Scribble scrabble.

The MFA Application — Resources

Every year at around this time I get a bunch of emails from writers back home looking for clarity on the MFA application, so I thought I’d collate some information I found useful from around the web and community.

The MFA is considered the terminal degree for creative writing in the United States. A ton has been written on whether MFAs are worth it, but I can only speak to my own experience in choosing to pursue an MFA, for reasons that are very specific to where I’m from. I’ll do that at the very end of this post, so if you don’t care you can just read the Resources bit and then skip the rest.

For your MFA application, you’ll usually need to submit a writing sample, a statement of plans, and some recommendation letters, from people who can speak to your work as a writer. For Columbia I had to do the extra step of analyzing a recently published work of fiction. Some MFAs require you to prove you can speak English. Since Singapore’s national language is Malay, I had to take the IELTS to prove I could speak English despite having a Masters in English Literature. In the IELTS they did things like make me listen to a recording of a train announcement then tick the correct multiple-choice answer as to what time the train was leaving. It was very expensive. 🙂


Researching MFAs:
Whether you’re still contemplating the MFA or already knee-deep in the application process, here are some places you can gather information on the different programs and options available.

— Rachel Heng wrote this piece for Read The Workshop (formally known as The MFA Years) on applying for the MFA (Also: buy Rachel’s latest book here!)
List of Fully Funded Programs
List of mostly Funded Programs
MFA Podcast — look for the schools you’re considering and listen to students speak to their experience. (I’m featured on episode 21, for Columbia.)
— An alternative to the full time MFA is a low-residency MFA, which can coexist with a full-time job. Read the Masters Review’s Guide to the low-residency MFAs here.

International-specific note
: The low-res MFA, while a great option for those already based Stateside, is a little less viable if you’re based in Asia. Why? Because you are still required to get an F1 visa even if the bulk of your program is online. Putting aside the time difference in online classes, you need to pay for a new i20 every single time you come into the states for the residency portion of your MFA, and you must leave right after.

From the Vermont College of Fine Arts:

Each I-20 is valid only for the duration of the on-campus residency period. The I-20 Certificate of Eligibility does not allow international students in the low-residency programs to reside in the US for the remainder of the semester. International students must leave the US after the residency, and a new I-20 must be issued (and the fee paid) in advance of the following residency period

That means you’re paying for your visa + 4 x i20 fees for 4 semesters. The i20 is a piece of paper you need to carry with you at all times when entering and leaving the United States. It’s different from the visa. You need both and you cannot enter the country if you hold one but not the other. You would think it’d make sense that they consolidate this and issue one document that does both things. You would think this would be a lot simpler. However, I don’t run a country, so what do I know.

Other associated costs — air tickets. airbnbs. miscellaneous transportation fees to and fro airports. paid leave days if you’re keeping your full time job back home. etcetera.


If you want to keep your job and take classes on the side, I put out a call on Twitter for online classes and got a bunch of great recommendations here. I’ll compile this into a list later.

It’s also worth looking at options in the UK. The UK follows the Creative Writing MA, not MFA model, which is slightly different in terms of commitment and length. The University of East Anglia’s year-long MA, which birthed writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Diana Evans, and Tash Aw, is a really reputable program. It can also be significantly cheaper than some tuition-based MFAs in the States. I just don’t know that much about it because I ended up going the US route.

Dates to take note of:

— Application deadline
— Funding application deadline
— Deadlines for Letters of Recommendation to be uploaded
— Deadline for uploading proof of English proficiency (Internationals)
— Availability and lead time for local test centers in your home country re: IELTS / GRE / TOEFL (Internationals)

These differ from school to school. The US deadlines tend to be end of year / early Jan, whereas the UK ones are much later, like in May.

The Application
Your writing sample:

Your writing sample is the singular most important thing in your application package. It’s the thing they’ll most likely read first, since the most compelling personal statement in the world won’t make up for bad writing. Pour your heart and soul into this… then polish the hell out of it.

Resources for the Statement of Purpose / Personal Statement:
So in the States, you need to write a sort of essay to accompany your application. Apparently this is common even at the undergraduate level, which is… kind of strange. What are 17-year-olds supposed to say about why they want to go to school?! Why are they asked to prove suitability via essay when they already did the thing they were supposed to do, aka, study and get the necessary grades?! Anyway.

I think the MFA was my first time encountering this personal statement business. It’s basically an artist manifesto, a statement of purpose representing who you are as an artist, and why you’re applying to this specific MFA.

