The Storyteller with a Yen for Navel-Gazing

Alexandra Wong or Alex is no stranger to the world of writing. You would have read her column, NavelGazer, in The Star each Saturday where she muses about the slices and spices of Malaysian life.

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Alexandra Wong quit her corporate job to be a professional storyteller.

I’ve known Alex for a long time now – curiously we were in USM together, though not taking the same course. Even so, we’d see each other when we changed classes or met up in certain classes (there were elective papers to be taken). In those days, I always found her to be a mystery. She was always dressed in colourful attire and I remember her most in her flowing gypsy skirts.

Back in those days, we hardly spoke. Maybe I couldn’t find my courage to speak to her or perhaps we just didn’t make an attempt to connect more. For whatever reasons we each had, we kept to our cliques and our own circles.

Time does a number of odd things. We didn’t connect again until recently. I’ve always read her column in The Star Weekender and always did mental cartwheels while reading her words because they are always shot with sensibility and profound, quiet honesty. Writers do admire other writers and though most of my writing has been for business, I still maintain that we of the same flock will always recognize each other.

It was one of her comments which she emailed to me after reading some posts on this business blog of ours that I realized she had been following us as closely as I had been stalking her!

After a number of emails back and forth, we decided to meet up for a chat. After all, we’d been acquaintances in varsity, not venturing more than a “hello” or shy smiles but now we’re actually emailing each other and having a full conversation, albeit online.

You know this thing about knowing a person through her writing? It’s true. When we met, we had such a fabulous time talking about business and writing and life lessons that I felt, “Hey, why didn’t I do this sooner?” It was as if we had been long-lost friends.

So yes, this has been a rather lengthy introduction to Alexandra Wong of BunnySprints BUT I couldn’t possibly let you have the interview I had with her without giving you a context of our relationship. Context gives meaning to what you’re about to experience. Without context, we will not fully appreciate the experience.

Perhaps it is apt to note why I wanted to interview her. Writers have the enviable job of writing heartwarming stories about others – celebrities, pop stars and even the regular woman-in-the-street. But no one writes about the writers.

When I was a former web editor of a women’s lifestyle portal way back in 2001, I’d meet a number of writers whose lives are just as worth writing about as their interview subjects. While writers do meet interesting characters, writers are also interesting characters unto themselves!

So I thought, who better to kick off our series on amazing Malaysians than someone I know about? I didn’t pick her because she is a famous columnist. I picked her because she chose an interesting path in life – she had successfully made that transition from full-time corporate career to a well-known writer with her own column. She’s enjoying her life in her own way and I admire people with guts and tenacity to follow their own dream.

So who exactly will benefit from this interview? Perhaps you if you are thinking of a career in writing. Perhaps you if you are thinking long and hard about following your heart and dream. Perhaps your son or daughter has asked you if you’d allow him or her to be a writer and you’re simply not sure if they’d starve to death with their choice. Or perhaps anyone who would like a peek into the life of a columnist and wants to know where she gets her inspiration from.

And so I present to you, Alex the professional storyteller who is one of the many amazing Malaysians whom we’d be featuring in this blog of ours in the next few months.

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Tell us a bit about yourself and why you’re doing what you do now.

I am a storyteller and solopreneur: I am in the business of writing stories about people, places, businesses, trends, lifestyles etc. That’s a more accurate job description than “writer” because I don’t just write all day. I am also salesman, marketing manager, accountant, clerk, and occasionally, reluctant Ah Long (when invoice reminders fall on deaf ears).

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What made you take the path less travelled? What inspired you?

I’d always enjoyed writing, and was already contributing articles occasionally to newspapers and magazines while I was employed at Dell. When I left my Dell job, I naturally decided to give writing a crack because I had no other marketable skill. I still thank God every day that I haven’t ended up on the streets!

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What is a typical day like?

The best part of my job is that there is no routine, so that’s a little hard to answer. Discipline is always a challenge for any freelancer because you could sleep in till noon every day and there’s nobody to tell you off! So what I try to do is to perform one or two productive, future-income generating activities every day. It could be an activity that translates into immediate returns – like writing for a commissioned assignment. It could be an activity that would potentially generate future leads, like answering these brain-squeezing questions of yours. Who knows a potential client may read it and decide to contact me? πŸ™‚ Even writing a blog post is an investment of sorts because you train your writing muscles and a post you write now could be turned into an article later. The idea is to be productive and to keep your name in circulation.

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What did you invest in when you started?

