My Path Into Literary Nonfiction

Literary nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction, is a type of writing where one uses literary techniques to depict real life events. Basically, you’re writing something that really happened in the same way you would write a story.

If I am asked to state one writing exercise that has helped me the most in developing my writing, specifically narrative writing, ‘literary nonfiction’ would probably be my pick. While I had always had a knack for writing essays or articles as a kid, my teachers and dear mother were always advising me to stay away from anything fiction — an advice I have never listened to.

Stories are dear to me. The worlds and lives of the imaginary have been my companion even before I could read. As a child, I used to stay up late in bed, reading under my blankets past my bedtime. Like most young bookworms, one of my biggest dreams back then was to become a novelist and produce my own work of fiction someday. While my own classmates enjoyed reading my little story snippets, I did not get the recognition of being a writing prodigy from those whose opinions I value. It did frustrate me but I wasn’t about to simply turn back and give up.

With determination bordering on stubbornness, I continued to work on my stories, though never finishing any long form project of my own. When I had some time to spare, you might find me hidden behind doors or locked inside my room, just scribbling a few paragraphs down. Most of them are too short to be even considered a decent short story and reading back now, almost all of them were terrible literary work.

My poor mother tried to teach me how to write descriptive writing. She would tell me again and again the story of how her own English high school teacher, had asked her students to describe an ocean and the only adjective they could think of was ‘blue’. My mother then continued by explaining how vividly her teacher had described the ocean. Somehow, the lessons did not reach me as my idea of description only extended to the most basic of forms and I colour in the rest with pure imagination.

I had an overactive imagination as a child (I probably still do), and before I could dissect my own emotions and experience in depth, I never needed an abundance of words to truly experience something. Whatever the story doesn’t expressly say, I fill in with my own imagination and ideas.

It also did not help that I was a bit of a dreamy child, prone to daydreaming when an idea strikes and detaching myself from the real world around me. And whenever I look back to a memory of an event, I rarely have crystal clear images of what happened. Rather, I remember the ambience and my own feelings and thoughts as the events unfold; things that most books for children do not express in detail.

My first introduction to writing truths with literary techniques was through Awang Goneng’s book ‘Growing Up in Trengganu’. Having been trained by my mother in public speaking and the importance of using emphatic intonation, I was forced to really inspect the words I was repeating again and again to express them as authentically as possible. My favourite chapter was ‘Nasi On The Apor’ with its life-like imagery that did not simply recreate the sentiments of the moment, but awakened all of my senses — something quite new to me. Despite having to spend so much time repeating the same words, it became a joy instead of a chore to revisit Mak Som as her fingers danced among the many ingredients that constitutes a ‘nasi dagang’ with the fragrant steam curling around her.

The book itself was a collection of sights and memories from an age long gone, the era of my parents’ childhood back in their homestate ‘Trengganu’. Most of the passages would fit descriptive writing instead of a narrative one but now I understood the lesson my mother tried to teach. And being a story lover by heart, it did not take me long to take Little Women’s Jo’s advice to heart: “Write about what you know” — and what do I know more than the tales that of my own life?

So I began writing journal entries with a newbie’s idea of a literary flair but something interesting began to happen without me noticing. Being a dreamy, sentimental young teenager means that I had more than enough emotions bubbling within me especially in these situations I thought worthy enough to be forever locked in ink.

Instead of having to create unlikely scenarios and odd afterthoughts to add drama to a story that has no direction, I know deep within why the story matters to me. I know the exact direction towards which I wish to lead my readers and the message I wish to embed within the tale because they are the reason why the event matters so much to me.

I unconsciously began to hone the ability to pick the parts that serve the larger narrative and that had improved my stories tenfold. It may still appear and feel like a story written like a naïve kid, but it’s a kid who writes to make a statement instead of one who doesn’t really know why she’s saying anything.

So if you have a problem with creating appropriate dramatic tension in your writing despite having lots of potential within, try looking back into a recent but particularly poignant moment of your life and see what you could come up with. Don’t try to make it the best work ever written but a photograph in words that captures all of your dizzying highs and lows. Be open, be honest and be authentic.

