Why and for whom do you write/work today?
Feature by: Alexis A. Tioseco
This question comes at an apt period in my life. Unfortunately, I have to answer it by a process of elimination (not the best way to establish why one chooses to do something! But there you go). In the past year or two, I have realized I do not and cannot write for industries / entities / companies or institutions that treat writing as though it merely serves a utilitarian, practical function and writers are basically factory workers churning out words.
In Singapore, the newspaper industry typifies this attitude. While the nature of the medium and its goal (mass distribution) justifies the need to learn a style of writing that can be understood and appreciated by as many people as possible, I found this reasoning was too often used to justify mediocrity.
When I say mediocrity, I mean it in two respects. One, it is tragic to treat language in a strictly instrumental, utilitarian manner, thereby killing any semblance of poetry or emotion in it. I recently read Ex Libris – Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. I am not a bibliophile by any stretch of the word compared to how Fadiman describes herself. But in her essays on how books have fundamentally shaped her life, she fills her own writing with poetry, wit, irony and pathos. That book inspired me and answers this question well. You write because writing moves you. It’s compelling, not obligatory.
Second, a mistake is made in assuming that any indication of an opinion or position implies lack of objectivity. The reality is that journalists cannot have opinions in Singapore and therefore, the industry has rationalized this inability to express opinions by associating it with the “objectivity” seemingly found in journalism. This, to me, is the worst way to write because you are lying to yourself as you do it. I write because I hope it is a form of “truth-telling”, insofar as I discover little truths about the world and myself as I do it and that truth always changes.
After all these experiences, I’ve finally come to realize that I write for myself. I guess you might then ask: so why not write in your journal? Why submit articles, or write to others at all?
To qualify my stand, when I say “for myself” I mean that I try to write in a way that will not irk my conscience or leave a bad taste in my mouth. The other side of that coin is that I write for and to people. I cannot write mass e-mails, for a start. If I must share the details of my life over intermittent periods, I have a different rendering of my life for each person, depending on who it is. So I guess I write to my friends and weave stories about my life for them too.
I also write for a community of like-minded individuals. Appealing to the masses is a task I don’t feel fully qualified to undertake as yet. To me, it is a particular skill learning how to use language to communicate complex or specialized ideas in a way that is understood by a large number of people. If you don’t nail that, you end up compromising and writing like a press release, which is something I loathe and fear because there isn’t a person behind those words, just an automaton (i.e. back to that factory worker thing I mentioned).
Everything translates with all its power when you do it for yourself first: in other words, when you are true to your instincts and you are clear on your motivations for undertaking the task. People can see and feel that. If they dislike what you’ve created after that, well, at least you don’t have to hate yourself for doing something self-compromising to begin with. That is how I see it.
A dynamic writer and intellectual, Vinita Ramani served as publicist and writer for the Singapore International Film Festival. She is a regular contributor to Criticine.
Khoo Gaik Cheng
Tan Bee Thiam