What commencement is really about (hint: not you!)


I was talking to a friend lately and he told me he was not going to attend his commencement (i.e. graduation) ceremony. Until recently, I had no idea there were people – and many of them, at that – who don’t attend their commencement ceremony.


“Why wouldn’t you?” I asked him.


“Because I don’t believe in going to uni to get a degree,” he said. “So going on stage to receive it is against my principles.”


Seriously? I wanted to ask. Are you really going to skip commencement because of this principle? While I have nothing against his belief – university IS more than just getting a degree – I think it’s too staunch a conviction for which you’re choosing to forgo your graduation ceremony.


It was at this point that I remembered I’d had a similar response as him towards it.


My own commencement wasn’t too long ago – just last year, in fact. (I graduated one year late because of some glitch in the system. Long story. I’m over it.) But the memory wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as it could have been. And it was entirely my fault.


I couldn’t care less about it. I’d thought the whole thing was contrived, putting on a huge cheesy smile as I posed with my scroll. I’d thought it was no big deal, since I was just one of the few thousands that year who was donning that robe and going on stage to receive that scroll. There was no need to make a big fuss about it.


But it WAS a big deal. If not to me, then to my dad.




He had been looking forward to my commencement, preparing his outfit for that day, scoping the place days beforehand for parking spots, making space in his SD card and charging his camera battery, asking me if I was inviting any of my friends to the ceremony…


And I had let him down. I had no idea where to go and what to do on that day, and was almost late for the ceremony. All because I couldn’t care less. All because I thought it was no big deal. We could have arrived earlier and taken photos, chilled, and I could have shown him around a little before the ceremony began. But we did none of that, because we arrived on the dot and I had to scurry into the hall with the rest of my cohort while donning my robe.


I would go back and do it all over again PROPERLY if I could.




I received my scroll and my dad and I posed for photos, but the moment was incomplete. Imperfect. Marred by my indifference. My dad didn’t smile as proudly and joyfully as I knew he would have.


You see, commencement isn’t really about you. Sure, it’s an entire elaborate ceremony – robes and speeches and all – dedicated to handing out certificates to you and your peers. But it is NOT ABOUT YOU. It’s about your parents. Your guardians. Your friends. Your teachers. And everyone else who had put in time and money and effort to see you through to that moment.


So even if you think attending your graduation ceremony is pointless – “no big deal” (I will never forget the look on my dad’s face when he heard me say that) – don’t deny the people who most deserve to see you walk through that moment the experience. Attending it – being fully involved in it – is the biggest thank you you can say to them.


[This might be a little late, but if I hadn’t made it explicit enough, thank you to everyone – especially my dad – for everything you’ve invested in me so that I could attend my own commencement ceremony. Thanks to my dad for the late-night cramming sessions, the looooong journeys on weekends to the tuition centre, the time and money spent on my books and tuition classes and little treats whenever I felt tired along the way. It’s been a fruitful 15 years.]


Monday mood-lifters and a gathering of playwrights

Monday! First, THIS: some helpful advice from ex-literary agent and author Nathan Bransford.

Planning and improvising are the two basic ways to find your plot, but there’s only one way to find your voice: start writing, and keep writing until you find it … Write your way to your voice.

It took me a while to find Sean and Ian’s voices. If you recall, I’ve received feedback from a literary agent who said that Sean and Ian from BLOOD PROMISE sounded too alike. But after I managed to distinguish what it is that sets them apart – by narrowing them down to three adjectives each (i.e. Ian: angry, vengeful, brash; Sean: concerned, skeptical, protective) – I set about amplifying these qualities and tweaked their voices as such. Hopefully, it’ll work better this time. I can’t trust myself to be objective about my own writing; I need my critique partners! My saviours.

Speaking of BLOOD PROMISE, I’ve found a few images that fit the idea of the characters I have in mind. Pinterest, man. I’m addicted. But it’s also opened my eyes to so many visuals that lit my brain on fire. Follow me, if you’re interested!

