I have long been fascinated with the lives and habits of writers. Ernest Hemingway liked to write standing up because writing, he says, “broaden(s) your ass if not your mind”. Mary Oliver was inclined to revise through 40 to 50 drafts of a poem she’d written before she could begin to feel content with it. For Balzac and Voltaire, the secret was in coffee, a copious amount of coffee (up to 50 cups a day!) — to keep their creativity and inspiration awake, I suppose.
Whether it’s their first brush with writing or how they approach it, whether it’s the eccentric habits that have developed over a lifetime of honing their craft or the magical moments of inspiration encountered, it’s all very fascinating and edifying to me as a young and inexperienced journalist then, and now. It is without exaggeration when I say that literature saved my life on many occasions. So, of course I want to know the stories of storytellers who have always felt like friends to me — with their advice and wisdom, empathy and sympathy, companionship and their words, a much-needed escape to worlds far far away from my ennui and melancholia.
This was pretty much the inspiration behind the theme of the most recent PowWoW which I co-hosted with the loveliest team of humans at Bynd Artisan two Thursdays ago. Titled “What’s Your Story: A Conversation With Women Who Write”, this edition of my conversation series was an invitation to three writers/storytellers in their own rights — poet Jennifer Anne Champion, singer/songwriter Inch Chua and artist/writer Cherie Altea — to share their stories, experiences and lessons from their creative journeys.
I think I speak for everyone who came out that afternoon to join us when I say, “what a treat!”. For those of you who missed it, I have transcribed the entire conversation and distilled the essence of it for your reading pleasure.
The Significance of Storytelling
Jennifer: “When I was young, I didn’t know how to tell my own stories. I am Singaporean, but growing up in early 90s, I didn’t feel Singaporean enough to tell my stories because I’m mixed-race girl. That’s why I went into poetry — it forced me to find the words, and that was a fun thing for me.”
Inch: “I started working with women in prison and women in girls’ homes in the last few years — it’s something I’m very passionate about. I feel storytelling and the narratives that we tell ourselves, that we share with other people are so important. It’s heartbreaking to see that there are people out there who don’t feel that they have the right to tell their stories.”
Jennifer: “I stumbled upon spoken-word poetry in a bar called Blue Jazz. They had the open mics, and they had performance poets like Nabilah Husna and Deborah Emmanuel that I watched. Watching them take control of the story made me think I want to do this. Now, when I started doing it, of course, it was very difficult, and I was very bad at it. The first two years, all the poetry I wrote, I actually erased all evidence of them. I’m still, even after publishing two chapbooks, not entirely sure I’ve reached that peak of being in control of the words and having a knack for it, but that’s the fun of it.”
Cherie: “I never thought I could be a professional artist because I thought my work was too messy, too chaotic, too fun to be considered fine art, which was what I had hoped to do. In comparing with other artists, I was killing my own dream. Which is why it took so long for me to become a professional artist. I was around 27 when I had my first exhibit in a café. Even then, I was juggling three jobs to sustain my art. It was only when I turned 38 that I let go of everything else. It was a 20-year journey for me from the time I left school … Because I started late, I was trying to catch up with everyone else. By the time I became an artist, I wasn’t sure what to do with that. But the lesson is, these experiences and meeting different people have helped me become a well-rounded person and artist.”
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Jennifer: “The first poem that really got me some traction was a poem called Ballet Class. I wrote it in 2013, and it’s about this kid — me — who grows up from kindergarten, and through all these different stages of ballet positions learned about the world and about life. When I wrote this poem, I had a rare condition called the Kawasaki Syndrome. It sounds like a motorcycle, it’s not. It’s when the tiny blood vessels in your hand expand so it’s difficult to contact things, like open doors and type. I was stuck, because I had to perform this poem in a festival in a month. I didn’t know what to do, so I orally composed the lines. I orally composed that poem. To this day, I will never forget that poem. That’s another way to write. I think necessity really is the mother of invention. Whatever project you have, there are certain constraints, but the constraints can lead you to very creative and fun ways to producing the work.”
Jennifer Anne Champion
Writer, spoken word poet, educator, archivist, co-founder of poetry.sg. She also co-organises Destination: Ink, Singapore’s longest running open-mic night for live literary and musical experiments. Author of A History of Clocks and Caterwaul.
