unplugging

This post update from ex-literary agent Nathan Bransford came into my mailbox today, and I found myself relating to everything he said.

Lately, I’ve been growing tired of giving my attention to the outside world — irritated at being hounded by people and chased for things, pressured to respond at a “polite” speed (anything longer than three working days is considered rude).

I would have my phone in front of me all the time so that I see messages as soon as they come in, and reply almost instantaneously.

And as much as I enjoyed interacting with people on social media and chiming in in group chats, I was feeling burned out from being constantly plugged in. From responding to every ping and shrill of a notification. From checking Facebook and Instagram for updates or when I’m bored and need some distraction.

So I took a much needed retreat from social media. It’s been three weeks and counting that I haven’t posted anything on Facebook or Instagram, and I’ve barely scrolled through either. (Yes, I’m aware that this post itself is an update.)

Instead, I read — and ticked a few books off the reading list faster than I had in the past few months.

I wrote. I scribbled feverishly in my notebook, completed draft 8 of NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND, and rewrote its query letter and synopsis.

I let my mind wander while commuting instead of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or watching yet another animal video or Insta story.

I pondered about story structure and brainstormed ideas for my novels.

I discovered new music, revisited old favourites.

I stepped into a different, quieter, calmer head space, and regained a piece of myself.

unplugged-definition-meaning

There are so many articles and videos out there about the need to unplug. The need to distance ourselves from the fray, to take a step back from the virtual persona we’ve carved for ourselves so that we can find our true selves again, to reserve a part of ourselves instead of putting every inane thought out there.

I always nodded along to those articles, secretly marvelling at the sheer willpower it must have taken those people to set aside their phones for a while and take a moment for themselves.

But when it comes down to doing it, when you get to the point where you feel weary from being so connected, from having to respond to every urgent email and message, it actually doesn’t feel like such a feat to unplug. The world feels quieter, the storm inside my head calmer, and my thoughts are able to float to the surface like flotsam.

When I’m able to choose when I wish to engage, I feel like I’m more in control. Instead of being pulled in all directions, I start to prioritise the things that require more urgent attention.

And instead of reaching for my phone when I’m in the train or when I’m waiting in line, I pull out a book. (Right now, I’m binge-reading all of Marie Lu’s books in preparation for her Meet-the-Author session in November, which I’m moderating!!!)

Instead of scrolling through my newsfeed on the bus, I look out the window or people-watch.

Instead of burying my face in my phone, I close my eyes and listen to some music.

And all that white noise dies down.

I still check my emails as soon as I turn on my phone every morning. I still text friends and participate in group chats. I still visit Instagram to see what my favourite photojournalists have been up to (check out this guy‘s snapshots).

But only when I’m ready to.

It wasn’t too long ago when I didn’t have Instagram or became active on Facebook. I can remember how much more space my thoughts had to grow into story ideas, how much more time I spent collecting ideas by getting inspired by stories, film, and the world around me in general.

I didn’t worry about missing out on anything, on whether other people were living “better” lives, doing fun stuff without me, or whether I should be worried about my penchant for solitude. I was fully present, and it’s those moments that I look back on wistfully now.

disconnect to connect

I’m not saying we should all start unplugging. Far be it from me to tell you what to do — if you feel more fulfilled being virtually engaged, you do you. I’m just saying I don’t want to give away all of my time to replying emails on the go, or keep seeking external validation or “hollow instant gratification”, or feel anxious and stressed and guilty about not replying within the “polite” response period.

You may call this withdrawing, and I don’t know if this is the hermit in me taking over. But I do know that I’m liking the peace and quiet for a while. I think I’ll stay here for a little longer.

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thoughts on turning 27

27 seems like an age people typically forget. It gets meshed together with the rest of our late twenties in a blur of work, anxiety, deadlines, bill-paying, anxiety, counting down to the weekends, anxiety…

So turning 27 typically doesn’t feel very monumental to most people. For me, however, turning 27 feels like somewhat of an achievement, all things considered. In the past year, I a) started questioning my life goals and trajectory, b) realised I might have anxiety, c) survived a depressive funk.

But thankfully, things were not all doom and gloom. In the past year, I also a) met many more book people (my tribe!!), in particular three incredibly smart women — Meredith, Nicole, and Becky — who share my love for writing and fiction, b) realised where I truly feel at home (not in fashion or retail, but in books and publishing), c) found and stuck to friends whom I know will have my back and never judge me for being myself around them, d) made progress with the Work in Progress (FINALLY we’re going somewhere).