APRIL, the changeling struggling to keep her craving for human souls in check:

This is April from Sean’s POV – because of his colour-blindness, he sees her eyes as a startling shade of blue. This leads to a twist that I won’t reveal here, of course.
I actually had the Australian model Gemma Ward in mind for April. April is not conventionally beautiful. She has eyes a little too widely spaced apart, a button nose and lips that typically curve in a sad wistful bow. Still, she’s meant to be beautiful in a strange otherworldly way.
SEAN, who moves to Frosty Island with his mother after he hears the news of his best friend’s disappearance while vacationing with his parents on the island: 

He’s the closest I can find on Pinterest. The Sean I have in mind is someone with an easy smile, dimples, and wide friendly eyes. Your favourite boy-next-door.

Maybe this one might be a closer approximation of him:

But nah. He’s my Peter Pan. Not quite Sean.

Case in point:

Oh Donghae, you are just too precious. (Can you tell I’m obsessed with this little boy? Ha.)

Ahem. I digress.

IAN, who moved to Frosty Island to live with his aunt Mel after his parents died on this island a week ago in an alleged car accident:

This one’s perfect. From the hardness of Ian’s features to the danger in his eyes, that spark of recklessness when he realises he’s got nothing left to lose anymore.

Anyway, how was your weekend? (I never have any idea whom I’m talking to whenever I ask questions like that on my blog. I’d love to hear from you if you’re reading my blog! Comment away; don’t be shy. I promise I’ll reply. Nicely.)

Yup, that’s pretty much me. Except this weekend, I finally went for the annual play-writing gathering last Saturday. It’s actually the final reading for the semester’s EN3271 play-writing students, but Huzir invites the ex-students back for a gathering of sorts. He opens his house up to us and have us all gather around in the living room for a cosy reading session – so generous.

It was so lovely to see my writing comrades again, and reminisce about the times when we stayed up to finish our plays or scramble to print out the copies for readings in class. I took both EN2271 Introduction to Playwriting and EN3271 Advanced Playwriting (both conducted by Huzir), because EN2271 was the most rewarding class I took in uni.

It’s wonderful to be part of a writing community and have people to commiserate with when the writing isn’t going well. Before that, I’ve never had writer friends or been part of a writing group, and the class made me see how rewarding it is to be part of one. It’s nice to be able to hear other people’s stories, share your own with them, and exchange ideas on how to improve one another’s scripts. It’s nice to have them root for your characters and have your classmates act out your characters; to hear Huzir’s insightful and immensely constructive and honest feedback on your writing; to have a group of writer friends you can keep in touch with after graduation because writing will always be the thing that bonds you all together.

These two play-writing modules have given me so much, and for anyone in NUS undecided on whether to try out for these modules, my advice is to TAKE THEM. THEY WILL BE THE MOST FUN CLASSES YOU WILL TAKE IN NUS. At least, for me it is. I’m not forcing anyone! *runs for cover*

There were close to thirty people who attended last Saturday’s gathering, including this semester’s playwrights. I didn’t manage to get everyone in the photo, but here are some of us. To those not in these photos, sorry! Next year, we’ll take a proper shot all together.

We basically just decided to make a 180-degree turn because we were profiled against the sunlight. The rest were by the refreshments table or in the washroom, so here’s us. I’m obviously the one in pink 😉

The plays this years were great! Funny and poignant character-driven stories. But the feedback was the best, especially when it was served with a dose of candour and insight. All the best with the final rewrites, playwrights! (That totally rhymed.)

Till next year, guys! And all the best for NaNo!

Unfortunately, I missed Lord of the Rings: Return of the King as a result of attending the gathering. When I realised it was airing on TV afterwards, I was like:

And here are your Monday mood-lifters:

Man, I miss this show! GILMORE GIRLS was funny and smart and sweet – almost everything you could as for in a TV show. It ended on a crappy note as it was slated for another season which, sadly, never came to fruition.

Some Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings crossover for you?
I totally heard this in Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice.
Oh, Siwon. You are such a derp.
And on a less creepy note:
All together now: AWWWWWW.
Have a great week, everyone!

Given that a number of things (not too significant, so don’t hold your breath, if you are) have happened since the last time I blogged, I think I’ll make a list of updates this time.