Singer-songwriter, artist, theatre practitioner. She has performed at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, Singapore F1 Grand Prix, the Asian Games in South Korea, TEDxWomen in Washington DC, and opened for Katy Perry, Greyson Chance and Charlie Puth, to name a few.
Painter who writes. Her body of work celebrates the beauty of the imperfect, the cluttered thought process, and pays tribute to the woman who blooms wherever life takes her.
“In comparing with other artists, I was killing my own dream.”
— Cherie Altea
“The problem is we tend to think we need to be perpetually moving and doing something or we are not enough. But being idle is extremely important for this body to function right in the first place.”
— Inch Chua
On Routines & Productivity
Cherie: “I work like I have a nine-to-five job. I wake up, have breakfast, check my email, pay the bills, do all the boring admin stuff in the morning. The fun stuff starts at around 11am. I work while the sun is up. Evenings are meant for doing nothing — I hang up my brains, watch a show, read a book, chat with friends. That’s my routine. I believe that doing a lot of nothing can lead you to creating one good something.”
Jennifer: “My therapist gave me a little help there because I used to feel guilty about (time spent not writing). What she did was print out a schedule with the hours laid out. She said, I want you to write out what you’re going to do every hour so you can actually see in front of you what you’ve accomplished. So that was one of the techniques for me. Just having it on paper as a record for yourself is a way of letting you know, ‘Ok, I have done the things, and now I’m deserving of my Netflix moment.’”
Inch: “Having a schedule was extremely important for one season of my life because when I first started coming out of school and juggling a few jobs, from having a routine to no routine, emotionally I was quite unstable when, you know, there was a lack of productivity … The problem is we tend to think we need to be perpetually moving and doing something or we are not enough. But being idle and allowing the dust to settle is extremely important for this body to function right in the first place. So eventually, not doing anything or just being able to walk away, take a break and learn to let go for a second, that can be very productive.”
Advice: You Must Finish
Jennifer: “Joyce Carol Oates says, the best way to write is to get it all out in one draft, then do your editing. If you start playing around with the little details, you might get so overwhelmed that you never finish. I don’t know that one way is better than the other, but the end point is, you must finish.”
Cherie: “If you see my work, it is messy. It is really messy. I colour outside the lines, my lines are crooked, my faces are lopsided, but people seem to appreciate them and they sell. Accepting that imperfection took a long time. I was always trying to fit in. I thought I had to be serious to be an artist. I’d go to a gallery, and be like, ‘Shit, my work does not look like that” and I’d try to refine and refine and refine. Until I realised, oh my god, I am not being myself. When I finally accepted who I am as an artist, I was able to find my voice.”
Inch: “There’s so much beauty in being absolutely clear and neat and precise about what you feel, but it’s also extremely important to unleash all that messiness and chaos as well. Having doubt is extremely important. Fear to me is not a negative thing, it’s a teacher more than anything else. Understand the fear. I don’t like when people say ‘overcome’ fear because it gives it a negative connotation. Fear, in so many ways, can teach you how to go away from something that is bad for you and, at the same time, is an opportunity to get to the pit of where it is birthed. When we translate that into art, completely unpacking that, it goes back to this wonderful thing that we humans do — which is making sense of the world.”
Be A Friend To Yourself
Jennifer: “There will a part of you that will say, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then you’ll have to question and go, really? Why can’t I? Push yourself to what you’re absolutely able to do. If something is really impossible then be frank with yourself, but don’t nag yourself. Be a friend to yourself when you’re writing. Encourage yourself. Don’t set yourself up for failure.”
Inch: “When it comes to criticism for the work that you do, the Number One thing is to ask yourself: How do you validate your work and yourself? Where do I get this validation? It’s extremely important to be confrontational with yourself, and at the same time show extreme compassion to yourself. Haters are going to hate, that’s the truth. You can be the sweetest peach in the whole world, but some people just don’t like peaches.”
Cherie: “My art is an extension of me. It’s personal. It is what it is, take it or leave it. I’m not here to please. If you don’t like it, it’s okay. It’s not my job to make you like me. I’m not going to lose sleep over that. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. Life goes on. If however, it comes from a place of credibility, I will mull over it.”
