Elia Bintang had just launched his first novel, Pantai Kupu-kupu (Butterfly Beach), published by Plot Point. He is also an avid blogger who writes at Jurnal Elia and a singer/musician. Albert Camus, Haruki Murakami, and Jean-Paul Sartre are some of his major influencers. He is now living in Bali, Indonesia. You can read more interviews with Indonesian writers here.
Me: Why beach? And why butterflies?
Elia: It’s a very simple story. A girl meets a guy in a strange, faraway, almost mythical place called Butterfly Beach (Pantai Kupu-kupu). She is in search of the purpose of her life. He is in search of the love of his life. In Butterfly Beach, every morning, the sun rises with millions of butterflies flying out of it. That’s the general idea.
Why beach? Because it’s a perfect setting for the characters. Imagine that you’re sick of the way you’ve lived so far, and decide to think about what it is that you really want, why do you exist, and stuff like that. Imagine that you are into the alternative way of living (and thinking) because the accepted way sucks. If you stay in the city, you’ll feel very much alienated. If you go to the mountains, you must be full of hatred.
This is not a story about alienation or hatred.
There might be a subtle feeling of alienation throughout the book—I can’t put that out of the picture—but it has a certain quality of warmth, as well. A certain quality of fun–and a relaxed attitude. You’re serious, but not so serious at the same time. So, the beach is a necessity.
As for the butterflies, no particular reason. Maybe because they’re beautiful (just think about millions of them coming out of the sun). The main character has a rainbow-colored butterfly tattoo, too. She, as well as the guy, is a part of the Rainbow Community. It’s inspired by the Rainbow Family of Living Light in real life, a community that embraces the alternative way of living. I choose butterflies more for artistic reasons, I guess.
Me: How and where do you write?
Elia: When I’m working on a novel, I write for eight hours every day. I write anything that comes to mind for the first draft. After that, I review it, analyze it, make an outline, and begin the second draft. I review and analyze it again, decide on which parts that are inefficient and should be left out; and what I should do to improve the story and the writing. Then I begin the third draft. If everything goes well, it’s all that it takes. But sometimes, it takes more.
I write anywhere. I’ve written in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Bali. All I need is a quiet, peaceful room with a closed door. And cigarettes. And cups of coffee. A beer, occasionally. Whisky. Songs that take me somewhere else. Magic mushroom would be nice, as well, for fresh new ideas and perspectives.
Me: You’re a musician, as well. What is it that music can’t do, that writing can do, or vice versa? How do these two influence each other?
Elia: A song is a sword. A novel is a slow knife. If you want to die, get the first one. If you want to understand pain, get the second one. You will die, too, in the end, but as a deeper, wiser, more complete person.
My music doesn’t influence my writing. My taste of music does. I like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Massive Attack, Isaac Delusion, stuff like that. Their songs set my mood right when I’m writing surrealistic things, which is an important aspect of my work besides freedom and counterculture. They stimulate my senses and imagination.
Me: I believe that our writings or stories reflect our fears, dreams, wishes, concerns, belief—or a combination of all those. How do you see Pantai Kupu-kupu reflects yours?
Elia: It reflects my concerns and belief quite a lot. I believe that we should live this life as subjects, not objects to labels, stereotypes, norms, values, and anything created by the society. We have responsibilities towards other people, of course, but we are individuals at the same time. We are free. It’s up to us–how to live and define ourselves. All the characters in Pantai Kupu-kupu define themselves; or in the process of defining themselves.
I support equality between men and women. I’m not talking about the difference of salaries they make at work or the numbers of men and women in the parliament or stuff like that. I’m talking about the mindset. Women shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Women are free individuals and shouldn’t give a shit about the pressure society put on them; it’s how the society sees them that has to change. Women shouldn’t live their lives expecting to rely on men financially and emotionally; because they are better than that, and are capable human beings—besides, men don’t owe women anything, we are all equal. All female characters in Pantai Kupu-kupu are free individuals with good self-image and self-esteem.
Today’s culture was shaped by the generations before us. What kind of culture will we pass on to the next generations? It’s not the time to write about weak, fragile women and the superiority of men.
Me: I sense several issues related to interconnectedness, finding oneself, and spirituality in this novel. How do you—yourself, as Elia—see these issues?
Elia: You pray to the ‘higher’ being every night and day. Then things work out as you asked. You say, my prayer is answered. Then things don’t work out. You say, my prayer is not answered. How do you see that?
I’d say, it’s just the nature of life. Even if you pray to a tree, the outcome would be the same: sometimes you get good things, other times you get bad things. Based on this argument alone, I see no point in being too spiritual. I believe the existence of spirits, but that’s it. I never discuss anything beyond that in my writing because my purpose is to emphasize the absurdity of life and the surrealistic things you can experience, not the spirituality itself.
I’m a non-believer and I think life is absurd. You can live all your life as a good person and die in a traffic accident or in a bombing. You can be a bad person, kill millions of people, live a long life, and some people suggest to make you a national hero after you die. One phenomenon could occur just because it ‘felt’ like occurring. I don’t believe in interconnectedness.
About finding oneself, I always think that self-knowledge is important; and that in life, it’s much more important to be than to have. Do everything your way. Succeed you way, fail your way, and in that you will find yourself. The logic is very simple. When you’re being you in every decision you make, self-discovery is inevitable.
Me: How’s the most difficult writing days in your life look like?