Turning 27, I also learned these six things:

  1. Don’t label yourself.
    “Oh, I’m an INFP. This is just how I am.” You’re only limiting your growth and allowing yourself to stay stagnant with your flaws.
  2. Instead of tuning out that negative voice in your head, engage it in a (mental) conversation.
    Find out what it wants, where it came from, how you can come to a consensus with it.
  3. Don’t sweep the bad stuff under the carpet.
    That only ensures that they come back to bite you in the ass twice as aggressively. We need to look our emotions in the eye and acknowledge them. The only way through is through.
  4. Worry about one thing, you miss out on a whole bunch of other things.
    Basically what this article said. In particular, this:
    “While anxiety helps us focus on a task, it also blinds us to other opportunities. As a result, unlucky people miss out on prospects because they’re too busy worrying about one thing. Lucky people, on the other hand, are open to new experiences. They’re more willing to talk to new people, travel to new places, and try new things.”
  5. Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.
    This is what my anxiety tells me: “You are missing out. You’re falling behind. Other people are having fun without you, having more fun without you; they’re on the fast track through life and ticking off everything on their bucket list, while you’re just doing the same shit day after day.”
    But that’s them and that’s their life. Not me and not mine. We don’t have to live by anyone else’s deadlines but our own.
  6. You’re miserable only because the gap between what you want and what you have is too big.
    Just do what you love and don’t expect it to bring you anything. Do what you love for the pure joy of it, and you won’t feel like you’re being owed anything.

Honestly, I’m still figuring this out and I don’t have all the answers yet. There are good days, and there are bad. But as long as the good outweigh the bad, I’d say we’re all heading in the right direction, no? One day at a time, is what I keep telling myself. Just focus on the next stone to step on and you won’t end up in the water.

So while I’m still a greedy piece of shit and want so much more out of life, these 27 years have been gratifying. Gained some, lost some. Aiming for the next stone.

Thank you to each and every one of you who have been a part of this journey so far. Your mark is indelible. ♥

 

Dreams - Poem by Langston Hughes

How Criticism Makes You Better: a Case Study of Lindsey Stirling

So it’s been about a month since my last post on Chester, and I just wanted to pop in and say that I’m still alive, that it’s not all doom and gloom in the past month. I’ve experienced some emotional dips and crests, but life is all about riding the waves and making it back to shore anyway, so I’m choosing to take it one day at a time and focus on the things I can change and the things that make life worthwhile.

And recently I came across this (relatively) old video of the dancing violinist Lindsey Stirling and was blown away by how much she had improved since she first got her start on America’s Got Talent Season 5.

lindsey stirling

Image from Glamour

So you may know Lindsey when she first entered the spotlight back in 2005. She got voted off the show by the judges, but then went on to make incredible YouTube music videos that have garnered – wait for it – half a billion hits so far.

Check out part of her discography:

Song of the Caged Bird

Crystallise

Roundtable Rival

Lindsey is amazing, so talented yet humble and inspiring. I’ve been a huge fan of her since she first took the audition stage, a bright-eyed manic pixie girl who could dance and prance across the stage while playing the violin.

I call her an inspiration because, like a true artist, she is passionate about her craft and constantly, tirelessly, seeks improvement. Her audition at AGT was, objectively speaking, not the best. She was still pretty raw as a performer, like every artist would be at the start of the their journey. But she’s worked hard to fix her pitch problems and stage presence to become the absolute star she is now.

lindsey stirling on stage.jpg

Like a true artist, she is not content to rest on her laurels and stick to the tried-and-tested formulaic way of performing or playing. She does covers of popular tracks like:

Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Greenday,

The Scientist by Coldplay (with Kina Grannis and Tyler Ward),

Radioactive by Imagine Dragons

Phantom of the Opera and Lord of the Rings medleys

As well as original pieces with her musician friends.

Like a true artist, she put herself out there, trying out for AGT and putting herself under public scrutiny and exposing herself to (often harsh) criticism, especially from the judges. Piers Morgan even said that she played like rats being strangled and that she wouldn’t be able to fill half a show at Vegas, and others said that the world doesn’t want to see a dancing violinist (basically implying that there was no place in the world for her).

lindsey stirling oh well

But like a true artist, despite feeling incredibly crushed after bring served all that criticism and voted off the show, she took all the judges’ feedback to heart and went somewhere with it. She knew that the judges were, in their own way, right. (Okay, they didn’t have to be so blunt but hey, take what you need from it and the rest is just white noise.) She became even better, more innovative and practised, in terms of her music and dance and craft and stage flair.

Almost 10 years later, she has released two original full-length albums and gone on sold-out world tours. Lindsey grew tremendously as an artist BECAUSE of the criticism.

 

And to see that rousing standing ovation she received at the end of her performance made me SO proud of her I cried. There IS a place for her music in the world after all.