— I found this article very useful when crafting my statement: How I wrote my Statement of Purpose
— Here’s an advice thread on Twitter from Kat Lewis, which is concise and helpful (Link to PDF in case Twitter has imploded by the time you’re reading this)
— And if you’ve ever wondered what goes on on the other side of the curtain, here’s a peek behind the scenes, from someone who reads MFA applications (Ditto. PDF.)

If you have a close friend or professor who might be willing to read a draft of your personal statement, and if you’re comfortable enough to share it with them, this would be immensely helpful — especially if they have an eye for critical essay writing language. On the other hand, I wouldn’t ask someone to share their personal statement — it’s called personal for a reason, and I feel like they’d offer if they were comfortable sharing. Besides, what each artist is working on differs so greatly that I strongly believe the best thing you can do is try to have your application package, statement included, best represent who you are as an artist. The one thing I will say is to be specific with your language… don’t make vague, abstract statements about the value of writing. Who are you, specifically? Ah, the perennial question that’s triggered many an existential crisis…

Resources for the Recommendation Letter:

Most applications require two to three recommendation letters. More commonly three. This can be tricky if you don’t know any writers, obviously, and in recent years, the practice of requiring recommendations has come under fire as a form of gatekeeping. But until that changes… I knew two people who could speak to my writing, and for the last one, I asked my old boss to write me a recommendation testifying to my ferocious work ethic.

I initially found asking for letters of recommendation to be very awkward, because you’re essentially asking a huge favour from someone, usually without any way of reciprocating, at least not in the short term. Anyway, here are some tips for asking:

— Cathy Day’s The Letter of Recommendation
— Writing Workshop’s Getting Letters of Recommendation for your MFA 

Most important takeaways:
— give your recommenders loads of lead time. Generally the more time the better. In fact, ask now. Lmao.
— please remember you’re asking for a favour, so be polite and respectful of their time
— make writing the letter as easy as possible for your recommenders by giving them all the necessary information upfront

If the program you’re applying for has a teaching component, you might want to ask someone who can speak to that. In this case, if you’ve had prior experience teaching or TA-ing, it would be good to include your student evaluations and CV in your email to your recommender, so they have all this information on hand. Basic email etiquette: don’t attach this in the initial ask — send all this information after they’ve agreed to write you a letter!

It’s important that these people actually know and can vouch for you. It is really in your best interest that your recommenders know and champion you / your work, because an unenthusiastic or impersonal letter is much worse and can really hurt your application. One of the people I initially asked for a recommendation turned me down, citing that she didn’t know my work well enough, and to this day I’m grateful she did.

Resources for moral support:
The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is apply and then try your best to forget all about it, because application anxiety is terrible. Otherwise, every year there’s a new support/ discussion group on Facebook for everyone in the world applying for that year’s MFA intake. It’s called MFA Draft, and if you search “MFA Draft 2022” you should be able to find it.

These websites are great too:

Read the Workshop
AWP The Writer’s Notebook — linked to MFA advice, but you can search for a variety of other things related to a writer’s life.

Resources for deciding:

If you have several offers and can’t decide, people will typically recommend that you visit the schools before making a decision, which again, isn’t that tenable if you’re not based Stateside and arent made of moneybags.

Here is an article on making your MFA decision, which might be helpful.

Internationals: I recommend contacting the person who called you for your acceptance and asking if they can put you in touch with any international students who might be willing to talk to you. Or else you might just go through the good old social network. I get requests from friends or friends of friends yearly to ask if I mind talking to someone who’s thinking of applying to / accepting Columbia. The writing life is very pay-it-forward, so I’m usually happy to do it, with the understanding that they go on and extend a hand to a younger writer in the future when the time comes.

Some notes on money:

As an international, money is a bitch.

As it is, even if you’re not an international, everything costs money, and it adds up really quickly — the application fees, the cost of relocation, etc… Schools will charge you extra as an international, for, idk, processing or something. Your insurance coverage is usually mandatory to have with the school, and insurance in the USA is a NIGHTMARE. It’s extremely expensive and doesn’t cover half of what a much cheaper policy in Singapore will. I remember showing my American health plan to my insurance agent back in Singapore, and she was like… well, if you get really sick and need an operation or something, it’ll probably be cheaper for you to pay for a last minute ticket, fly back, and claim under your Singapore insurance plan, ha ha ha.

All that to say that financial stress is very real. You can request for application fee waivers from most schools if you can prove financial need, but there’s no getting around the visa fees, which consist the visa application fee, the SEVIS i901 fee, and the passport mailing fee. I think it comes up to about 500 USD. And don’t even get me started on the IELTS test, which is almost 400SGD.

