Making the Blogfather: Turning Point

2 years ago, yesterday. It was a Friday.

“Can I speak with you, downstairs?” I said to my editor.

She looked up at me as I stood next to her. “Uh, sure. Could you give me about half an hour while I clear out my morning routine?”

“Of course, take your time. I’ll be waiting at the coffeeshop downstairs. And just so you know, I won’t be coming back up into this office, again.”

The whole office heard me – a drawback of an open-concept workplace, and one that I was banking on. I took no notice of the others as I turned back, but not before I caught a glint of apprehension fall on my editor’s expression.

A while later, my editor came down to meet me, and what followed was a three-hour long exit interview that began with me saying I was resigning from the company, and looking at the way I was being treated -as an employee, a father and a person – it would be much better off, and much safer too, if everyone accepted that it be with immediate effect.

It was almost as if everyone knew this job wouldn’t last long. I never really settled in the whole 2 months I worked there. I was never given a proper desk of my own to settle into, anyway. As a result, there was nothing of personal importance that I brought to work, and thus none that I needed to bring home with me.

Except my heart.

I told my editor what her boss – the person who hired me – told me; that I was hired because I wrote with heart. And while I was in there, I tried to keep up with what I felt were their ridiculous demands, with all the hope and innocence of a writer that would put all his heart into his writing and his job, no questions asked, simply because I was in absolutely no position to argue against those demands. When I voiced my concerns, I was made out to be disruptive. But to manipulate my circumstances in such a way and force me into a corner (from full-time to freelance, with only 4 days to either decide or leave, and even a now-empty threat of legal consequences should I freelance for any other publication in a related field), whilst either knowing full well or completely neglecting the fact that I was a father with a family to feed, and after two whole months of me trying to conform to their standards, and pleading for chances when I failed to, one can hardly expect me not to snap, and subsequently push back with equal force.

They wanted a writer with heart; they didn’t consider that they also had to deal with one.

Throughout that morning, the editor was trying to explain the company’s actions away, but as I threw down (and reiterated) point after point in rebuttal, over and over again, she found herself less able to protect the interests of the company she worked for, and at some points, even wondering if she was safe from the treatment I was subject to. She even tried to recalculate the articles I had to submit, stating again that this was the workload she routinely had to deal with herself when she first started. But you could tell from the faltering resolve in her voice that the numbers were starting to look ridiculous even to her.

Later after lunch, she would request I go to the conference room for a talk with the CEO’s right-hand man, the company’s sales director. Having not been privy to the emotions I displayed in the morning, he commenced the afternoon’s session with the remark, “I’m sorry, but by leaving without notice, it feels like you’re screwing us over.”

My editor’s face went pale as mine turned a richer, bolder dark red, and I swear the room also went a few shades darker. I said, in as calm a tone as I could muster, with my left hand clenched and pressed hard on the conference room table and my right index finger pointed solidly just a centimetre away from the skin between his eyes, “Consider what you have put me through, and please speak to the editor should you have any doubt of the ordeal that your company has orchestrated over the last 3 days, and Say. That. Again. To. My. Face.”

He backed up a little, fumbled with his words as he tried to mask his confusion over the sudden turning of tables, then asked to be excused with the editor and left the room for a few minutes. He’d return later with the editor (who decided she would take notes of our afternoon meeting for whatever reason), and try to explain his company’s position over the last few weeks that led to such a drastic restructure, ultimately involving their proposal to switch me to a freelance contract.

But he had already lost me.

In his bid to salvage what was left of our working relationship, he said two things to me. First, that based on my writing for Blogfathers SG! and Dear Xander, I could seriously consider monetising my blog(s) as my primary means of income (something that I did consider later on). Second, he hoped that I wouldn’t consider any part of this a “burning of bridges” of any sort.

I replied to his second notion with not a little scorn: “Haven’t you already beat me to it?”

Then I stood up, and I left.


At a recent blogger event, I was introduced to someone who was looking for dad bloggers to join her company’s writing pool. When she passed me a namecard indicating she was a new marketing manager for this company, I froze for a good 15-30 seconds, and my wife had to briefly (and curtly) explain why on my behalf. A few minutes later, I couldn’t bear to stay, and we left in haste. It had been close to 2 years since I quit, and the wounds still felt as fresh and raw.

