Tag Archives: women

Aung San Suu Kyi and the hero in us all

I’ve seen a real, live heroine. Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking at the the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay and I was there. Unfortunately, I only listened to her on the video screen because of the huge crush to get in the room in which she was speaking. But, by luck, I saw her through the open window of her car as she left, looking serene with a red flower in her hair. Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson for the National League for Democracy and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Now that is a woman with story. And man, is it epic?

Her father, the de facto Prime Minister who negotiated independence from Britain, was assassinated when she was two. Her mother was Ambassador to India in 1960. After a childhood spent in Burma and India, Suu Kyi went to Oxford University.

At the literary festival, in conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell, she said: ‘I had never voted in a free election and would explain to Oxford intellectuals how precious that is. If you don’t vote, you start to lose your democratic right. Rights entail responsibilities.’

I imagine any apathetic students, cynical about politics and politicians, would have taken note. I can’t imagine anyone not paying attention to Suu Kyi, such is her poise, grace and intellect.

She graduated from Oxford University in 1969 and married fellow student Michael Aris three years later. Before she married, she told her husband-to-be that if her people ever needed her, she would return to Burma. He was, she said, ‘a remarkable man’, because he accepted that. They had two children and the family spent the 70s and 80s in the UK, India and the USA.

In 1988, she went back to Burma to look after her dying mother and found that protestors against the dictator U We Nin were being killed. She started speaking out against him and began a peaceful movement for democratic reform. She spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.

She said that, during those times, she kept up a discipline of rising at 4.30am to ‘meditate then listen to the BBC news’. She spent time brushing up on languages, reading philosophy, politics and biographies, and playing the piano. ‘I was conscious of not wanting to waste time,’ she said.

Between being placed under house arrest in 1989 and the death of her husband in 1999, she only saw him five times. When he was diagnosed with cancer, the government denied him a visa. She was free to go and see him but feared she would not be allowed to return to Burma. She said the decision not to see her husband one last time was made easier because it ‘had already been decided’ before they were married. He knew she wouldn’t go back to see him.

Suu Kyi, now 68, has been free from house arrest since 2010. She won a by-election in 2012 in a landslide and became a member of parliament for the NLD. There is a general election next year but the junta added a clause to Myanmar’s constitution in 2008, which says that the presidency can’t be held by anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals, deliberately thwarting Suu Kyi. Her story continues.

I suppose what sets her story apart is that she followed a higher calling to lead a pro-democracy movement and dedicated herself to it. She put her sense of duty to her nation above that of her family. That’s hard!

She said she has ‘personal regrets’ at not being able to be with her family and would have liked to see her children grow up but, at the same time, she ‘had no doubts’ that she had to stay with the Burmese people.

So, given her own epic story, I was interested to hear, in a session about literary heroes,  that her literary heroine was Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Suu Kyi said: ‘Elizabeth was courageous, wouldn’t stand any nonsense and was not intimidated by rank or money.’ She was not held back by what other people think, ‘that was part of her courage,’ she said.

Ok, so Suu Kyi’s favourite book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. No surprise there. But Elizabeth Bennett? Don’t get me wrong, I love the book and I love the character but somehow Elizabeth Bennett’s courage seems nothing compared to that of Suu Kyi.

Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, did point out that ‘we have a heroine in our midst’ and paid tribute to Suu Kyi’s ‘courage and dedication’. Her own literary hero was the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes who, while everyone else played along pretending the emperor was dressed, said ‘but he isn’t wearing anything at all’. For Chang, the person who states the truth when others won’t is heroic.

Chang has lived through hard times. Another of her literary heroines is Madame Bovary, a copy of which she had when they were burning books during the cultural revolution in China. ‘I felt so much for her. I shared her sense of frustration and claustrophobia.’ It wasn’t the frustration of a bourgeois life, she said, but life under a totalitarian regime.

That is the power of a book, to reach down the ages and for the human truth in it to touch someone in a different time and place.