The upfront move is also expensive. You’ll need to put down minimally a security deposit with your first month’s rent to secure the place — some places require first, last, and security, which is basically 3 months rent upfront. And most places will require a guarantor if you’re signing a lease, and if you’re not American and dont have someone who can financially vouch for you, you might have to pay a middleman service to be your guarantor. To avoid this, you can try just subleasing so your name isn’t on the lease, but please do your due diligence on how to protect your rights as an international subleasee. I got really lucky and signed a lease with this super lax building where the management somehow didn’t require documentation… very sus. New York, baby!

Then having to buy furniture… getting used to tipping… making mental conversations to your home currency all the time… you don’t even qualify for an American credit card, so you can’t get cash back on any of this. Very painful. No shame to anyone who has family support, financially. More power to you. But if you are paying out of pocket, like I did, please, please, budget a buffer in for unexpected costs, because it is extremely stressful to be hemorrhaging money. In USD.

Being stressed about money is also very lonely. If you can find people to talk to about it, please do. Otherwise you can feel like you’re going crazy. I definitely went a bit loopy in my first month there. I think I stopped eating completely at some point and wouldn’t pay to get on the train either. I’d basically walk 30 blocks to avoid paying $2.75 for a metro ride.

Retroactive aside — what I wouldn’t give to pay $2.75 per ride now… *laughs in Bay Area*

Some options, financially:

Don’t go into debt for your MFA. Just don’t. You aint making that tuition money back.
If you’re applying for a fully funded program, great.
If you’re not, negotiate for more money. This is bloody uncomfortable for us Asians who are taught never to ask about money, idk. I wanted to die while writing my initial email asking after funding, I found it so awkward and humiliating. But my fear of being broke is worse. So I asked, and Columbia came back to me with a scholarship. Whaddayaknow! Now I have an incredibly thick skin and ask for money all the time. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

An internationals specific tip: your visa status cuts you off from many funding opportunities, loans, and grants which are American specific. It also prevents you from working off campus for extra cash. Mention all this when you’re asking for additional funding. You have less opportunities to work to cover your tuition elsewhere, and are very much more dependent on what the school can offer you.
— Here are some other tips on asking for funding (grad school, not MFA specific)
— Here is an article on overcoming shame and asking for money if you’re from an underrepresented community
— And the forums like Gradcafe and MFA Draft also have plenty of discussion threads on funding negotiation tips.
— Look into scholarships from your home country. For eg. I got a National Arts Council Arts Scholarship from Singapore which covered almost half of my tuition.

Don’t stop looking for funding options when you start the MFA! A lot of the funding opportunities dont open up until you actually start the program, which unfortunately does mean that you can’t count on any of it. But you should try, nonetheless. There are also independently funded grants available to artists living in New York, and I assume it’s worth looking into independent arts grants and scholarships for the state you end up in. I got additional scholarships and was awarded a fellowship at Columbia midway through my MFA, and by the end of it, I paid nearly nothing for the MFA save for my cost of living in New York City.

Why I applied for the MFA:
Ok we’ve come to my personal story so if you don’t care, go ahead and quit the page. But if you do…


At twenty seven, I was really desperate for time and space to write. Plenty of friends back home asked why I couldn’t just write on the side, and for sure, many novelists have done it. But I was writing and writing and it was all crap. I had no idea how to get better, and I was craving mentorship and literary community.

I was also extremely, extremely burnt out. I’d been working full time since 2011, while simultaneously and consecutively pursuing my university degree, my masters degree, and TA-ing in the university. After being a salaried advertising employee for close to three years, switching to purely freelance work in 2014 was incredibly freeing — but also dangerous. Because my time literally equated to money, I was working nonstop like a woman possessed. When you go from having no money your whole life to having it just within reach, it’s really easy to justify taking on every additional job at the cost of your sleep, rest, social life, creative life, etcetera… and really hard to say no. I would be writing in the middle of the night, then realize upon re-reading it the next day that my sleep-deprived brain was basically inventing nonsense. I knew the best case scenario was if I got to take a chunk of time off to write, so I applied to a couple of residencies in the East Asia region but I was rejected from all of them because I sucked.