I decided to pen this down not so much for public reading, but to figure out how to close this chapter in my life. I can’t say for sure I won’t freeze again if I ever encounter another member of that company in the future, nor can I say I can put all this behind me right now.

Because right this moment, I’m not sure where I will be headed. Last Friday, I was told my services would not be extended for my current job.

The feelings I had facing the uncertainty of my future 2 years ago came flooding back over the last three days. And once again, I am at a loss.

Making The Blogfather: Dark Days

In one of the last coffee sessions I had thanks to the cover letter I wrote, I took an editor job with a company that had a good focus on family (judging from the category of content they dished out at least), and the person who interviewed me was kind (or crazy) enough to overlook the fact that I had no prior full-time editorial experience (I only had my blogs and freelance writing to show in my portfolio at the time). I felt was being granted a first step in chasing a dream, but in my eagerness, I committed my first fatal flaw: an editor is a very different level from a writer, and I was inadvertently skipping a couple of levels. I’d learn this the hard way in a bit.

There were other warning signs: as I started familiarising myself with their editorial style, I found a number of “sensational” articles being published alongside their regular fodder – strange, tabloid-ish incidents, kinky sex stories, domestic abuse gone wrong, even gruesome deaths due to neglect or crimes of passion. I was uneasy about the content arrangement. This really isn’t the kind of thing our target  want to read, I thought. But then I was told that this was necessary to attract readership (advertisers were the business’s core source of revenue, and readership numbers were crucial to maintaining our price point), and it also worked (somewhat) to lead people into our more serious writing. So I tried to swallow it and move on.

Then there were the KPIs. I was tasked to come up with at least 2 articles a day, 5 days a week (my editor at the time would tell me each writer would typically do 4 articles a day, but since I was new, she’d start me slow), while maintaining 2-3 hourly Facebook posts to drive online traffic to everything we published.

But the biggest sign I should really have taken heed to: I was the only writer in the company, and the only one of two in the entire organisation, that had kids. When I raised this concern with my editor and the CEO, both understandably didn’t subscribe to the notion, saying that in the many years since the publications were established, they got by fine without writer-parents. Besides, they both didn’t have any children, either, and they were both contributing to the content pool anyway. The revelation – and its subsequent brushing off – made me feel, somehow, alone.

A week into the job, the company went through a surprise restructure. Though editorial was assured that our jobs were intact (which later turned out to be untrue), a staffer in charge of one of their newer websites decided to resign, giving his two week’s notice. The website was handed over to me, with a view for me to drive unique visitor numbers up from its current 10,000 to 30,000 by the end of the following month.

My own inexperience showed, both in the way I worked and in the way I accepted my work. In the 2 months I was there, my dream turned into a nightmare. I was being chided for not being able to keep up, criticised for coming to work late and leaving on time (I was dropping my son off at school and had to pick him up on time after work). The stress of the job was taking a toll on me; I found myself unable to meeting my daily writing quotas, neglecting my blogs, and at one point, fighting with my then 3-year-old son. The stress manifested physically as well; I started losing sleep and my mojo, and I had bouts of uncontrollable trembling. I lost confidence; I felt I was failing, as an employee, as a writer, as a father. I felt impotent, hopeless, and utterly useless as a human being. I was slipping into depression.

Things came to a head when the editor brought me to the conference room in private to tell me that I was not performing up to expectations; I was still only able to churn out about 2 articles a day for the websites -some days only 1 – and I was only able to bring the website under my care up to 29,000 visitors, 1,000 short of the 30,000 I was supposed to hit by the end of that month. In view of my performance, and in line with the recent decision by the board to restructure, the management was converting the entire editorial department from full-time to freelance.

The entire editorial department consisted of 4 personnel: the editor, that was to remain full-time because she had to manage the editorial department (hmm), a writer in Malaysia that was to remain full-time because he was to be reassigned other tasks, another writer in the same office as me (because, as I was told, the other writer was allegedly also not performing), and me.

