As many of you might have known, I teach courses in writing at a university in Malang. Writing has been my profession for seven years, and since then the task of filling an empty space with words has been a blessing. Not only has it provided me food on the table, it has pushed me to constantly improve my communication skills through language. In a way, I think that if it weren’t for writing, there would be no reason to mount Durian Writer, my personal blog that brims of my ideas, most of them born from the fragments of thoughts I keep in my diary. Or, if it weren’t for writing, I would have shied away from joining Malang Toastmasters, where each speech project not only requires you to speak in public, but as well as to prepare for a speech that requires a process of crystallising the meat of your talk which shouldn’t go beyond 7 minutes.
I intentionally wrote this piece because there are many young Indonesian students who aspire to become writers in the English language. And to become one is a challenge. One huge factor is that English, like where I teach, is not the medium of instruction. What’s more, in this country, English is not the language for everyday conversation, nor the commonly-used language in mass media.
Of course, I do not mean to disparage Indonesia for this. What I’m concerned, however, is how the English language is taught in schools and how these institutions try to lure the students in enrolling into their programmes using Caucasians in their advertising materials.
There are many literary theories of writing. Therefore, in as much as I want you to read this with a willingness to learn, please do not take my advice as your lone guide to writing. I came up with this piece to share what I think many of the young Indonesian aspiring writers should put into mind.
Reading is the Religion of Writers
Just as a painter can’t become one without immersing himself to great works of art, a writer cannot succeed without making reading his religion. When I was practising journalism in the Philippines, my day begins and ends with reading the news to keep myself abreast to the current affairs. I also read newspapers and online reports because I needed to know how other journalists reported the news. One of the journalists that influenced my writing includes my dear friend Germelina. What I like the most in her reports is how she uses her creative writing skills which engage the reader. I had the chance to work with her sometime in 2013, when she was editing my journalism project.
Apart from her, I fell in love with the works of Jhoanna Cruz, a Palanca awardee and a literature professor at the University of the Philippines-Mindanao. Jhoanna happened to be one of the panellists of a writing fellowship I attended in the summer of 2014, where she and other award-winning writers generously critiqued my literary projects.
Other writers that informed my writing include Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Laksmi Pamuntjak (The Question of Red), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah), Adonis Durado (Not Everything that Falls Comes Down), Mikael de Lara Co (A Poem That Had Some Difficulty With The First Line).
If you want to become a writer and wish not to read, I say forget writing.
Writing Workshops Won’t Turn You into a Writer in One Day
Writing workshops nor your English lecturer won’t turn you into a good writer in a short span of time. And the same goes to, I’m sorry, language camps that promise you to become a fluent English speaker at the end of the programme. Enough of this craze. Improving your skill in writing is a lifetime process. Despite having been married to this profession for seven years, I still wake up everyday angry and ambitious. I have always been reluctant to give writing workshops because apart from feeling guilty of charging participants slash making money out of trainings, young aspiring writers should realise that they come to workshops only to gather inspiration to hold on to writing. Do not expect that you’ll soon be able to write a book after attending a workshop. My favourite writer took her more than a decade to publish her first book.
Keep a diary and promise that you’ll fill it with words every day. Journals are a good exercise as it will help you get used to expressing yourself through the written language (in this case, the English language). In the beginning, writing each day could become a challenge. But hey, wake up. As the trite proverb says, practise makes perfect. Write down what goes in your mind. If a big idea suddenly appears, capture and find the words for it. Later, when you turn back the pages of your diary, you’ll be surprised of the things you were thinking about.
Once in 2012, a student quoted me as saying “grammar is dehumanising. It violates man’s freedom of expression.” First, I would like to clarify that when I said that, I was attempting to make the audience laugh. Seriously, grammar matters. Without it, our works would end up impossible to understand. (Also, I myself struggle with the English language grammar. And I thank my editors for saving me from humiliation!)
A lot of my students apologise for their terrible grammar before or after they submit their assignments to me. We all know how confusing the English language could get. But the constant asking for an apology does not make sense, most especially if they never take note of grammatical errors they’ve committed.
In Ayn Rand’s “The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers”, she said:
“Too many people today think: “I’m a creative genius, I’m above grammar.” But nobody who thinks or writes can be above grammar. It is like saying, I’m a creative genius, I’m above concepts” – which is the attitude of modern artists. If you are “above” grammar, you are “above” concepts; and if you are “above” concepts, you are “above” thought. The fact is that then you are not above, but far below, thought. Therefore, make a religion of grammar.
To the young Indonesians who wish to aspire to become writers in the English language, I wish you well. For those based in Malang, let’s meet! 🙂