Oh man. The audacity of getting on stage and facing a roomful of people who came to listen to three authors talk about writing autobiographies. Throughout the hour at the Singapore Writers Festival on November 4, I expected someone to burst into the Blue Room at the Arts House and blow the whistle on me, screeching: “That man is a fraud, he never wrote an autobiography!”
Of course I didn’t.
I’m not Aleksandar Duric, who was sitting at the table alongside me. The man is a legend. He went to war. He represented his country at the Olympic Games. He scored more goals than anyone else in Singapore football history. He became an Australian citizen then gave it up to be Singaporean. He got called up to the national soccer squad at 37 and scored more goals right into his 40s. He has an autobiography.
I’m not Angjolie Mei, with her long tresses, perfectly painted lips and nails, figure-hugging dress and high heels, purring away as she teases everyone to guess what she does for a living. She knows what you’re thinking, but no, she’s not a karaoke lounge hostess. A clue: She has a degree from the National University of Singapore. Another: She runs her family’s business. “Nobody ever guesses right,” she says with a laugh. She’s an undertaker and qualified embalmer. She has an autobiography coming out in March 2017.
Me? I’m the guy they insist on calling “the former deputy editor of The Straits Times” even though I left the paper more than a year ago.
I don’t have an autobiography. But over almost 40 years in journalism I wrote personal columns which revealed bits and pieces of my life as I muddled through being a husband and father, failed at being a son, and made a few good friends in unlikely places. Though I never got to be famous like Duric or larger than death like Angjolie, I asked a publisher if I could pull together a bunch of my personal columns as a book. And that was how Good Grief! came out at the start of 2016.
The book landed me my pass to hold forth at a couple of panel discussions at the Singapore Writers Festival, an annual event with real writers and poets, including some who have been featured in Time magazine, whose books get shortlisted for major prizes and even win.
Next thing I knew, I was fielding serious questions about the writing craft and process, the tricky business of revealing potentially embarrassing personal information, and how to decide what put in and what to leave out. Proper writerly questions. Good grief!
I pre-empted the whistleblower by confessing early that I was only a writer of newspaper columns, and while I chose and like the pieces in the book, I also wrote many horrid ones over the years and wouldn’t recommend that anyone look at them today.
Because the columns in the book span the decades from the time I arrived in Singapore from Kuala Lumpur in 1980 until I left the newspaper, the collection comes off somewhat memoir-ish for offering glimpses of my life from my 20s through to my 60s.
They let me stay to answer questions, first from moderator Pamela Ho and then from the audience. The QnA left me reflecting on my life as a writer of memoir-ish columns and the peculiarity of it all.
Q: How do you write?
As a journalist, I had to write to a deadline and keep to a fixed length. Both impose a wonderful stress-inducing discipline that only journalists understand.
There was a five-year period in the early 2000s when I wrote a Sunday column every fortnight. I had to deliver it by lunchtime on Friday and it had to be no longer than 80 column centimeters.
When you write a fortnightly column, you realise that two weeks go by incredibly fast. Suddenly your deadline is just a couple of days away. You have no topic to write about. You feel ill.
Most times I met my deadline, though occasionally my real work got in the way and I had to plead for more time to finish the column. Writing to length was not hard, because my mantra as an editor had always been: Every story can be cut.
How do I write? I write fast, and edit slow.
I am an impatient writer, and once I start I keep going till I’ve finished. I found I could complete an 80-cm column in two to four hours. But that was never the version I turned in. I would leave it and come back to it – a couple of hours later or the next day – and read it slowly.
Now I’d pretend to be someone else looking at the story for the first time. If it referred to other people, I’d imagine them reading it and ask myself how they would feel. Although I wrote about estrangement, grief and loss, I never set out to cause hurt or pain. So sometimes I would make changes. I had to be comfortable with the column before I sent it on.
But I did not only write sad stories. There was other crazy stuff as well, some of it funny enough for people to ask if I’d consider a career switch to stand-up comedy.
Q: But why write about difficult subjects, like being estranged from your family in Kuala Lumpur?
We have to break through this pretence that all is well in our homes and in our lives. We all know dysfunction in our families. We have all experienced some kind of hurt, pain and unbearable loss. The end of a love affair. An abortion. A miscarriage. The loss of a child. The sudden death of someone we love. Domestic violence. Addiction. Failure or recklessness, or the unspeakable deed committed. Instead of talking about it, we allow fear of shame and stigma to let a terrible silence descend upon us all.
Each time I wrote about family trouble, some readers would suggest where I could seek help or therapy. Others revealed that they had struggled with difficult relationships too and some admitted not speaking to close relatives for years.
These are not issues we should be silent about, or look away from. People are weighed down unbearably by these burdens, sometimes believing the worst of themselves. We don’t talk enough about how hard it is to be human. We should, because it is tough and so many of us fail in some aspects.
It’s okay to cry about it, and many times I found myself in tears at the end of writing a column. But I would write again because there were always those readers who told me it helped to know they were not alone.
Q: Don’t you take a risk when you expose yourself like that?
Every single time. Some will judge and think the worst of me. Many believe it’s wrong to talk about private family matters in public because it’s unbecoming. As a society, we prefer to imagine that Every Family Is A Happy Family.
Besides, who am I that anyone should care about what’s going on in my family or listen to what I have to say? Some may think I have no business shoving my personal issues at them. But I preferred listening to the readers who e-mailed to say: Thank you. What you wrote moved me. You touched a source of pain in my life and let me know that I am not a bad person. Others have said: I’m glad you wrote about your estrangement from your family, but I could never do it. I would feel too vulnerable.
So what’s the matter with me, and why do I think anyone should care what I think about the state of the family, religion, sex or whatever? Most other people seem to know to let life happen and lock up the bad stuff that nobody else needs to know about. I never got that memo. I have this streak of shamelessness that makes me put it all out there.
Q: Is it time to write a proper full-length autobiography?
Someone actually asked me this question and the answer is, Heck, no! I go to bookshops and the Singapore titles that stay longest on the shelves and retain the most prominent positions are everything and anything to do with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. If you want to be an author whose book will enjoy a long shelf life, write the next book on Singapore’s founding prime minister. That’s life. If you’re famous, write your autobiography or someone else can write about you. I’m not famous. If I become famous by the time I’m 75, ask me the question again.
Q: Who are you, anyway?
What do people do when I say I’m tired of being introduced as “the former deputy editor of The Straits Times”? They ignore me because fourteen months after leaving the newspaper I haven’t settled into something new with a neat handle they can use. I have too much happening in my life to be called Retiree.
But hey, hey, hey. Now that I have survived my baptism at the Singapore Writers Festival, and now that I have two books in the stores – if you can find them, that is – I can be Alan John, Writer, can’t I?