It’s a long process that requires repetition as all exercises do but you’ll may be surprised at the words you pen down when you embark on your own journey into literary nonfiction.

On Writing And Emotions

(Please play the video if you prefer to listen to this post instead)

There are times when I could honestly profess that I love writing; but although the passion itself waxes and wanes as time flies, one statement always holds true: writing is my favoured way of passing information.

When I speak, I am shackled by my whims and impulse. Half-baked thoughts and incomplete words are tumbling over each other, guided only by my current sentiment that disintegrates at the next moment to be replaced anew. It’s like a wild cooperation team with a leader who switches their strategy everyday and everyone is scrambling to keep up with half the needed resource.

However, when I write, I am forced to fully form my sentences in a methodical and grammatical manner. It allows me to look for exact words that could convey the specific information in a particular way. Even when I don’t have the words to precisely identify a particularly vague and shapeless thought, I can still describe it in a satisfying way, closest to being accurate.

And like using a conditioner in your tangled hair, it allows me to better separate individual strands of thoughts from my emotions; which helps me to present my opinions honestly from my mind, unclouded by spontaneous feelings. There have been many times when I can feel the excitement bubbling beneath the exterior when I speak, bordering on desperation, and it’s nerve-wrecking how much influence it has to the words I say.

I still have emotions leading my thoughts when I write but they are much more grounded in my beliefs and principles which form the person I am. Even when I do write in a fit of passion and you could feel the emotions brimming from my words, it comes from a more honest and constant stream of expression — not the whimsical feel of the moment which are often not even accurate to how I really feel on a deeper level.

Because, really, our emotions are often at the base of our inconsistencies, which is the signature trait of a human being. History is full of dutiful and honourable men who call for fights to the death or even wage war upon one another. Gentle mothers who sense a threat aiming at their child could transform into raging behemoths and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

To strip ourselves of all emotions is futile and impossible (although I could not say I haven’t tried) but to fall victim to the bully that is our impulsive thoughts is to beckon chaos and regret.

I believe that the best choice for me is to embrace my sentimental side in all of its paradoxical nature and to try my best at cultivating it into a semblance of a civilised being. One who is aware of the changes within and holds fast to the pillar of faith that gives it structure. I hope to guide my emotions instead of letting it have full control over steering me.

Which is why writing is my favoured way of passing information. It gives me more control on my words, what curates it and how I present it, with an accuracy I could never achieve when I speak.

 

How It All Began

Any particular story could have multiple beginnings. I could say that the story of my blog began in a hospital the day I was born and my first thoughts began to form or perhaps in a hotel room in Penang when my dad sat me down at his computer with the ‘Start Your Free Blog’ button shining brightly on the screen. But I would choose the days leading up to the book launch of Growing Up In Trengganu as the start of this blog’s tale because that was the first time I was introduced to the term ‘weblog’.

Growing Up In Trengganu (GUIT) is a compilation of blog posts written by a ‘Trengganufolk’ Awang Goneng in a lovely and nostalgic book form and was launched at my grandmother’s bookstore ‘Alam Akademik’, also known by its former name ‘Kedai Pok Loh Yunang’. Since my parents organised the event, I was heavily involved in the preparations and witnessed the excitement they conjured in the comparatively quiet city of Kuala Terengganu. We even had little quips and blurbs pasted on our car windows that attracted so much attention that we even got stopped a few times by curious inquirers.

The book also introduced me to the use of language techniques with its broad vocabulary, uses of vivid imagery, metaphors and similes and good structure. It took me years to really digest how I could use them in my own writing but it was the first time I felt such a profound effect in a purely descriptive writing (as some of the chapters were) as narratives used to be my favourite read with their conflicts and heart wrenching drama.

So in the days that followed, I mused over the possibility of starting my own blog but I highly doubt that I would have created it if not for the support of my parents. The idea of giving the whole world a free pass to my thoughts for them to pry into and to judge was intimidating. However my parents saw it as a good way to build my confidence in my writing and have peer support as in the early days I interacted with a number of bloggers, both fellow readers of GUIT and those who stumbled upon my writing as well as loyal readers who until now still read my brother’s blog (since I had been much less careful in keeping mine active). It gave me an outlet to share my opinions, my perspectives and my own voice.

