Sharon Bakar’s Finding The Flow, a Creative Writing Course for Beginners

… also known as Sharon Bakar’s writing course for beginners that led to me finding myself, almost, something like that, slowly getting there, some day.

Sharon Bakar
This be Sharon Bakar.

In my previous post, I shared how Tristen, a tarot card reader brought me down to earth in regards to my half-baked literary aspirations. He also advised me to seek out a teacher to guide me in my writing. If I did that, my path in life could be more defined and ‘help’ would be given along the journey.

I sat on this for a long time. Too sad to do anything, for my ego was bruised, my so-called skills put to doubt. I questioned my abilities, my existence, my role and purpose in this life, universe, everything. I pondered the need to be productive; why we must be useful to society, or be useful at all!

Personal demons, if you will.

Somewhere in between, I had a conversation with my friend LL about writing courses. She came across one, and e-mailed me the link to ‘Creative Writing For Beginners’.

But at that time, I felt that I was above a beginner’s class as I’d been doing *this* for a while. Also with the Internet, I felt that any Tom Dick and Harry could Google and get started on writing!

THEN….. with age, both my inflated ego and I mellowed down. Hello 30s! It stamped out all the fire of youthful indignation; in its place, a humbled person in search of new knowledge.

I revisited LL’s e-mail, really going through it this time. Hey wait a minute, that writing course was conducted by Sharon Bakar. Sharon Bakar! Literally a literary legend in Malaysia, Sharon is a lecturer – she taught my sister at college – as well as a writer, an editor and a publisher.

Once I received the course details, I KNEW that I HAD TO take this class. Can you imagine, I was EXCITED at just reading the modules! I signed up, paid up and waited for my turn to learn!

Sharon Bakar writing class

And immediately after the writing course, I diligently sat myself down to complete a bestseller!

…. RIGHTTTT, that didn’t happen. I’m not sure if it ever will, but you know what? I’m not hung up on it anymore.

Instead, I learned to write freely. To trust myself to let go. Here imagination, run wild! There was no judgment, no fear of sentence structure nor grammar mistakes, how liberating!

To read aloud, and listen to others who read out loud. THIS was empowering, to see people paying attention to what I created. To accept both compliments and criticism, for one does not come without the other.

Sharon was a most giving teacher. Patient, engaging and warm. I found it encouraging that she was so passionate about new writers, her enthusiasm rubbed off on us.

Sure, you could get some same stuff on-line or in books. BUT I can tell you this: I finally understand and appreciate the importance of going through a writing course under the tutelage of a teacher. You also get real-life insights, guidance, empathy and years of experience, and those are gems that cannot be obtained nor translated from books.

I was also surrounded by talented and generous course mates. We learned from each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and were mutually inspired by the raw possibilities in the room.

This camaraderie turned out to be my most important takeaway from the course. It was a strange relief to know that I was not alone, that there are others like me wanting to improve themselves, making this attempt to be better.

Of course, my experience at this writing course may not mirror yours. But we pick up things different, and everyone has their own journey, their own stories to tell.

Thank you so much Sharon. You and your presence opened my eyes to possibilities. Also, mega shoutout to Chakra, Keh Len, Thean Hui and Meena!

Sharon Bakar - Finding The Flow

So, am I better at writing now? I don’t know! Personally I don’t feel nor see any difference.

I still do not fully know what I want to write. To be honest with you, I have not been keeping up with my daily writing. Bad Suanie.

BUT I feel better about writing and being able to write, if that makes sense to you. No longer do I have this weight on my shoulders to write books, short stories, blog posts or anything at all. With that pressure lifted, I feel that I am at liberty to do whatever I want, even write!

I’m fine with not being really good nor talented, and it’s okayyyyy!

So yes, it is an on-going discovery, and I am enjoying the journey at my own pace.

And yes, my path did clear for me. A few months later, an opportunity came knocking and soon, I was on a different path in life. More on that next time, maybe. Or not!

See what I did there? I don’t have the self-inflicted pressure to tell you, na na na na na na na! 🙂

The lull in life

Hello! It has been exactly one month since I last blogged. To be honest, I’m not sure who really cares, except my friends KY and Fireangel who frequently make known of their dissatisfaction at my lack of updates.