On Imposter’s Syndrome
Jennifer: “When you’re younger, when you’re starting, you have the shyness of saying, ‘I’m an artist’ or ‘I’m a writer’. One of the things that helped me through that was just simply telling myself that no one is going to see you as that if you don’t produce the work. If you let the imposter’s syndrome hold you back from producing it, then how can you call yourself that, basically? So even if you produce stuff that you feel is sub-par, at least you have a body of work behind you. The bigger the body grows, the less of an imposter you will actually feel, because the work is there. So finishing it and getting it out there is important.”
Cherie: In the beginning, I felt unworthy to call myself ‘an artist’. I felt like an imposter, so fraud-y. When people would ask me what I do, I’d be like, ‘I’m an artist?” — yes, with a question mark. It took me years to find my confidence.
“The best way to write is to get it all out in one draft, then do your editing … I don’t know that one way is better than the other, but the end point is, you must finish.”
—Jennifer Anne Champion
On Promoting / Marketing / Monetising Their Work
Cherie: “The audacity I have now, I did not have that when I was 20. How do I promote myself now? Primarily, through social media. You may or may not agree with me, but I feel social media has been a game changer. It’s something we did not have in early 2000. I was at the mercy of editors to get my work out there, and there was no guarantee. Social media has allowed me to build a bridge directly from my hands, my paintings directly to my audience, to all corners of the globe, any time of the day. If you want to sell your art, your words, your music, it helps to have a network … I also feel a lot of artists are so uncomfortable talking about money. You don’t apologise for your prices. That again comes with age. Truth be told, there’s no other way to do it but shamelessly.”
Inch: “I’m quite the opposite of Cherie. When I was much younger, with this illusion of invincibility as a youth, I was a lot more daring in promoting myself. Maybe not monetarily — putting a price tag on your creation in the beginning is always a bit difficult because you’re thinking about ‘what am I worth?’ Now I’m at this point where I definitely know that it’s extremely important to be authentic with what you do, but if you want to somehow get it to an audience, you do need to curate it. So where’s that balance between those two things?”
Jennifer: “I’m thinking about how the economy works for poetry … My books are available in bookstores and at the National Library. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people prefer to borrow my books rather than to buy them. I’ve had students message me on Instagram saying, ‘Oh I used your poem for my mid-term test. I got an A for it.’ I’m like, ‘Good for you! Didn’t get any money for that. (Laughs.)’ So for me, I had to think in terms of alternative services. Yes, I can write a poem, but can I also teach someone to write a similar poem? I put a market value on that. A lot of my income comes from teaching. Of course, I also accept commissions — sometimes certain bodies of people want poems written, and I’m very happy to take their money. It doesn’t come as often as I would like. I would love to live on the royalties of my books but to be honest, that’s not practical. I don’t really know what the solution is, if there even is a solution because most poets I know don’t want to be just poets anyway. We want to be polymaths, and there’s value to that.
When I first started out, putting a price on my work was a little bit difficult. But I’ve learned that you just need to be very straightforward — this is what my value is. This is my working rate. If they don’t accept it, they don’t accept it. Just move on. Also be honest with yourself about how much you need to earn to pay the bills.”
“A lot of artists are so uncomfortable talking about money. You don’t apologise for your prices. That again comes with age. Truth be told, there’s no other way to do it but shamelessly.”
— Cherie Altea
Courage to Start, and Share the Work With the World
Cherie: “It was the only thing I knew how to do. Sharing my work online at first, the only purpose was to see my work in progress, to see my work growing and changing. When I first started to write on my Instagram, I felt like it was me writing to myself in the dark. Until one day, someone responded. Then another, and another. Before I knew it, I have a community online from all over. It’s insane.”
Jennifer: “This is going to sound terribly unhealthy. When I started out I was a bit of a masochist. I enjoyed people telling me I was terrible. It made me feel like, ‘okay, now here is something I can work on.’ At some point, someone told me they liked it, I couldn’t accept it. I was like, really? You’re not being honest with me. What’s going on?
Finding that courage — part of it is keeping a sense of child-likeness to it. You know, when as a child you first discovers something and you want to share that discovery. It’s not so much you want to be told you’re a good person because you discovered it, it’s ‘look at this good thing, I want to share a good thing with you.’ When you keep that sense of wanting to make another person better with what you are showing them, that can keep you going, because it’s less about you and your ego, and more about the thing”.
Inch: “I don’t think you will ever really be ready. Even when you think you’re ready, you probably still aren’t, in my opinion. So be as ready as you can, and do it.”
Photography YVONNE XIE
Location BYND ARTISAN