I had been tasked to take charge of the Twitter account, and so on The Night Before Launch, I complied and posted my first tweet:
Social media is not a natural forum of expression for my INTJ personality, but the event provided me plenty of fodder for 140-character lobs, armed further with an iPad-mini camera I was more than trigger-happy with, tacking photographs to my tweets. The first wonderful thing of the day – out of many -- was the stunning beauty of the venue, The Leeds Library at 18 Commercial Street. A subscription library, it had the dark wooden panelling, high ceilings and book-lined walls requisite for filling any book lover’s heart with the fuzzy warmth of having come home. Next was the steady stream of people as the start time of the SOLD OUT event drew near, the moments when the number on the EventBrite link translated into bodies in the room, filling those high ceilings with conversation, greetings and excitement. The guest speakers arrived well on time, and soon everyone was seated with dramatist Simon Ly, poet Jennifer Wong and fiction writer Yan Ge taking the front of the room with Mary Cooper, uber visionary and prime architect of Bi-an. The network is launched!
As the guest speakers spoke about their own writing experiences, challenges and advice, three things struck me. The first was how generous the speakers were with their thoughts and ideas. Given how accomplished they all are, they were nevertheless frank about their struggles and the hardships: if creative work – and succeeding with creative work – is not easy, this truly is a community bound and bonded with that baptism of fire.
The second was a thought-provoking and inspiring account from Yan Ge about the discipline of writing. Not with respect to herself (and keep in mind this is someone whose publication outputs, given her age, can be genuinely described with “prolifically”, and prodigiously so), but her husband. A journalist, Daniel gets up every morning at 5am (previously 6am, but they now have a baby who has apparently moved the timezones) to write. She did not specify what he wrote, but that was irrelevant, as her point was clear, and which she made several times: writing is a discipline, a one-person effort in “the perpetual solitude”. Her reference, made several times, to writing everyday, “like praying”, was made not so much with respect to the religious as to the ritualistic. Out with the lightning-rod creativity, in with the dogged training, writing with the kind of dedication until it becomes almost like a muscle memory. Having recently watched the movie Whiplash, I was a little alarmed by the overtones of regimented drilling in her words, but at the same time I admired her point, even as I was both horrified by yet silently swooning over Miles Teller’s set lip and bloodied hands. Writing is hard work. It is difficult, it can be soul-destroying and, above all, it is work. Yet work, as we all know from Kahlil Gibran, is love made visible.
The third thing is personal. I am an academic, but I have also been a lawyer – usually those two alone draw gasps of astonishment from my Chinese friends who cannot fathom why I would abandon the pinnacle of achievement for anything else, but there is more: I have also been a globe trotter, a graduate student, a researcher, a cinephile, a chess champion and, just as importantly, I have also whiled away my fair share of life “finding myself” and generally avoiding gainful employment. I have done many things in my life so far, something I consider myself to be very lucky about. Some of those things I wanted to be (becoming an academic); some of those things I didn’t (being a lawyer); some of those things I stumbled upon (graduate school). But the very first thing I have ever wanted to be, ended up not quite being, and now perhaps stumbling back upon, was to be a writer: an ambition I forged, clear as steel, as far back as I could remember, like at the age of five. Standing in the Leeds Library on that Sunday in a roomful of writers connected through Bi’an and thinking again about writing – that is coming home.