By SGN | 22 May 2023
In September 2018, as a broke student in university in Nottingham, England, I recalled this incident when I was 8. I took this exercise book, fresh, with my primary school logo splashed across the brown cover, and declared to my dad,
“I’m going to write a book!”
9 days later, the experiment ended. There was too much homework. Besides, there weren’t many creative compositions I could learn from. Our teacher focused on the simple narrative to help us score the A.
I shoved that exercise book in my desk, and it was never seen again.
Becoming a (paid) writer in England
This time in England, I wanted to stop procrastinating on my dreams to become a writer.
I offered to write an article for the university’s blog.
And strangely, they offered me money. It wasn’t much. It was £20 for 1000 words, or about S$32.
Although they only took 2 articles from me per month, those £40 paid for ready-to-bake, premium pizzas from Lidl, a discount grocer.
As a horrible cook, those premium pizzas were simply heaven. Popping it in an oven on a cold February morning at 621am, before I went on my placements, was magical.
Just don’t ask me why I ate pizzas for breakfast.
Those pizzas for breakfast did keep me going for the full-day placements from 9 to 5pm I did as a student social worker, and the sprints up the Portland Hill with my road bike to teach a university module at 6pm.
From writing to teaching
The University of Nottingham has these additional modules they term as the Nottingham Advantage Award, to give students more variety outside of their declared modules.
They allowed students to run these modules too.
That’s how I came to teach Public Speaking in September 2018, despite having no formal certification in teaching.
Whilst I had taught tuition as a pimply 20-year-old, those were to 8 and 9 year olds who could be bullied into submission.
But when you were physically larger, you could scowl, and they would do the work.
Teaching PHDs, Masters’ and undergraduate students was a different game.
It forced me to read more. But more importantly, it taught me to present my ideas in ways that made sense to different audiences.
Another useful skill for writing.
Then someone asked me to write a book!
Perhaps the biggest difference was that a publisher asked me to write a book.
She was someone I had met at a social work conference. She agreed to be my mentor to help me translate the theory I’d learnt in the U.K., back to Singapore.
That was why I would race back every evening to the library after placement to university, rather than just going home.
It taught me the value of discipline. Like it or not, whatever I felt, I had to knock out 1000 words.
Even though that book eventually wasn’t published, it set the tone for my future work.
That writers commit to the work, rather than create based on feeling.
Then I lost my creative spark when I returned to Singapore
Then I decided to move back to Singapore in September 2019. There were many reasons, but one of the most important was a desire to be closer with family. 3 years abroad had made me realise how tiring it was to have to plan every single weekend without a family around.
Compared to when I was in Singapore, where family would ask us out for spontaneous, unplanned dinners, I encountered no such thing in the UK.
I was lonely, and I wanted to come home.
The day I stepped back into the humid, clammy, climate on 2 September 2019, I knew something was different.
I thought my career as a writer was over. After all, they said that Singapore was the one that starving creatives would never survive.
Now, it was worse. I didn’t even have a job.
I had spent the last 3 months searching for a job in Singapore even whilst I was in the UK, but nothing came to fruition. There was much anxiety and fear as I landed back in Singapore, without a job.
But I just had to follow the process.
Wake up, apply, rinse and repeat.
Many creatives say,
“Trust the process.”
When I was in Peru, I remember one driver once telling me about how he got around the traffic in Lima. He would point at the roundabout, and how hard it was for him to edge out.
Then he would say, “Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes, and drive out.”
And sometimes, it’s the same with your return. You may not know how it will go, but you simply trust that it will work out.
In the creative wilderness of Singapore
My emotional wellbeing became better after I found a job, although there was still the yearning for more of an creative outlet.
In this creative wilderness, not knowing what else to do, I went back to what I enjoyed in university. Public speaking.
In Singapore, there were regular Toastmasters clubs run at the local community centre. If there was one thing that Singapore knew how to do, it was building community, however cheesy and corny it looked.
The art of crafting a speech on paper, and then having to deliver it, reminded me that I had something to say.
However small and insignificant I thought I was.
It was also this community that made me laugh again, and nurtured me back to a semblance of who I was. Sure, they weren’t all great at writing speeches, but this willingness to try, fail, and try again taught me a lot.