Louis De Berniere, of Captain Corelli fame, said his favourite hero was D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers, although at the end of the books it was Porthos who was the real hero as he gives his life for the others.

So Aung San Suu Kyi picked her hero for courage, Jung Chang for being truthful and Louis de Berniere for self-sacrifice.

De Berniere mentioned, in a separate session, that his father was always quoting poetry at the dinner table, usually Shakespeare, and Hamlet’s ‘To thine own self be true’ speech was a particular favourite. And it occurred to me that perhaps it is Elizabeth Bennett’s courage to be herself and defy the conventions of her time that resonates with Suu Kyi.

It does take great courage to listen to the inner voice, to reach for the truth and to be our own true selves. Sometimes you have to go against the grain, defy convention and sacrifice an ordinary life to do that. But it’s in living as our own true selves, and answering our calling that we become heroic.

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Where do ideas come from?

The idea of this blog was to bring you on the journey with me as I wrote a book. And after about 20 posts about writer’s block and procrastination, I finally got writing but stopped blogging. So I feel I owe you a couple of retrospective posts.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . When you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with … Excuse me, no idea why I was suddenly chanelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Actually, I do know. It started with the words: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ and the tune came into my head. It started with the WORDS…

So many ideas come as you write. It’s the magic, the very essence of creativity. So don’t sit there waiting for a great idea. Write and the ideas will follow and then you can shape them.

One idea I had stemmed from an image in Vogue magazine of a model on the Mongolian steppes with an eagle. Woman and bird were in profile, gazing into the distance. It was beautiful, striking. I decided to do an exercise with her as a character. I’d been playing around with a parallel world idea but as I started to write, the photo gave me a new beginning, actually a a whole new incarnation of the book, starting in the parallel world and having the character from our world fall into it.

The book I’m currently working on started because of news articles and TV programmes about the pressures on girls to be skinny, pretty and sexy. I was horrified that girls as  young as seven were worrying about their body image! In one programme girls were shown photos of themselves along with images photoshopped so they looked skinnier and fatter. In almost every case, the girls picked the skinniest version of themselves as being the best. I’d also read about teenagers aspiring to be models or wives of footballers, or just to be on the latest reality TV programme.

Then I heard the crime author PD James talking on Radio 4. She’s in her nineties and that got me thinking about what she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime and how it couldn’t have been easy for a female crime writer early in her career, then, BAM, suffragettes popped into my head. What would the suffragettes make of the world today? What if a modern day teenager met one? That was the genesis of my book.

So the media seems to be a big source of inspiration for me. Looking at the obituaries might seem morbid but they feature interesting lives and that gets you thinking. Or a crime report might give you a plot idea. Overheard snippets of conversation on a bus can spark an idea or a character’s voice, people-watching in cafes is endlessly fascinating, making up lives for them. Putting down your phone so that you’re not picking up emails and posting on twitter but actually observing the world helps a lot. Just asking the question: What if…? Your dreams could give you an idea. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight came from a dream. According to wikipedia, it led to Meyer writing a draft of what became chapter 13 of the book.

Travelling is good. Anything that makes you an outsider, that gets you looking at the world differently can trigger creativity. I recently went to an amazing hot spring in Malaysia with a big pool of geothermic water  surrounded by towering verdant limestone karsts with caves beneath. I felt humbled and inspired by those great architects, nature and time. It could have been another world. It could have been Eden.

The magnificent cavern with stalagtites and stalagmites that had been turned into a wine bar, was quite spectacular. A brilliant setting for a book. Something gothic, perhaps. If Stephanie Meyer had been to this place, Edward Cullen would have taken Bella on a date there.

Your own lives and experiences will give you ideas  – you may not write about them directly but they will certainly inform your writing. And once you’re writing, you start to think like a writer and notice things that you didn’t before. I will hear someone’s name and I’ll think, that’s a great name for a character and off I go. In short, ideas are all around you and you shouldn’t worry about the idea, just the sitting on your bum to write.