Enter the MFA. I had never even heard of it until 2018. At the time, I was desperately applying for all kinds of internships at publishing houses, trying to get as close as I could to the writing/publishing industry. I’d been working for awhile at that point, and sinking a lot of money into trying to make this happen. Mid-2018, I flew down to London on the throwaway promise of a PRH editorial assistant who rejected my internship application due to visa issues but was impressed by my passion and promised to show me around the office if I were ever in town. I flew down specifically for this reason a few months later… only to be completely ghosted by her. I had not yet understood how to discern between sincere and polite invitations and probably gave her a shock when I took her up on her offer. I’m better at this now but I still think people should say what they mean. Anyway.

Already in town, I met the writer Tash Aw for lunch. We’d met a couple of years prior when he was a visiting writer at NTU — I took a masterclass with him that was, for me, transformative in clarifying my artistic aims and conceptualizing the possibility of a life as a working writer — and we stayed in touch ever since. After hearing my entire sob story, he asked why I didn’t just apply for an MFA.

A what?

A degree specifically for writing?!

I wish I could say the rest was history but it really wasn’t. I already had money saved up over the years — I’d assumed I would move to do a PhD in UK or the US and try to swing it as a writer once I’d made it across the North Pacific Ocean or whatever — but it was far from enough. I took on even more work, became slightly maniac tbh, and at the end of 2018 finally did an editorial attachment with a literary agency and a publishing house in the UK while simultaneously applying to Columbia.

Outside the 4th Estate Harper Collins Office building in London
I was really romantic about the whole thing: Columbia had been my dream school ever since I was 18. Back then I’d made the SAT scores, but had no money to actually attend. I’d also long dreamed of moving to New York, and the possibility of doing the Columbia MFA really felt like all my dreams were dovetailing. I truly believed that being able to study writing for 2 years was such a rare privilege that it was only right that I excavate my savings to pay for it. I would have to take on even more jobs to make it happen, but was proud that it was a financial possibility; I saw it as a sign of my hard work and success. I had some truly messed up ideas on money and worth that I’m still trying to unpick — nowhere in this process did I ever think that perhaps I was worth enough as a writer that someone might want to fund me. The entire time, I thought to myself, I’m so grateful to even be considered, I’d give you my left kidney, I’m betting everything on this dream.

So I didn’t apply for a single fully funded program. None of that hedging, 12-15 applications strategy for me. I applied for Columbia. I told myself that if I didn’t get in then I’d give up on the MFA and continue plodding along.

I suppose I’ve always been quite stupid about these things. But anyway, Columbia accepted me, and there was really no question that I wouldn’t go. Getting that acceptance phone call was an actual visceral experience, the sense of a dream coming true so overwhelming that I felt the swooning disassociation of a woman wine-drunk. It was a decision that made no financial sense whatsoever (I said yes even before getting the scholarships and fellowships that would later significantly reduce my cost of attendance), but that I felt in my heart was the right thing to do.

If I were to back this decision up with practical considerations though, here’s what they would be:

1. As an international, the MFA would give me the legal right to stay in America, visa-wise . And I was certain that I wanted to be in the States, where I would have access not only to Columbia’s classes, but literary events, communities, and opportunities that existed there.

2. And if I were going to relocate my entire life across the globe, I wanted it to be to New York. To me, these 2 years would be the singular biggest investment in myself I’d ever make, and I didn’t see the point of spending all this money on a dream and then not actually doing the thing my dream entailed.

3. I went into the MFA hungry. More than once, faculty would remark upon how hardcore I was — as did the other students. I was frequently asked why I took even the simplest class assignment so seriously. But I have been like this my whole life. I have zero chill. Even before accepting Columbia’s offer, I knew that I would make the most of it. I would never allow myself to waste a single minute, which I had calculated to the dollar. And it worked. I could feel myself improving, almost muscularly. Within the first semester I had two offers from faculty to connect me with their agents. I didn’t take them up on it because I knew I wasn’t ready, but it made a world of difference in how it encouraged me to keep working on my craft.

4. I never saw myself as a student. I approached the MFA believing that it was an implement to my writing, not its container. I viewed it as a very expensive way to help me work on my existing projects, both on the craft level, and in further clarifying my artistic vision. When I introduced myself in any kind of social setting, I called myself a writer.
Unless I was going somewhere that had. student discount. Then I was absolutely a student.

5. I had cultivated relentless optimism as a way of being, which I knew I could lean into when recalibrating to being in a foreign country alone. Until the pandemic broke me (lol), I truly lived in a state of constant euphoria and terror (for financial and safety reasons), and really fucking loved every single second I was on campus, in class, reading and talking writing with other writers. Resisting jadedness and skepticism went a long way in keeping me focused on my work, and constantly learning even from people I didn’t agree with.