She mentioned that despite being voted off the show, she still believed that she could make it, that she had something to offer the world. And she held on to that faith in herself. Turns out, there IS a place for her music in the world after all.

So perhaps, while we’re busy doubting ourselves as we take baby steps towards our dreams, we need to get out of our own way and hold on to the belief that the world will always have space for what we have to offer.

lindsey stirling fist pump.gif

 

Chester Bennington was depressed

chester bennington linkin park

I woke up this morning to the devastating news of Chester Bennington committing suicide.

The first question is, of course, why. Why would a father of six, the frontman of arguably the most popular and successful alt-rock band, kill himself?

And then: did we all miss something? Some clue that we should have picked up on, perhaps in his songs? Perhaps Leave Out All the Rest was a sign?

While Mike Shinoda has always been the more media-friendly, bubbly one in the band, Chester has always been evidently more troubled. He spoke before about his traumatic past, drug and alcohol addiction, struggle with depression, and it seemed like music was the only outlet for his pain.

Depression is real. Depression is often undetectable. We’ve seen too many seemingly-happy and well-adjusted people, or people with seemingly-enviable lives, take their own lives.

I’ve known people personally who killed themselves. And each time my heart breaks for them. Realising that they had been battling themselves all this while, that none of us ever even guessed. That it had gotten to the point where they decided nothing was worth holding on for.

Depression isn’t something you can just get over, or be completely cured of. Sometimes, it takes courage to fight for one more day, to get up from bed and force yourself to go through the motions for one more day, to live when nothing makes you want to stay alive for one more day.

Depression affects more of us than we realise. It could be that kind teacher who gave you a word of encouragement, or that friend who is always the life of the party, or the one with her earphones plugged in and head buried in a book.

Point is, everything may look fine on the surface. They may be laughing and joking with you at work or at school, but they may also be crying themselves to sleep every night. They may not reveal more than the part of their personality everyone would love, because they don’t want to be a burden to the people around them.

Depression can eat you alive.

But as my friend Nicole (and fellow Muse) said in this post, “There are a lot of good things going on in life and a lot of good things ahead. Just like there are a lot of trying times and a lot of difficult things ahead.

“You can’t just focus on all the negative things. You’ll drive yourself into a depressed spiral that’s really hard to get out of, if you do that. You gotta remember to focus on the good, including the little things and the grand, exciting things.”

If you know or guess that someone is depressed and you want to help, know that you absolutely have the power to.

It can be as simple as a text message asking them if they are okay, or just sitting with them in silence, listening to them spill their thoughts even when they don’t make any sense to you, showing that you will always be there for them and never judge them. Sometimes, the smallest gestures like these can help keep a depressed person alive for one more day.

Be at peace, Chester. Thank you for your music, your spirit, your honesty. I hope you are finally free of your demons now.

leave out all the rest lyrics linkin park.jpg

still alive and writing

In case you were wondering, I haven’t been slacking all this time I’ve been MIA. Sure, the day job’s got me like

boo tired stoned

And some days like

lauren conrad crying mascara.gif

But I’ve been slowly but surely pulling myself out of that previous funk, and now every spare minute that I have outside of the day job is spent working on NEVERLAND or plotting LAND or WORLD or writing a new short story. When your time is in short supply, your productivity skyrockets.

Speaking of short stories, the Muses and I may have scaled down on the frequency of our posts (because life) but we have more head-space to work on our stories now.

The most recent one, Love in Free Verse, has just been posted, and I had so much fun with it. I’ve been back in my Eminem phase for the past week because of this clip from The Defiant Ones, a docu-series airing on HBO:

#LEGEND

Eminem’s life story is so inspiring. He not only went through the worst shit getting bullied as a kid (had no idea he had been so badly injured), going through the loss of a loved one, he also faced so many obstacles to make it as a rapper. But he stuck to his guns and persisted, sought opportunities everywhere, pushed for his dream, and was so hungry for it. It makes me ashamed of how I’m just sitting on my ass when he had tried that hard to earn his big break.

And he’s a brilliant lyricist; he’s got the whole rhythm and poetry genre nailed. I’ve been a fan of his since I was 14, when I first heard Mockingbird on the radio and proceeded to buy his album, Curtain Call, and I just can’t rave enough about how wildly talented he is. He can pack so many expressions, metaphors, alliterations, imagery, allegories, allusions and other literary devices into his songs he rarely ever repeats his lines (except for choruses).

Fun fact: did you know that he reads the dictionary so that he has all these words at his disposal when he write his rhymes?

This is how intimate he is with his art, how dedicated he is to his craft.