Elia: Writing is not difficult. Thinking of what to write is.
I always have a big picture in my head before I work on a story. I know how it’s going to be like, how the main characters look like, what are their strengths and weaknesses, their clothing style, how they move, how they become who they are, what they want, and so on. If you know all these before you write, it’s easy. Writer’s block is a myth. I don’t remember anything so unbearable about my writing process.
*) photo courtesy of Maria Leonietha.
Dewi Kharisma Michellia’s stories had been published in several Indonesia’s respected newspapers, such as Koran Tempo, Jawa Pos, Jakartabeat, Media Indonesia, and many more. Some of her short stories can be downloaded here. Her novel, Surat Panjang Tentang Jarak Kita yang Jutaan Tahun Cahaya (Long Letters About Our Distance That Spans A Million Light Years) won the novel-writing competition held by Dewan Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta’s Art Council) in 2012. You can read more interviews with Indonesian writers here.
Me: What made you start writing? What can you remember from those days?
Michel: I want to have friends.
As an only child with busy parents who would only came home near the breaking of dawn, often times, I only befriended the mirror. My grandmother always persuaded me to go to sleep, telling me that I didn’t need to wait for my parents. She did it by serenading songs about frogs. Those songs told stories. Since then, sometimes when my parents were at home, I would ask them to tell me stories. My father would prefer wayang stories, while my mother adored East Asian stories.
Their customs of telling stories ended the day I could read. My grandfather taught me how to write the alphabets on our house’s terrace, and I read those letters when I was 4. The next day, my parents bought me a huge-sized legend storybook. They did not allow me to buy comics. But I guessed I learned a lot about dialogues from the comics I borrowed from the reading garden. Suzue Miuchi neatly told a story of the Japanese legend Amaterasu, Izanagi, and Izanami. Also, Topeng Kaca (Glass Mask), about a girl’s struggle to pursue her dream as a theatrical actress. There was Candy Candy from Yumiko Igarashii, portraying juvenile’s cheerfulness, and the ups and downs of their lives. I learned writing complex stories from them, as well as from R.A. Kosasih’s graphic stories of Mahabharata and Bharatayudha.
I am pretty sure that my love for those childhood readings made me have the courage to write my first short story, although later on, my first story was triggered by something very trivial. I had been writing a lot of poems since my last years in elementary school, but I started writing prose when I was in my second year in junior high. The reason was really inconsequential. At the time, my classmate wrote a short story on the back pages of her book, because she was bored in Math class. Her stories were so much liked. I also experienced similar boredom when it comes to school, so I did the same thing, although my short story didn’t circulate as hers. When I first started, I wrote every day. I liked to compete with time. On the first day, I remembered that to write 3 pages of short story, I needed to contemplate in front of the computer for more than a day. The next day, to write 6 pages, I needed only 6 hours. The peak of my achievement, when it comes to timing, I could write 3,000 words in 2 hours.
However, considerations on the quality of my writings had only kicked in when I enrolled to a writing site, Kemudian.com. Finding the site was like finding treasures. Someone in that site supported me to go to college in Yogyakarta, learn English more diligently, and read more. In Yogya(karta), everything developed so rapidly. My writing skills were totally sharpened in the campus press community I participated in. Before, I had never thought that a really good writing came from tenths of editing process. To write one article that is worth publishing–and still, being evaluated as a bad writing by our seniors–I needed to sleep over for days to see my writing being edited. It happened for 2 years. We’re not only competing with speed, data accuracy, and choices of perspectives, but also needed to know how to write something with novelty.
Although it seems like I am real tough in facing my writing routines, I consider my process of creation resembling Paul Cezanne’s story, that was written by Malcolm Gladwell in “Late Bloomers”. I spend too much time to repeatedly feel frustrated and stop. The last time, I took a vacation from writing fiction for one full year. And although I realize this tendency, still I am always haunted by doubts. If I count how many times I complain about how I feel so tired and bored dabbling in fiction writing, until I’m reaching 22 today, I think the amount reach hundreds. However, I have never felt afraid that my writings are not worth printing or publishing. Because in every piece of work, I dedicate it only to a certain amount of people.
Me: If there are at least 3 things that become the signature of your writings, what are those things? Why do you think they repeatedly appear in your works?
Michel: Death, dream, and madness.
Death, since my mother was diagnosed with cancer. At the time I was in my second year in junior high, and I started to write with the theme of cancer-inflicted death. It became stronger after my mother actually passed away when I was in my last year in high school. The day when Mother died was such an impossible day for me. As a fiction writer, I laughed at myself, who had had random thoughts about my mother’s death. That evening, it was as if my life had turned into metafiction. It wasn’t clear which was real and which was not. I saw myself as a fiction character who didn’t know how to face such plot, and whether I could negotiate with the writer to, for instance, resurrect Mother from the death. Thus far, Mother had became a single parent, there were only two of us left, and without Mother, I felt like I would live alone. That moment stuck within me, how I cried in front of the hospital room when I saw that the room was empty, how I felt as if I wouldn’t be able to continue living without Mother. Since then, I decided to dedicate my appeal towards Mother’s death to each dead character in my fiction.
Others may not be to keen on occultism and parapsychology, unlike me. Well, actually I am not that keen as well, but for some reasons, I really like mystical things. Dream, some dreams took me to the future and made me experiencing numerous deja vu. I solve complicated problems in my dreams, have the ability to fly and walk through walls. Meet giants. Do things I have never had the courage to do in real life. I really like mystical and magical stories, and I feel those stories just like a dream.
