Grades? Ouch

Worthless. Useless. Stupid. 

I can’t stop the voices in my head. I don’t know where it happened but somewhere along the way my self worth got tied up with my grades. I know it’s nonsensical but I feel the misery fall over me anyway. 

Maybe it’s because I used to have the impression that schoolwork was all around easy, so now that my grades are slipping, I’m mad at myself because this is not supposed to be hard. And I know what that must mean … I am stupid.

Maybe it’s because I’m not pretty and I suck at sports. So … schoolwork. Grades. I decided I’d be the “nerd” – the “smart one”. Maybe not so much in those words, but that became my niche. It was something I was good at … something to be proud of.

Maybe it’s because I have a fierce sense of independence and want a scholarship badly so that my parents don’t have to pay for me. And that means …. grades, grades, grades.

Maybe it’s because I used to have better grades and everyone expects them from me because I’m smart. So now that maybe I’m not quite so smart anymore … something must be wrong. I can’t simply be a normal person intellectually who happened to do well in some assignments. 
It must be that I’ve been lazy.

And it’s rather true. I haven’t studied half as much as I could have. If I’d studied more, would I have gotten better grades? Maybe. Probably. 

Shouldn’t I just study harder then? That’s the answer, isn’t it … study so hard that I HAVE to achieve full marks and I escape that debilitating sense of failure?

There are some people who just don’t seem to care about grades. There are some people … I can’t imagine them going home and staring at textbooks miserably because they thought I should have studied more. I am a useless person. I wish that I could be like those people. 

Good grades are … good, I suppose. They can show you are a hard worker. They typically show you have skills such as critical thinking and a good memory. And, they lead the way to university, which can lead to higher paying jobs and an intellectually stimulating and informative experience. 

But …. it’s so frickin hard to aim for good grades. Heck, it’s hard to get good grades for the majority of people. But then, to get good grades you typically have to study. And to find motivation to study, you need to have big dreams. 

Big dreams like … “I want good grades.”

But big dreams are like a weight around your neck. The sheer pressure of it all can break you. Big dreams … they can crush you.

You can’t control grades … not entirely. And if you don’t achieve the grade you were aiming for, or if you don’t get full marks, or whatever – you’re not a failure. 

But you still feel like one. I know I do. 

In an ideal world, we would judge our performances and ourselves solely on whether we did the best we could … or we did better than we did before. But that can’t be quantified. 

Some people are ok with grades. Some people even thrive on them. But they can be dangerous. There’s the good about grades, and the bad … and then there’s the ugly. 

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why i write

Yes. I’m writing this post. I’m tackling this monster of a question.

Why I write … it’s overwhelming to attempt such a post and I think I know why. It’s simply because there are so many reasons I write. It would be easier to write a post of “why DON’T I write”. There would be three answers: 1. I have nothing to say. 2. I’m too tired to go through the often emotionally draining process. and 3. I’m procrastinating. 

But … why do I write?

**rubs hands** Let’s get started. 

1. Writing helps me to understand myself.

I will always be something of a mystery to myself. But writing my thoughts down does help me to clarify them. 

2. I have a billion and one stories swimming in my head.

And I want to share them with the world. Or even if I don’t, simply putting them down on paper means I have some concrete representation of the story … it makes them that much more real and satisfying.

3. I like to have written.

There’s something so satisfying about looking back at my old works or being able to say to myself that yes I have written a novel! Egotistical? Probably. But still awesome.

4. Through writing, I can live a million different lives.

It’s like reading stories – they transport you to different worlds. There’s that saying – something about how a man who reads lives a thousand lives but a man who doesn’t read lives only one. Writing is something like that except  you can influence your destiny. YOU are in complete control.

I think much of the appeal of writing come from the fact that I lived a very sheltered childhood. Writing was my way of living the life I never could.

It’s very interesting. I’ve realised that, if not for my unusual upbringing, I might never have become this serious about writing.