Well, the pandemic hit, blah blah blah, and it took three, not two years, plus a lot more tears and pain, but this month, I finally graduated:

And you know. It was a really difficult and often disillusioning journey, but I don’t regret it.

The MFA was both a way to buy time and to legally allow me to stay in NYC, but more than that, it was the biggest signal to myself that I believed I had a shot at being a writer.

Although I loved and benefited greatly from my time at Columbia, the truth is that lot of my writing life in NYC happened outside the program. A lot of the opportunities I had were purely based on being in the right place at the right time. It’s not like it’s impossible to do this from back home but it would be disingenuous to pretend that it wouldn’t be much harder. There are other MFA programs in the greater New York area, both within the city and state, and if you zoom out a bit and look across America, there are so many fantastic MFA programs, few of which are as ruinously expensive as Columbia is. If I could go back in time, I’d do more research, possibly cast my net wider. Been a bit more pragmatic about the financial realities around it all. But in the end, Columbia was the right decision for me, because it was the one that I made. A little bit like a chicken and egg situation. What worked for me may not have worked for someone else, and mine is just one experience. But it’s the one I have.

And I know, for a fact, that I would not have the writing life I have now if I hadn’t moved to New York. I met my current writing friends at readings and parties around the city. I started as a weekly columnist for a literary magazine that was founded by writers I met in Columbia. I learned about opportunities by listening to writers talk about them. Friendly acquaintances I made online bloomed into real life friendships when those writers passed through New York, as writers do. Writers introduced me to other writers. Those other writers commissioned work from me. I learned a lot from being in workshop with emerging writers, from being in the company of writers who had similar aspirations, dreams. I found myself improving by watching my peers revise their work. I started publishing stories. This encouraged me. I submitted stories to places aggregated in the Columbia mailing list and won prizes for them. For every acceptance I was rejected maybe 20 times. No matter. I kept going. I got personalised rejections from Granta and A Public Space and held them close to my heart. I treasured them immensely. I understood how little I knew, but I no longer felt like I was struggling to stay afloat alone. I felt comforted and inspired by seeing writers near me achieve things that I didn’t know were possibilities, it galvanized my work, gave me the confidence to take risks artistically. I wanted to cry with the sheer joy of being able to sit in a dirty bar booth and intensely discuss strategies for varying narrative distance with dialogue tags and sensory verbs. I actually did cry, a lot. Publicly. I was never embarrassed about it. I met younger asian writers passing through the city who wanted to talk about building a writing practice and was frequently moved by the passion in their voice, the hunger. I applied for the Stegner because a fellow writer mentioned it offhand and, realizing I’d never heard of writing fellowships, encouraged me to try for it. And now here I am, in the Bay Area, as a full time working writer.

Every single time I think about it I want to cry again. And, you know, it sounds so silly and childish, but I really am so happy that this is my life, and that every day, I wake up with no obligations to anything but my writing. I don’t take it for granted, I know all of this could fall apart, I could never publish a single other thing again, though not for lack of trying, I could toil and toil at my art and never be satisfied, I could have my imposter syndrome confirmed by any number of factors outside my control, I could lose my mind. But at least I had this complete and perfect fulfillment, if only for a precious moment. At least I have today.


fire hazard

So much has happened in the last six months — getting the stegner, finishing at Columbia, getting married, moving across the world again, attending my first literary conference in vermont while simultaneously making American national news, grieving a close friend’s untimely passing, crying so much, setting up in the West Coast, schlepping all over the Bay Area for second-hand furniture, starting the Stegner, and then, finally, turning thirty…

interestingly in the last six months I’ve had close brushes with fire three times, which is too frequent an occurrence for my liking. the first was the day the stegner was announced. I was boiling my weekly batch of hard-boiled eggs, as one does, when I looked up and saw a snowflake drifting past the kitchen window. I’ve been obsessed with snow ever since I was a child, being from the equator and all. To me snow isn’t real, it’s from the realm of TV and fairytales, for a long time I thought I would simply never see it in my lifetime because going to seasonal countries is expensive. Which is a large part of why I’ve always loved getting older. In my mind, age = legal ability to work = monies = choices. In fact, I think I was almost twenty when I first went to a Disneyland, in Hong Kong, and that evening it started snowing. I completely lost my shit. I thought, what the fuck is this magic. So I did what the storybooks said people did, and stuck my tongue out to catch the snowflakes, and promptly realised I was eating soap foam. But anyway. That cold morning in March, I was so taken by the real, New York snow, that I followed it immediately, and went out on the street to watch it coming down. And then I thought, since I’m outdoors, might as well go to work. So I walked to Columbia to get some writing done, and an hour later, my roommate called me and told me I’d nearly burnt the house down because my eggs had exploded on the stove. I ran home and there was actual, visible smoke hanging in the air, lingering like some kind of unwanted guest, and powdery egg yolk everywhere, in all the crevices of the kitchen, the cupboards, the refrigerator, the light switches.