I. Bidding period begins.

Can you feel the anticipation, the territorial vigilance with which everyone is camping out before their computers, lying in wait for the next bidder so that they can one-up him and throw in a higher bid? I know seniors get priority (well, not exactly priority – just that they have more points accumulated from past semesters and can afford to bid higher), but with so few options this coming semesters, competition for English modules is tough! And because of some administrative failures last semester, I absolutely have to take five English modules next semester so I can graduate on time. So I HAVE – did I mention HAVE? – to secure all five. The only five, in fact, because I’ve taken the rest before. You’d wonder why they offer so few English modules for this coming semester. I could ask the same.

So if everything goes according to plan, I’d be taking:

1. EL3204, Discourse Structure
2. EL3206, Psycholinguistics
3. EL3252, Language Planning and Policy
4. EL3880E, Second Language Learning,
5. EL3257, Investigating Language in the Media

I know. Hardly inspiring or scintillating. But, you know, school is school. No more fun modules, like Playwriting or language modules. Speaking of which, I got the A I wanted for Playwriting, and did better than I expected for my other modules. It’s different when you feel passionately about the things you study, indeed.

II. One more semester and I’m done with school. Can you believe it? Not to sound completely corny, but it feels just like yesterday that I attended my first 10am lecture at LT11. I was rereading Megan McCafferty’s Charmed Thirds, the third of the Jessica Darling series, where Jess attends Columbia University. And I just felt like it was such an apt book to be reading, because I could totally relate to what she was going through. The uncertainty, in the new environment and in herself, the diversity, and the stuff she was learning, the what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life-after-I-graduate brand of anxiety. My three years of tertiary education is coming to an end, and I feel more than ever the pressure to make a decision, pick a path already, plan plan plan your life, don’t waste time or you’ll fall behind.

I admit, a lot of the pressure comes from myself. My dad’s not putting any pressure on me to earn my first million by the time I’m 25 or whatever, but I do want to achieve something quick so that I can show my dad that I will get by in life and that he doesn’t have to worry so much.

But 2012 seems bleak, at least on the job market front. And that’s not something I can control. So in the words of my dad, let go of what you can’t control.

III. So Christmas has come and gone. Next up: New Year’s. Excited? Not really. Thankful, though? Definitely. We’ve all lived through another year, at the very least, and that’s always something to be thankful for.

IV. I’m currently reading The Grift by Debra Ginsberg. This is the third time I’m attempting to read it. I don’t know why I didn’t manage to get through it the previous couple of times, because it’s actually a pretty well-written story. Not so much about plot, but about character, and it’s high time I learnt how to write a character-driven novel without sucking instead of falling back on plot every time my story stalls.

And remember when I said my goal was to finish writing Fifteen Minutes Down Sunset Avenue by the end of this holiday? Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Unless I manage to write, like, ten pages a day every day until 9 January 2012, the first day of school (after which I won’t have time to write at all). At the rate I’m going (about three pages a day), that seems highly unlikely. Still, it’s making progress. And I’ve finally come up with an idea on how I’m going to raise the stakes and resolve the story. All that’s left is to write it. Which is always easier said than done.

V. The National Arts Council is organising a competition to select five young adult manuscripts to publish. And I was considering sending in Fifteen Minutes, but that doesn’t seem possible now. With all the editing to do, it’ll take me months before I deem the final manuscript ready. Besides, I’m still too attached to Lambs for Dinner to pass it up for this competition. But one of the criteria is that the story should not incite violence. And Lambs is really a little dark. Maybe not gory, but it might incite violence, how should I know? So I either risk submitting something that may or may not go against their criteria, or submit something that’s not ready yet. I don’t know about you, but the latter seems much worse to me. So Lambs it is. I believe more in it than Fifteen Minutes anyway. At least for the moment.

the long and winding road

With my impending graduation next July, I’ve started considering my career options. I know, my first sentence is already a yawn. But that’s the truth of the matter, and I have to come up with a plan fast before I end up roaming the streets with a cardboard sign saying, “Will sing for food.” And I’m not even a good singer.

My dad saw how worried I was that entire day (but he was, in fact, the one who got me thinking about what I’m going to do after graduation) and sat me down for a talk before I went to bed. He told me to stop worrying about the things I can’t control and that it’s near impossible to be unemployed in Singapore.