Madness, this term can never describe the real situation accurately. Because from my life’s experience, I see people who are considered mad being isolated from their environment. But where is this coming from? How righteous are we to stick the “madness” label on them? And then after we concluded that they are mad, how can we feel like we have the right to destroy their lives by injecting them with medicines or electrocuting their brains? Or how is it possible that nobody asks those mad people on the street, about what made them end up homeless, or what made them feel so empty about their lives? Sometimes, when it’s not about madness, I will choose to write about those who end their lives with suicides. Stories of people who are committing suicides are often times being told with sneers and mockeries. I do not want to capture it that way, because I respect each individual’s freedom of choice. To me, suicide is like a patent-right staff who has to work for years without being allowed to come up with the relativity theory. There are people who face dead-end in their lives when life is not supposed to end. Those who do not understand this do not have the right to judge.
Me: The time when you read a book and finished it, and then you mumbled to yourself, “Wow, that was a good one!” – what made you say that?
Michel: Books with hilarity, as if the writer has just tried to scream the word NO to Solomon’s sayings about “There’s nothing new under the sun” throughout the writing of the book. He should be a writer who gets bored easily and does not want to get stuck with someone else’s works, or even gets burdened with his previous works. I want to find a different perspective, entering a fiction-world that seems real, even to an extreme point. As I finished reading it, I want to be made into someone new, without feeling that I have been changed.
Since I have always been interested in complex and rounded character, I tend to like transgressive fictions. Works that exhibits lives’ wounds. Characters that are complex and interesting usually come from an unusual background. There are a lot of unpredictable things in their daily lives. Usually they are free-minded and witty, and probably because of that, they are gifted with more life’s challenges from their writers (to not blaming God) or probably it is because of those life’s challenges that they possess such witty characters.
I like works that show how witty the writer is in executing his works. To me, that’s what literature has to offer. Breakthrough. Freedom. Not being imprisoned in a certain pattern. Other things can be done in nonfiction or journalistic works. I like smart writers. They give fresh works. The character doesn’t have to be widely knowledgable and the writer doesn’t have to do name droppings. Those kind of works are supposed to offer different things to us every time we reread them.
Me: Do you like writing long letters? I asked this because of the title of your novel. Are there certain memories related to writing long letters?
Michel: Actually, it’s not because I love writing letters. Rather than letters or epistolary genre, it can be said that I wrote Surat Panjang (the novel) because I like telling stories in metafictional ways. Someone delivered stories from the character “I” whose life seems like an alternate history. The character was present in the 1998 incident, knew H.B. Jassin or Yusi Avianto Pareanom that was being mentioned in the letters.
The novel Surat Panjang started as a short story I wrote as a small birthday gift for myself. All these times, I imagined that my first novel would be published posthumously. My breath is short, although my imagination is complex, so short story is the right medium for me. Until suddenly I decided to participate in a novel writing competition held by Jakarta’s Art Council. Working on Surat Panjang in 18 days (to chase the competition’s deadline) made me feel like bathing in freezing water during the whole process. I would not finish it without the pressure of a friend who wanted to see me winning this competition. Finally, I became the winner. All in all, I enjoyed the process. Coincidentally, during the writing process of the novel, some friends were learning literary journalism genre. Thus, I applied the narrative writing without dialogues. Yes, I was naughty to write anonymous resources in the novel, giving birth to characters with unnamed attributions.
Me: How does your personal lives, backgrounds, and works influence your writings?
Michel: All in all, I am lucky for I have always been placed in a space that fully supports my creative process. Although sometimes, just like the other late bloomers in general, often times I curse each moment, “Do I have to go through this destiny because God wants me to become a fiction writer?” Apart from that, I grow up as someone who loves to capture moments. I use those fictions to keep my feelings over a certain occurrence. It soothes my wound a bit when other people do not like my works. At least, besides I only show my works specifically only to a very small circle, I know that every fiction must be special. This doesn’t mean that I sneakily transfer my life stories–I do not like that impression, because in reality, I do it because I understand how to work tactically through a fiction. To me, a story will have a soul and live if in the story, the writer plants a part of herself on a certain time, or a part of the people around her.
Me: What about your writing process? Do you write every day? Are you the outline-type or the spontaneous-type?
Michel: I spend more time editing rather than writing. Often times I hear people making a fuss over craftsmanship in writing, a lot of people are complaining about it. They said, writing should be from the heart, and should not be intended as something manipulative. I guess those misguided bunch, who are fearful towards writing and editing technique, are going overboard with this. Editing process should not make a writing becomes worse. On the other hand, when you’re editing, a writer is given a chance to see her work from another angle. There are always two sides in creative process, just like what Peter De Vries said: “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.” Anyway, this is a very famous quote and often misunderstood as a quote from Ernest Hemingway.
When it comes to writing process itself, when I was learning at the beginning, I was very diligent in making writing outlines, along with characterization (each character has full name, family background, zodiac, as well as references on favorite and less favorite things), but all those writings never succeed. So, after that, I decided that most of my writings do not begin with an outline. I start my story from the first sentence. Sometimes, I only write that one sentence and just keep it for a long time. I will only get back to it other times. Since joining the campus press, I do not write fiction everyday. My time gets divided by writing nonfiction (news). Lately, I also have to divide my time to finish office works (editing and translating). In essence, I do not see writing fiction as a must. And I also won’t take it easy as simply a hobby. Lately I only have times in weekends to write and read fiction. My working days are consumed by doing research for fiction and reading nonfiction. I don’t know, one day, when I have sufficient knowledge and discipline, I may decide to write full time.
