Monday, 28 May 2007

When Wordsmiths Gather

The latest Readings session was well-attended, and had the atmosphere of a gathering of martial arts experts. Both the founding mothers of Readings, Sharon Bakar and Bernice Chauly were present, and even a crouching tiger and hidden dragon had come out to play.

"Hello, I'm Kenny."

I rummaged through my memory. "Kenny Mah," I blurted out in recognition.

The poor fellow nearly jumped out of his skin. Apparently this happens to him a lot.

He should have expected it, though.

Virtually everyone at the gathering shared a connection with Sharon. They were either commentors on Bibliobibuli, or in some way involved in the local literature/poetry scene. So it wasn't too hard to deduce that this fellow "A" is actually "A" of "B" from the "C" blog, and so on. This was a closely-knit group that would give a Freemasons' lodge a run for its money.

Never judge a person by how he opens a wine bottle.

When I first met him Nicholas Wong was not doing very good job. My opinion of him was fairly neutral, but he didn't impress me. So when Sharon rattled off his achievements as an introduction to his turn at the microphone I was stunned. There were awards, prizes, and published works and interviews. The boy was as decorated as a knight of the Round Table.

And if that wasn't enough, Sharon told us that the veteran poet Wong Phui Nam, whom she had trouble inviting to Readings, agreed to come only if Nicholas was coming to read.

Me? I fared a lot worse. I had nearly ruined a bottle of wine. His cork extraction skills, however, has since improved.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Don't Count On Tomorrow

The cheery atmosphere of an Internet chat was shaken by news of a murder. It brought home the realisation that such tragedies don't just "happen to other people".

Gloomy thoughts on mortality dragged me out of my shell and into the real world, which laughed, shook its head and sometimes cheered my attempts in seizing those swiftly-moving days. Even before the latest round of bad news, the passing of several personalities had already given "Project Get-A-Life" an added sense of urgency.

I hated the fact that one day, I won't be able to see, hear, smell or taste all the things that I've come - and will come - to love and enjoy so much: blue skies, turquoise oceans, colourful works of art and pretty faces; flowers, spices, and the scent from the nape of my partner's neck; new and old favourite songs and familiar voices.

There are other new things that I'm sure I'll miss someday.

Yvonne waving at me with a smile on her face after picking me out of a crowd (with only one good eye).

Irene's throaty laugh when she hears a good joke, or when the joke's on me.

FunnyBunny getting all animated as she recounts her latest (mis)adventures.

Wildguy's sardonic observations of things around him and the wild, wild ideas that sprout like weeds from his criminal mind.

Mom's cooking and Dad's dry curry.

All of that, and more, will come to an end. And I'm taking in as much as I can before my time comes. We don't need to wait till we're down with a terminal illness, or when someone's put a contract out on us.

If you see me a little too often at a particular event, a food joint or venue, or find me gatecrashing one party too many, hold your snide remarks about me being some fixture or unwelcome guest. I'm there for the experience, and for you guys as well. Because our lifetimes are much shorter - and more precious - than we think they are.

Yet some people still hang on to the past, flog dead horses or obsess over race or religion. Do they think they'll live forever? Or have they merely lost their way?

Monday, 21 May 2007

If Only All Weekends Were Like This

Lately I've been lucky enough to find a few escape routes from the mundane existence that is my (lack of a) life. If only I could say the same about my (lack of a) career.

The talk about writing believable characters at MPH, 1 Utama last Saturday was brief, and poorly attended. But the panellists managed to squeeze in some infotainment into the one-and-a-half hour slot. While the Professor and Nik Azmi felt somewhat at home, Kam Raslan looked like he'd rather be somewhere else.

The question of race was inevitably brought up during the discussions. The argument was that the deeply-rooted compartmentalisation of our society has made it difficult to sell works that pitch the "harmonious multi-racial utopia" because we ourselves can't relate to such literature.

And I bought a book. Kam Raslan signed my copy of Confessions of an Old Boy, the novel he flogged during that Central Market reading session, where he teased the audience with humorous snippets from one of the chapters. The "hero" of his story reminds me of Taita, the brilliant eunuch slave from Wilbur Smith's River God. They share the same level of cowardice and snobbishness, plus the talent for words and ability to mingle with saints and scoundrels.

I checked the signed page last night. It was strange that the date was the 20th of May (Sunday), when the talk was held on Saturday.