5. I just … have this compulsion.

I was going to list “writing is fun” as one of my reasons. But I realised, that’s not exactly true. A lot of times, writing IS fun. But more often than not, it’s really. freakin. hard. 

But I write anyway, because I just have this compulsion to type words. To vomit thoughts. To move my fingers and shape letters. 

Writers often say they write because they can’t NOT write. As cliched as it sounds, this is kinda true for me. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t necessarily go crazy. But I would much rather write than not write … and that’s reason enough for me.

Life’s too short to read books you don’t adore 

I used to read a lot, and by a lot, I mean, I read every single thing I could get my hands on. Novels, check. Medicine bottles, check. Scientific books about eyesight, check. Parenting magazines, check. I was basically starving for words and anything was good enough for me.

Now, though, I’ve become busier and have wider access to books, so I’ve become much more picky in my taste. I sometimes think wistfully of the days when no book was too boring for me, but for the most part, I’m happy with my new reading habits.

Life’s too short to read books you don’t adore. There are millions of books out there and I can never hope to read them all. So if I’m not enjoying a book by … the first three or four chapters … I ditch it. If I’m halfway through a book and just lose interest, I stop. If I’m not dying to read the rest of the story … I don’t. 

Different people have different reading habits and I totally get that. This is simply what works for me. 

If I died tomorrow 

I promise this post isn’t nearly as depressing as the title makes it sound ….

But you know, inspirational advice always tells you to “live like it’s your last day”. The philosophy is, you could die any moment. No one knows what the future holds. So you should live every day like it was your last.

And that always has me thinking – if it were my last day, how would I spend it?

I gave it some serious thought and decided to compile a list. How would I spend the day if it were my last? And … should I spend my days doing these things, given that I could die any day?

– The number one thing I want to do is write messages to each and every single person who has ever touched my life in any way, however big or small. If I die, I want them to know that I was grateful to have them in my life and they really DID make a difference.

– I would publish most of my writings online: short stories, poems, novel manuscripts, unfinished novels … A lot of my writing is terrible buuuut … it’s my work and it’s me. It’s kind of like my legacy to the world, and I don’t quite understand why, but I know for sure that I want to share it with others. But I wouldn’t share it right now because I  am alive and I can always polish it.

– The same thing about writing goes for my music: I would share it with others … perhaps take a video of myself playing all my favorite of my songs and covers. But if I wouldn’t die tomorrow, I would rather give myself times to improve.:P

– I JUST WANT TO GET OUT ALL THE THOUGHTS AND STORIES IN MY HEAD AND THERE ARE SO MANY

– I want to visit all my friends and tease them and be teased and laugh with them and have a general awesome time with awesome people.

– I want to SING AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS

– I would spend the rest of the time with my family and savour every moment with them until The End.

So, yeah, I would NOT worry about schoolwork as I do just about every day. I wouldn’t even do the work. :) But of course, we can’t think exactly like that. We have to make plans for the future – that’s the point of studying and such. But at the same time, there’s wisdom to remembering “memento mori” – you will die. Because it can be so easy to become caught up in the future. I know I am – I’m already worried about getting the right grades so I can get a scholarship! But if I died tomorrow, I know I would regret that I spent my time studying instead of doing what I REALLY enjoy and spending time with the people I love, as cliched as it sounds. Even if I lived … will it really matter so much in future? And if I don’t start living the way I want … when will I? I’m only ever going to get busier.

There needs to be a balance, I see that.

I think I would write and make music and shape messages to everyone, then keep them somewhere where they can easily be found and spread around if I actually DID die (I promise I’m not usually so morbid). And I do want to spend my life doing MORE of the things I WANT to do rather than the things I feel I SHOULD do. And of course, not taking anyone for granted and spreading the love!

Most of all, I see that a lot of times, I hold myself back out of fear – fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of judgment. If I was going to die, a lot of that fear would be gone because I have in essence nothing to lose and if things don’t turn out right, I don’t have to suffer the consequences my whole life.