It is sweet; after all it’s nice to be reminded that someone out there still thinks of you. Except now when I feel lazy to blog (which is often), their faces creep into my mind! Not sure if it’s a good or bad thing for they could appear at the most awkward moments…!

What to write, what to write.. Hmm. Okay, let me tell you a story.

Goat in captivity, Kundasang, Sabah
Because you need a photo of a goat that has no context to this post.

For most of us, there comes a time in life when your life mirrors a Kris Allen song, Wastin’ Time.

Well I’ve been writin’ all these verbs down and I don’t know why
‘Cause I got no action I got no action I got no action in my life

Well everybody’s passin’ you on this road you’re on
You gotta pack your things and get ready to go

Sure, the lyrics are far from award-winning. The other song option would be U2’s Stuck In A Moment, but the song is about suicide and I’m not so inclined.

Self-help gurus and Buzzfeed drum into you that you need to feed your soul. To do that, you just have to follow your dreams and passion in life. Thanks for the freakin’ obvious, how about you include idiot-proof how-to manuals and a GPS in your next spiel?

This is hard to admit. For the longest time, I was feeling lost in life. Don’t get me wrong; my support system was great! Family and friends were fantastic, work was okay and bills were paid. I have it better than a lot of people, I know.

However, there was this feeling that I was meant to do something else with my time on earth. A hazy, obscure calling, if you will. But what was it? I didn’t know! How do I start? Haven’t got a clue!

So I did what many do: switched on auto-pilot. Got hooked on Kingdom Rush Frontiers. Watched too many movies and TV shows. Stalked Reddit. Even I knew it wasn’t a fulfilling life.

Then, two things happened:

1) I had an opportunity to send in my CV for a position with an on-line publication, and so I did. And waited for news.

2) I had an opportunity to receive a tarot card reading for cheap, and so I did. As my mind was all work and life paths, that was what I sought advice for.

The soft-spoken tarot card reader, Tristen told me (very nicely) to forget about the job. The position was not mine to fill. Instead, I should check my ego and work on myself.

Do you enjoy writing? Yes that could be a career path, but FIRST you need to START writing. Write every day, write after work, write even if you don’t feel like it.

More importantly, seek out a mentor and join a writing class. No matter the cost; find ways to raise the money if you have to. Make sure that you find a teacher to guide you.

Do this, and help will come. And the path would be clearer for you.

What a wake-up call; nay, a slap in the face! Someone FINALLY called me out, “hey you’re not as good as you think you are!”

But there was hope: if I wanted this – whatever this is – to happen, then I’d better buck up and better myself.

Sounds like your typical logical course of action, right? But you know as well as I do, that when you’re stuck in a phase, the road is never clear for you. You need help. Hopefully you’re lucky enough to have someone to shake you up, kick your arse from your comfort zone.

I was lucky. But to tell the truth, it was scary and humiliating as hell. I didn’t have a lot of skills, but I could string words together to form passages that some people like to read. Or could I? If I didn’t have this identity, there was nothing else for me to hold on to.

Two things resulted from the session:

1) I let go of the desire to get the aforementioned job. Once I decided to do that, I felt a huge wave of relief. The pressure was off, I didn’t have to wait to know if I was good enough for them. I never did hear back, so that settled it.

2) … nothing. Still a fork stuck in the road. Yes I knew I had to find a teacher and a class, but it was always just at the back of my mind. Auto-pilot mode resumed, life happened.

It was a few years before I finally acted on Tristen’s advice.

The measure of a Grandfather

To know if a man is a good son, ask his parents.
To know if he is a good husband, ask his wife.
Is he a good father? His children will tell you.

One of my favourite Grandfather stories is this: my great-grandmother was not happy that my Third Aunt was a girl; there were no x-rays nor ultra-scans back then, so you’d only know the gender of the baby at birth. There were already two girls in the house, my Mom and Second Aunt. So great-grandmother started to make arrangements for Third Aunt to be given away.

My Grandfather, though having lived his life under his dominating and domineering mother, bravely spoke up, “If you want to give her away, then we will give all the daughters away!”