Sharon Bakar's invitation to lunch at Ms Read's Del•icious Café derailed my plans to invade Italiannies and find out what the fuss was about; some people loved it, but my sisters didn't. That didn't stop me from joining in. The food is great, as are the desserts.

So that was my weekend done - or so I thought.

On Sunday, ten to midnight, the FunnyBunny threw me an invitation for a drink, which landed right between my eyes like a well-aimed javelin. She'd just come back from an overseas jaunt, and missed some of the local flavours. I accepted, and footed the bill - my way of thanking the higher powers for keeping her flights trouble and terrorist-free.

I had work the next day, but she is a friend.

There were photos, of course. Food, cute furry animals, impressive architecture and... works of modern art. Since she has her own blog, I won't go into detail here, lest she peels me like some edible fruit of choice.

And after that, I opened Kam Raslan's book and it swallowed me whole. Half the night was gone.

No, I wasn't terribly late for work.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

How To Dish Out Your Thoughts

It wasn't as big a deal as Yvonne's book launches, but I attended the book-talk anyway. She and Her Majesty Boadicea held court at MPH 1Utama last Sunday. Although it was about that collaboration called Write Out Loud, the maestro of the project, Karen-Ann Theseira, was nowhere to be seen.

OK, so I arrived late and probably missed her.

The so-called book-talk-slash-how-to-write session quickly morphed into a cross between A Tribute to John "The Next Tom Clancy" Ling and "What You Don't Want to Know About Writers" (the latter part owes much to Boadicea, Part Time Queen of Darkness). Revelations about writers as brooding, tortured beings who tap into wellsprings of raw negative emotions almost made a young aspiring writer in the microscopic audience swear off the art forever. In the end, though, all was well.

But back to the Young Aspiring Writing Newbie.

This was what happened: young aspiring char koay teow seller wants to be the next big thing, so he seeks guidance from one of the Famous Macalister Road Sisters from Penang. Being the guileless, not-so-surefooted fledgling that just realised that those flappy things are meant for flight, he puts forth queries he thinks will bring him closer to his goal. "Should I slice the spring onions diagonally or straight horizontal?" "What brand of koay teow is best?" "Aluminium or non-stick (wok)?" "Wild or farmed (prawns)?"

To her credit, Her Majesty (who has a reputation for not suffering fools) was very patient with the budding acolyte, satisfying his burning curiosity as best she could.

I felt like whacking him with one of the chairs.

Writing is a bit like cooking. You need ingredients, proper utensils, preparation techniques and - the most important thing - that personal touch. It's the last bit that sets you apart from the rest, because it is, well, you. It will take you years - or never - to develop and hone your magic touch to a katana-edge. You think it's easy to put bits of yourself into your writing? Some find it easy, so much so that they're not doing it consciously. Then we have our fledgling, whose fuss over tools and technique kept him from getting off the ground.

Speaking of technique: Let me spin you a yarn.

When I was in Form 5, we had to produce rice paper prints from a carved linoleum board for our final Art exam. Half of my class were students of this one art tutor, and the teacher who graded the paper immediately noticed the applied techniques of his colleague in the masterpieces they turned in (they all even had the same theme: nesting birds). Mine sucked, but the design and colours were my very own.

Too bad you don't get points for being yourself in exams. With writing, it's a different story.

O budding writer, do not be afraid. Bad writing is everywhere, so your first attempts won't be the catastrophe you thought they were. Practise whenever you can. Read, and read lots. Even the bad pieces. Do have a dictionary in hand, because spelling is always important. Learn to convey your thoughts and ideas in a manner so concise your readers will get you the first time. Forget about that thesaurus sitting on the bookstore shelf. Even as a professional writer, you will never use up to eighty-percent of the contents in your lifetime. Research your chosen genre thoroughly so that you look like you know what you're talking about. Use words like "kewl", "sux" and "kthxbai" to incur my everlasting wrath.

The rest? You pick it up as you go along. You, your life and your journeys are source of the ingredients for your writing. Once you have an idea of how to "cook" and present them, it should be smooth sailing from there.

Getting published is another matter entirely.

The one thing you can't control is the reader. Don't bother trying. Since readers are also people, there will be those who will either love you or hate you after they've sampled your prose. Not everybody likes char koay teow, you know.