But I can’t and I don’t want to live my life paralysed by fear.

So here goes my final resolution – to live a life without fear.

Roots 

(reposting from my old blog)

I was reading the tumblr blog for the We Need Diverse Books campaign and one post stood out to me about the importance of accurately representing different cultures from yours.

I guess I started thinking how to represent a culture – I thought of what exactly a culture is and it brought home once again to me the fact that I have no idea what my culture is. It reaches out to more than my strange amalgamation accent. have no roots. I don’t know what culture I’m part of. I don’t know what it’s like to have a culture. And I don’t know if it’s just me. Do other people feel this way?

People always ask me, “Where are you from?” And whenever they do, I freeze up. “Where am I from? Erm …” Where was I from again? Um … oh, right! Singapore! I remember! “I’m from Singapore,” I say.

“I beg your pardon?” the stranger says.

“I’m from …” Should I really say Singapore? I don’t feel very Singaporean. But it’s on my birth certificate so, oh well … “Singapore,” I say louder.

Why am I so hesitant to call myself Singaporean? Is it because I’m not proud of my nationality … my Mother country, so to speak? Well, I guess so. I’m not very proud of Singapore, but I think it goes deeper than that.

The other day, a stranger began speaking to me in a different language. I said, “Sorry, I don’t speak …” and left it at that, because I didn’t know what language she was speaking. Chinese? Korean? Japanese? Some dialect like Cantonese?

“Where are you from?” she asked.

I said, “Singapore.”

“And you don’t speak Chinese???”

I kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, I don’t speak Chinese. Weird, isn’t it?” 

Why don’t I speak my mother tongue when legally all children in Singapore are required to learn it? Well, because when I was three, my parents emigrated to the U.S. I don’t remember anything of those three years in Singapore. All I know of Singapore comes from visits back there and one stint of living there for a year when I was thirteen. I became familiar with hawker centres, huge malls, rows of flats, motorcycles, and chicken rice, but it never became home.

Neither did the US, which we left when I was five. We stayed in Canada for two years, then moved to New Zealand for two years, then spent another two in Canada, then another two in New Zealand, then one in Singapore as I mentioned, before going to New Zealand again where we have remained (so far). Phew! (If you followed me in that paragraph, congrats!)

My Canadian loyalties are probably the smallest. I memorised all the provinces and territories. I have a fondness for maple leaves. I was happy to discover Frank Zhang (Heroes of Olympus) was both Asian and Canadian. But that’s about it.

At heart, I think I’m American. The words “stars and stripes” always make my heart leap in a funny way, before I remember that’s … um … not actually my country. It’s not hard to understand why I love America, because I studied all of high school and some of primary school using an American homeschool program. The majority of literature I’ve read is American too. My favourite bands are American. And in that homeschool course, naturally, I took a (mandatory) American history course. Apparently, it’s the level of college history. I don’t know how accurate that is but I do know that course was hard.

The fact I was homeschooled furthers the cultural divide even further. I had no friends outside of my parents and my equally isolated siblings. I spent the majority of time at home. I had little to no socialisation. In fact, before I started reading modern literature and using a lot of Internet, I even felt a sort of absence of generation. There was technology, of course. There was food and clothes. That was about all that marked me as a twenty first century teen.

At the same time, I don’t quite identify with groups like the Quiverfull/Fundamentalist homeschoolers or the Ex Trad Catholics. My family has always had a fairly lax faith. Cafeteria Catholics, kind of. 

What are my roots? I can refer to my ethnicity, of course. I’m Chinese. But, what, really, does Chinese mean? In my case, it goes no further than my yellow skin undertone, and almond eyes, and terrible eyesight genetics. What does it mean to be Chinese? Maybe that’s all it means. It’s the only link I have. Even food isn’t a link, for while I eat rice and stir fries, I also eat Mac and cheese and cereal and roast chicken. And really. Food is a small thing to define a person’s culture.