While I was on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor trying to clean up egg bits, shivering because all the slushy snow had melted and now I was just straight up shivering and drenched, my phone started blowing up, and that’s how I learnt that everyone else now knew what I’d been keeping secret for two weeks — that I was one of the new Stegner fellows, that I’d been given the gift of time, that my dreams, basically, were coming true.

A week after that my partner, now husband, flew down to new york for his bachelor’s trip, so we could meet up and go to Disney World with some of his groomsmen. Yet another thing I thought I’d never do in my entire life. I often wonder what it would have been like to be privvy to so much manufactured magic as a child; I think I would have peed my pants in excitement and wonder. As an adult I still love it all, the fireworks and music and obvious emotional manipulation, but I cant stop ringing up the cost of everything in my mind. The value of your dollar and all that, I suppose. Anyway. We took different flights back to New York because I had Delta miles from a previous pandemic related flight cancellation, and said seeya later at MCO airport, fully expecting to land at JFK within 30 minutes of each other. Little did I know. Little. Did I know.

For the next thirty two hours I boarded and disembarked multiple flights as I tried desperately to get out of Orlando while they were all cancelled one by one for all kinds of reasons, the most ludicrous being that a gate agent, in an attempt to get rid of me, printed me a ticket to a flight that didn’t exist. I cycled through the rounds of being drunk and sober multiple times as I participated in the time honored tradition of oral storytelling and regaled all of MCO terminal B with my sob story, getting multiple free drinks of pity, sleeping on an airport bench, showering in the public toilet.

Hour 21, I managed to wrangle my way onto a flight and promptly fall asleep in my seat while waiting for take off with the confidence of a fool. I woke an hour later to the smell of smoke and an air stewardess beside me. The plane was on fire. It’d only happened once in her seven years of flying, this was the second time. I disembarked, went straight to the bar, and got myself a beer and consolatory fried chicken. A routine, by that point.

Third time. Less than a month after I was wed. I flew back to the States for a literary conference, which included a 12 hour SG-FRA flight, a 15 hour layover, 8.5 hour FRA-NYC, crashing a night at a girlfriend’s place, then flying out the following AM to Vermont. A recipe that did not take into consideration jet lag because I am am optimist and endlessly unrealistic. Anyway. On the Uber to La Guardia, I was chatting with my driver, Fritz, when we drove past a building that was literally on fire. I have never seen anything like it — flames really do lick the air, they also shoot, and twist, and shatter windowpanes from heat. We pulled over and he ran straight into the building while I stood on the sidewalk and did what i do best, which is yell a lot. EVACUATE, EVACUATE. Like they say in those airplane safety briefings. EVACUATE EVACUATE! The fire truck came ten minutes later, Fritz ran out having saved 2 people, and asked if he smelt of smoke. His wife would kill him, he said, if she knew he’d ran into a burning building. I tweeted about it sans names in a what the heck just happened what a crazy morning kinda way, got on the flight, and when i landed it had been retweeted over fifty thousand times. I immediately emailed Fritz and said um you know what you said about not wanting your wife to know…

Anyway. It turned out he was fine with media attention, enthused by the public excitement over choosing to do good. It feels like everyone could use a bit of hope, with the way these few years have gone. We made national news. But I was in Vermont with no cell service and shitty wifi and in between readings and classes I was on the phone with journalists and dialing in to the CNN studios for a live show by hiding in a Bread Loaf closet and trying to balance my phone on a shelf. I couldn’t hear jackshit and was really hoping for the best. When we went live, apparently Fritz said how are you and I replied I know right and my sister dragged me for the next month straight.

Anyway. That’s three fires in six months. One per two months. Far, far too many close calls for my liking. A friend pointed out that this isn’t even it — a couple of years ago, I had fallen asleep on a diving boat, and woke up to the deck in flames. People were screaming and climbing over each other trying to retrieve these dusty lifejackets which clearly had never been put to use, ever. I remember, back then, being so burnt out from work, so exhausted from juggling multiple freelance jobs while teaching at the university and trying to complete my Masters and also have a life (which was why I was even on that boat, I was trying to learn to dive in a bid to enrich my life…)

I looked at the fire, looked at my friend, a severely overworked advertising suit who had also just woken up. We both closed our eyes and went back to sleep. If this is it, I remember thinking. I’m so tired. Just five minutes more.

