The Most Honest Thing I’ve Written In Years

Source: Reunion by Sanzi

“Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”

Katherine Mansfield

Perhaps a first post on artistic melancholy isn’t the most auspicious way to begin a blog. However, it’s certainly the most honest and honesty is the only way I’ll ever get this entire enterprise off the ground. I’ll be frank. Writing has been a largely mercenary activity for me for the past few years. Just to make a living, I’ve been producing the literary equivalent of TV dinners: shiny, marketable, glib pieces utterly devoid of nutritional value. Heaven forbid readers should have to think too hard, read too much or catch the most fleeting glimpse of their own mortality. Or if it’s mortality they have to see, it has to be that of total strangers whose trainwrecked lives they’re happy to relish for a few moment’s entertainment before getting on with their days. As a result, I’ve become something of an automaton myself, producing and polishing my pieces into commercial viability even as a certain numbness begins to creep its way to my core. However, there’s only so long you can keep the reality of eroding your own soul away at bay. This occurred to me with sharp, painful clarity yesterday.

I was at an art exhibition here in Kuala Lumpur with my sister and some friends. I won’t say which, because it might not be politic and it really has little to do with my, uh, shall we say epiphany? In any case, there was a decent mix of local and international artists that spanned the talent spectrum. We saw many paintings and plastic sculptures in lurid, Candy Crush shades, many of them looking like they’d just stepped off a Saturday-morning cartoon or an Instagram art piece. Marketing, amiright? When I voiced my ambivalence about these particular pieces, our friend asked, why all the negativity? My sister and I launched into a diatribe on the day-glo palette, the uninspired subject matter, the brazen commercialism… when I realised we could have been talking about any of my recent forgettable pieces. So that stung a little. But I reasoned with myself that that was what sold, that archetypes were what stood for art these days. And so I daubed the mud of cynicism upon my shaky peace with selling out and I waited for it to harden. It worked, for a few more precious minutes. Like any straw hut, the entire structure came tumbling down on my head at the first challenge. You see, we came upon pieces we actually liked.

Now I’m not talking about anything that would revolutionise art as we know it. They were actually kind of commercial in their own way, with classic and inherently saleable motifs of cloud-strewn mountains, lone travelers traveling in thick fog, mournful rivers wending their way through rice terraces and quiet interiors rendered in calligraphy ink. I suppose even the least introspective of us fancies himself a wistful romantic once in a blue moon. Yet, they somehow managed to retain their artistic integrity, speaking to a primal melancholy innate to us all even as their aesthetics tickled the average buyer’s fancy. We espied viewers of all ages clustering before an intricate Chinese painting of an ancient village tumbling down a sheer cliff, its precarious footing a subtle reminder of our transience. In a piece ironically titled “Reunion”, identical white-clad figures gazed at each other across an uncrossable chasm, the rest of their mountainous, pine-strewn surroundings blotted out by mist. I think our friend captured it best when he said, “I want to stand by those paintings for a while longer, they make me sad.”

When had I last made anyone sad? I’d gotten people to click on links, certainly, even ruffled a few feathers in my days of writing salacious sports headlines. But when it came to profound, lasting emotional responses, well, I couldn’t even recall the last time I’d induced one in myself, let alone my readers. The catharsis that so many writers say comes with the territory was like a distant memory from a past life as some sort of higher being. My current state seemed like a demotion of sorts, a lizard-like scurrying underfoot to get from one crack in the wall to another. “Getting by”, as it were. I didn’t know how I’d even gotten to this muted existence and I didn’t have the faintest idea how to get out of it. It was at this moment of crisis that everyone chose to ask me if I’d be writing about this experience. After all, I’d been talking about starting a blog for a long time coming now. And lots of people liked reviews. So why not do a review of this particular event? I agreed, smiling thinly as my mind knotted itself into curlicues. I knew nothing I would write about my experience would be remotely marketable, saleable, likeable.

And yet, here I am, writing about it. Why, you ask? Because if I ever have any hope of making anyone feel sad or anything at all, I must address my own pain, my own longing, my own fear. After all, where else is a writer to draw from but her own pool of experience? It’s going to be an exercise in self-indulgence, I’m afraid. Things are messy right now and I don’t have any easy answers, not for me and not for you. But really, what is writing or any kind of art if not self-indulgence? A means of purging the soul of its waste, if you’ll excuse the metaphor? Right now, it’s a mess in there and it may be a long time coming before there’s much of a method to the madness. But I hope that as I continue to navigate the maelstrom, I can come across an enduring truth I can hold on to amidst the chaos. Who knows, dear reader? It might end up being your truth too.