Whether it’s a commercial idea is another matter. What publishers are looking for is a good concept that will sell. This often comes from two ideas coming together. Vampirates, for example. Suzanne Collins is reported to have got the idea for the Hunger Games  while channel surfing. On one station was a reality TV show and on another was the invasion of Iraq and the two began to blur in her mind and she ended up with the idea of a dysptopian world where there’s an annual, televised, gladiatorial fight to the death.

I find thinking too much about commerciality blocks my writing, so I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. The most important thing is to have something that you are compelled to write. If you have something special you can bring to it, you are an immigrant writing about the immigrant experience for example, all the better. You become commercial. The publisher can market you and you will sell your book. My friend Liz Trenow wrote The Last Telegram, which is set in the second world war – always popular– but she had a unique selling point. She comes from a family of silk weavers and she set her novel in a silk factory making parachutes for the RAF with her heroine running the factory.  As well as going to book fairs she goes to textile fairs to give readings. She knows her stuff and the sensuality the silk weaves through her story made it something that no one else could have written.

Write for yourself first but have your reader in mind. Be aware of trends but don’t try to follow them or predict them. You can help a publisher if you can give them a way to market it, something to peg it on. But underneath all that, they need a strong voice, a brilliantly evoked world, great characters and a cracking story.

How to chip away at the block

I know, it’s been ages. My apologies. You see, I’ve actually started writing. Yay! hang out the bunting, do a happy dance and eat cake (not necessarily in that order). The thing is, my writer’s block had taken such a hold that even when I started writing, I thought it may be another false start. I didn’t want to blog about it for fear of jinxing it.

The problem was I had two ideas and kept swinging from one to the other. I’d have a crisis of confidence about whether one was a good, marketable idea and then,  like a sailing boat adrift, bang! An ill wind would catch the mainsail and go swinging across my boat, often knocking me overboard in the process, before I got going on the other idea.

Somewhere in all this, I figured out that both were good ideas, it was more a matter of which to write first? I plumped for the one with the more developed plot. It was also more time sensitive because I could peg it on the anniversary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby.

However, with all my prevaricating, I have missed that deadline by a mile. I should have been submitting it to agents last year. But on a positive note, the suffragette movement carried on well after that so I reckon it’s still marketable. Plus, I think the book will appeal to teenage girls because it’s about all kinds of issues affecting them. The pressures that they come under to be academic, pretty, sexy, skinny and, above all, to fit in, when hormones are raging and your mind is on boys and the whole world should be opening up for you but actually, the expectations are overwhelming and in some cases crippling.

My  ‘lift pitch’ – in case I meet an agent in a lift and I have 10 seconds to pitch it – is: Modern-day girl meets a suffragette. A contemporary story with an historical twist.

Wordism: It’s important you can summarise your book in a couple of sentences. It means it has a strong concept and publishers are looking for ‘high concept’ books.

Anyway, while I’m hoping that I can sell my book, the most important thing is I’m back writing and seven chapters in.

So, advice on how to break writer’s block? Actually, there wasn’t a big breakthrough moment, the muse didn’t show up one day and suddenly I could write. No, I just kept chipping away at it. I got to the point of nearly giving up, which I found frightening. Writing is such a big part of my identity that it felt like giving up on myself. And then what became important was just writing. Not selling it, not the vagaries of the market, just the act of writing. A little bit here, a little bit there until you’re writing everyday, which develops into a compulsion to write rather than procrastinate, at which point, you start living your characters, inhabiting their world, thinking about it all the time.

Wordism: Don’t give up, keep going. Just a few words is better than nothing. Write a journal if the book isn’t coming. Don’t judge what you write. Just write. Observations, what you’re feeling… Write in a stream of consciousness. Read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – it’s a bit spiritual, which isn’t for everyone, but it’s also practical.

I explored my main character by letting her vent what was on her mind without worrying about story or plot. Her character developed around her voice, a plot emerged from her character. And also from thinking about the suffragette and what part she would play. I have to be careful that Emily plays at least an equal part to the romance in the novel. Feminists may not approve of what I do with the romance but then they’re not my audience. Teenage girls are my readers. And if I can get one teenage girl to google ‘suffragette’ or ‘Emily Wilding Davison’, I’ll be happy with that.