*) photo courtesy of Dewi Kharisma Michellia
Rahne Putri is a poet and a published writer with her book Sadgenic. She also contributes her stories for Cerita Sahabat, The Journeys 2, and Jika. Her words can be found through her poetic blog entries or her Twitter account–with more than 77K followers. You can read more interviews with Indonesian writers here.
Me: Where do your words come from? What made you attracted to words and poems at the first place?
Rahne: Where do my words come from? Honestly, I don’t know. Sometimes I am also surprised how poetic words come out at certain times. This question made me think. Probably it was gradually shaped from my childhood ambience. I do not remember it specifically (because actually, I’m forgetful), but apparently I recorded a lot of things from my family’s habit, and those things were kept in my subconscious.
In the old days, Eyang Putri (grandmother) loved to tell stories and write letters for me when she missed me (obviously, with a very formal Indonesian like how it was back then). I also recalled a piece of love letter from Romo (father) for my mom, glued into the back of her cupboard’s door–which I love to secretly read. Or a poem about “Dad” on the bedroom wall of Eyang Romo (grandfather). I grew up in a loving and romantic family.
Moreover, I also love to dissect dialogues from theaters, movies (from cartoon to romance), to melancholic lyrics from love songs. It seems like these things shaped me to end up loving words and poems.
Me: How does it feel to be inside of you during moments when words or story ideas pop up in your head?
Rahne: Usually when these things pop up, I want to enjoy solitude. Because there are many disputes over what’s on my head and what’s on my heart, so I try to focus and identify the things I want to feel and convey. I try to make myself truly exist, expressed and present to accompany me when the inspiration comes. Actually it feels like loneliness. There is only me, time, and thoughts.
Me: Some writers said that they are more productive during sadness or heartbreaks. Does sadness fuel you?
Rahne: Ha! Yes! I feel it! When I am sad or anxious, I tend to question a lot of things and it triggers me to keep daydreaming or think about all the possible answers. Question marks urgently reverberate from my heart, then crawl to my head and my fingers to be expressed through writings. When I’m happy, my heart does not question much. I even have the tendency for not wanting to write.
Does sadness fuel me? Yes it is. I love my sadness, to be exact. It doesn’t mean that I want to be sad all the time, but I always capture beauty in sadness (thus, Sadgenic). Sadness allows me to be honest with what I feel and directs me to know better about what is it that I really want. Sadness is an opportunity to appreciate losses and longings. Sadness is the energy for me to keep moving… away from it.
Me: What’s your favorite place to write? What can we see or feel when we sit there?
Rahne: I don’t have a special desk or place to write, because inspirations come to me in various places. Every time I prepare the time for it, it doesn’t come! (laugh).
However, in my writing space, you’ll feel nothing but stillness. Usually I play instrumental music and have a clock nearby so I can hear it ticks. Both are the rhythms that guard me as I write. Oh, and you may hear the sound of trickling water. There’s always a corner in my writing space (in my imagination) that needs to be wet–either from rain or tears.
Another habit, I often times close my eyes when I am about to write, because there lies a huge window, and I have to go pass it to start the journey to my imagination.
Me: How do you approach bookstores? And if you can build one, how would it look like?
Rahne: I’ll share a little about my imagination as I enter a bookstore or a library. Usually, I’d rather visit the hidden corners–which others rarely see or pass. I always imagine that there are books waiting to be flipped open and to be read. I have the habit to ‘give lives’ to objects around me since I was little, so those books, in my mind, are actually storytellers–waiting for someone to listen to their stories. When walking through the shelves, it feels like all of them say: “read me, read me” or “pick me” with various tones of voice. For instance, it would be an old guy’s voice when it’s a vintage book, or a child’s voice because it’s a children’s book, or a female’s voice, impatient to tell the love stories inside.
Imaginations aside, the kind of books I look for are mostly poetry books and children’s books that are full of pictures. I am also attracted to books with lovely cover, and books with sweet, nice, and curiosity-arousing opening note.
My childhood dream is to have a bookstore with huge windows, for the sunlight to enter, and people can read with sufficient natural light. Then there are couches, so they can read the book they find. And in one of the corners, I’ll prepare hot tea and cakes.
Me: How does places affect your writings?
Rahne: Essentially, I like places with the concept of ‘waiting’. A seaside or a hill where someone sits–waiting for the sun to rise or set, or a coffee shop where someone is waiting for a friend.
I love to watch people in places with such concept, guessing what they are going through, what they are feeling. Often times, in airports or train stations, my emotional examinations are richer, because everyone is in the position of waiting, then they move away, or move towards something. Those places are full of goodbyes and hellos. So, anxieties or hopes I capture there are being carried on through my writings.
I am also thankful to have a bit of (overly) active imagination, because there are loads of future places I dreamed of that I have visited. Maybe they are not real, but it feels so fun to mash them up with something I want to write, feel, and tell.
*) photo courtesy of Rahne Putri.