And I credit this blog to my good command of English, my writing capability as well as my recent A* grade in my CIE A level English Language and the Outstanding Learner Award I received for the paper. After all, my blog is also partly my collection of English assignments especially in my early blogging years. And I must thank my tireless mother who guided me, proofread my terrifying tenses during my early years and sitting through my relentless arguments on why my nonsensical analogy makes sense. And I must too thank my late father who introduced me to GUIT, the internet and from whom I have unknowingly inherited my narrative perspective.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all and may this year be a prosperous one, Insya Allah. I’d like to thank my loyal readers for their support despite the fact that the blog had not been updated on a regular basis (twice a month on average). I usually have a lot to write but sometimes I feel that they aren’t decent enough for a blog post. The idea of a blog post in my head is something WordPress would say ‘super-awesome’ that you should write with utmost care but as my mother had told me a million times, nobody likes a dormant blog. I intend to be more active this year and I hope that, Insya Allah, I will be more eager to write and share my views or experience.

And of course, a big thank you to my mother, the best teacher I’ve ever had, for helping me with my writing. I’ve seen my writing improve significantly throughout my blogging years and I am more independent in brainstorming for ideas which would help me a lot in college later and in life as well. She had also miraculously managed to improve my critical thinking and my interest in politics and world events; important things which I once thought boring and impossible to enjoy.

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And thank you to my father who had been the one to create this blog for me as a way to improve my English and for me to gain confidence in writing for the public. I can never forget that morning in Penang when you sat me by your laptop, introduced me to my freshly registered blog and made me write a post. I had pestered my mother for hours, asking her in a fit of panic, “What should I do? What should I write? I don’t have anything to write about.” And despite all of the distress, I managed to write 3 very short posts on the first things that came to my mind.

And to my dearest sisters, Aeshah and Anisah as well as my famous brother, Ahmad Ali, who seems to have fans everywhere (as it is quite often that when my father met one of his friends, they would as for ‘the blogger, Ahmad Ali’) thank you for your links, comments and support. Since one of the drawbacks of being the eldest is that you cannot bear to be beaten by a younger sibling, the intense competition you had given me urge me to write better.

Click on the link below to see the review WordPress prepared for my blog.

Click here to see the complete report.

Awang Goneng Is In Town!

GUiT-manyToday, I met Uncle Awang Goneng at the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). Awang Goneng (a.k.a. Wan A. Hulaimi) grew up in Terengganu but later on moved to London, a place so far away from his homeland. His beautiful book ‘Growing Up In Trengganu’ (originated from his blog –http://kecek-kecek.blogspot.com) was written to share with everyone about the life in Terengganu in the 60’s.

I attended ‘The Writing Mind’ workshop where Uncle Awang Goneng taught us some tips on writing. One of them which sticks in my mind was to increase your vocabulary skills – or in other words, never be afraid of using a dictionary. It reminds me of Prof. Muhammad Al-Mahdi’s ‘favourite assignment’. He would tell my AG - workshopclassmates and I to make a list of 20 hard words and remember all 60 words, it’s spelling and definitions. To make sure we memorised each of them, we shall have to take a test at the end of the week.

Uncle Awang Goneng also taught us  to read aloud what we have written after finishing a piece of work. It helps us to correct unnoticeable small mistakes. This Jalan Kedai Payangwas also taught by Prof. Muhammad and since then, I made a huge improvement in my writing class.

But Uncle Awang Goneng was really sad to hear about the unacceptable act of the government to demolish a more than a century old shophouses row in our hometown, Kuala Terengganu. Such historic building should be kept and preserved such as those in

Aiman with AG

Penang and Malacca. But we were even shocked to know that Uncle Awang Goneng’s house in Terengganu was going to be demolished

too. I guess one day, Terengganu would be the only state in Malaysia to lose all of it’s history and heritage clue to the cruel act of the state government.

Before leaving, I took the opportunity to ask Awang Goneng to autograph in my diary. Thank you Uncle Awang Goneng (Uncle Wan).