My Third Aunt got to stay in the family because the other two girls were older by then, and it would have been a waste of resources to give them away too.

A young Lim Kheng Siang
My Grandfather when he was young, the black and white days.

Even as I fondly reminisce about my Grandfather, I am very aware of a difficult past when Grandfather discovered mahjong.

I suspect it was the company that he desired more than the game. Nevertheless addictions can be destructive, and I credit my Grandmother and their children for keeping it together.

It is said that strict parents transform into grandparents with the softest of hearts. That’s my grandparents; Grandmother used to shield me from my Mom and her fearsome rotan! Oh I’m sure it was my fault, being a terrible kid until I was about… 25.

The point is, my Grandmother… wow! I adored her for she was my hero, my saviour, my protector!

On the other hand, Grandfather seemed authoritative and intimidating. He wasn’t into action figures, dolls and chasing chickens, so that left us with nothing much to talk about.

But he was always kindly to us, ever present when required. I remember him standing suavely outside my kindergarten, waiting to pick me up in my parents’ old yellow Beetle.

We only bonded much later, right about when I was able to hold coherent conversations. He would regale us with stories of his youth and forgotten contributions to the village.

Grandfather was actively involved in the well-being of Sri Gading folks, and the progress of the village. Here, I repost one of my Aunt’s recollections during that time, back when local council elections was still applicable.

Sri Gading local elections council team with Lim Kheng Siang
Grandfather with the local elections council team, Sri Gading

“Ah, those were the days when we had local council elections. I remember when I was very young – in the 60s when my village held its elections for councillors. Dad was always a member of the local council – often with no challenger. That year, some younger blood decided that he was too long in the chair and decided to mount a challenge to his post.

There was fever of excitement in the village. There was a bit of campaigning after the papers were filed. I observed the ‘young turks’ going about from house to house to campaign and I was worried (even though I was only 7 years old then). Dad was not doing anything. He just went about his usual business and sometimes to the local coffee shop.

One evening some ‘supporters’ came to the house and told dad: “They are bad-mouthing you, aren’t you going to answer them?” It seems the ‘opposition’ had been spreading smear campaign that dad was corrupt, that he had privately benefited for helping people to get their IC. The word was dad got a commission from the government for each IC made.

Anyway, dad just replied: “No need to answer those rumours. The truth will eventually come out whether I am corrupt or not.”

I whispered to mum: “Why doesn’t dad speak up against those lies?” The answer was typical: “Children should not interfere with adult’s business. And keep out of those campaigns!” Huh!! Wild horses could not even drag me away from those campaigns.

The day of election loomed. I hung around the registration booth and watched the proceedings. The villagers came out in droves – all dressed in their Sunday best. There was an air of carnival. Many waved to dad and he smiled at them. Many of the older folks came to the counter and declared: “I only want to vote for Lim Kheng Siang.” “I only want Lim to be in the ‘Cheng Hu’ (meaning the government)”. Although the ‘young turks’ tried to persuade them to change their minds, but they were adamant.

Finally it was time to close the booths and the ballot boxes were brought to the local council building. A huge crowd gathered outside the building as the counting of the ballot papers began. I could hear the names of the candidates being called out each time a ballot paper was opened. Finally, the names of the winners were declared. Dad won! Plus a Malay guy named Hussein. There was a roar of approval and everybody clapped their hands. I saw the crowd lifted dad and the Hussein chap up and carried them on their shoulders – a mini parade in the hall. I felt so proud that night.”

Lim Kheng Siang receiving PPN award from the DYMM Seri Paduka Baginda Yang DiPertuan Agong
Grandfather receiving his award from the then-Agong

For his societal contributions, Grandfather was awarded the Pingat Pangkuan Negara (PPN) award, a Malaysian federal award presented for meritorious service to the country. It was possibly the proudest day of his life, and he wore his one and only suit to the ceremony.

The funeral of a Grandfather

At the hospital, the mood was solemn. The few patients in the 6-bed ward seemed struck by our grief, the couple who were able to sit up watched us in silence.

The young doctor, whose name is immortalised as the certifier of Grandfather’s death came and talked with my Uncle for a while.

