Memoirs by Avantika

Like moths to a flame, they’re always the first to find you, even in the most glamorous party in town.

“So, you’re a writer?” they inquire. “You know, people keep saying that what’s happened in my life would make a great story. Will you write it for me?”

It’s at this point I paste on a big smile and say, “Oh, interesting …” Then, I pretend my hand phone just vibrated and I have to answer this call as it’s from my aged parent. As I tell a close friend of mine, if I had a ringgit for every time someone has asked me to write his tale, I would have enough money to go on the world-trip by now.

“You should just do what I do,” another writer friend of mine says. “Tell them you work for a dentist and they’ll talk about something else. No one wants to show you their decaying molars or chipped incisor in a party.”

I’ve noticed that many non-writers see a writer as some sort of dichotomy. On the one hand, they cannot believe that anyone can make a living out of “stringing a few sentences together” (their words, not mine!). On the other hand, they assume that since we’ve written so much, there’s nothing left to write about and they need to tell us their stories so that “we can both publish a book and make lots of money.” Why else, I often wonder, do I have people giving me details of their ex-spouse’s sordid extra-marital affairs or describing their suppurating wounds from cancer treatment, so that I can turn them into books?

True, everyone does have a story inside them. But very few people, who are not writers themselves or related to one, understand the dedication and hard work necessary to write full-time. And, more importantly, very few understand that while their stories may be exciting, full of drama and emotion, it is only so to them; their stores are in no way commercially viable to a publisher, or, for that matter, of interest to a full-time writer.

The one and only time I took up the challenge of writing someone else’s story was a few years ago. Since I’d spent so long completing my novel, I thought it would do me good to get out there and meet people.

As it happened, one day, a woman (let’s call her Ms. Haughty), via her assistant, emailed me and said, “We found you on the internet and have been following your work. We like what you write and Ms. Haughty would like you to write a book for her. She’s very nice. She’s not like other corporate leaders. Would you consider meeting up to discuss things.” I was flattered and agreed to meet Ms. Haughty.

So, one hot day, I took the LRT, went across town, found my way to Ms. Haughty’s office and waited for another half an hour before she arrived. Since it was lunchtime, while I was still waiting for Ms. Haughty to arrive, I was offered a choice of char koay toew or fried bee hoon. I chose the former. When I finally met Ms. Haughty, although the meal was cold, the conversation was interesting – she came from my hometown, we had worked in the same industry and had some mutual friends, she loved politics and “had some fantastic connections”.

What gave me some comfort and, perhaps, courage to consider working with Ms. Haughty, was that, many years ago, she had a column in the local newspaper. The column was a serialised version of a journey Ms. Haughty and her family had taken over thirty years ago – a modern-day travel blog, but before the time of computers. When the serial ended, the stories were compiled into a collection and published. Ms. Haughty had, at the very least, some idea of what publishing involved.

The words “had some fabulous connections” should have been the first red flag. Still, I saw a chance to get a first-hand account of someone who had travelled during a time when there were still no direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to London. At that point, I was genuinely fascinated by the tale, and, let’s face it, what writer won’t be pleased when someone is willing to pay you to write her tale? Ms. Haughty was excited. I was excited.

In the next few weeks, we agreed a few terms. For a start, Ms. Haughty suggested I translate the collection of articles the newspaper had serialised from Malay to English. Once we finished this project, we would move on to writing Ms. Haughty’s biography. I agreed but added, “I hope you don’t mind, but if my initial reading of your book shows that there are some gaps in the story. I’ll highlight them and maybe we can work together.”

There was a “Yes, yes, of course,” and nothing more. I may as well have slapped myself there and then … perhaps, to wake me up to the reality of the situation.

Still, I opened to chapter 1 and started to translate the tale. This direct translation was ‘mental breaking’, as opposed to back breaking, work. I have never been so bored in my life! Still, I honoured my commitment and sent off the first draft of my translation with a report. I identified the weaknesses in the tale, the offensive and derogatory comments, ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude which would not go down well with modern readers, the factual errors and the illogical sentence structure. Some of the text was just incomprehensible.

In my mind, I thought that Ms. Haughty, having had some publishing experience, would understand that this was merely the first stage and there would be many more drafts of this manuscript before it was even close to being ready for submission purposes. I imagined getting the manuscript back with notes in the margin explaining the points I’d raised or giving me factual information.

I was summoned to the office. Needless to say, the reception I received was cold. There was no food offered and, this time, I had to ask for some water to drink. To cut the story short, I was told that I had misled Ms. Haughty, I did not understand what translation meant, I did not have a good command of language and I should, effectively, not bother writing again.

By the time we parted, I had learnt my lesson – stay away from people who tell you that their story is worth writing about. There are many other ways to meet interesting people.

The person who said it best was the reclusive and recently deceased J. D. Salinger: “I love to write, and I assure you I write regularly. But I write for myself and I want to be left absolutely alone to do it.”

Oh, and the next time we meet at a party, let’s talk about which dentist you visit.

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