This is a question I’ve become used to answering when on a date. On one particular occasion two years ago, what followed exceeded anything I could have imagined. I was meeting a gentleman for coffee at a café where I also meet many of the people I interview. So, the staff knew me well.
“I am a writer; a journalist,” I answered the man seated across from me. All I knew about him was that he ran his own construction company. What he actually constructed was never revealed to me. It was his secret which he promised to show me one day. I became frightened. I mean, going to a construction site with a stranger wasn’t exactly the basis of a safe date, yes?
Anyway, I said I’m a writer because it’s an easy answer that covers everything from journalism, fiction and magazine articles to web content.
“Do you write for the newspapers?”
“Yes,” I replied. Journalists usually write for papers.
“The New Straits Times.”
He leaned back in the chair and asked, “So, do you write fiction or non-fiction for the NST?”
Was he teasing me? I couldn’t tell. I could tell him the running joke in the papers that, often, many of the reporters I know feel that what they write is fiction. What a waste of a joke if this ultra-serious man didn’t get it. I could tell him the truth – that I write for the lifestyle/magazine section of the papers. A simple, but truthful, answer was better.
“I write non-fiction.”
“Oh,” he said, as though I’d revealed a secret to him.
He took a deep breath and then asked me, “So, you are a writer, not a journalist?”
From that moment on, I have no memory of anything else he said. All I can remember is that the next time I went to the café for one of my assignments, a waiter who’d waited on us that night said to me, “Ms Aneeta, you looked so miserable that I think if I was on a date with you, you would have been happier.”
Had this man turned out to be a promising date, I think I would have explained a little more of why I write and chose not to focus only on one kind of work. I would have told him that at its most basic, I love writing. I try to create stories and work on the craft as best I can. Many times, I draw upon everyday situations and try to create a story out of them.
Yes, writing is a very solitary pursuit. But the struggle is not in creating that imaginary world inside my head. I can see it. Hear it. Taste it. That’s the easy part. But when I want to tell you, my reader, what it’s like, I sometimes can’t. That is the struggle I go through. I want you to see the same shade of indigo in a sari that I see my protagonist wearing. I want you to experience that same revulsion at the smell of rotting flesh. I want you to know the taste of something ubiquitous to Malaysians like durian. But getting the words right to create that perfect image can be such a struggle.
And that’s when I become frustrated and angry. And when someone or something happens to interrupt my flow of thoughts – usually an innocent caller on the telephone, someone delivering a parcel or Ladoo (when she was alive) – the reaction they receive isn’t always pleasant.
Indeed, in an article called ‘The unbearable solitude of a writer’, Akshita Nanda wrote:
‘Disturb a writer’s solitude at your peril. Steampunk author Gail Carriger once yelled at me for several minutes on the telephone because our scheduled interview had interrupted her creative flow.’ (http://news.asiaone.com/news/asian-opinions/unbearable-solitude-writer#sthash.Gk4I4wHr.dpuf)
What I have realised is that one of the best ways to get the words right is to meet other people. Other than the fact that I get out of the house more often, I also listen to how others describe things around them. What is their understanding of a situation? That way, I can tap into what a potential reader wants to read to understand something I’m trying to create. This, then, is where journalism comes into the picture. And to be certain, I am a journalist as well. I am not a reporter.
Yes, there are many journalists who are reporters and not many reporters who are journalists. I feel that reporters need a more specialised skill as they are involved with what I call ‘hard news’. They have to source facts, figures and the like. Whereas I do some of that, but I am allowed to explore storytelling when I am a journalist.
In that same piece by Nanda, there is a quote from an interview in the The Paris Review journal with the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The celebrated writer explained why he was both a journalist and novelist: “The writer’s very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality, he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say,” he said. … “Journalism is a very good guard against that. That’s why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world.”
Since that awful date, I try to think of what I’d say to another to explain to them what I do. I still have no answer.