An ultralight laptop and a mobile broadband account, because I knew I’d be highly mobile and I’d need a mobile office. I haven’t expanded my acquisitions by much. In fact, I think I have scaled down even more because I don’t even use a thumb-drive anymore after discovering the joys of cloud computing. If I need to print (which is rare), I just go to a computer shop near my house or the print station at KL Sentral!

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How long have you been in this field?

Professionally? I’d say I started writing earnestly for a living since mid 2006.

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What is your workplace or home office like or where do you write? Could you describe it?

I need constant stimulation, so I never work in the same location or environment more than 2-3 days in a row. I write on my train trips, I park the car at the roadside and start typing into my phone when an epiphany hits me … I have an open office so that I can write on the go. At home, I switch back and forth between my bed and my writing desk. I can’t really describe what my environment looks because I hardly notice it. When I am “in the zone”, the whole world can cave in and I would still be typing obliviously away, unless something lands on my head!

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What aspects of your business/calling do you enjoy the most?

The interaction with people and of course, the warm buzz I get when I nail a piece – that would be my writer’s ego talking πŸ™‚

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What are your plans for the next 2 years?

To crystallize at least ONE of my gazillion book ideas!

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In your opinion, what do you do better than any other writer out there?

I feel that I can easily relate to and sometimes, instantly, with strangers – it’s normal for me to meet someone for the first time and walk away feeling like we’ve known each other forever three hours later!

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How has growth been for you personally?

I think the biggest change has been my perspective on fulfillment. I used to think that if you do what you like for a living you’ll find happiness. Not anymore – for me, writing must have purpose. (By the way, that’s the raison d’etre for the name of my company, WordMatters.) Recently, I came across a really awesome line which sums up my sentiments right now perfectly: “Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.”

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What do you consider a breakthrough for your field? Did you experience it? When and how did this happen?

Getting my own column Navel Gazer in December 2007. Even in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined the kind of visibility and opportunities it brought me.

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How did you market yourself when you first started? What worked? What didn’t?

The most valuable marketing skill a new freelancer can have is to pitch effectively. I must thank my Dell training for that. If not for all that practice making cold calls in my telemarketing days, I would not understand the value of crafting persuasive cover letters. I realized early on that editors are inundated by tons of aspiring writer wannabes and they’re not going to pay attention to your Nobel Prize winning article unless your cover letter makes them sit up. Knock yourself out with a killer article, and make sure you have a killer cover letter to go with it!

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Train tales…Alex manages to stop for a picture at the Gua Musang station.

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What would your advice be to those thinking of following this path of yours? What should they prepare for? What should they look out for?

Explore every opportunity. Be courteous and nice to everyone as far as possible. Learn something new every day. Trite but tested-and-true advice that has worked for me.

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What are the 3 biggest myths of your industry that you’d like to debunk?
  1. The only skill you need is writing – if you think that way, you won’t last more than three months
  2. You can’t make money as a writer. I know of writers who make 6-figure incomes annually. You must know where to look – obviously I’m not looking in the right places yet!
  3. There are no politics in writing – WRONG! There are politics in everything. Just stay out of it – be professional and helpful, and resist the urge to gossip. It’s a very small world!

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How do you envision success for yourself? What would that look like?

I don’t have an answer. What happens when you’ve arrived at success? What else can you look forward to when you’ve done it all and you’ve got it all? What a horrible thought! Besides, our definition of success changes over time. When you’re 30 you may want to make 10 million dollars by the time you’re 40. But by then, you may have other goals because you learn that money alone is no longer fulfilling. For now, I’m happy to continue learning, growing and to have something to look forward to every day. Ask me again in ten years’ time πŸ™‚

Get more of Alex at her website, BunnySprints.com or email her – alexandra.lywong@gmail.com
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Next month, catch our interview with an engineer who turned a hobby into a lucrative business – he builds audio equipment which can rival the big boys’ stuff any time.

6 thoughts on “The Storyteller with a Yen for Navel-Gazing”

    • Thanks Audrey for taking time to drop your comment. Appreciate it because it comes from a fellow writer, one with tonnes of experience. I was thinking of starting a writers’ directory. What say you? LOL. Between me, you, Alex and some writer friends, we could have a nice listing of people who write.

    • Hi Susan: Haha, it’s a funny, funny world huh? Thanks for your comment. It made my day. And I think I can safely say the same for Alex too. She’s a really interesting person and I just told her, we have a second chance at friendship after 15 years!

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