Culture Vulture

Going back to creative writing is fun

A writing group helps get the creative juices flowing again for those whose vocation overlaps with what they love

While we were dreamy arts students at university, two of my friends and I attended several writing workshops together as part of our respective majors.

We wrote bad drafts of bad plays, sketchy short stories and horribly pretentious poetry. (Or at least, I did. My friends, on the other hand, were really quite good.)

It was a liberating time. We had the space to calibrate our sentences, hone the beginnings of a craft and then bring our raw and unpolished work to class where our classmates and professors would unceremoniously pick at the seams of our writing until some of it fell apart and had to be reconstructed - for the better.

After we graduated, we all took up writing jobs. I became a journalist, L is a copywriter and M is a playwright.

These, of course, were firmly in the category of "dream jobs". Lovers of writing who write for a living should have very little to complain about. And we do love our jobs, save for the fact that writing is a creative act and all too often, those reserves of "creativity" and "inspiration" do run dry.

There are certain formulas you can rely on to create a readable news feature, and I have probably used them all.

A quote here, an anecdote there, a bit of background after and you can communicate everything you need about a trend or an upcoming event.

I recently had a short conversation with playwright Faith Ng, whose profound observations of Singaporean life and living have made her intimate plays big hits with audiences.

She has written about what it takes to navigate the prickly edges of a marriage (For Better Or For Worse, 2013) and what it means to have an education system stacked against you (Normal, 2015). She has taken her time with these plays, giving herself the space to create, rework and lie fallow.

"What a lot of people don't realise about writing is that you need to rest. You can't keep on churning things out - the quality will go down," she said.

I found myself nodding vigorously. I write a personal column for this newspaper and there are times when I have caught myself typing nonsensical sentences over and over again.

Over coffee with L, we commiserated about the daily grind of writing for work instead of writing for pleasure.

She was having trouble stripping her words down to simple, punchy sentences that could convey the messages her clients wanted.

"How do you get the inspiration to write every day?" she asked.

I stirred my coffee and said: "Sometimes I don't. I just force it out."

She had a solution that she wanted to try out: a writing group. A regular meet-up session for a few of us who wanted to shake off the daily grind of writing for a living. We would take turns leading each gathering with some sort of stimuli to get the group going.

I was nervous - I had not written "creatively" for years - but she convinced me to dip a toe in the water. There were no KPIs to meet, no word counts to exceed, just a writing exercise and some time to spend on it.

So on a Saturday morning earlier this year, laptops and notebooks in tow, M and I and a few other friends (forced to join us for literary moral support) had our first experiment.

I had a bit of stage fright behind my computer screen as I tried to write a short narrative scene. We each read our short drafts out loud.

My paragraphs were far from perfect, but I was working an imaginative muscle in a deep part of myself that I had not used for years and it felt good.

Some of us wrote fragments of poetry, others drew from real-life experiences, or even folklore and legend.

It is likely that no one else will read these short snippets of writing. But that first outing offered me a delicious respite from the icy, panic-inducing grip of writer's block. I have found that good writing often requires both discipline and a little bit of magic, and I had not encountered the latter in months.

What I needed was a little kick, a toss-up in routine, to bring a bit of that spark back.

I had missed that hunger, the kind that has you hunched over your keyboard for hours until your eyes begin to pinch and water, and your wrists hurt because the words are pouring out of you, the kind that makes you want to go back and flog your sentences, ruthlessly kneading them into shape until they are just right.

When your vocation overlaps with what you love most in the world, it is often difficult to make a distinction between work and play.

These little sessions - coming up to three so far - have helped me to set the boundaries for where work ends and play begins. And I have found, much to my relief, that play can be fun.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Going back to creative writing is fun'. Subscribe