But with a degree in English, I can’t exactly qualify for a profession, if you know what I mean. I mean, it’s all fine studying English in university, but it’s an entirely different issue looking for a job that requires an English major. Is it true that English majors are doomed to end up as teachers? Not that teaching is a dead end. That’s not what I mean. It’s just … I’m not the teaching sort. I have zero patience for kids, and I’d only see it as a means to earn income, the way I view my tutoring job now. The people around me who are well on their way to becoming teachers, you can totally see the passion in their eyes when they talk about the kids and their job. I don’t get it. But should all else fail, maybe teaching is the only way to go.

Here in Singapore, if we sign on to become teachers, we get tuition paid for by the government but we’d have to be bonded for three years to the Ministry of Education. So if I decided to get bonded (after doing a year of post-grad in the National Institute of Education), I’d have to spend three years in the teaching business.

Gerlynn squawked at me to think through it carefully and discuss it over with my dad before embarking on – and I quote – “hare-brained notions” like spending three miserable years doing something I’m not keen on. How is it that some people such as her can be so logical and calm about everything? I’m a mess when it comes to making decisions for myself. Gerlynn always says, “Make your own decisions! You’re 21!” Even my dad said that the other day – he told me I had to rely less on him to make decisions and be an adult now. I could blame it on my horoscope (Libras easy-going at best, and indecisive at worst), but that would be dumb.

I cried during that talk with my dad. He told me to put less pressure on myself, especially on something I can’t control (although I don’t really get what it is I can’t control about getting myself employed). Before tucking me into bed he told me to communicate with him more (I was pretty reticent the whole day, worrying) so that he won’t worry about me so much and he’d know I’m okay. I cried even more after that because what kind of daughter makes her father worry like that?

I know, I know. I was in a strange mood that day. And the weather did nothing to alleviate it. After the scorching morning, the rain gods were having a blast. The party lasted all the way until evening.

But post-graduation jitters aside, I have more pressing issues, like finding a part-time job to tide me through December. I don’t mind scooping ice-cream or desk work as long as I can find time to swim every day and don’t have to travel all the way to Alaska to work. Just putting this out there.

Write, write and write more

I shouldn’t be blogging right now. I have a Chinese short story and an English group paper to write, a French test to study for, and a French essay to write.

Yes, it’s that time of the semester again. This mad rush, the culmination of earlier procrastinations, is taking ahold of us again.

I’d like to say that I’m not a procrastinator. I’ve completed all my individual work. The Chinese short story and English paper are group projects, which, as we all know, are a bitch to get down, given how difficult it is to coordinate all our schedules and get down to writing the damn thing.

So lots of writing to be done. Though I can’t find a downside to that, because it’s writing!

Just today, I wrote my first ever short story in Chinese. It was an in-class assignment and we’ll be graded according to the piece we write. We had to write a short science fiction however we want. In other words, CREATIVE WRITING! I was hesitant at first because let’s face it, I’m a lot more comfortable writing in English than in Chinese.

Writing short creative fiction in Chinese is different from writing those Chinese essays in secondary or primary school. Back then, we were forced to write to a lame topic or title and use the phrases and words the examiners or teachers would give us credit for. This, though, is free and easy. Write whatever you want, however you want, as long as it is credible sci-fi (it’s a Chinese for Technology module, after all). I wrote a piece titled BLACK HOLE, where I used Einstein’s theory of relativity as a metaphor in my main character’s life and to serve as a backdrop against which his transformation is held. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get an A for this, because I actually had fun writing it (though I also had Google Translate to thank). I’m pretty proud of myself for coming up with a piece I actually like in two hours. In Chinese. Have I mentioned it’s a first?

Okay, I’ll stop bragging now. I’m trying not to go near my English group paper, which, if you think about it, is kind of impossible since I’m in charge of writing the introduction. Oh yeah, I’m a fine kick-starter. Go team, and all that.

In the time since I last posted, I’ve been swept up in schoolwork. Nothing too heavy, really. Just a language here, a playwriting class there. It’s all been really enjoyable, and I’ve been busy collecting ideas and developing them, conjugating French verbs, Google-translating my Chinese essay (maybe I shouldn’t let that one out)….

