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A Writing Life, From Scratch

I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with the act of writing in the 18 years since I can remember having put pen to paper (to write English words exclusively, because there was a little while there when I was writing Chinese too). I’ve been writing probably about as long as I’ve known how to read, yet I still find myself caught up in scruples of what it means to be a good writer, to do what I think others do as good writers, to make and to take writing as a profession, and how best to balance my need to be expressive with a desire to be impressive. (Warning – nostalgia after the cut.)

Two things, I recently realized, have thrown this even further off track in the past few years: blogging and business writing. More specifically, support emails and technical documentation. I can think of nary two genres that could strip me more completely of an original voice (but then, I’ve only ever had two jobs). I’ve gained an ear for authoritative directness, at the cost of becoming lazy in developing narrative, well-formed arguments, and a confident, assertive tone.

Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to dabble in journalistic writing. As determined as I was to rise to the challenge, I became preoccupied with my research work and haven’t put a lot of effort into developing the material or even pursuing it with any enthusiasm. Bu got I continued working towards the goal. On the advice of perhaps my most deliberate writing peer, I picked up Writing to Learn and On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and have been musing his sage advice on simple language communication for the past few weeks. The first book, in particular, was instrumental in helping me feel confident about writing academic prose again, a task I haven’t engaged in seriously for almost two and a half years. Further, the writing I did for my honours project is of a slightly, but qualitatively different nature than any essay I’d written in university before (even those ethnography and term papers) – because I’m talking about my own research. As if I know what I’m talking about! It’s been nothing short of terrifying, to come to grips with the responsibility that comes with that.

People sometimes seem surprised that I have such a low opinion of my writing; indeed, I often feel I’ve never hit that sweet spot between unbearably cocky and cripplingly insecure, that allows me to produce at optimal work of appropriate quality and quantity. It somehow all makes sense to me though, when I think of how my writing life has unfolded.

Writing as Me

Sometimes when I’m at my parent’s house, I’ll see a couple of fading inkjet-printed pages peeking out from my mom’s bookshelf. In 12 point Times New Roman, at the top of the page, are two lines. I’m often drawn to the second line: “By Karen Fung.” Every time I see it, I get a faint jolt of nostalgic pride – my mom, all this time, has held on to the first story I ever typed on a computer when I was seven years old, back when I wanted to be a writer.

Writer. I wanted to be a writer. What did I want to be when I grew up, people asked me? I wanted to be a writer. My parents later suggested I might go into journalism, and I entertained the notion of being a journalist, but the word didn’t identify me in my heart as much as writer did. Practically every lunch hour was spent in the library, and books were with me all the times in between. I knew my knowledge of literature was meagre, that I had a lot to read and a lot to learn, but I liked playing around with the words to see what would happen, and I liked learning new words to be able to play with.

Then, one Christmas when I was 11, my brother showed me something on that computer where I had previously only played the occasional game of Sokoban on (because writing days were few and far between, even back then). “Here,” he said, “I’ll show you how to log on to the Internet.”

Writing as Expressive Power

The Internet to my pre-adolescent mind was daunting in its scope; and at the core of it all was the written word, amplified and made interactive and instantaneous as I had never known it printed in books. Back in the day (and yes, I have been on the Internet long enough to be able to say this) of 28.8 bps, there were no fancy graphics, no Flash, no interactive applications. There was a Usenet client and an e-mail client, and sometimes, even a webpage. I found myself learning HTML the following year, chatting it up on newsgroups, hanging out with the fan communities, because at the age of 12, all I could write about were other media like television.

It was at this point I learned about how my time spent in the library had merely displaced time I might otherwise have spent on a playground learning how to get along with people. I was publicly flamed in a newsgroup for being a bitch at the age of 12. I demurred in my exploration and participation a little bit, but persisted in learning HTML and being exposed to others’ creative writing.

It was at this point that I made a conscious decision: I stopped considering myself a writer. There were just so many other people that were so much better than I was at it, after all. No, my twelve-year old self thought, I think there’s something happening with this Internet thing, and I’m going to learn more about what I can do with that.

Writing as Work

Just as I was deciding to change the direct of my dream, high school was driving home how central writing is to the learning process. Writing took on a different texture from this point on – I was now learning how to write essays in English classes, crafting history assignments on Mussolini, essays for AP exams, and receiving feedback on what I now think of as “plug-and-play” thesis statements in (thank you, Marg Kalaski). My previous Internet dabblings in Usenet were abandoned to learn more about website and graphic design – even as a tenth grader, I was starting to dabble in applying my hobbies to work, in side-projects and collaborations during the dot-com boom.

In grade 11, I was taking a creative writing class, but the contemporary local creative writers, as gracious and supportive as they were in their attempts to engage us, weren’t inspiring me – I didn’t see myself wanting to be anything like them anytime soon. There was something missing for me, in their descriptions of what they were doing and what we should try to do. I was starting to take art and music classes for the first time, expressing things I had previously only used words to do.

By the time I graduated, writing had become a tool to get me where I wanted to go. In university, I cobbled together caffeine-induced half-paragraph-long sentences from one paper to the next, and amassed almost no useful feedback. Final papers turned into cover letters and resumes, then software documentation, support e-mails and subtle ways to make either obscure pronouncements or blindingly clear instructions to strangers, managers, and co-workers at the office.

Writing Now

So, 2 years of work experience and that Bachelor’s1 degree later, I’m still writing. These days, the writing tends to look like the things I read: academic scholarly articles, and blogs running the gamut of personal, community and professional. I’ve been blogging privately in one way or another since my last year of high school, and more publicly in the last two years. I occasionally find myself in the company of ambitious, incredibly intelligent peers – increasingly more my own age as I get older and get better at seeking extraordinary company – who are all aspiring to write, or currently writing, books. Their ambition inspires me, but also makes me wonder if my writing chops are up to it.

And then I know that’s entirely silly. Of course they are. I’ve been writing since I was seven years old, and as much as it pains me to admit it, I have built my career and my personality on it, and no one seems to think I am as bad at it as I generally pretend to think that I am. Somehow, I think I’ve conflated being humble in my learning and reading, with being insecure with my writing. The latter is not a necessary condition for the former, but it often seems that way.

The thing that previously always bugged me about being a writer was that writing, as a goal in and of itself, hasn’t filled the void that makes me feel like I am good at something, the way others are, say, scientists. Nonsense, I know. I suspect I’m picking this up from the love-hate relationship that I perceive society generally has with writers. We can be manipulators, critics, journalists, researchers, artists, strategists and leaders. At any given moment, I can be — and, on this blog, I am — any of these things with my writing. I am drowning in choice.

Writing …soon

I’ve taken the plunge with seeking out writing assignments and am pitching to right write some low-risk, high-reward stuff that interests me. It will undoubtedly appear in this space eventually. Until then, I am, to paraphrase one of my former Communication profs, making sure I have the right to say what I want to say. Because I know I have the skill to say it right.

1 Wouldn’t the degree sound so silly as a Bachelorette’s degree? The male-centricity of the terminology is historical, but still so annoying.

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