Something to try: If you have a character in mind, allow them to vent on the page. Write whatever’s on their mind in the first person. If you’re not working on a project right now but want to get the creative juices flowing, find a picture of a person in a magazine, a newspaper or in a work of art (as Tracy Chevalier did in Girl with a Pearl Earring) and imagine what they are thinking. What is their world like? Then give them a voice. Who knows where it will lead.

Green nail polish, new horizons.

Today I am 43. It’s the beginning of the rest of my life. It starts with green nail polish. Then I’m going to become the greatest writer of my time.

In small steps, of course. A word at a time, a book at a time. But the new reinvented 43-year-old me is thinking big. Somebody’s going to be remembered as a great 21st century writer. Why the heck shouldn’t it be me?

The green nail polish is a celebration of my quirkiness; it’s saying it’s ok to buck trends, to wade against the flow, to take risks. I am letting out my inner fabulousness.

Here’s how this surge of energy and statement of ambition came about:

Yesterday, I went to a creative part of town. I know Singapore is not the most creative place in the world, but there are pockets of creativity and new ideas. Tiong Bharu is one of them. I was in a cafe with my laptop, slowly and painfully writing. Starting a book is the most difficult bit. I have not yet hit ‘flow’, that magical point when the characters come alive and start doing unexpected things and you’re living the story with them. Anyway, in the scene I was writing I referred to Alice in Wonderland.

After I was done, I went to my favourite indie bookstore Books Actually. In the window was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, with artwork by the brilliantly bonkers Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I bought it as a birthday treat to myself.

At the cash till, I flicked through a little book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by the advertising guru Paul Arden (click for inspirational quotes). I read it first thing this morning and it was the perfect hit of positivity. It’s about thinking big, having vision and laughing in the face of failure along the way. It’s about thinking differently, turning things on their head, taking risks, thinking beyond what’s fashionable or acceptable and making things happen. It’s about putting a new spin on things.

So I will no longer worry about the market or concern myself with whether it’s what agents or publishers are interested in. I will be the best writer I can in aiming to be the greatest. Past failures are my path to success.

As Winston Churchill said: ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’

Although, I admit, I did have a wobble on the enthusiasm front. To the extent that I gave up, threw my toys out of the pram and decided to do a course to teach English as a Foreign Language. (Turned out to be the creative equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion.) This was a good thing because it so clearly wasn’t me, it reaffirmed my belief in myself as a writer.

When I write, I am most myself. So I’m not so much reinventing myself, as my ambitions. Paul Arden says: ‘You need to aim beyond what you are capable of.’ At first, that seems like a contradiction. But, giving it more thought, it makes perfect sense. How else do we grow?

Then you have to make the vision of yourself reality. You learn to do this through experience and mistakes. Excellent. I’m on the right track then. Talent helps, of course, but it’s the desire to be the best that counts, he says. ‘Everybody wants to be good, but not many are prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to be great.’ (See YouTube link of Yayoi Kusama showing what it takes.)

He also talks about promoting yourself, putting yourself out there. This is more difficult for me. We, girls especially and English girls possibly more so, are taught not to show-off, gloat, crow, or otherwise talk ourselves up. We can quietly know we’re great, but it is not demure, lady like, or appropriate to sing about it. This attitude gets you absolutely nowhere. It may get you liked but it does not bring you success or wealth. So I need to cultivate this along with my writing. Ego. It’s not a bad thing.

Sparkly green nails

Green nails look great flashing across my keyboard.

So I’m here, me with the sparkly green nail polish that is part Wicked Witch of the East, part Absinthe fairy and a lot Cabaret. Me, failing extravagantly and learning from mistakes on the path to success. No more Mrs Nice Girl. This time I am, to coin Justine Musk’s  phrase, bad-ass. And I’m on my way to becoming the greatest writer of my time. (How am I doing on the ego front?)