Research

Time is passing like a bullet train with no stops. In a month — just 30 days — it will be the new year, the beginning of the third decade in this millennium. 

2020 has been an especially anxiety-ridden year for me, and possibly, for many others too. 

The first movement control order (lockdown) in Malaysia happened in the middle of March, when work was just beginning to pick up. 

But as my clients lost revenues and my other businesses were unable to operate, I had to stop work and suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. 

I decided that this was my opportunity to go back to school — something I’d been considering for a while but never found the time to get around to. 

Right after Jacob died, slightly dazed with grief, I started filling out forms. It was an impulse taken too far, just over two months into my Masters course and it still feels surreal. 

Especially because my research involves scouring the Internet for sex media… ahem, pornography. 

Keeping track of what’s happening in the sex industry is now considered productive work for me. 

They say time flies when you’re having fun. I guess 2021 is going to come (pun unintended) in a flash. 

Criticism

I take “killing my darlings” too far. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I have any “darlings” when it comes to my writing; I often feel as if my words become someone else’s once they materialise on a page. 

This is probably one of the reasons why I feel divorced from my work. Not only do I mostly write for clients, but when I write for myself, the piece doesn’t feel like mine either. 

I write, because I enjoy the craft of it. Twisting and turning a story, an article, a song, round and around — figuring out how to shape it into its best form. 

Sometimes I totally fail and sometimes I could be better. But once a piece is out into the world, it no longer occupies the same place in my heart. It suddenly feels less mine and I’m ready to kill it, if required. 

How did I get this way? 

Being a journalist made me heartless, I think. 

When you need to get a one-sentence tweet, 100-word email and 300-word article out 30 minutes after an assignment, you stop caring about whether your writing evokes such and such an emotion. 

Your writing becomes functional, not a part of your personality. 

I remember in the early stages, crying in the toilet because I didn’t get the right angle, because my lede wasn’t strong enough. Being told that I was a bad writer, that my work sucked, to redo an entire article from a different angle. 

Back then, getting harsh criticism felt like the worst thing. I guess the good news is that now, the criticism can’t get any worse. 

Disorganised

I’m not an organised person. 

I often find it hard to think in linear time. I could make two appointments at the same time on the same date and think that it’s two different occasions.

My files — both physical and digital — are “organised” in a system that only I know how to navigate and use. 

Actually, if I’m being honest, it’s not much of a system. I just upload files into arbitrary folders, with not very descriptive names and rely almost totally on the search function.

Now that I’ve begun work on my Masters thesis, with the aim to eventually (maybe?) pursue a PhD, I am told that having everything organised is half the battle. This means that I’m half a battle behind.

Reading, I can do. Writing, no issue. Keeping things organised — the bane of my existence. 

The good thing is that there are resources for this. 

People have written things about this. This article on organising papers details a system of filing and note-taking that makes sense, while being simple enough to maintain. 

I also learned about the Rhetorical Précis Format, which seems especially useful. 

I love the fact that people wrote about how they’ve done things, and that what they’ve written are now becoming a guide for me. Perhaps this is why #LearningInPublic matters. 

Too much

Writing — for myself — has been one of the hardest things to do in the last six months. Sometimes I find myself sitting in front of the empty screen, wanting, but not being able to channel my thoughts into words.

Because they’re too much.

How do I even begin to talk about grief when it still feels too wordless, too free-formed to be pinned down and controlled?

How do I write about my inability to sleep, or my desire to drink, or my difficulties staying focused?

How do I untangle the knot of emotions left behind and string them up into a proper train of thought?

Sometimes I wonder, am I still a writer if I’ve only been writing for money? For work, for clients?

Am I still a writer if my personal projects have been on hold?

Am I still a writer if the process feels difficult? If putting 200 words down on a page feels like squeezing water from a rock.

So I write things people ask me to. I write about artificial intelligence, ageing societies and journalism in Malaysia. I write when I have to, when it pays the bills. I write in other people’s voices.

You’re still a writer if you keep writing, I tell myself. So I keep writing.

And perhaps one day, when my too-muchness becomes easier to bear, I’ll write for myself again.

Education

In an article about thriving in a complex world, Thomas Oppong writes that  we should “embrace things that require serious effort but will help you grow”.

“The effort alone can make you better — no matter the outcome. Even if you fail, you win because you are demanding more of yourself.” he wrote.

When I decided to further my education this year (during the COVID-19 movement control order), I considered pursuing an MBA. And then I thought about researching the future of journalism.

They both felt difficult. But would they truly stretch me, I wondered.

Eventually, I began work on and later submitted a research proposal on “pornography” in Malaysia. The work was brutal — mainly because I was exploring concepts that were completely new to me.

I read about “the body” (not a physical thing, apparently), about how anti-sex discussions are really discussions about sex (first foray into Foucault’s writings), and how modernity shapes cultural narratives.

Half the time I didn’t understand what I was reading, and even when I did, I found that I lacked the vocabulary to write down my understanding of it.

When I was finally done and hit Send on my Master’s application, I felt like a different person.

And isn’t that the point of education?