How far things have come. Now I am hungry to stay alive, every day aflame with the joy and pain of being able to do nothing but write, read, write some more. I’m so happy. It feels so trite to say but I am. If this is thirty, I think. I’m ready for more.



I’ve been thinking recently ab the new social media trend which feels very reminiscent of the early 2000s formspring/ days, and by thinking, i mean to say that i felt a strong visceral revulsion towards it.

So from what I understand, ngl is a new app where people can ask you completely anonymous questions and you reply by posting the question to your instagram story and typing whatever you want underneath it. Its different from the Questions button on instagram story because with that one, the questions asked are still tied to the asker’s IG handle — no, this ngl trend promises true anonymity, though apparently you can pay for hints as to who the asker is, etc.

I have, obviously, very strong feelings about this. I think that when you open your person up like that, you are giving people a hall pass into your attention, which is something that should be guarded carefully. With something like ngl, most people think about the best case scenarios — ie. they hope for a version of their self-image to be affirmed and projected back onto them, they’re hoping for one specific person to ask them something that will then establish a kind of imagined intimacy, or they hope to publicly appear a certain way (intelligent, thoughtful, interesting) through their answers to these questions. but to me that’s very dangerous. you cannot control the behavior of other people, nor their thoughts / attention. letting people say whatever they want to you seems a can of worms: you’re allowing people to plant doubts in your life, whether maliciously intended or not, you’re allowing people to express to you, specifically you, their opinions which are informed by layers and layers of calcified assumptions and stereotypes. the immediate reaction i had to the app was just, no. i dont even want your shoes in my house why would i want your thoughts in my brain.

a lot of my feelings about this comes from specific personal experience. ten years ago when i started hosting i was thrust into the public eye, and it felt as if i immediately split from myself, and became jemimah the person, and jemimah the gesture. suddenly everyone and their mothers were in my business, expressing to me things and behaviors both online and in real life that would be completely unacceptable to say otherwise. singapore is small, so i would perpetually run into people who knew me from the general internet or who watched the show i was on, and who felt it was totally ok to be either overly rude or overly intimate. i remember there was this one time someone went to all the trouble to document every single meal i had posted online and email me with a break down of the carbohydrate and sugar and msg content, explaining to me quite earnestly why even though i looked ugly now, i would be less ugly if i did this and this and this to my diet. that person took special umbrage at my patronage of ramen santouka in clarke quay central, something that stuck with me all these years but didn’t make a dent in my love affair with ramen.

anyway, the email seemed well-intentioned but i can only guess. it was certainly superficially more polite than other emails or DMs expressing disgust at my existence or just gleefully expressing explicit or disgusting shit to me. The worst part is that despite being told to kill myself on a semi-regular basis I actually dont think i got it that bad. i’ve exchanged notes with my other girlfriends and a lot of things that get thrown around are actually horrifying. Anonymous commentors are not afraid to play mother play father. Social decorum or basic decency goes out of the window. at best it’s flabbergasting and stressful, at worst it’s heartbreaking.

And it’s not like i didn’t also have support and love and trust from people who only knew me from a digital arms length. Part of being so publicly accessible was being able to have many long conversations with people I’d probably never meet irl, but who shared their lives and troubles with me after connecting with something I might have said online — to be honoured with that kind of trust is something I dont take lightly. I was very moved by the interest and empathy and enthusiasm from those for whom i was just a collection of pixels on their screen. But every time i got these other kind of messages i remember thinking in outrage, what makes you think you can say this to me? and then finally realizing that of course they can. the difference between can and should is a vast ungovernable chasm and all you can do is hope that people are courteous. which is, you know, a big ask.

which is part of why this ngl trend scares me. i remember thinking years ago that ok fine, i technically knew what i was signing up for, and i just had to accept this as part of the package of a life of privilege that media afforded me. and i learnt very painfully, but very effectively, to disengage from absurdity or walk away from interactions i didn’t want to be a part of. It’s a useful life skill but it’s not something that i would wish upon anyone else having to learn the hard way.

And most of the time, in regular interaction, you won’t have to. Most communication is enacted in an arena where both parties have agenda and power, shit can go down but it can also be dodged/resisted/pushed back against. And at the very least there is some kind of accountability, which triggers both an awareness of social consequence and, i think, a level of self-respect that reminds you that you are not a primordial baboon driven only by its present id, and that keeps you to a higher moral standard in your interactions with another individual.