I guess it’s inaccurate to say I have no culture. Of course I’ve got a culture. But it’s a unique and very lonely culture – a culture of a girl constantly on the move, armed with plenty of paper and pens, and a whole lot of social anxiety.

I’m like a gypsy. Or, perhaps more aptly, I’m like a person in one house. The scenery outside keeps changing – the location is different and I notice every so often when I look out the window, but nothing really changes for me cause it’s always the same house, same me. I’m “Housese”. “Familyan”. Or maybe I’m like what it’s like to listen to music. The locations are like the drumbeat – you notice it when you think of it and you notice something’s different when you change it, but you’re mostly just paying attention to the singing and the instrumentation.

That is me. And it explains, I think, why I’m always writing outcast characters. I’m always writing of people who are different species from everyone else, or people whom other people are prejudiced against. I used to think it was weird since I’ve never experienced active prejudice (beyond a couple immature boys who didn’t like Chinese girls). Now it all makes sense. It makes sense why I wrote of a girl who’d been locked up in a garrett for nineteen years, and a man who spent five years hiding in the woods because everyone shunned him like he was a monster, and a human who grew a pair of wings, and Cyrus White, who feels disconnected from the world around him. It explains why I relate so much to the outcasts in stories, like Nico di Angelo and Adam Parrish. And not just any outcasts. The outcasts who feel lonely. Inferior. Scared.

And now there’s New Zealand. I love New Zealand. I really do. I love how friendly and laid back every one is. I love how people say Kiwis are backward – backward? In what? Fashion? Well, I really couldn’t care less. I’m happy with my shopping choices! I love how I was drawing in the front yard one cold day and a passerby asked me if I was okay. I love how the year I went to primary school, the girls flocked to me – the new kid – like they all wanted to be my BFF. I love listening to the radio and hearing the DJ’s Kiwi accent and all the hilarious ads. I love that we have freedom in this country, for free speech, homeschooling, religion, living the lives we want to lead. I love that the National Party legalised same sex marriage in 2013. I love how strong the LGBTQ+ support group is here. I love my new school and how accepting everyone is of people of different nationalities, cultures, and sexual orientations.

I love my country and I would love roots here, but roots take time to grow. It’s not just gonna happen overnight.

I will definitely research other people’s cultures and do my best to represent people of different cultures from me accurately. But I can’t forget the people like me. The outsiders. The people with a blank line on their sheet. The people torn between the Yankees and the All Blacks. The people who grew up in a single box. I can’t forget because it’s a part of me. And I don’t think that will ever quite stop seeping into my literature.

***Why have I written this? All my life, I’ve been struggling with the thought of who I am, where I’m from, and who I want to be. I wouldn’t say I’m bitter about my life. This is who I am and it’s okay. But I won’t deny I feel a little sad about it sometimes. I often feel lonely and inferior and scared. Writing my thoughts is how I come to understand them and come to terms with my life.

I hate my name 

As a writer, I’ve given a lot of thought as to what to call myself if I ever find myself published. On this blog, you’ll know me as downtownsong but I’ve gone through many different pen names. 

One name, though, was never an option – my real one.

I’ve always considered pen names to be amazing – it’s like, they’re a chance to come up with your OWN name. It could be anything and it could be something you LOVED. Because … I have never liked my own name. 

My first name – Tara – I didn’t use to like. Now, it’s sort of grown on me. As I like to say, I would not name my daughter “Tara” but I’m okay that that’s my name … after all, I could never imagine having a different name. “Tara” feels like me. 

My last name, though … I still have not become reconciled to it. I sometimes wonder why that is. On the surface, it’s simple. I don’t like how it sounds. I don’t like how it looks. 

But I wonder if there’s something deeper to it. 