Three nurses closed the curtain around the bed for privacy, softly chattering with each other as they removed the tubes and needles still attached to Grandfather’s body. I observed them through a small opening in the curtain, noted that they were careful and gentle, and was grateful for their sensitivities.

It was late when we left the hospital, past the customary time for dinner. Empty stomachs needed filling, and off we went to the riverside hawker centre.

Grandmother was restless. There were things that needed to be done before the mortuary van reaches Sri Gading with Grandfather’s body. The prayer altar containing a statue of the Avalokitesvara Boddhisatva, along with the furniture in the living room had to be brought to the back of the house. The curtains needed to be replaced with white ones. Water had to be boiled to make Chinese tea; when Grandfather’s body arrives home, the tea has to ‘served’ with a greeting, “Father, have some tea!”

A call was made to my Aunt who assured Grandmother that all these were being taken care of. Only then was she able to eat in peace.

Grandfather's slippers
Grandfather’s slippers. It was a fun day in December ’14 when we shopped for a new pair of slippers. Duck rice was involved.

They laid Grandfather down in the living room, then proceeded to prepare his body for the funeral. He was already cleaned up in the hospital mortuary, so it was just a matter of changing his clothes and putting on a bit of make-up so that he wouldn’t look so… you know, dead.

My Cousin pointed out to a dragonfly that rested faithfully next to Grandfather’s body. He said that it came in when the van arrived, and had not left since. Someone, my Aunt perhaps remarked that Grandfather was born in the year of the Dragon. We were left with our own imagination of what that implied.

Dragonfly that came in with Grandfather's body
The dragonfly that came in with Grandfather. Photo by my Cousin.

That same night, we discovered Grandmother’s true strength. As she was coping with losing her husband of 70 years, she diligently went through the brochure for different funeral packages, and negotiated for the best possible deal with the funeral director. It was amazing to watch, I’d never seen this steely side of her.

Grandmother selecting funeral package
Grandmother with the funeral director

The next day, I had to return to the city. There were clothes to be packed and work stuff to be handed over.

My Cousin and I had a few photos of Grandfather that we thought should be printed and framed. They were mostly of him surrounded by his children and grandchildren, when he was at his happiest. That was how he should be remembered.

Fireangel, bless her, accompanied me for the afternoon and helped with this task.

Fireangel with a photo of Suanie's grandfather

At first, I was afraid that Grandmother may be displeased. Would she be offended by the photos? Some people have this taboo of placing photos of a recently deceased. Or would she be further driven by grief? I had not asked for her permission to place the photos in her house.

Back in Sri Gading, I grabbed her hands and went, “POPO, I DID SOMETHING BUT YOU MUST PROMISE NOT TO SCOLD ME OKAYYY!”

She chuckled, her little eyes disappearing as she smiled, and said, “IF YOU SAY LIKE THAT, THEN I MUST SCOLD YOU FIRST!”

Turns out, she liked the framed photographs. So that went well.

Family photos on display

The Buddhist-style funeral would go on for 5 days. The coffin bearing Grandfather’s body was placed in the living room, with a piece of glass in between to prevent rapid decomposition. A plug-in device played the soothing chants of Namo Omi Tuo Fo. There were a couple of times when I sat there alone and found solace in the constant chanting.

Many times we stood by the coffin and marveled at how black and healthy Grandfather’s hair was, amazing for an 88-year old. He had on the same suit that he wore while receiving the PPN award, presented by the then-Agong, the Sultan of Pahang. On his lips stood a cultured pearl that my Sister had picked out earlier. According to custom; not sure whose, the pearl is meant to be the soul’s guiding light.

Throughout the funeral, a Buddhist monk from Johor Bahru presided over the rites. He was rather old, but had a kind and calming sense about him. A popular monk, he was Grandmother’s first choice; she was loathed to think of a second option. I was glad that the kindly monk’s schedule allowed him to be available for Grandfather.

Or rather, for Grandmother. You see, Grandfather was quite the agnostic.

Monk praying at Grandfather's funeral

All of Grandfather’s 7 children were able to make it back for his funeral, including my Aunt in Australia who booked the first available flight out when she heard the news. Most of Grandfather’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were present too. Those who could not make it mourned in far away places.