Winna Efendi is a writer who has published several novels such as Kenangan Abu-Abu (February 2008), Ai (February 2009), Refrain (September 2009), Glam Girls Unbelievable (December 2009), Remember When (March 2011), Unforgettable (January 2012), and Truth or Dare (Gagas Duet May 2012). Her books have also made their ways into the big screen. Winna’s non-fiction book is Draf 1: Taktik Menulis Fiksi Pertamamu (September 2012). She also participated in an anthology travelogue, The Journeys (March 2011). You can read more interviews with Indonesian writers here.
Me: How’s your writing process? How do you decide on which idea to be developed first? Are you the kind of writer who obeys an outline?
Winna: Usually, I set my deadline and my writing target. Basically, in one year, I want to finish two books. It depends on my writing schedule as well, which needs to compete with my working schedule and other stuff. When I am having a heavy workload or there are any obstacles in writing, at least I can have 1 book in 1 year. There are even times when I don’t write at all! But most of the times, it takes me up to 6 months to write, research, and edit the whole manuscript until the moment I send it out to the publisher. After that, I’ll take a long break to recharge by reading books, watching movies, doing anything I like–as some kind of a personal reward.
Sometimes, there are several ideas that catch my attention and stimulate me to write them down, but I try to focus on one project before moving on to the next. I save and develop the ideas I have first, until they feel ‘ripe’ enough and ready to be written down. Only then, I start to write them down. I tend to choose one idea that excites me the most. The one that makes me want to start writing as soon as possible, and put other ideas on hold while I focus on that one.
Basically, my writing process can be summarized as: ideas first, brainstorm later. I brainstorm while creating plots, creating plots while researching, and I keep on researching during the time I write. They don’t always come in that order, so in my writing process, some are usually overlapping: from research, to plotting, to brainstorming process.
I usually create an outline for my plot, and most of the time, I use and follow it. But it doesn’t mean I don’t make rooms for deviations or other developments outside the scribbled outline. I tend to trust where my instincts and ideas take me, and enjoy the ride.
When all is done, I go through 2 phases of self-editing. The first one is to rewrite the whole manuscript while fixing my grammar, diction, idea development–or cutting down or adding more chapters. The second is to ensure that the plot makes sense, the flow is smooth and the manuscript is enjoyable to be read.
The last step is proofreading to check the spelling and the overall quality of the draft. Then, I send it out to my editor and cross my fingers.
Me: What’s the most challenging part of writing, editing, and publishing? How do you deal with it?
Winna: The most challenging part about writing is that it takes a great deal of discipline and effort to finish a manuscript. I may get distracted by other ideas, personal lives, books, work, movies, the Internet, or simply do not have the time to write. To deal with this, I set a deadline and a target, then try to fulfill it as best as I can.
During the months when I’m writing a book, I tend to avoid reading other books, and just spend most of my time writing away (although sometimes I can’t help but sneak in a movie or two during the week!).
Editing for me is as complicated–if not more difficult, than writing. We can rewrite or delete paragraphs, change our course, or abandon a manuscript during our writing process–which starts almost like a blank canvas. But editing is an entirely different process, because we’re working on a draft that is already ‘done’. That’s why I have several phases of editing, then proofreading, so I can present the best manuscript I can write to my editor/publisher, and eventually, to my readers.
As for publishing, feedbacks from editors and readers are the challenge. We can write anything we want, but in the end, it is their opinions that mold us and help to define us as a writer.
Me: Before writing novels, you actually started out by writing some short stories, in English, which was being published in Australia. What’s the story behind this?
Winna: It was like an online community where readers and writers gather and I was lucky to have a few of my stories published there, and be given feedbacks by the readers. At first I participated just for fun, and I wrote a short story Pink or Black about a pair of teenage twins. I tried to send it out, and surprisingly, it got published! Another story, Bus Driver’s Wife, was also being published there. That was the starting point of my writing passion, when I realized that I loved to write and would like to continue doing so.
Me: Do you feel more comfortable writing in Indonesian? Or English? What are the challenges to maneuver between the two?
Winna: At first, I was more comfortable writing in English, because that was the first language I used when I tried writing short stories and novel. That was also the language I used at school or in universities, so I was more accustomed to that. However, lately I practiced writing in Indonesian more often, and now I actually write in Indonesian more than in English.
The challenge to write in both languages… I guess, sometimes I think about a word or a sentence or a story in one language, but I need to write it in the other language. Sometimes I cannot find the words in the other language that share the exact meaning with the words I want to write, and vice versa. Moreover, when the words that share similar meanings are not really ‘identical’ when they are being translated to another language.
Me: A lot of aspiring writers (especially those who are writing a novel) stop in the middle because they have no idea on how to carry on. Sometimes, they don’t know how to connect the dots and make the story flows from the beginning to the end. Do you have any suggestions to help overcome this problem?
Winna: That actually happened to me a few times before. I stopped in the middle when I was writing Refrain and Unforgettable because I ran out of ideas, and I wasn’t ready to write them down. I also have folders for other projects on my laptop that do not have an ending yet.
Some of the things we can do:
1. Brainstorming. Sometimes a new idea will pop up so that we can continue writing our story.
2. Creating an outline: Planning your plot can help to prevent you from suddenly “running out of ideas” in the middle of your story. At least, you already know the ending or the flow of the conflicts beforehand.
3. ‘Cooling down’ your manuscript until you get a new idea.
4. Moving on can be another feasible option when you feel really stuck. Because not all of our manuscripts ends nicely. That can actually be a practice material and a lesson for us–to avoid facing the same problem for our future projects.