This is why he can rap freestyle off the top of his head and think up rhymes in seconds and set the world record for the most number of words in a song.

This is why Rolling Stone named him one of the Greatest of All Time, why Sir Elton John himself called him “a true poet of his time”, why even horror writer Stephen King and Barack Obama (as well as celebrities from Justin Timberlake to Rihanna to 50 Cent and Drake) are his fans.

Okay, I’ll stop now. But if you want to hear me rave some more, here’s an article I wrote on Eminem.

So tl;dr, inspired by the Rap God, I tried my hand at writing rap lyrics in this month’s short story. Amateur attempt, so please forgive the clumsy rhythm and perhaps cringe-worthy lyrics.

And in case you want more, here are some other stories I’ve written for the blog:

Worlds Apart

Leaving Neverland

We Were Meant to Save the World

Death Died of a Broken Heart

The Story Thieves

If you can, check out what the other Muses have written too! They continually blow me away with how creative and imaginative they are with their stories, and keep challenging me to bring my A game to the table. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I’m lucky to have found all of them.

If you’d like to share your stories on our blog, please feel free to get in touch with any one of us or drop us a note here! We would love to hear from you.

Till then, muse-chasers. I’ll be working on my dreams because Slim Shady inspired me to. ♥

Eminem motivational quote 3.PNG

Quote: Eminem

enjoying the journey

 

“It’s impossible to put all your energy into something really difficult if everything is riding on the result. The people who are the best at reaching big goals have an obsessive drive toward the goal, but also, they are able to break down the process of meeting the goal into tiny, bite-sized pieces and then take pleasure in completing each part.

When someone is unable to relish the small steps, they just stop, because process starts to seem hopeless if you constantly focus on the end. You have to have a proclivity for hard work (which might be as crucial and inheritable as talent) combined with the ability to take joy in the process itself.”

I came across this article recently, and was struck particularly by the quote above.

It is, in essence, what writers and other creative types have heard often enough. But to glean this advice from a story as poignant and sweet as this helps to drive it home.

a little progress every day

I’ve been told often that this writing journey is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to enjoy the journey itself rather than sweat over how soon we reach our destination – partly because there’s always going to be a new ending point, and partly because focusing on the destination instead of the journey means we are losing sight of what really matters. Not whether we publish our next book or make the New York Times bestsellers list, but why we write and what keeps us going. Whether we enjoy writing our stories, whether we love the process of creating something out of nothing (which is basically what art is), of pulling our random ideas together painstakingly to form a coherent and moving story.

I’ve been so caught up in the fact that I haven’t completed a manuscript, haven’t hit the word count, haven’t had anything that I can pitch to agents, etc, that I’ve stopped making it fun for myself. And how fun any endeavour can be is mostly – if not entirely – within your control.

focus on the journey.jpg

Before, I agonised over the numbers, the outcome, instead of the process of creation and storytelling. In chasing the outcome, I’ve forgotten to let myself indulge in the joy of imagination, of pursuing ideas, in wonder and play.

But those are the things that will inspire us to write, not having a deadline constantly breathing down your neck and screaming at you to write, dammit, write! Because you can’t write a good story with that kind of negative pressure and guilt-tripping yourself when you fall off the bandwagon. All you’re going to do is make yourself miserable and crush your self-esteem and question your self-worth and identity as a writer. You’ll end up churning out pointless scenes and useless pages for the sake of hitting word count. You will plod along at a lacklustre pace for the banal sake of progress, when in fact you’re going nowhere at all.

So I tried to shut out all of that – all the doubts and anxiety and self-inflicted pressure – go on a partial technology detox, go stare at the sea for a bit, spend a weekend doing absolutely nothing related to writing or the manuscripts, drove around town with the stereo on full blast, belt along to songs like these:

And it’s not only been completely liberating (everyone should try screaming along to 2000’s pop punk hits on a drive if they get the chance to), it has also cleared so much more head space for thought and imagination. I’m watching dramas and TV series again, reading more extensively (instead of focusing on material that’s related to my works in progress), discovering new songs, and dreaming up new scenes instead of rehashing tired old ones.

In fact, I’ve found a way out of the fix that is NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND. Not entirely, mind you. But I’ve circumvented several roadblocks that have kept me scratching the dirt at the same spot for the longest time. All because I decided to take a step back, take a chill pill, and then come back with a new outline! And since then, I’ve been working through Draft 7 bit by bit every day. But every bit counts, and I know I will arrive at a manuscript I am entirely satisfied with no matter how long it takes.

