Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome one of the luminaries of the Singapore literary scene, Felix Cheong, He writes about his process of writing poems. Personally I think his advice holds for storytelling as well.
Feel free to ask questions after you’ve read his post. To two of the commenters chosen by Felix, I’ll be giving away signed copies of his poetry collection B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018 !
Waste not, want not. Want not, write not. Write not, waste not.
There are days, during moments of sharp clarity, when you realise that to be a writer is about being comfortable as a scavenger.
For isn’t this what you do best? You pick up things. You pick at thoughts. You unpick emotions. You pick apart certainties. And you pick pockets of time in which to turn these meanderings into meaningful poems.
And you don’t stop – you can’t and you shouldn’t – because you wear this habit like a second skin. This is you, as you’ve always known yourself, living hand-to-paper in what Yeats calls “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.
This is why your journal is always within an itch reach. The medium may have changed – a notepad on your phone or a random post on Facebook – but you’re always observing, recording, putting your mind to the business of not minding your own business.
Conversations overheard and snatched. Tying down the balloons of scattered thoughts. Finding a wry insight into an unusual sight. Turning over an image for a pun. Decoupling couplets. Allowing a rhythm to run rings round your head.
They’re the poetic equivalent of doodling, writing exercises you do to limber up.
Recognise that this is your creativity at its most listless. It wants to play, it needs to roam, time and place be damned.
But don’t think ill or small of these bits and pieces. They may be unpolished, incomplete or imperfect (usually a combination of all three) but it doesn’t mean they are done for or you’re done with them.
Given the right time, they could be salvaged, given a makeover and presented as shiny and new.
This was how my fifth collection of poetry, B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018 (Math Paper Press) came about.
Published in August, it comprises what I call B-sides, outtakes from previous collections and previously unpublished material.
In a nutshell: a retrospective that provides a helicopter perspective of my poetic output over 32 years.
It’s also something of an unexpected child, one which had come about by accident (I’m very Catholic about birth control).
Looking through my thick folder of discarded poems for drafts to show my creative writing students earlier this year, I came across many scribbles that were my ticket to ride across decades, from the 1980s to the 2010s.
It helps that I’m a diligent hoarder, and not ashamed to admit it. I keep all hardcopy drafts the same way some people keep albums of fading Polaroids and photographs.
As I dusted off these pieces, some of which I have not re-read in over 20 years, they began to develop into sepia snapshots of me as I was, a faraway sentiment that has long settled into sediment somewhere in my mind.
For instance, a few love poems, written circa 1996, remind me why an infatuation is aptly also called a crush, especially when it’s not reciprocated.
A couple of one-sided arguments with God, written circa 1998, reveal a confused writer, at the doorstep of middle age, still figuring out his place in the grand scheme of His plan.
A handful of poems, written between 1990 and 1999, testify to the albatross that reading Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” as an undergrad had hung on my writing. In various voices and versions, I noticed how these poems have tried to rewrite Eliot’s masterpiece.
Many of these poems, I soon rediscovered, reveal an apprentice learning the ropes, trying out the nuts and bolts of his craft.
Experiments with wordplay and puns; the way to do line-breaks and let run-on lines free; the restriction of form and the friction in formlessness; keeping rhythm running like a tap while keeping rhyme in check.
Some of them were underwritten while others were insufferably overwritten. I noted, with a smile, how the 30something me had even graded each piece out of 10 (I’m very Singaporean in that way) to see if they could make the final cut for my collections.
But now, with hindsight and just the right amount of invasive surgery, I could give them new life, correct faults that inexperience had once opened up, and make them stand up to be counted. It was as if I could finally mine what I didn’t know was mine to begin with.
At the same time, I could also chart in these poems the stages of my growth as a writer and how my insights have shifted their centre of gravity over the years. It was a valuable exercise in perspective, like being handed a periscope so you could see out of the depths of your own writing.
So, to cut a short story shorter: It pays to keep drafts, even if they never see the light of day beyond a sliver of sun in your drawer. For these drafts are letters that you write today for the future you.
Dear Writer, are you a good scavenger? Do you chart your growth as a writer or poet over the years? Do you have questions for Felix Cheong? (To two of the commenters chosen by Felix, I’ll be giving away signed copies of his poetry collection B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018 !)
Felix Cheong is the author of 15 books, including five volumes of poetry, two young adult novels, a trilogy of flash fiction and three children’s picture books. His works have been nominated for the prestigious Frank O’Connor Award and the Singapore Literature Prize.
Conferred the Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2000 by the National Arts Council, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean in 2010. Cheong has been invited to read at writers’ festivals all over the world: Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Sydney, Brisbane, Christchurch, Kuala Lumpur, Ubud and Hong Kong.
Over the past two years, Cheong has been deeply involved in collaborations with musicians. As part of the art collective Osmosis (together with Mervyn Wong and Natalie Ng), he has performed at the Lit Up Festival, Singapore Writers Festival and Textures Festival. He has also formed another group, Pathfinder, with musician-and-DJ Jasmin Patel and opera singer Michelle Tan. Together, they have performed at Books Actually and the READ Festival.
Cheong, who holds a master’s in creative writing from the University of Queensland, is currently an adjunct lecturer with Murdoch University, University of Newcastle and LASALLE College of the Arts.