Me: Do you have a special place to write? Do you think where you write affect the quality of your writing?
Winna: I don’t have a favorite spot. I can write as long as the place is quiet and I can sit comfortably with a glass of water by my side. Sometimes music helps, especially if the place is noisy. Sometimes, it distracts me. Usually, I write by typing directly on my laptop. But, for ideas, brainstorming, research, and plotting, I still write them by hand in my “Idea Journal”.
My preference is to write in a place I’m already comfortable with, so I prefer writing at home or at the office rather than writing in other unfamiliar places or in the outdoors.
Where I write affects my focus. And my focus will affect the quality of my writing.
*) photo courtesy of Winna Efendi.
Windy Ariestanty is the Editor in Chief of GagasMedia and Bukune, two of the most well-known publishing companies in Indonesia today. She is also a writer who loves to travel. Her travelogue Life Traveler was shortlisted at Anugerah Pembaca Indonesia or Indonesian Reader’s Award in 2012. You can read more interviews with Indonesian writers here.
Me: The script that is being published and the script that isn’t being published. What are the 3 most basic things that differentiate the “fate” of those two, based on your experience?
Windy: Hahaha. This is a tricky question. But let me rewind an ‘old song’ that people have always known all these times–but they forget it many times. No matter what, books have two faces. Business face and social face (when it comes to ‘art’, for the time being let’s put it under the social face). Based on those two faces, as short as my experience taught me, I can summarize them into 3:
1. Theme. A theme that answers market needs or gives an information about what the market will need in the future. A publisher must have known about the readers of the script that will be published. Is the theme answer market needs or even a few steps further from the existing market? The ability to predict themes that can answer market needs or go one/two step further from the existing market is the ability to create “trend”.
2. Content. When buying a book, a question people always ask would be: what is this book about? When it comes to writing, forever, content is the king.
3. The writing. How the theme and content are being written. No matter what, a good writing is the first catch to grab the attention of an editor. Editors easily fall in love with a good writing.
Me: What are the most common misconceptions held by aspiring writers who are about to publish their first books?
Windy: There are several things.
1. Editing stage.
A writer often assumes that editor is someone who will scrutiny his script. Someone who will torn his masterpiece apart. In reality, your editor is your writing partner. She is the first reader who tries to see the hole in your script. Not one single editor wants to damage her writer’s piece. She is the first person that will clap her hands when you finish your writing, and she is also the first person who will go brokenhearted when your writing is not becoming any better.
Another misconception is that the editor is the person who will take care of all typos and errors on your script. Come on, that’s not the really the job of an editor. You can activate the spell-checker facility if you only need this function from an editor. An editor’s responsibility is way more than that. On a very ideal level, an editor needs to have the ability to guess and create book trends. True, editor will help taking care all those stuff regarding structure, grammar, and typo. But my suggestion is this: before sending your script out, there is no harm in cleaning up all those typos. Trust me, no matter how bad the script is, an editor can still read it when the typos are minimal. Do help the editors to enjoy reading your script by minimizing typos. Won’t you feel tortured reading a raw script with typos scattered all over from the first to the last page?
Sending a script without a title. Yes, the publisher will help you in finding a title for your to-be-published script. But sending out a script without a title shows that you don’t even know what your script is all about.
2. Publishing contract.
A publisher only has the ‘publishing right’, not ‘copyright’. The contract only binds the writing/script, not the writer. Thus, before signing a contract, pay close attention to this. Don’t regret it later. Go through your contract carefully before signing it.
3. Do I need to pay?
A lot of writers still think that they need to pay some amount of money to publish their books. I am going to say this straightforwardly: you don’t need to pay for anything. On the contrary, you will have royalty rights for your script.
4. Promotion is the publisher’s business.
Most of the times, a writer believes that as a writer, his task is limited to writing only. Unfortunately, life nowadays expects more than that. A writer also needs to think about what he’s going to do after the book is published. Of course, the publisher will think about that. They will think about book distributions and how to get attractive displays in bookstores, or about sending free copies to media or colleagues. They may even think about book launching or discussions. But the publisher is not taking care of one single writer. It will also be impossible for them to keep on promoting the same book over and over again. Based on my limited knowledge, I came to a conclusion that the most effective promotion tool for a book is its writer. Thus, I always ask writers to learn about how to ‘sell’ both themselves and their works. They also need to learn how to develop themselves into a brand (self-branding).
Me: How does Windy-the-Editor influence Windy-the-Writer, and vice versa?
Windy: Hahaha. This is a bit hard to explain, but have you ever heard this sentence: you can write badly, but you need to edit your writing well?
I have this mindset. To edit well, of course you need to know about a good writing, right? So, when I write, I just write. I push the “off” button on my mind as an editor. When I finish my writing, I will read it again. This is the time when I turn on my editor’s brain. I try to see what is not working in my script and what’s working. Then I edit and revise it.
My knowledge as an editor helps me to see my script more clearly and objectively. To me, an editor should be able to become a writer. She knows what a good writing is like. So it’s only natural that she can produce good writing. Editor who doesn’t become a writer–well, to me they look like dead chicken in a rice barn. Although I have to admit it myself, that for an editor to be a writer, she needs to defeat the fear inside of herself: hey, as a writer who edits and an editor who writes, you’re gambling your reputation. If your writing is good, people will say, that’s natural, she’s an editor. If your writing is bad, generally people will say, how come an editor produce such a bad writing? What does it tell about her quality as an editor? In reality, being a writer and being an editor is two different thing. We can’t even write while editing.