That, to me, is the key difference between an app like ngl and someone just sending you an anonymous DM with their own private IG accounts or whatever. The complete and utter anonymity of ngl doesn’t just cede control over the conversation for you, it releases the other person from the usual moral standards of what it means to be a normal human being in society. i usually don’t have that much of an opinion about social media trends cos most of them are harmless and transient, but ngl to me seems to be hiding under the same veneer of innocuous fun, but which has the potential to really cause lasting damage. people spend so much of their lives trying to establish a solid center of self-regard as they develop as human beings, and so few people are truly able to remain unaffected by what others think of them. Ngl to me seems like giving a stranger booze and a katana and hoping they dont drunkenly stab the baby crawling around the room, slowly learning to walk.

Anyway. My girlfriends and i were having a long conversation about this the other night, where we were like, man, imagine how damaging this ngl thing might be for all the preteen and young adults online who are just trying it for fun. And then of course the very next day my partner went online and was like, he he we’re getting married this weekend ask me anything!!! And i was like, Shane. Please. But I had a look at the questions people sent him and only one person was kind of shady. I was worried, I asked Shane if it bothered him at all, I was all ready to walk him through the techniques of Not Giving A Fuck About What Anonymous Internet People Say.

But actually I needn’t have worried. Shane has the confidence of a lynx, he just found all of it quite funny. So maybe it’s bc he’s 32, or maybe im overreacting and am only really being retroactively protective over the kid i once was, and maybe kids nowadays are able to cut through and dismiss external feedback that isn’t helpful or edifying to them. Either way. That was my cute lil rant on the dangers of letting people talk shit to you, online or otherwise. I’m getting married this weekend, do not ask me anything.

x jem

big baby

Reunited! Reunited with Athena! Hard to believe it’s been ten years since all the stars aligned and my mother’s old school friend’s cat got preggers and there was suddenly a shock of directionless kittens looking for homes, and my baby sister did well on a national exam and appealed for a reward in the form of permission, not a cat, but permission to get a cat, and for the cat to stay. Prior to this, we had fostered a bunch of cats — fostered in the sense that we would simply pick up injured lost strays and bring them home, to the chagrin of my parents… at our peak Catdom we had three cats, i think, though I might be mixing up the timelines. It came to a point where whenever there were abandoned kittens in the neighborhood people would call us and we would turn our big pleading eyes on our parents and if they said no we would take the kittens home anyway. In retrospect we were not easy daughters but at least we always meant well. Right? Right. There are worse problems to have in daughters beyond a tendency to rescue and house cats, is what i am telling myself. And every time we nursed the kittens or strays back to health, we would seek out a family who would want them, and every single time we handed the cats over to their new loving homes we would cry and cry. But you cannot live with a cat and stay disaffected, each separation must have sliced away at my parents too, and so when my baby sister turned twelve, and when the opportunity for permission and reward intersected, my mother finally said, fine, but in her heart i think she was — we were — all thinking, finally. Home, finally. A home, finally. Family. And we had all these dreams of a cat who would love us and curl up beside us and boop our noses with her (it was always going to be a her) cute little pink paw pads and melt our hearts and be everything we ever wanted. And we saw Athena and we thought she was going to be it. But she grew up grumpy as all hell, a cat who wails at everything and is scared of bugs and rain and cries whenever another cat walks by and hates being groomed and sheds like a bitch and refuses to be held for more than ten seconds and complains whenever it is too hot as if we could control the weather and you know what, everyone is surprised, and I’m surprised too, but it really was everything we ever wanted. Athena, the perfect cat. My sweet baby.

Some fun personal news

Columbia University School of the Arts News

In early march, i got a call while working in the library and thought it was spam, because, you know, America.

Anyway, I picked up, because, you know, me, got the news, then ran into the toilet and burst into tears while people around me flushed and glared.

I was immediately very emo:


And I’ve been kind of in a whirl ever since. I guess this means I’m going home, getting married, then moving to the Bay Area with no duty to anything except my art. What a summer it’ll be.




It has been a difficult writing month — why? because writing is a temperamental wife, i suppose — but this past weekend I spent over ten hours each day with this one spec-fic story that’s been eating at me, and i came away feeling so renewed. The singular joy of sustained focus one has while chiseling away at a story, watching it take shape, breaking it apart, and putting it together again, is really like nothing else.


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Camera Info

I shoot on a Nikon D750 with a 35f/1.8 lens, a Fujifilm x100v, or my Samsung Note 20 Ultra. Pictures are edited in Lightroom Mobile or VSCO