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I find writing promps invaluable and often use the ones I find on the internet to get me stated on some writing project of my own. Attending classes is another form of scavenging, hearing both other peoles’ ideas and those of whoever is leading the session and gathering some moral support to actually get something on paper. Staying at home means there are lots of excuses not to do so and I have sometimes had some helpful suggestions about how to develop my writing. I miss having these classes during holiday periods.
I enjoyed reading this piece. Thanks for sharing
Wonderful to think of how hoarding your stuff and re-visiting your words can contribute to your becoming a better writer. Sadly, I scribble my thoughts all over the place, in books, diaries and scraps of paper. Some I throw away, some I keep. But I never really visit them unless by chance – when I’m cleaning cupboards or getting rid of the mess. Then when I re-visit my words I often wonder – what made me write this? Or was it really me?
Think of it as a verbal snapshot of you as you were!
Thanks ?! Never thought if it that way
Thanks for sharing!.. don’t have time for scavenging or charting growth, too busy growing.. “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last chapter.” (Author Unknown ).. 🙂 when inspiration is present, with a spot of tea (green) or a bit of wine (white or rose red) and let my fingers do the walking (typing) and my heart do the talking… 🙂
Have a wonderful day today, and every day, filled with love and happiness…. 🙂
“ I am currently attending the School of Life, learning more about the universe and me… and Graduation Day will be the day of my funeral and it is then I will know if I failed or I succeeded and graduated”… (Larry “Dutch” Woller)
On this gorgeous Sunday, I thank you for introducing Felix. One of the journaling prompts which I follow irreligiously requires me to write encouraging words of writing for myself, and coincidentally I found everything I need in Felix’s post today.
Cheers, and hope to see you again some day?!
SO good to hear from you Rani! It’s been years! How have you been?
Am so glad that Felix’s words resonated with you.
I’ll drop you a DM on Facebook, and an email. Let’s connect when I’m back in KL this year :), or if you come to Singapore, look me up?
That’s a good way to keep yourself motivated!
So insighful! Scavenging bits of life to recreate in a new and fascinating way. Love the analogy of doodling!
Think of doodling as a mental form of limbering up. The mind, like God, works in mysterious ways!
I have never thought of writing as scavenging–but I can feel it fits. Thank you for this.
I scavenge everything!
Oh, yes. Absolutely! Dozens of notebooks filled with ideas, discarded lines, odd facts, and all there to be picked over and used at a future date.
These days, I tend to record ideas and stray thoughts on my smartphone. Got to move with the times!
Oh, thank you for the inspiration! <3 This post comes just in time. I was cleaning up my drawers yesterday and thought of throwing away my old notes and drafts. I thought those pieces of thoughts have become irrelevant. Now, I've made up my mind – I'll keep those scribbles and re-write them. Once again, thank you for "saving" those old drafts.
Sometimes, you find a gem of an idea in these old drafts which you once thought wasn’t shiny enough. But polish it, refine it and you might just have yourself a new piece of writing!
I hadn’t thought of writers as scavengers but yes, everything we encounter has the possibility of being inspirational. I often write to bring back a time or a person I miss. So I feel more like a vampire or zombie. I’d say Felix has a very promising future ahead of him.
I like your analogy of a writer as a vampire or zombie – we do feed on scraps!
Hi Jan, pls check your inbox. Hope to hear from you soon :). Damyanti
Thank you Felix and Damyanti – I received the book and was immediately taken with the cover. It’s very intriguing. Can you tell me its inspiration? I also like the idea for the title as I too think the B-sides of many Beatles song have survived the test of time. Especially haunting for me is “Things We Said Today.” I’ve just begun reading your masterful poems but did want you two to know I got the book and am deeply honored.
Hi Jan. Thanks for your kind comments! Hope you’ll like the poems. The cover photo is an aerial view of Pearl Bank Apartments, Singapore’s first condo that will soon be demolished. There was a petition to conserve and save the building from the wrecking ball, but to no avail, because the land had already been sold to private developers. My publisher thought the photo was apt, since my collection is also about trying to preserve the past before time gets its fingers on it.
Hi Damyanti – I keep all my ideas … where I’d love to be able to write them up – but I almost always need to research a bit more … and never quite get to do all I need to find out for the posts … I admire Alex … and Jim Borden says it well (except mine is 10 years’ worth?!) – cheers Hilary
Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting ~ Wonderfully creative blog you have ~
Happy Day to you,
A ShutterBug Explores,
aka (A Creative Harbor)
This is great–I am a total scavenger when it comes to my writing life, though I never thought about it in that way before! Also, the poet gives an important reminder to save early work and drafts, which I don’t do enough, wanting to save space on my hard-drive. I love to see early work of authors I follow–it makes them feel more real!
The problem I find with saving drafts electronically is if you accidentally file over your previous drafts, you lose them. You can, of course, rename the file but if you have 15 drafts, that can get messy! That’s why I prefer keeping good ol’ fashioned hardcopy drafts!
You’ve inspired me to go back to some old drafts and see what’s there–not as scary as I thought it might be! Thanks!
thanks for making me aware of Felix Cheong; it is wonderful to read about someone who has been able to make a career out fo writing. And I do scavenge anything I can get my hands on as a possible source for my blog. And I view my blog as a form of hoarding. I am able to go back and look at any of my old posts over the past four years to see what I was doing or thinking at the time.
It’s something of a time travel (and a surprise) when you re-read your old bits of writing. Was that really you?!
Hi Jim, pls check your inbox. Hope to hear from you soon :). Damyanti
I just received the book and have been enjoying Felix’s poems. Thank you and Felix for the gift!