It’s difficult, isn’t it?
When it comes to how my profession as a writer influence me as an editor? It will be easier for me to inform a writer about what to do, because I understand how these writers’ minds work. It will also be easier for the writers to accept my inputs because they can see that I also do what I preach and I go through all the difficulties they are facing. The probability to get comments like, “It’s easy for you to just say it all. You don’t know how hard it is to write and revise!” is minimal, because I also write.
But I have to admit, I am lucky to have a profession as a writer and an editor. Both support each other. Both teach me to have above-average listening skills. Writer-editor who doesn’t learn to listen will face difficulties in becoming better.
Me: What is the relationship between inspiration and discipline when you write?
Windy: I am a slow writer. I will let you know that before I am being delirious. To work with a material, I need to read it many times, let it seep in, and only then: writing it down. Inspirations, indeed, can come in a short burst. When it happens, I will catch it in a hurry. I believe that inspirations are everywhere. But they are also looking for those who can become their “masters”. Someone who will execute them into something–who will make them manifest. At times like these, I will write or note it down hurriedly. I don’t care how bad my writing is when I’m doing this. Afterwards, I’ll leave it to seep in, and then I’ll polish it into a better writing. Isn’t writing a matter of rewriting over and over again?
When it comes to discipline, that’s another thing. I know that I often times get lazy. Not being discipline to myself. The temptation to create an excuse so I don’t have to write is plenty. I’m tired. I don’t have time. I am not in the mood. I don’t feel like this idea is good enough. As a result, everything stops in the “wanting” level, instead of in the “doing” level. To be honest, this state sweeps me often as well. But writing is not for the lazy ones. Writing needs strong will and extraordinary discipline. So I try to craft times to write in the midst of my busy days ‘playing around’. Hahaha. Hey, it’s fun. To win over time or even defeat it–is always pleasing to me.
Me: Are you the type who believes in writer’s block?
Windy: Let me tell you one more thing based on my not-so-many experience. Writer’s block, to me, is just an excuse to cover up the fact that we’re lazy to write. I am not the type who believes in writer’s block. Saying that I am not writing because I do not have any idea–to me that’s bullshit. If you’re lazy, than you’re just lazy. That’s fine. That’s human.
Writing is about discipline in practice. Of course, a vacation for a writer is not writing. Similar to the concept of taking vacations, it feels so good not to write. So, if you want to take vacations from writing, go ahead, and do whatever you want to trigger your creativity and create the desire to write again soon. Play around. However, I also control my ‘vacation period’ so I don’t keep myself from not writing for too long. Even if I don’t feel like going back to the script I am working on, I will write other things to ‘warm-up’ my machine.
Another simple thing I do to keep my machine warm–even when I am swept by laziness, is by reading and watching movies. Or… this is my favorite part: creating quality time with selected people. I can pick these people randomly–those I haven’t met in a long time, those I have just met, close friends, boyfriend, etc. I like conversations and meetings. From here, new ideas often spring to life.
A writer will not be able to suppress her desire to write something that inspires her. Thus, go out and see anyone. They could be the ones who fish the inspirations out of you and drag you out from the laziness to write.
Me: Looking back, what makes you start writing at the first place?
Windy: Simple. I write down a lot of things because I want to prolong my memories.
*) photo courtesy of Windy Ariestanty.
I fall for words. Words of all kinds. Flirty texts. Random questions. Stupid remarks. Retarded emoticons. I fall for words so much, to the extent that I once agreed to meet a guy I had known online without even knowing how he actually looked like. He wrote nice emails and texts. That was all I know, and that was enough. Later on, he realized that he had not sent me his picture.
“What kind of girl agreed to go on a date with a guy she doesn’t know the look of?” he asked, laughing.
“An open-minded girl,” I replied. “And, anyway, who said that it was a date?”
“Ouch. You got me!”
So, we met over coffee one afternoon. And he turned out to be very pleasant and nice–just the way I pictured him through his words. We had a great conversation. And banters. And we laughed a lot. Oh, and as a bonus, he was actually quite handsome. Thus, don’t blame me if I continue to fall for words. My experience tells me that it’s 95% accurate.
So, yes. I judge people from the way they write (including the type of font they choose). I fall for their writing style, their choice of words, their inner voice, the way they place the right punctuation marks, as well as the wonderful feeling of reading those sentences out loud and thinking about how smart or funny or dark or interesting or intriguing the writer must be.
I also fall for Mishka Shubaly this way.
About a month ago, when I was browsing the Internet, I stumbled upon a mention of a writer I’ve never heard of before: Mishka Shubaly. I was intrigued by one particular article about him in Huffington Post, written by Cynthia Ellis. Cynthia’s words got me in an instant. Soon enough, I had been reading reviews about Mishka’s works all over the Net. Then I just knew by heart that I have to read them! Excited, I went to Amazon to purchase Mishka’s Kindle Singles–and devastated when a message appeared on my computer screen, stating that his works were not available for sale in my country.
Brokenhearted, I went to Twitter and told the world my sufferings, mentioning Mishka. I was so surprised when he sent me a direct message a while after! He didn’t know me. I was merely a stranger. But he was asking for my email address so that he could send me a draft of his story. I cried happily. I have learned many times in life, that you can get what you want if you only ask.
