The art of writing

When I was about 14 years old, my (then) English teacher commented on my lack of “natural talent” in the subject.

I was four when my family moved to New Zealand, so I was as fluent as a child could be in English by the time I was eight or nine. But in the back of my young mind, there was always something about being a migrant – of never being able to tick the “native speaker” box – that made me feel like I was always going to be one step behind everyone else during English class.

I knew that the teacher meant well, hoping to encourage me to work a bit harder in class, but her remarks confirmed something that I had decided a long time ago: I was definitely not an “English” person, in the same way that my friends had declared themselves to not be “maths” or “sciencey” people.

Yesterday, an op-ed I wrote on international students was published in the NZ Herald. After reading the article, a few friends mentioned that I was “talented” at writing. It made me smile to think that, having banished this idea of being “talented” from my mind some ten or so years ago, others might now view me in that way.

Despite declaring myself to be a “Not-An-English-Person”, I absolutely adored the subject in high school. I remember writing extensive essays for fun because I was fascinated with how the stories and characters contained within books and movies could convey such timeless insights into human nature.

When I went to university, this interest overrode the conventional wisdom of choosing courses that I knew I would be good at – which is how I ended up in my first philosophy lecture. And, contrary to popular belief, I found my BA to be quite challenging. Coupled with the fact that I now have a law degree and enjoy writing (good or badly) for fun, I would have to say that I no longer associate myself with being (or, in my case, not being) an “English” person, in the sense that I no longer correlate “English” and “writing” with “hard” and “impossible”.

The hardest part about writing isn’t really the writing part at all. Like any other activity, the more that you do, the better you will get. The other assumption that prevents people from writing, myself included, is the idea that every story needs to be original and fresh. I consider my day-to-day life to be pretty mundane (I wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, go for a run, make dinner, check emails, sleep – repeat) but I think in every single mundane day is a new experience of some kind and an opportunity for change and growth, however small. The best stories are actually those that describe something quite ordinary in an extraordinary (by which I mean different) way, or where the author shares with the reader a glimpse into their soul, so to speak.

I don’t believe that people can be “talented” and, more importantly, “not talented” at writing, because the capacity to share ideas and to tell stories is a very innate human ability. You can always improve the way you pull your words and thoughts together, but that’s nothing that a bit of trial and error can’t fix. In some ways, I am grateful to my English teacher. Knowing that I wasn’t “talented” meant that I no longer tried hard to be. Instead, I spent my time on the things that interested me, without thinking too hard about who was going to read it and whether it was going to result in a good or bad mark.

And I am all the better for it.

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4 thoughts on “The art of writing

  1. As always, I enjoyed reading your post (I read them all). I’ve never been a writer, but I am quite a reader. I suppose I’ve never written much, in part, because I have never felt that I had anything much to write about (wake up, breakfast, work…). Your post made me rethink that. I realize now that much of what I read, much of what I enjoy reading, is made up of the most ordinary activities in life that we all experience, but that the author has made interesting by sharing a piece of himself or herself with the reader. I don’t know if I will ever write much that is worth the time to read, but you have inspired me to try. Thank you!

    • Hi Steven,

      Thank you very much for your kind comment – I was hoping that it might make someone think twice about it! I used to think exactly along those lines (that nothing I write would be interesting or worth reading) but then one day I decided, quite spontaneously, to set up a blog… and to my surprise, I found myself with a humble audience who wanted to hear what I had to stay. I still find that concept quite strange!

      Do let me know if you ever write something, I would be interested in reading it.

      Alice

  2. I went to a NZ Society of Authors Branch AGM not too long ago and it was immediately apparent that everyone in that neat, tidy room of the Thistle Inn was over double or triple my age and clearly not Chinese. Nonetheless, they were delighted to see new and fresh blood taking part in the Wellington Branch of the Society and that sort of novelty always gives rise to inquisitive conversation.

    “My angle and motive is this,” I said quite pointedly with a raised finger, “how many acclaimed Chinese-New Zealand authors do you know of?” They looked at me blankly while some moved their pupils up as if to carefully probe their immense mental catalogues for a name that sounded slightly exotic. “Exactly,” I conclude, “that – that, is why I’m writing: to give myself and others like me – no matter who they are or where they come from – something to relate to. That and I will have next to no competition in that niche of authors, hahahahaha!”

    So, keep on writing – there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so.

    • It’s a shame that people struggle to think of acclaimed Chinese-New Zealanders in many fields, but I’m optimistic that this will change in the next decade or two. I think a lot of young people are starting to come to terms with their ethnic, cultural and religious identities through creative mediums (a spoken word event I went to last year comes to mind).

      It’s great that you take that attitude to writing – it must be quite liberating to have the freedom to set your own benchmarks! Hopefully you won’t have that freedom for too long though, and I also hope to see a break away from “niche” and into “mainstream” 🙂

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