My writing history has been a series of fits and starts, no thanks I’m sure to my hereditary impatience. My friend Ben calls this the classic ENFP personality: chasing butterflies. Which is all a very nice way of saying I give up too easily. I don’t regret it for most part because I enjoy the lateral exposure: traveling to more places and experiencing more things than I ever imagined possible.
But lately, I find that things have a strange way of traveling around in circles. Yes, very much like Jobs’ ‘connecting the dots’ metaphor. Or perhaps the vector isn’t ‘things’, but us. We travel around in circles, at first in search of what we think we want, before gravitating back towards what we once had.
So perhaps we should start from the very beginning. Not the beginning of this blog, or my beginning, because I don’t think you want to hear about the fastest reader prize I won when I was eight years old, or the lovelorn poetry I wrote as a devastated eighteen year old. Rather, what I want to talk about is writing, and what it means to me.
Ironically (or not), one of my earliest writing memories was rejection. It wasn’t even anything I’d written. It was my application to join the school newspaper. We don’t usually take in first-year students, I was told. And the teacher-in-charge doesn’t think you’d be a good fit. I suppose I was a rather mischievous thirteen year old, but what did that have anything to do with joining the school paper? They didn’t even give me a writing test.
As fate would have it, I did end up becoming a journalist when I turned eighteen. It all sounds very serendipitous now, but here’s what happened. I never did have good fortune with schoolteachers in Singapore, but what I did have going was friends who believed in me. They also happened to be the respective editors of our two school papers. One of them empowered me to organise a student conference that brought together peers from other schools and leading journalists based in Singapore. One of these meetings led to an introduction to Time magazine’s Asia bureau chief, and an invitation to intern with them in Hong Kong.
And so, the morning after prom night, I boarded a plane and embarked on (what I then thought was going to be) the next great adventure of my life. It led to my first published piece Boys Night Out, one of the first reports on Singapore’s vibrant gay community to appear in the international press. Remember, this was years before Pink Dot.
I wish I could boast that this kickstarted a glorious career in the press, or a glamorous Christiane Amanpour life traveling the world with my microphone. But that wasn’t quite what happened.
Instead, I was taught two basic things about journalism: slant, and newsworthiness. For a large part of my four day stint reporting back home, I followed a group of three transsexuals. I suppose, as a sheltered eighteen-year-old, this was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. Time paid for a top photographer to shadow me as we visited gay bars in Tanjong Pagar and interviewed my three queens over supper at Ann Siang Hill.
But nothing prepared me for the three words my editor threw at me on my return to Time Asia’s office: what’s your story? Wait, wasn’t it obvious? The trannies were the story. What’s so exciting about the trannies, my editor asked. Then, probably realising I was just an intern, he rephrased his question.
“Why would someone outside Singapore—an American in Texas for example. Why would he find this interesting?”
I probably gave a flimsy defence trying to justify my reporting trip. But then I realised he was right. Unless it was a lyrical expose about the lives of transsexuals, in the line of say Eric Khoo’s Twelve Stories, it wasn’t interesting. Even if it was, it didn’t belong in a news magazine, because there was no headline, no slant which would make the reader raise an eyebrow and think, “oh this is something I didn’t know.”
We struggled with the story in his office for a good thirty minutes. He made me recount all my interviews, forcing me to explain what I thought about each subject. Thinking about it now, he was probably trying to see the story, see gay Singapore through my eyes. What a pain that must have been for him! But towards the end, he stopped me in mid-sentence.
“I think this is your story.”
(what? oh great! which part?)
“Everyone thinks of Singapore as a strait-laced, boring, no chewing gum kind of place where bad people get whipped. I don’t think anyone realises that there’s actually quite a lot of freedom for gay Singaporeans. At least, more than most people imagine.”
At the very last moment (probably twelve hours before the deadline), I had my story. There was only one problem. None of our photographs were appropriate. Scrambling, I got on the phone with all my other contacts: the gay banker, the lesbian architect, the social activist. None of them wanted to be photographed. But at the last minute, one of them agreed, and we set up a meeting that very afternoon. By midnight, we had our photograph, and the story was ready to go.
The face of a gentle revolution
That conversation is why I consider Karl Greenfeld one of my best (and first) writing teachers. He taught me the most important question all writers should ask, one that I always remember when I write:
What’s your story?
You can read Boys Night Out on Alex Au’s website, Yawning Bread. Thanks for archiving the story! I would post the Time.com version, but it requires a subscription.
(I’ve written for almost a good two hours now, and need to get ready for lunch. Part 2 will continue tomorrow … )