When The Long Run landed on my inbox, I cherished it like my secret treasure. Soon, I was immersed in the story of how Mishka climbed out from his ‘shit hole’–that was full of drugs and booze–and tried to ‘run’ his life back on track. I read the story 4 to 5 times in a row, slowly, tracing each words, each sentences, finding new details here and there every time. I read some parts out loud–and someone else’s life, more than 10,000 miles away from here, slipped from my lips. I fall in love with Mishka’s voice. The rising emotion as I delved further into the story. The way he sounded so bare and brutally honest, so strong and yet so vulnerable.
I’d never had to get through a breakup without that tireless listener, that bottomless well of comfort, that sympathetic devil: alcohol. I didn’t start drinking and I didn’t stop running, but I did start wearing sunglasses on my long runs, twenty-one miles over five bridges in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, so the people I passed couldn’t tell that I was crying.
[The Long Run by Mishka Shubaly.]
The Long Run was a dark story. But Mishka didn’t inject depressing sobs as much as he laughed it all off–the way one should when looking back. The ability to laugh at ourselves is healthy. Because then we put ourselves not as a victim, but as a survivor. We’ve gone through that, we’ve passed, we’ve survived. Our past will always linger somewhere underneath our layers, but now it’s going to be more of a deep and reflective ha-ha story instead of a dreary suicidal tale.
The next few days after reading The Long Run, I was organizing my thoughts to shoot Mishka an email about his story and how it had affected me–both as a person and as a writer. But before I even had the chance to do so, I clicked the blue dot on my Twitter’s DM button one cloudy Saturday morning, and found a message from Mishka.
“I can’t believe I’m talking to you right now,” I typed. “This is so effing absurd, but one of the coolest things ever!”
I was perched in a comfy couch in Casa, Kemang–my favorite place in town to read and write, or have a lovely chat with my besties. That Saturday, it was raining heavily outside, and I was glued to my computer screen, talking to Mishka.
“One time, a cab driver told me. Everyone has to work, but you can choose who you are working for. I work for me. He was so right,” Mishka replied when I asked him what was the best advice he had ever received in life so far. “I started working for me, too. Toughest boss I’ve ever had! But I reap the rewards, not some fat old white man in a suit. Funny to get great life advice from a cabdriver, huh? Or unsurprising. I often find that people working the front lines of humanity know the most.”
(I didn’t tell Mishka–yet, that one of my greatest life advice also came from a cab driver in Jakarta’s hellish traffic jam. But I’ll save that story for the next post)
“How does it feel to write something as… honest?” I asked Mishka. When I read The Long Run, I got nervous imagining how different people who were being featured in the story would react to it–and to him. “Do you struggle in the middle of writing it? Like how much should you put out and how much should you hold?”
“Writing the Kindle Singles is always exhausting,” said Mishka. “I try to write them like I’m writing a private diary that no one will see. Then, before I can stop myself, I send it to my editor. And then it goes out to the world and I have to deal with the consequences. It can cause me a lot of anxiety, heartache, worry… but the end result is worth it. I’d rather have people hate me for being honest than love me for being something I’m not. I’m a flawed human being with a lot of bad habits and foolish tendencies with lots of poor decisions and ugly shit in my past. I think that’s something a lot of people relate to.”
He was right (and it was funny he said that, because a few days ago I had just wrote a piece about dealing with our pasts).
The Long Run is indeed a story about struggling with addiction–but it is more than that. Mishka’s addictions to drugs and alcohol is our addiction to a certain guy. To political power. To a branded bag. To be skinny. To a lighter skin-tone. To self-pity. To wealth. To the Internet. To an unresolved love affair. To a past.
We’re all dealing with our own addictions. We’re carrying these things inside, hiding it like a well-kept secret–so that no one will find out. Everyday, we’re all trying to run away from something that anchors us down, and run towards the freedom to be who we truly are.
Humor is all a matter of perspective. You watch Homer Simpson hit his head and it’s funny, but when it happens to you, it’s supposed to be a tragedy? Nah, I think it’s funny either way.
“We need to find a way so I can buy the rest of your stories,” I told Mishka. “I can pay through PayPal if you have a PayPal account.”
“Please just email me some popcorns as payment,” replied Mishka. And so, I did.
UPDATE, Jul 17, 2013: And Mishka shared this on his Facebook Page. Isn’t he just the sweetest? :’)
Today, I stumbled upon an article in The Jakarta Post from the year 2005. I was surprised when I spotted my name written in the article—at the time, I was still 22 :D I didn’t even remember how it got there in the first place. I think it was a short interview for the commemoration of National Heroes Day, and the journalist asked around, trying to find out who people considered to be modern-day heroes. Below is my answer:
Generally speaking, I believe a hero is simply someone who is willing to help others without asking for recognition. I also believe there are real-life heroes among us, but that we are often too busy to recognize them.
I once saw a street musician help a middle-aged woman who fell from a moving minivan. A vendor helped a friend of mine who fainted inside a train, and even found a car to take her home.
And a friend told me of her cousin who wanted to commit suicide, but changed her mind after hearing the song Heaven on the radio.
These people offered help not because they wanted recognition — how could the DJ know the song would help my friend’s cousin — but simply because they were at the right place at the right time.
So I think a hero is someone who never considers himself a hero, and perhaps does not even realize they have done a heroic deed. Most of the time, a hero is simply a stranger who gives you a genuine smile and brightens your day.
Who’s your modern-day hero? ;)