I shan’t name names, but I know one of them burst out crying in the streets of Sydney, with mascara running down her face…

…Min Min… 😛

There were nightly prayers. We had catered vegetarian food most of the time, except in the mornings when we walked out for our favourite roti canai. We had chores, one of which was to delay the wilting of flowers; it was a few hot days. We laughed as we watched our Little Cousin Aaron spray water at the flowers to keep them fresh, then out of curiosity, sprayed water at the burning incense too.

Grandmother at Grandfather's funeral
Married for 70 years, till death did them apart.

Quite a few people turned up at the funeral to pay their last respects. Most of Grandfather’s friends were already gone by then, but their children came in their places.

Close relatives. Distant relatives. Friends of the children. Representatives from groups and associations. The eve of the cremation was so busy, the funeral bursting with people that the catered food almost ran out.

Grandfather who loved people, would have loved his funeral.

People paying last respects at Grandfather's funeral

On the fifth day, it was time for Grandfather to leave Sri Gading for the last time.

The car bearing his coffin rolled along the main road, past the shops and food stalls that Grandfather knew so well. Some people paused their daily on-goings to watch our procession go by. No more will Mr Lim ride his trusty, rusty bicycle up and down this familiar road, no sir.

Funeral procession going through Sri Gading main road

And no more shall we see Grandfather sitting at the swing in front of the house, watching friends and neighbours pass by, waiting for his children and grandchildren to visit him.

Lim Kheng Siang leaving Sri Gading for the last time

It was the end of a chapter in our lives, of having Grandfather alive in the village and community that he lived in, helped build and loved.

He was very much loved, and he will be missed.

For my Grandfather, he met his Maker

I’ve always been ambivalent towards coincidences, having not experienced many to be a true believer, yet reluctant to dismiss the few incidents that happen to strut along so… coincidentally…

On the same morning that my uncle passed away, we received news that my grandfather had a stroke. In the hospital, scans revealed that there was bleeding in his brain, and it would be dangerous to have anything done due to his age.

Early Saturday morning, we drove to Johor Bahru for my uncle’s funeral and burial. It was a bit emotional for me, as my uncle and my Dad looked alike, and I could see my Dad lying still in a coffin…

Later that evening in Batu Pahat, we went to the hospital to visit Grandfather. We had parked and were walking to the ward; less than 2 minutes away when my uncle, who was with Grandfather, broadcasted in our family chat group that Grandfather had left us.

Until today, I find it difficult to come to grips that it was all over so soon. The last time I saw him was earlier that same week. It was still Chinese New Year, it was Monday, and I had gone to see my grandparents before returning to KL that afternoon.

We went for the best breakfast in the village. I drove him to the road bearing his name (again), and implored him to have a photo taken. He exclaimed, “Take for what?? Take so many times already!!” but gamely got out from the car and posed for his persistent grandchild (me).

At that same time, the garbage collection truck slowly went past us. Two affable garbage collector workers yelled out to Grandfather, “ATUK, BUAT MACAM INI ATUK!”, while making the peace sign.

Lim Kheng Siang and Jalan Lim Kheng Siang, Sri Gading in February 2015

We went back to the house that he built more than 50 years ago, and had my third uncle take a photo of us.

Suanie and Grandfather Chinese New Year 2015

It was also the first and last time that I kissed Grandfather on the cheek. You see, he was a rather imposing figure in my life. It was a long time before I dared to touch or hug him. Later I grew to be comfortable enough to hold him, and to take his hand to lead him anywhere.

But that day, I didn’t have a premonition that it would be the last time I’d see Grandfather alive. Nothing like that. As I was leaving the house, I was overcome with this enormous love in my heart for Grandfather, and mustered the courage to kiss his cheek.

In the same manner while facing Grandfather’s body just minutes after his death, I touched his hand and told him amidst uncontrollable tears, “Ah Gong, man man zhou. Wo men hui zhai jian..”

(Grandfather, safe journey. We’ll see each other again.)

My grandfather and his favourite roti canai

Whenever I go back home to my hometown, I make it a point to accompany my 88-year-old grandfather to our favourite roti canai stall in Sri Gading. The proprietor; Haji Mohammad makes the crispiest, most delicious roti canai in town. He is also my grandfather’s buddy, the reason of which I blogged about earlier.