Then I found my spark amidst COVID-19
And in April 2020, Singapore finally went into lockdown.
Suddenly realising that the usual time I spent on long lunches, watercooler talks, was now saved, I found myself with more time on my hands.
COVID didn’t suddenly push me to think, what if I die?
It didn’t make me have the sudden impetus to start writing. But if you asked me why I wrote then, and why I still continue to write today, it’s because I believe deep down, all of us have stories to share.
And when we share those stories, we have a chance to reshape those stories. Inspire others through those stories.
Tell ourselves a different story.
I started a blog on social work (Save The Social Worker), because I wanted to get my speaking coach off my back. In January 2020, I had joined the Asia Professional Speakers Singapore community.
In April 2020, the fortnightly Zoom calls with my accountability coach made me do something to show that I was working hard on my creative journey.
I went back to the contacts I had made from the U.K., and convinced them to let me write.
So, what’s the creative community really like in Singapore?
Some people do ask how I continue to write, despite Singapore looking like a creative desert.
I don’t think that’s true.
There’s a community of creatives here, if you’re just willing to look.
One thing I appreciate is that the nascent creative industry means that younger creatives have few airs about them.
Creatives here have little airs around them, however accomplished they are
In September 2020, I wrote a passion project, a series of motivational cards to inspire people through this difficult time. Not knowing how to design them, I turned to a friend Alicia, who had become a calligrapher.
Despite me not being able to afford her full, commercial rates, she gave me a chance. She only charged me $1050. It meant a lot to me, given that creatives don’t work alone. A lot of what we learn comes from collaborations. Often, the strength of the collaboration determines the quality of the final created product.
And for Alicia, an accomplished creative who was designing for the likes of BMW, to be willing to give me a shot, meant a lot.
As I’ve spoken to more creatives, I’m often struck by how humble and helpful they are.
They never insist on expensive restaurants. Instead, one US-based film producer brought me to her favourite sugarcane store in a hawker centre.
Another knew that I struggled with making enough, and insisted on referring me to her big industry contacts.
It is this community of down-to-earth, humble creatives that make you have hope, that you too, can make your creative journey work out.
Creatives who push boundaries
In July 2021, I released another book for social workers. I had a wacky idea.
I was bored of the books that would feature reams of text. I wondered if we could make every page beautifully illustrated, with words interspersed.
The first illustrator, based in Australia, thought it was way too much work.
He referred me to someone in Singapore.
And she tried, even though it was the toughest project she ever took on.
Whilst we only sold 4 copies, we pushed the boundaries of what people thought was possible with books.
A creative coach that pushes you to the next bound
As creatives, we hardly settle. We always want to do the next big thing.
In February 2022, I made my biggest bet to do hybrid publishing. The previous books had been self-published.
I paid $11,500 for a publisher, an editor, and 500 books to be printed.
The editor made me work. I edited the 45,000-word manuscript 5 different times, before she finally approved it.
Throughout the entire way, she sent me pages of comments, so that I could know how to improve.
I used to think I was good. After all, I told myself,
“I had written for TODAY, Straits Times, and Dollarsandsense!”
But like a coach, she led me to see things I never saw. Like how I hardly closed off the loops in the arguments I opened. Or how I didn’t have a close link line by line, chapter to chapter.
It made my writing better.
1 year later, on 30 March 2023, was the first ever day I got the books.
The copies were delivered to my home. The postman simply left them at my door. I had to lug them into my room, bundle by bundle.
I was scared of letting my parents see it, because I was afraid they would ask me how much they had cost.
And the moment I opened the first bundle, flipped through the pages, I couldn’t stop laughing.
Sure, I had no idea who was going to read it. Or how I was going to sell it.
Or when these copies would eventually leave my home.
I still don’t have the answers. All I do know is that this is the creative journey.
That as creatives, you might work alone to produce the work. But it is the community, that makes the journey worth walking.
And for all the journeys I’ve made, Singapore still has a special place for those who choose to create.
John Lim is the founder of liveyoungandwell.com, which gives young adults practical tools to transit more effectively from school to work.
Connect with John here.