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  • Writer's pictureStacey Chiew

I Live My Way

Can you be a writer and earn a living in Malaysia? The answer is YES. - Gina Yap

Gina Yap, the story doctor.

Gina Yap Lai Yoong is known as a Story Doctor. She is a book consultant and has been mentoring writers since 2014 in their writing journey. Her passion leads her to be actively involved in the local writing community through running of writers/literary festivals, writing retreats, write-in sessions and other literary programs/events in the country. She is also the President of Malaysian Writers Society with more than 6,000 online members up-to-date.

How did Gina find her calling and end up being a writer? She shared her story, in her words:

When I was 16, I discovered rhymes. I loved to read and have probably read more than a hundred books, but I have never find something as fascinating as words that rhyme. I think it was some sort of a poetry book where I first read an entire story written in the form of a rhyming poem. It triggered something deep inside me. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was exactly but since then I started flirting with poetry.

I would write poems after poems, some of them made no sense at all, but I loved that they rhymed. Roses are red, violets are blue. No one loves me as much as you. It was a new obsession and I couldn’t stop rhyming. I even brought a notebook wherever I went just so I could pen down the words when they come to me.

One day in class, when the teacher was teaching, I had an ‘eureka’ moment. The right word that I was looking for came to mind and I quickly wrote it down, my hands under the desk scribbling fast. Then one word led to another… and another… and another. Before I knew it, I was on a rhyming spree! The trees are green, their barks are lean, I wish I was slim, why are you being mean?

And on and on I went. Until I heard a loud “AHEM!” I looked up to find my English teacher staring fiercely at me. She took my book of poetry and flipped the pages. My heart stopped. I was scared. Not because I was caught, but I was afraid that she would read my lousy poetry aloud in front of the whole class. That would be totally embarrassing! When she finally opened her mouth, she said, “You should concentrate in class.”

As if that was going to happen when all I could do was stare at my poetry book laying on her table. It felt like time passed in the slowest motion as I kept wondering if I would ever get it back. When the school bell rang, she picked up her things along with my poetry book and proceeded to leave the classroom. Panic filled me and I almost died.

At the door, she stopped as if she remembered something and turned back to me. She said, “It would be nice to see some of these published in the newspapers one day.” Then she returned my poetry book. She even smiled and winked before walking away. Little did she knew that her one sentence gave birth to my dream, her words formed the basis of who I am today: A writer. Like everyone else, I dreamt of becoming someone successful. Don’t we all? But writing was never seen as a success, at least not in our country where most writers don’t earn enough to pay the bills. Those who do are extremely blessed (and I can tell you, they are mostly writers who write cliche Malay romance novels).

My parents were not keen on my dream of being a writer. My friends didn’t pay much attention to me when I spoke of it. And so I went through the motion of life. I graduated from high school, refused to study science because I was horrible at it. I worked and paid my own way through college, made my parents happy by getting a regular job in advertising and got swallowed into the norm of a 9-to-5 lifestyle.

I am sure many of you can relate to that. We wake up in the morning, go to work, come back in the evening, eat dinner, take our shower, watch TV, hang out with friends if we are not too tired, then go to sleep. And it repeats again until the weekend comes. By then, we are so tired, we end up sleeping the weekend away or cleaning the house, doing the laundry, buying groceries, running errands, etc. By the time we feel rested enough to do something, Monday is here again. And the cycle repeats.

I was in that cycle for a while and it felt normal because everyone was living the same cycle. But I felt empty inside. There was no drive, no motivation, nothing to look forward to. The only thing I looked forward to was reading books, books and more books. I really loved good stories. Sometimes when I read a good story, I tell myself, “Hey, I can write that!” So one day, I started writing.

It was a love story, a chubby love story, I called it, about two fat people falling in love with the exact person they said they would never fall in love with. It was cliche but I enjoyed writing it. I was really huge-sized back then and exploring unconditional love in the story was my way of understanding life for myself.

I would write daily after work, 30 minutes at least, even on days I didn’t feel like writing anything. And soon I completed my first manuscript of 40,000 words. I can still remember typing the word ‘tamat’ at the end of the document. There was an unexplainable sense of achievement that no one could comprehend. Even mom looked at me oddly when I ran out of my room saying, “It’s completed. I’ve done it!”

Long story short, I randomly selected a local publisher and sent in my manuscript. It was accepted and within a few weeks, my debut novel was on the local bookshelves. I was really happy and proud of myself, though my friends and family didn’t think much of it. To them, it was as if that episode of my life didn’t happen. Eventually, even I forgot about it as I got back into the motion of life.

It’s easy. It’s really really easy to slip right back into the cycle of life when there’s no purpose or motivation to drive us forward. You get a job, meet someone you love, get married, have kids, retire and that’s it. Is that truly fulfilling? Is that what life is about?

I’m not saying it’s easy, but I remember feeling hollow and empty inside as I got back into the cycle of life. I craved for the driven spirit I had when I was writing my first book - the something to look forward to, the stretching of my comfort zone, the growth that comes from trying to achieve something. It’s like I had a goal to aim for, a purpose to achieve, and that created the motivation to give life my best for my own sake.

My debut novel was a flop. We sold less than 1,000 copies, which was relatively good considering I was nobody. But I still felt like a failure. So I was surprised when another publisher came and asked if I wanted to write another book. I’ll be honest and tell you, I decided to write a second book because I was tired of feeling like a floater. I love to tell stories, it drives me. It doesn’t pay to write stories but I am writing them anyway. And that’s how the rest of my books came about. I believe that anything we love to do, enjoy doing, can make a living if we put the business cap on to strategize how to turn our passion into a business-making affair. Even if it is arts that we are interested in because there is value in everything. Though most artists struggle with this aspects, it's because we are more prone towards creation than promotion. Sometimes we just need to hire someone to assist us in that, other times we need to step out of our comfort zone for a while and just get it done.

I don't really like socializing and talking with people, but it comes with being a writer. Therefore I set aside some time just to do that because I know it pushes my career forward and invite more job opportunities in the writing field. It helps to escalate my writing career forward, in which my passion lies. So it's a win-win situation. And so, that's how I keep going.

When all else fails, I will always remember one thing, which I repetitively tell artists: You can write a good book (or create a great art piece), but if no one knows about it, it is not going to sell. So you need to go out there, tell people about you and your work, and that would encourage sales to sustain you and your passion. I have written 7 books under my name – Ngeri, Mangsa, Obsesi, Eksperimen Cinta, Serangkai Hidup, Culik and A Writer's Journey – and many others not quite under my name because I work as a book consultant now. So on average a year, I am working on 5 books with other people - some co-written, some not - and these do not bear my name because some of the books are not of my genre of interest.

So I guess you can say being a book consultant sustain me, and I do some copywriting and translation jobs on the side. But it's really not all that hard. There's a great demand for good writing in Malaysia and in South East Asia, where most of my clients are from. So whenever I need to pay the bills, I just take on a paying job and get that out of the way. Then I can dive back into writing books and stories again.

As artist, we have to keep feeding our soul with inspirational food and that comes from living a realistic life in reality. I don't believe in the concept of starving artist or being an artist only. We can only create as much as we are involved in. So getting involved in life allows our creativity to grow.

And what does the future holds for me? I'm quite content with my life now - write, sleep, explore, pay the bills, live life, and repeat. There are new things to discover every day. Sometimes big, sometimes small. But if we keep to just living life to the best we can, accepting challenges are creative inspirations, and thrive forward, every day is a brand new day of a good life.

Article published in Dreamic educational magazine, 2019.

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