I’m Chinese and have a Chinese last name, as well as a Chinese middle name. And I have never liked either of them. I never liked my first name either, up until very recently. Could it be that that is because “Tara” seems to represent me, and I have only recently learned to love myself? And if it was, it would follow that I hate my own last name because it represents “Chinese”, a culture which I must confess I HAVENT learned to love.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s internalised racism in me. I think it’s largely because I was raised in the U.S. and Canada, on American, Canadian, and English books and TV. I never learned to speak Mandarin and even now I do prefer Western cuisine to Chinese. So I always identified more with Western culture. I felt like I ought to have been born white and I resented that I wasn’t. My name didn’t match who I felt I was.

I like to think I’m not a racist person but I must confess I AM – I’m racist toward “my own culture”. I have never liked the Chinese language, or Chinese entertainment, customs, fashion, and, yes, names. Could this be a knee jerk reaction to being Chinese?

Lately, I’ve been considering using my own name for writing simply because it’s really hard to have both personal social media and email and separate ones for my “writing persona” … not to mention work emails and such. But, yes, it makes me twitchy to think of using my Chinese surname. I’ve told my sister before that if I marry, I will very likely adopt my husband’s last name because I hate my own, not because having the same name as his is at all important to me. 

But is this healthy? Should I simply embrace Western culture, complete with a pen name and all, and forgot about being Chinese? I don’t have to embrace Chinese culture, just because I have the Chinese blood.

Buuut … I know the answer already – I AM Chinese. It’s in my genes, it’s not gonna change. And, it’s true – blood doesn’t count for that much. We all have the same red blood, no matter our race. But I would like to make peace with my culture. I don’t WANT to hate it. I want to be able to say I’m PROUD to be Chinese, even if it isn’t the culture I most identify with.

So with the whole name question, I do think I want to use my own name. It’s sort of a way of reaffirming that THIS – this Chinese girl – is WHO I AM. 

I learned not to hate myself. I’m trying to stop hating my name now.

I cannot write with any preconceptions 

I’ve always been a cross between a plotter and a pantser. For those unfamiliar with the terms, a “plotter” plans stories and a “pantser” writes as the words come. I typically have an idea for a story, then I write a list of the major events in the story. I also spend some time fleshing out the main characters, then I start the story. 

However, I’ve been finding the more planning I do, the more it slows down my writing, sometimes to the point of almost hampering it. And it’s not that planning takes away my enjoyment of writing … I enjoy spontaneity, it’s true, but that’s not the main problem. 

The thing is, when I have a plan for anything, I have this “vision” in my head for how it will be. It happens with my plans for stories, as well as my plans for films. But it’s inevitable that what I write, at least in my first draft, simply cannot live up to my vision. It often turns out much differently from what I expect. And this paralyses me: it fills me with the fear that I will ruin this perfect story in my head – I will never do it justice. I will butcher the characters. That makes me unable to write, or when I do, I am constantly censoring myself and upset at how different my writing is from my vision. 

I think that’s why I find it much easier to write songs and music, as opposed to writing – because I don’t make any plans. I don’t think about it in my head before writing the words down. I just sit at the instrument and let the words come and I take what I get. Most of it is shit. The large portion of the rest is mediocre. But ultimately, I find something that makes me feel something – I find something that accurately expresses my feelings. 

And that can happen too with writing stories. But not when I sit down at the computer with a head full of expectations. My expectations are too high. No one can expect a writer to write wonderfully in the first draft. Besides, how can a writer translate her thoughts – her dreams, her visions, and her ideas – accurately onto paper? Can it be done? It’s the writer’s constant struggle. 

Maybe it can. I don’t know. What I do know is that simply writing can unlock gems of feeling and real raw beautiful words

So that’s why I’m starting to write differently now. I’m writing without a plan, without even a fully formed idea. I get a spark and I just run with it, without thinking. 

I cannot think too much. I always overthink things. 

It All Went Uphill

I was eleven when I sat down to pen my first novel, and it all went uphill from there.

I thought they made novels – those fat, crooked letters, pencilled onto the pages of a stack of exercise books. I wrote them painstakingly, correcting all the grammatical errors my pre-high-school brain could catch. I divided them into chapters. 

