Personal Development: The Road to Writing PART II


Personal Development: The second instalment of Gemma Rose’s winding and probably interminable trajectory towards writing for a living…

Looking back on the last year, when I was fortunate to work only part time, I’d say that I spent about 50% of my free time doing other things than writing. One was considering the idea of a Malaysian food truck business, in particular, selling nasi lemak. Nasi lemak literally means ‘fatty rice’. It is Malaysia’s national dish. It is rice cooked in coconut milk, served with an array of condiments such as sambal (like a chilli paste), fried peanuts and salted anchovies, a boiled egg and cucumber, wrapped in banana leaf or newspaper in the shape of a prism. It is absolutely delicious! There is a dearth of Malaysian food in Brussels, so I thought there could be a potential market there.

I did my research, checking out other food trucks on Sundays or during lunchtime, trying out their food, asking food truckers questions about their business. I read up on what it takes to start a business: the capital, the legal permits, the hard slog, the first years of either making a loss or only just about breaking even. Friends were enthusiastic: “Go for it!” they beamed. My husband was much less so: “Are you really sure that you want to get up in the early hours of a Sunday morning and make 50 nasi lemak packages? And that’s if you manage to sell them.” He soon brought me back down to earth again. Was all that hassle and struggle really worth it? No.

I soon extinguished my nasi lemak business idea, but not my fascination with Malaysian food nor cooking in general. I experimented with more dishes including Malaysian, North African, Indian as well as good old British food, in addition to signing up to food publications and learning about food entrepreneurs and cooks, such as David Chang (Momofuku), Grace Teo (Nyonya Cooking) and Nadiya Hussain (The Great British Bake off winner). My admiration for people like these probably led me to two of my best articles for Togethermagazine: interviewing chocolate entrepreneurs Mike & Becky, and the British celebrity cook, Rachel Khoo.

Yet, the tug of security, good benefits and a job for life also pulled me in another direction. I decided to also study madly for the EU civil service competitions. I figured that if I became a permanent civil servant, I could take a sabbatical and write at a later stage. However, I didn’t pass the competitions and part of me was actually relieved: a civil service job for life isn’t for me.

Knowing that my part-time stint was limited gave me a sense of urgency, which brought me back to writing. Stephen King, through his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft(Hodder, 2000), advises me to read a lot and write a lot. I read a variety of things from magazines and quarterlies like The New Yorkerand Granta, to novels by Anthony Trollope, Toni Morrison and Jonas Jonasson. It’s funny to say that even though I am a writer, I find reading fiction daunting, particularly the classics. I thus relished in the challenge to read the latter (although I almost gave up on Henry James).

As for writing a lot, I wrote a short story about a pizzeria in Kabul, Afghanistan and started my memoirs. I met some brilliant writers like Lauren Collins of The New Yorker and Emma Beddington, and wrote about them for Together magazine. I did a writers’ retreat, which gave me confidence in showcasing my writing and imagination. As I dabbed my pen in fiction, I wondered whether I have enough imagination for it, and whether non-fiction is my stronger suit.

I now work full-time. I didn’t land a book deal or get a job at The New Yorker. I did however write some of my best articles and experimented here and there. I am an avid supporter of working less and I believe that we can still get done what needs to be done without working full-time. When I had a day job of three days a week rather than five, I had to work smarter and my colleagues had to learn to do without me. We all managed.

I realize that I’m not solely ‘a writer’. I want to be able to carve out my days serving different interests: writing, cooking, reading, creating, plus the ‘bread and butter’ jobs if necessary. Maybe I’ll never know the point when I’m an established writer, maybe it continues to be a work in progress. It’s probably just better to set goals and see them through. For instance, my goal is to write one piece for The New Yorker by the time I’m 40, in five years. I’ll let you know whether I’ve made it.