This semester is shaping out well, except for that one glitch that forced me to take only four modules, instead of the usual five. EL2202 closed one of the four tutorial classes due to a smaller intake of students. And it just happened that the slot they closed was the only one I could actually attend and that didn’t clash with my other classes. Since the system couldn’t register me for its tutorial class, I won’t be registered as a student. And by the time they informed me of that, the period for module-bidding was over, and so I’m stuck with only four modules. Which means I’d have to take Special Term. Again. Not that it’s a terrible thing, just that I’d have to take five modules next semester to satisfy my Major requirements (and you know the timetable’s going to be a bitch to negotiate) and I’d have to find one module to take during Special Term to fulfil my last Unrestricted Elective requirement (hopefully, they’ll offer Japanese or Korean language modules then, otherwise I’d have to take some boring-as-hell science or business module – I can’t even contemplate that horrific notion).

Yes, CORS is a bitch. Why universities don’t extend the bidding period, or construct an entirely foolproof online module-bidding system, I don’t understand. I’m not the only one who’s experienced that problem. My friend from French class was forced to drop a module for her Major too. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous.

Anyway. Guess I’m stuck with four modules this semester. And only one of it has a final exam; the rest rely on continuous assessment. For playwriting, our final and only play takes up 80% and class participation 20%. Which is why I have to make this play good. At least I know where I’m going for now.

Okay, let’s rewind and start from the beginning of this semester. The first playwriting class saw Huzir asking us what we had done since EN2271, Introduction to Playwriting, and what was going on in our lives now so that we could channel all that into our play. And I realised it seemed I didn’t have much of a life outside of watching dramas, writing my novel and swimming. But the thing is, I’m not unhappy. In fact, I’m pretty happy where I am now. Is this me being complacent, so ensconced in ignorance that I feel no compulsion to stick my head out or – pardon the cliche – step out of my comfort zone?

Routine, I realise, is comforting. And it can also be a crutch. It’s what we fall back on when we are afraid to live, afraid to get hurt. But for a writer, it is stifling. It makes our lives stagnant. But I’m just too used to it – being alone, being spontaneous, being emotionally independent – that I don’t see the need to rely on activities to meet new people. Maybe that’s the problem with being an only child. They’re too used to playing by themselves, going everywhere by themselves that they don’t think they need other people. They hold people at arm’s length and it takes a long while before they decide to invest in a relationship. And if you don’t commit to a club or extra-curricular activity, university doesn’t make it any easier. After every semester, you hardly see the people you had gotten to know last semester. So the people you sit next to in class are more like temporary allies rather than real friends. We’ll come together to work on a paper or project, and after that, thanks for your contribution, see you around. And that’s all you do, see them around, say hi and move on. University can be a lonely place despite the number of people and activities in it.

I know I sound like a downer. But that’s probably just me. University isn’t half bad, really. You get to meet different people every semester, learn different things, think about things you never gave a second thought, and be taught by really intelligent and passionate lecturers. Everything there feels so alive I’m excited to be a part of it nonetheless.

I’d go on, but I think readers (the handful of them) might vomit at any further sanguinity. Right now, I’m simultaneously watching ‘The Snow Queen’, writing my play, writing my Chinese essay (30% of final grade) and listening to ‘Secret Garden’ OST.

Speaking of dramas, ‘Secret Garden’ is one of the best I’ve ever watched. And while I was initially disinclined towards Hyun Bin, the male lead, his performance in the show has made me fall for him. I’ve been replaying the song he sang in the show, ‘That Man’, and the instrumental OST for ‘Secret Garden’ for one and a half weeks and counting. Which is why I’ve been looking for his older dramas like ‘The Snow Queen’ and ‘The World that They Live In’ to watch.

Maybe I’ll stop before I start gushing.

To make a really awkward change of topic, I’m turning twenty-one in exactly two weeks’ time. The thought is more depressing than exciting. I’m about to bid my youth goodbye. No more acts of defiance (not that I’ve ever been a rebellious kid), or whimsical behaviour that can be excused or tolerated, and no more freedom from responsibilities. In a year’s time, I’ll be graduating, and I’m not even completely sure what my next step will be. I know I want to work in the publishing industry. I want to help aspiring authors publish books, or contribute to Singapore’s literary arts scene in whatever way I can. But that’s all just in theory. How to go about doing that practically, I haven’t got much of a clue other than interning at a private book-publishing company (I’ve been researching on some possible companies). Typical arts student, you might, say. All talk, no action. All ideas, no logic. Still, I’ll take comfort in the fact that I have a heading now, at the very least. Which is more than I can say for myself at the same time last year. Maybe some of us will never know whether what we want or what we’re doing is right or will pay off.

