Never too late to start a new chapter in life

Malaysia’s pride: Our very own Tash Aw also has his books displayed on the very full shelves labelled ‘UEA Alumni’ at the campus branch of Waterstones bookstore. — Photo by ANDREW WHITTUCK

FEW people seem to have noticed that I have not been around in Malaysia for the better part of the last nine months. That’s one of the benefits of social media, that we can always seem present in the

virtual world without being in the same physical space in the real world. But dear readers, in case you haven’t twigged, I have been away doing something I have always wanted to do: pursue a Masters in Creative Writing.

Many people have told me that I write very well and for that I am grateful. But there is nothing quite like that niggling feeling inside that tells you that you can do better.

For the past 20 years or so, I have been writing this column that typically contains between 800 and 1,500 words.

Although I have enjoyed it, and I have had three compilations of these columns published, I have always wondered what it would be like to write longer, to explore thoughts and ideas more fully.

A book typically contains 70,000 words on average. I thought that was a colossal mountain to climb and I was curious to find out how so many authors did it.

So at age 61, I decided to go back to school. It was a decision I hesitated over for a long time because the thought of it was scary. I tested my back-to-school ability first by doing an online creative writing course and discovered that I not only enjoyed it but also, with guidance, could learn to write differently. I then looked around for an actual course and in my naivete, simply looked at not only the best and most well-known but also the most difficult to enter.

I still hesitated until the universe decided to push me. I was in Bangkok for a conference and went to listen to a young man who had written a book on Rwanda. He told me he had just graduated from the very same course I was thinking of applying to. Hmmm...

Soon after, I was in Singapore for a reception for a university that I am involved with. Feeling the need to make some polite chitchat, I asked a young woman next to me what she did. “Well,” she said, her eyes shining brightly, “I have just finished my Masters in Biography and Creative Non-Fiction at the University of East Anglia.”

I could not have been more thunderstruck. Not only was that exactly the course I was thinking of applying to but the fact that the universe conspired to get me to meet two recent graduates within a month of each other struck me as more than just providence. This must be a sign of some sort.

In early 2018 I filled in the application form. Besides my immediate family and very close friends I told no one. I thought that piece of news should be reserved for when I got accepted, or buried forever if I did not.

Meanwhile GE14 happened. Amidst all that excitement I almost forgot about my application. In mid-June, my future course tutors asked to do a Skype interview. I was in the midst of a women’s rights workshop at a resort outside KL but set up my laptop in the garden to talk to them. For some reason I could see them but not vice versa. It caused some puzzled looks on their faces when they heard birds tweeting while I was trying to answer questions.

That was a year ago. I did get accepted and even though there were some friends who were shocked that I would go away at this particular moment in our country’s history, I figured that since the likelihood was high that I would be the oldest person in class, I really could not wait much longer. As it happened, I was the second oldest person in a class of 15 people, with ages ranging from 23 right up past me by a few years.

What was it like to go back to school 40 years after I first graduated? In the beginning it was nerve-wracking. I was so sure I would be surrounded by the new wunderkinds of the international publishing world.

UEA after all has a Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro, as alumni as well as many other acclaimed authors. Our very own Tash Aw also has his books displayed on the very full shelves labelled “UEA Alumni” at the campus branch of Waterstones bookstore.

As it turned out, my non-fiction cohort are absolutely lovely. We are diverse in every way, from our ages, experience and interests. But that diversity means not only that we bring different and enriching viewpoints to our work, it also means we are not in competition with each other.

We are free to support and encourage one another. In so doing, we have become a very warm and close group and for this I have to send much affectionate thanks to my course mates.

My tutors too have been great guides. They made me see, very patiently, what I needed to learn to improve my writing. It has sometimes been painful for the ego but wonderful for my skills, and eventually for my self-confidence when I saw that there has been a trajectory in my learning. I hope they felt their gamble in accepting me was worth it.

What am I going to do with all this? Hopefully there is a book in the future. Meantime there is still a final dissertation to do. So although I will be home, I still have some more disappearing to do until the end of August when I submit it. But as you might have already detected, I am already writing differently. And hopefully, also better.

Ed. note: As writer Jodi Picoult said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

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