I must have written four or five. They dealt with a wide array of themes, and had such a variation of settings and genres. There was the one about a farm girl in nineteenth century America, and her growing pains. Another chronicled the life of a handicapped girl who became an Olympic swimmer (and got a mischievous, but really sweet boyfriend along the way). There was even one on the Spanish Civil War, complete with a title – “Peace on the Horizon” – about a terrified soldier, his cousin who was actually a Communist spy, and a thwarted violinist who tried to live his dreams vicariously through his adopted daughter.

I would later realise these were actually short stories, with ten … at most twenty … thousand words, but that was the beginning of my writing plans. 

I didn’t just stick with prose. There was poetry … so much poetry. I dreamt of publishing my poems in an anthology. I wrote scripts and imagined becoming a scriptwriter for a big Hollywood production. I wrote countless blogs, always starting a new one when I deemed the old one too “immature”. I wrote about true beauty, euthanasia, and how the “world was my classroom”. 

Then there was that time I was taken by an evangelical zeal and took it as my mission to convert as many people as possible. I began proselytising in my own blog and in comments on other people’s blogs.

You couldn’t accuse me of being lacklustre. 

I was fifteen when I started seriously working to improve my writing. I read blogs on the writing craft. I learned effective structure, the importance of “showing” rather than “telling”, the trick to writing sympathetic characters, and how to avoid “head hopping”. I researched the publishing business, down to reading sample query letters and looking up literary agents. 

And I wrote … most of them terrible novels, but I wrote anyway. I plotted extensively, with methods like the “snowflake” and “character resumes”. I even made up my own language for a fantasy series! 

With serious writing came other duties, like shaping an author brand and maintaining a presence in the blogosphere. I stepped into the world of beta readers and critique partners and writing workshops. 

I briefly considered getting a degree in creative writing, but I knew it would be hard to support myself with fiction alone. But that was okay, I told myself. I could become a journalist or a teacher of English or creative writing. I found writing research papers quite fascinating. A living at a university, I thought, immersed in thesis projects, would not be a bad way to live. Finding a lack of free, reliable, and detailed online papers on New Zealand issues, this seemed especially fitting as my future pathway – my destiny. 

Writing was my life. So you can imagine what a complete loss I was at when, come my junior year at high school, I was hit by an identity crisis. 

I’ve had creative ruts before, and those “I’m a horrible writer who will only ever write garbage” moments, but this was different. 

This time, I lost my ambition.

People call this the “teenage identity crisis”. I guess I reached teenagerdom a little later than most? Be it as it may, all I wanted to do was listen to music and watch hilarious YouTube videos. And if I did do something more productive, what was to say it should be writing? Even when people complimented me on my writing skills, I had this niggling feeling in me that said I shouldn’t limit myself. Maybe there was more to life, outside the writing world. 

What about sports? Music? Science? Art? Fashion? Cooking? Computer programming? 

Why not? The world was my oyster!

Well, I can safely say now that I do love to write. Honestly, the thought of never writing again in my life kind of scares me. Writing helps me to sort out my thoughts. It’s my ultimate way of communication. And it’s an adventure. There is such a world out there that you could never get to explore other than through the imagination. And writing is therapeutic. The mere act of typing or handwriting words – any words – feels good. 

Yes, I have gotten some of my writing prowess back. But … I haven’t tried a novel yet. I just don’t have the willpower. And I’ve certainly left off thoughts of publishing. 

And you know what? That’s okay.

I’ve come to realise sometimes the best writing is for leisure – short and simple and spontaneous, like a passage in a diary, or a silly poem, or a love letter buried deep in a drawer where no one will ever see it, but … well … you just had to get it out of your heart. 

So, here’s my message to all committed writers out there: hats off to you! You are amazing and I know firsthand how much effort and ambition and willpower it takes to be you. But I don’t know if I can count myself amongst your ranks and I don’t know if I want to. Right now, I’m happy where I am. 

But that doesn’t mean I won’t be writing – and just maybe … in some future time … in some future life … I will write some of those research papers.