where grows creativity, in wilderness?

Food for thought at the upcoming discussion in Hong Kong Literary Festival on 11 October, 7.30pm, Dr Hari Harilela Lecture Theatre (Shaw Campus) Baptist University. Simon Armitage (author of many collections including Seeing Stars by Faber and Faber), Prof Daniel Chua (Head of School of Humanities, HKU), Prof Lo Kwai Cheung (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University Hong Kong), Prof Hans Lagegaard (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University) and I will be in dialogue on creativity and world cultures. Come along with a question.

Creativity wears its deceptive mask. It looks like thought but resembles athletic exercise, requiring consistent discipline and no-nonsense action.

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I have never met a good writer or a good artist who is lazy. No matter where they come from, or what past they have left behind.

There’s no rule nor confine for creativity, but is there a condition that promotes it?

For full event details and other happenings in this year’s festival, check out festival.org.hk. Register for this free event at martintcho@hkbu.edu.hk.

Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn and Empty Family, will talk about Ireland as land of literature on 13th October, 2.30-3.30pm at Kee Club.

Peppering independent bookshops with arts leaflets

I’ve been helping to put together and distribute poetry contest leaflets for Magma – a nation-wide contest opening this month (16 October). Having dished out a considerable batch to the bookshops in London last month, I am most delighted to come across this gem booklet issued by the Guardian last week – the directory on UK’s independent booksellers – which makes it easy for us to reach out to bookshops of reputation and character. It’s sweet to imagine the nicely illustrated competition leaflets appearing at the till or counter at some of these cool and quirky bookshops.

This Guardian pocket guide is a handy who’s who in the literary world. I’m most fascinated to find out from it which authors are the regulars of those independent bookstores.

There is the story of former Macmillan sales director, Tim O’Kelly, who ventures to open up his own bookshop in Petersfield, Hampshire, back in 1994. One Tree Bookshop has now grown into a two-storey local wonder with a remarkable cafe, a bustling coffee bar and an unrivalled atmosphere. Tim’s work has won much respect. The bookstore has been named the independent bookseller of the year.

I also found out that the boutique-like Lutyens and Rubinstein in Notting Hill – a pretty little bookstore with a comprehensive stock of children’s picture books, jam jars and postcards for sale, and which has a snazzy coffee machine hidden in the basement – is set up by two literary agents. No wonder.

Boasting its own literary lineage, Surrey, Dorset, Sussex, Yorkshire and Somerset are places peppered with beautifully decorated bookshops that ooze character and history, and my dream holiday is to embark on a train journey of my own, stopping by all these little gems, poring through packed bookshelves, whiling away the time, finding and reading something completely obscure and rewarding on a warm sunny afternoon.

Even the Queen is said to frequent G Heywood Hills, an antiquarian treasure in Mayfair. I wonder what she likes to read?

This little country, despite its economic struggles, fares well in literature. Look at what the bookseller stalwarts have done to upkeep the reading tradition.

If you’ve been away last weekend, copies of the directory are still available via Guardian. Don’t forget to go online and add your own favourite bookshop on the map!

Time management: the art of juggling

Lately I have been reflecting on the art of juggling – the ways and implications of good time management.

One interesting finding is that, most people I know are very busy. They give up going to places or trying out things on the grounds that they are busy. There isn’t enough time.

You would think that if the average person has a hard time juggling everything in life, those more senior business executives or entrepreneurs – taking more flights than we take the cab or train – will be much busier than the average office worker and have a tough time fitting things in.

Apparently not.

I remember years ago I discussed the same issue with a reporter from ELLE magazine. She told me that, having interviewed so many celebrities and business leaders, she realised those people who are top in their fields tend to be more hardworking than anyone, getting up very early and going to bed very late at night. You would have wondered why they need to be so hardworking now that they have reached such a peak in their lives, but hardworking they remain.

I have had the luck to meet a handful of highly successful business, government and artistic leaders in the past, and from their life stories I realised that they approach time and priorities in a very different way than most people. To put it more simply, they are very aware of the need to prioritise. They are very keen to spend their time wisely and productively. Yet they are much less likely to stop doing things simply because of a lack of time. In other words, they are much more ferocious in getting what they want in life.

I once received a one-to-one coaching/lecture by a business entrepreneur for hours. He is one of the richest persons from my home city (if not globally), and one of the most intelligent guys I have come across. When he finished talking to me, he asked me if I was aware he could have easily earned millions of dollars in those hours he just spent. Looking back, I always felt that I learnt much more from what he said than from years spent working away in a given role in any typical office.

That business entrepreneur taught me the need to value time more passionately than anything else. He sees the urgency in accomplishing even the most minute task. If he says he wants a thermos flask, he doesn’t mean he want a thermos flask tomorrow, but today, in an hour or less if that is possible. If he wants to have a chat with you, he doesn’t mean let’s schedule a time to talk next week or next month, but today, as soon as you can. That probably means you should get dressed right away and hail a cab to go to wherever he or his office is. Even during lunch time and you haven’t had any food yet.

Do you know how much my time is worth?

It sounds a crazy and unreasonable way to live. It sounds unreasonable, but it has also opened up a new way of thinking for me. Nothing is too unreasonable, if justified by your own priorities.