So deep breaths, baby steps, fellow (figurative) pen-wielders. We will get where we need to be in the time we need to get there. Trust in the journey. Relish it. Your writing will thank you for it.

enjoy the writing

(Also in the vein of self-forgiveness, I’m not going to sweat about the frequency of my posts. There are far more important things to concern myself with, like, you know, the quality of my posts.)

Hope you’re having a Zen hump day!

when existential angst seizes you on a Thursday night

WAIT.

It’s been more than A MONTH since I wrote my last blog post? Not just, I don’t know, two weeks?? Where did all that time go???

I honestly thought it’s only been at most three weeks since I last blogged. The past month, like all those before it, flew by with deadlines and events and the mad rush at work to clear my Inbox (when will I ever have zero unread mail?) and check things off the never-ending to-do list.

Every time I realise how quickly time has passed and how completely oblivious I have been about that, this suffocating sadness settles over me.

And along with it comes even more panic.

On top of worrying whether I’ve replied all the urgent emails and cleared everything flagged as top priority on my to-do list and accounted to all the relevant people, I also worry about all the time I’m wasting NOT doing the things I love or actually care about.

Sometimes, I don’t know if this anxiety and sadness (I won’t call it depression because it would discount what true depression sufferers are going through) is normal, if everyone my age feels the same way, as though we’re juggling multiple things in our lives and may lose our grasp on any one of them any second, or if things will get better as soon as I make the bold leap out of my current circumstance.

What if I’m just leaping into another big mistake?

What if this is as good as it gets, and I just need to grit my teeth and get through it?

What about all the other unexplored possibilities out there?

What am I giving up by staying in my comfort zone?

What if I sacrifice safety by venturing out?

Is there any guarantee at all for anything??

Okay, that just got way too heavy for the night. I’m not here to mope and moan again. This was supposed to be a quick update on the WIP, the short story blog, and other (frankly, nonexistent) life updates. I just got triggered by the time that has lapsed since my last post.

I’ll leave the trend-of-thought rambling for sessions with my therapist. For now, there’s always Rilke and his sagely advice

Okay, updates.

  1. On Neverland

On the writing front, I’m still working my way through draft six of NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND. It’s slow-going, especially for Act II, and I understand why some of the agents I queried pointed out the saggy middle. Because the middle IS saggy. I got bored reading it, which means my readers will too.

The question, now, is how to create more tension in Act II and keep the story plodding along. And I can’t move on until this is resolved. Hence, a brief stalemate.

2. On the short story blog

The four of us have decided to take down the pace a notch over at our short story blog. I explained it in this post, but basically we felt that one short story a month, on top of other posts every week, was too hectic given our respective commitments with our day jobs, family, our own WIPs, and everything else.

So instead of a weekly short story, we’ll be posting one fortnightly. Better a short story that we’ve spent time and effort on than one that we churn out for the sake of meeting deadlines, right?

3. On life

Well, what more is there to say? I’ve been cooped up in a bubble, ricocheting between work and writing, work and writing.

Thank goodness for steadfast friends who keep me sane and are unfailingly patient, ceaselessly encouraging, and immensely kind. (And you, dear reader, for being forgiving of my liberal use of adverbs).

A friend of mine said that we, as writers, need to feed our soul in order to create stories that in turn feed others’ souls. That we shouldn’t see the time we spend not writing as wasted, but as nourishment for when we do sit down and write.

Another friend told me that we shouldn’t see life as a race to the destination. Even if we have a goal in mind, the journey itself is worth paying attention to, and we need to live in every single moment that takes us to our destination eventually, even if that means watching YouTube videos or taking a day off just to roam around the city.

(Seriously, how are my friends so wise and in the know?!)

It reminded me of a quote from one of my favourite YA authors, Sarah Dessen:

sarah dessen the truth about forever.jpg

And of course, that Rilke quote about living the questions now so that we might one day, finally, live into the answer is a timeless source of comfort.

Looking back on 2016, I was sooo hung up on not having completed a manuscript. I kept feeling like I had wasted an entire year. And I put so much pressure on myself because I told myself I have big plans for my life and can’t afford to slacken.

But if I hadn’t spent my time reading those books, watching those dramas, pursuing those ideas, attending orchestra concerts on weekends, going through the necessary angst, or giving myself the time and space to do things outside of writing (i.e. living), I wouldn’t have come up with two new novel plots that get my heart racing and my fingers itching to write every time I think about them.

Sometimes, I think my gaze is so fixed on the finish line that my view becomes entirely blinkered and I ignore everything else around me. Still working on that.

I guess what I’m trying to say, after all this rambling is, I will learn to trust in the journey. I hope you will too, dear reader, and I hope you’ll find your forever in the moments you’re living right now.

steve jobs connect the dots.png