I started this blog over a year ago, hoping to figure out what vocation really means for myself – and maybe along the way, I’d feel a certain sense of calling, the more I worked it out in my head.

These days, it’s my heart that’s wrestling with all that’s happening in my life. It’s been an interesting combination of responsibilities I’ve taken up since moving here – getting involved with folks that started up a niche magazine, volunteering as a “representative” of sorts for a human rights organization I’m still getting to know, figuring out how to tell stories through social media, and finally, writing, every single day, for it’s own sake.

I can hardly make sense of why I’m doing all that I do, let alone explain it to someone else. It’s always a long-winded sort of perambulation and so I leave out a lot of the little parts. Only here do I get to revel in the details.

This much I do know – being in Penang feels about as right as wearing a sock on my foot, bottom-side up. I’m where I need to be, but I have to get my toes and heel lined up correctly at the seams, first. Except I have no idea how I’m long it’ll take to get my socks on straight – they’re just,  at the very least, on.

Regardless of what I’m doing here, or why, for that matter, I’m getting more and more connected to this place. How deep my roots go, I don’t know, but they’re going. Like a plant filled with dry soil, I needed some rain today, and to my delight, it did. It was a sudden pour that somehow came down quietly, as though it wanted to keep it’s own falling a secret.

If nothing else, I feel more rooted with each passing day, planted more deeply to this place, this journey, than the day before. I don’t know in what way I’ll change while I’m here, or what I’ll end up actually pursuing in the long run. I just feel, something, and it’s too hard to explain. All I know is that it’s starting to grow.