On writing: conversation with alumnus Clara Chow

Clara’s seminar “How I Became a Liar”

On 1 March 2017, Alumnus Ms Clara Chow came down to the Graduate Honours Room to give a seminar titled “How I Became a Liar.” Besides sharing her journey towards becoming a fictional writer, Clara conducted some writing exercises to get those in attendance attempt some creative writing. We also took the opportunity to invite her to share with us her thoughts on writing and her own experiences.

Could you share how the experience has been from writing as a university student to journalism and then to fictional writing?

As a student, writing was all about literary analysis and academic assignments. I was terrible at time management – always waiting until the absolute last moment, and then staying up overnight to finish my essays. It was as though inspiration would only strike me at the last moment, like freak heat lightning attracted to a very dry, gnarled tree on an otherwise barren hill.

When I became a rookie reporter circa 2000, I was told to write short sentences and stop using abstract, pretentious terms. It was terrible. It took me a long time to stop trying to use multiple embedded clauses in my sentences, and to banish the word “postmodern” from my theatre reviews. I became much, much better at meeting deadlines, though.

Then, when I started writing fiction full-time in 2014, I was free to go back to writing like a university student and imitating Virginia Woolf again, but found that I’d forgotten how. I’m not entirely sad about that.

Dream Storeys by Clara Chow

What led you to cross over from journalism to fictional writing?

In 2014, I travelled to the Iceland Writers Retreat, and sat in classes listening to authors such as Susan Orlean and Geraldine Brooks talk about the writing life, and met many participants from all over the world, at different stages in their artistic lives. When I came back, I realised that writing my own crazy, made-up stuff was what I really wanted to do. It was sort of a now-or-never moment: I was 37, my two children were no longer babies, the spouse was very supportive, and I felt like I’d put my dreams on hold long enough. So – after a few months of trying to write after work, typing softly in dark rooms while putting my kids to bed – I decided to quit my part-time gig as a copyeditor and just focus on writing fiction full-time. Losing a stable income was terrifying. Getting up every morning and sitting in front of a blank word document in my pajamas, with no brief or deadline to meet, was also terrifying. I had to train myself to be patient and wait for things to slowly develop – both creatively, and in the publishing industry – as opposed to the fast pace of the newsroom. But, because I made that switch, I’ve learnt so many new things and met so many more wonderful people.

What was it like to be a writer-in-residence with South Korea’s Toji Cultural Centre?

It was paradise. At Toji – which means “land” in Korean – writers are provided with communal meals, and building maintenance is taken care of by the super and lovely staff, so all I had to do was write and think. No school runs, ironing, car servicing, or the million mundane things that I have to deal with when I’m at home, being mum to two boys. When I got stuck, I went for long walks and climbed mountains with the Korean writers in residence. My productivity went way up: I completed new drafts every two or three days. One week, when the other residents went away to celebrate some public holiday or other, I stayed in my room five days in a row and wrote a 16,000-word novella. I haven’t been able to get back to that level of efficiency since I came back.

What led you and your team to come up with the online literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com?

My primary schoolmates, Christine Lee and Yen Yen Wu, were having dinner at my house, and I got this idea that running an art and literary website would be a fun thing to do, with very little monetary outlay. The cost was that of time and energy, and at that time – in 2015 – I had plenty of both, while plugging on to establish a foothold in fiction. It must have been the wine they’d already drunk, because my friends agreed to do this with me. We roped in a fourth, Eva Aldea, who lives in London but was based in Singapore for a while, to co-edit the venture. We’d meet and argue about the submissions for hours, while depleting Christine’s cache of champagne, and then I’d take what we accepted and put them up on our website. Couple of years on, we’re putting together our sixth issue. The idea is to give a platform to new art and writing that we like. Our contributors are awesome people.

How did it feel coming back to NUS again after your graduating years? Any thoughts on the architectural changes you see on campus?

I did my Masters in Literary Studies at NUS part-time, from 2010 to 2013, and it just felt so familiar coming back to campus. The canteen may have been renovated, but the topography is still the same. Certainly, AS5 is very much the same. I love walking down the corridors and looking at all the pictures and notices pinned on the tutors’ office doors. It’s always comforting to come back, because university was the last place where I felt I knew what I was doing.

What was your favourite spot in NUS (to study in or relax)?

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Central Library, hogging RBR books and copying out passages from tomes. I was a kiasu nerd. I even had a supermarket trolley that I used to cart home the books I checked out (graduate student loan privileges rock!). I’ve considered taking out a personal external membership to the library, because I love it so much.

Thank you Clara for taking the time to come down and speak to us!

Clara’s book Dream Storeys is available in local bookstores and online!

(Contributed by undergraduate Rachel Loh)