Lim Kheng Siang in Sri Gading

Also it’s fun to watch Haji Mohammad in action. He knows everybody, he remembers what they like, he is everyone’s friend.

“Tok Penghulu sudah mari!” he greeted my grandfather, “Selamat Tahun Baru Tok Penghulu!”

When his colleague came to take our order, Haji Mohammad shouted out, “Tok Penghulu punya biasa!”

My grandfather’s ‘biasa’ (regular order) is roti telur with chopped chili and onion, dhall with a little mutton curry (just the curry, no meat) and hot teh tarik.

Lim Kheng Siang, Sri Gading

Something so simple makes everyone so happy.

Stylo Indian Barbershop, Kuala Lumpur

Over coffee after a fine Indian meal, Angeltini opened up a Kuala Lumpur tourist map that she had with her.

One of the suggested ‘Things To Do’ was to get a haircut at the oldest commercial barbershop in the country.

Doesn’t that sound ABSOLUTELY fascinating? Wouldn’t YOU want to have your hair cut in Malaysia’s oldest hair saloon?? I looked at Jon and offered, “I’LL PAY FOR YOUR HAIRCUT IF YOU LET ME TAKE PHOTOS!”

He said, “YES LET’S DO IT!” Off we went in search of “Kedai Gunting Rambut Stylo” along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (formerly Foch Avenue/ Jalan Foch).

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock
The iconic Stylo has been at this same location since 1937.

Stylo’s founder, the late P.A. Thangayah trained to be a barber in Sri Lanka. In 1931, he came to British Malaya and in 1937, set up Stylo. The shop has been through two fires, a car crash, a bus crash and a flood, and it’s still standing strong!

In 1960, his son, T. Madhirajan took over the family business. Now Madhirajan’s youngest son, M. Mathenan works alongside his father, managing ten barbershops in the Klang Valley with plans for expansion.

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - entrance
Please stop crashing into their shop.

Unlike the Chinese migrants in British Malaya who found work based on their ethnicity, there are existing hereditary barber castes or clans in India. Even though it is a noble profession – you don’t allow just anyone to come near your throat with a sharp blade – there is a societal sneer to the barber profession with implications that it is a lowly trade.

Maybe not so much in Malaysia. In any case, the demand for trained Indian barbers is so great that barbershops here have to constantly bring in trained Indian barbers from.. uhm, India.

This writing thing, is hard sometimes…

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - interior

Step inside Stylo and you’ll find four classic stainless steel Takara barber chairs, two on each opposite side facing a mirror. While waiting for your turn, take in the Tamil songs playing on the radio and be good-natured about being stared at by other customers, many of them migrant workers.

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - waiting
“Hmm would I look good in that…”

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - haircut

Jon, being familiar with Indian barbershops told the barber, “I want number 2!”

It was exactly like ordering a menu item. Later I found out that the numbers refer to the types of blades that the barbers would use. If you ask for Number 1, you’d get a butch cut. A Number 2 would get you a crew cut.

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - barber tools
A barber’s tools: Oils, talcum powder, combs, scissors, clean disposable blades, brush..

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - edgy trim

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - wipe cloth

Traditionally you’d get a head and bone-breaking shoulder massage with your haircut. But being the oldest barbershop in Malaysia means you have to up your levels all the time. The smiling barber, much amused at my photo-taking, gestured for me to see what he was about to do…

… which was to take out a big iron-like thing, pressed it onto Jon’s shoulders, electronically massaging and soothing his tensed muscles.

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - auto massager

“What was it like?” I asked Jon.

I guess he enjoyed it.

Stylo Indian barber Kuala Lumpur - new hair cut

And that was that. Paid RM13 to take some photos, learn about the history of a long-standing shop, make a friend happy with a new haircut, and get a blog post out of it? I’d say that was money well-spent!

Stylo Hair Dressing Saloon
(Kedai Gunting Rambut Stylo)
1, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock
50100 Kuala Lumpur.

Near Chinatown and Central Market, near CIMB Bank.