This has been as upbeat as I can be. Till next time.

On (not-so) Secret Novel, amazing novels, and novel experiences

It’s taken me long enough to blog again.

School starts in a week. And while I’m looking forward to LAF1201 (Beginner French) and EN3271 (Advanced Playwriting), I’m keeping my fingers crossed (if I believe in crossing fingers) that this semester isn’t going to sap me of all I am.

Still, I have a week more to go. And I intend to spend it the way I want. That, of course, involves writing.

I’m working on my new novel!!!! (Can you tell how excited I am? If I could add on more exclamation marks without looking like a prepubescent girl at a Bieber concert, I would.)

For the past couple of weeks, I was toying with the idea of working on Novel A and Novel B. I decided on Novel A, but after just twelve pages decided I wasn’t convinced with my characters enough to go any further. And while agonising over Novel A, scenes for Novel B just kept forming in my head, and it was Novel B that I kept thinking about before I went to bed.

So last Saturday, I thought, what the heck, horrible timing be damned (it is one week before school – and all relevant madness – begins, after all), and got started on Novel B. And since then, I’ve written four chapters. I’m excited because it reminds me of the time I wrote LAMBS FOR DINNER, the thought process, the way the story flows out of my fingertips, the way I had to rush to keep up with the ideas in my head, the things the characters are saying in my head. I haven’t felt this exhilarated while writing since LAMBS.

No, wait. I have. When I was finishing up THE DREAMCATCHERS.

Speaking of which, I’ve completed that! In the middle of July, in the middle of MNO1001 lect (Management and Organisation, which I’m taking to fulfil my Breadth requirement). After a whole year of second-guessing and self-doubt and almost giving up, I’ve finally pulled through. Sometimes, it’s not that you can’t write; it’s that you won’t. I kept telling myself I couldn’t think of anything to propel the story forward, and I couldn’t think of how to resolve the story. But once I got down to it, everything managed to tie itself up pretty nicely (if I do say so myself).

But now, I’m stashing THE DREAMCATCHERS away in the drawer for a month before returning to edit it (so that I will be an objective editor and my perception will not be too skewed). And on to work on secret new novel!

Oh, okay. The title’s FIFTEEN MINUTES DOWN SUNSET AVENUE. I’m still not too sure about it, though. I wish I could think of some strong title, like SHIVER (by the unbelievably talented and funny Maggie Stiefvater), which captures the essence and the mood of the story.

And speaking of the WOLVES OF MERCY FALLS trilogy, I just rushed down to Kino after my swim last Thursday to buy the final installment, FOREVER! SHIVER remains one of the best-written stories I’ve ever read. And I am completely stoked to read FOREVER. Just the first page – just the prologue – looks so good. I’m going to relish every word and read it as slowly as possible.

Blog-surfing today led me to this post by Natalie Whipple, YA author: Happy writers: finding confidence in yourself. Which gives us a much-needed boost of assurance as we create the story we want to read, and the world we wish to live in. And What I Really Want to Say to New Writers helps put things in perspective.

On a final note, here’s what I meant by ‘novel experiences’:

Modules I’m taking next semester:

1. LAF1201 (I just looked at the notes posted on IVLE – everything’s in French. Wonderful. Just…wonderful.)
2. LAC3203 – Chinese for Science and Technology. I had fun last sem with LAC3204, laoshi was nice and really put effort in helping each of us improve in our Chinese, and the coursework was relevant and useful.
3. EL2201 – Sound System of English. Big yay for phonetics and phonology! I had fun learning that under Mie Sensei in my freshman year, sem 1.
4. EN3271. More second-guessing and self-doubt (it is writing, after all). But with critique partners and constructive criticism and lots of fun (it’s one of the classes I laughed the most and hardest in ever since entering NUS).
5. EL3256 – Language in the Workplace.

Bring on senior year sem 1!