Most of us like to postpone things. There are a million things that we want to do or places we want to go or people that we want to see, and we put off the meetings or ideas or thoughts to ‘when we’ll have more time’. But the time ‘when we have more time’ will never come unless we make it happen. There is never enough time and there never will be. All we have is today.

The same applies to writers. Especially to writers. A lot of good books are borne out of an urgent, burning desire to write, not out of necessity. They are written not because the writers feel they are talented and lucky or have the time to do so, but because they realise they have only so much time left on their hands and that they should give it all they have.

For a long period in his life, Murakami used to run a jazz bar until the small hours in the morning. Every night when he closes the bar he has to do the cleaning and finish the accounting, before he can sit down at his desk and write. By then it will be 3am, and he can almost hear the birds start singing. For most people, it will be unreasonable to write in that small space of time. There is just not enough time to do this. But he did. And oh he did well.

A marathon of rejection slips

Rejection is a common encounter for most people: your budget plan or business proposal gets abandoned by the seniors, or a designer’s brightest idea is rejected by the client after many nights of hard work, or a man of quality turned down by a girl he loves.

For a writer, rejection slips are a part of writing life. The more you write, the keener you are to submit, the more you are likely to receive rejections. I haven’t worked out yet the mathematics behind all this, but presumably it is also counter-balanced by your talent, your relationships or connections with the publishers (not many writers are that connected with the publishers), the marketability of your texts or writing style, and the moods of the editors. Often, seeing publishing from a consumer’s point of view, gives us the illusion that bestsellers are a product of creative genius (alone).

Stephanie Meyer Twilight

If we take a step back, there is a value in collecting rejection slips: it is a testament to your perseverance and passion. There is a Chinese legend about an old man who struggles to move a mountain. Despite the folly of the idea, he manages to live up to his conviction, and his passion has touched the gods.

I have always admired people who manage to get to their destinies or goals in the shortest time feasible. I once came across a boss who said to me that he could easily change the colours of all his retail stores, if he wants to, overnight. Sometimes, it’s all about speed. However, I also feel that it is not always the case nor is it in a man’s best interest that a goal be best achieved as quickly as possible. As one collects more feedback along the way, there is the chance to create and revise, to take a step back and appreciate what one has produced, to reaffirm its worth and to keep going.

Sometimes one gets a line or two of handwritten notes from the editors, pinpointing what they like or not like, or comments on the styles. These are very hard to come by and they are treasured like limited edition books or stamps. Believe me, most of the editors are kind and even though they do not accept your work, they tend to give constructive advice that goes a long way in helping you sort out your weaknesses.

While I cannot speak for others, I have benefited from the marathon of rejection slips more than going to masterclasses or going on writing ‘holidays’, because the rejection comments are much more focused and relevant to my work, and are directly from the editors and publishers themselves (or at least, their editorial interns and assistants).

Of course, there are always the sweeter moments, an acceptance here and there, somewhere far off a victory won.

And if you think that this principle of rejection or managing rejection only applies to writers, you are quite mistaken. I have found a site (click here) which summarises the unpredictability in life and points out the ultimate value in hard work, especially in consistently hard work, no matter which field you are in. In an article published by New York Times in 2007, we can see that even literary heavyweights such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kerouac had been repeatedly rejected: so why not you and me?

Remember, it took Edison 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before he came up with the perfect light bulb that brightens up our world.

Writing and research

Went to a free talk by Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia, The Black Album, Intimacy, Love in a Blue Time, The Body, Gabriel’s Gift, Midnight All Day, Something to Tell You and now the latest released The Collected Stories, at Foyles bookstore. It was a full house event.

Hanif kureishi collected stories

I read his first book Intimacy during university and it was one of the books that influenced me most. I was so taken aback by the rebellious voice. I found it thrilling to read. Reading is not a sedate or escapist activity, it is rebellious and highly uplifting.

Kureishi points out the need for research. Then there is also writing about families and love which need lesser research because all the time you live your life, you have been researching on these themes. Finding out more about your partner, your family members, your children. He said his kids said to him one day: “Dad, the problem with you is that you do not realise how much we hate you.” He has a brilliant way of capturing the readers and the audience.

He said we are all inspired by the way we love and hate our partners, and that those hours you spent in the kitchen arguing with your wife are real-life research. He points out that there must be a certain degree of understanding before you can write confidently about the subject. Fantasy is fine, but you do have to feel that you have the depth of insights and freshness of perspective before you can dive in. He said there are subjects that he cannot imagine writing, because of that reason.

Unsurprisingly he was also asked if he felt the need to disguise characters in his writings, since they might have to do with his closest people. He said that writing is not so much to expose other people’s stories but to make a good story. The judgment lies in what makes a good story. He tends to be more general in the use of other people’s story. I think it is an important area to think about for those being writers. Inevitably your knowledge about yourself and your close ones inform your way of thinking and creativity, but as Kureishi mentioned, there is no necessity to expose other people. The point is to project a voice of your own.

I find it curious the way writers connect. I see myself as a Chinese writer, and we are so different in terms of background, nationality, knowledge, career, language…yet when he spoke, I found no difficulty appreciating what he thinks.