Then I was told not to worry, as they hoped to assign me enough work to match my full-time salary, at between $30 ( for non-advertorial, non-sponsored articles, or what they termed “summary articles”) to $100 (for advertorials). (Again, I may have been terribly naive to think it should have been higher, but can someone enlighten me about this as well?) So  under this new arrangement, I now had to churn out more work than I already was the last two months – between 61 to 92 articles a month (including event attendances) in order to keep my salary level, with no benefits and no freelancing with any other parenting publication.

And as if I wasn’t dazed enough from the obvious double-talking, I was told I had till Friday to decide – I was notified at the end of our Tuesday workday.

The next two days nearly broke me. I tried to cope with the sudden and rather brutal changes that I thought was all in a day’s work in an industry I was slowly realising I knew nothing about. To this day, I still couldn’t figure out if the company was screwing with me, or I was simply not fit to be in a full-time editorial position. My wife initially advised me to “grit my teeth and bear it”; I was a father, and we needed to sustain ourselves whilst I tried to find something new.

But even she could only bear so much; the final straw came when I received an email from the CEO of the company while I was attending a gala movie screening as the Blogfather with the Mother of Xander two days later. In the email, amongst the reiteration of my alleged incompetence, I was also accused of being “highly unproductive and disruptive”, with “a work style that is not compatible with your immediate supervisor”.

Something in me snapped when I got to that line in the message. Gone were the feelings of loss, hopelessness and depression – pushed aside with a fresh, slow burn of quiet fury.

Just before the lights dimmed at the theatre, I showed my wife the email on my phone. She took about 30 seconds to go through it, then returned me my phone, turned her eyes back at the cinema screen and said, “Quit.”

And that was all I needed to hear.

SG50 – Finding the Way Forward, Like an Awkward Teen

This post comes in 3 pages, so the loh-sohness is more bearable.

50 years in human terms might seem like a milestone of life, but in the context of a nation, it seems more like we’re only just breaking out in our teenage zits.

To be fair, we’ve been Singapura for a lot longer, though in the force of our national education shaping our society’s current mindset, we look at 1819-1964 as more akin to “our lost years” than anything else – a story that begins with the legend of an ang moh turning into a white statue at Empress Place, and ends with a grown man crying because his island-state was kicked out of a larger nation like an unwanted child.

The end of that story, so it seems, has become the beginning of ours.

***

Why the sudden bittersweet nostalgia?

SG50

The Blogfather & Family, together with a number of other bloggers from various niches, were invited to an SG50 pop-up exhibition last weekend. It’s not there anymore (the next one’s happening at Northpoint in Yishun next week, I think). This is not the kind of thing I would usually cover, but for the one single attraction that was mentioned in the invitation email:

SG50-Mamashop
A (not entirely real) mama shop.

However, my curiosity did get piqued by the clout around the exhibition. For one, the invitation was sent by an unexpectedly established agency, and the events schedule read like a half-day diplomatic visit where the bloggers were UN reps. Something was up, and in the course of the exhibition, and more importantly, a rather nice, honest lunch conversation after, I’d confirm what I suspected – that the exhibition was not the point.

Making the Blogfather: A (Cover) Letter to My Future

I’d like to say I left my law firm job amicably, but regrettably, and in what on hindsight now seems like a recurring trend in my abrupt life-changing moments, it began with a quarrel – with my sister, one of the firm’s partners. The day ended abruptly by lunchtime, with me saying I was quitting. As with many quarrels in my life, I cannot for the life of me remember what or why I got so angry. I could only remember thinking if I didn’t, things would have gone far worse.

But leave I did, and I found myself wandering around Fort Canning Hill, wondering what to do next. Over the blazing hot mid-afternoon, after I had taken enough deep breaths to calm down from the fight prior, I decided to whip out my phone and write a cover letter for myself. And this was a letter that would change the direction of my life; for better or worse, I can’t say.

And it went like this:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Seasoned socialites will tell you that “hello” is usually the most effective icebreaker, so here goes.

Hello.

My name is Winston Tay, and I was wondering if you would perchance have a full-time opening for a struggling writer/editor/content manager/father of one who’s looking for a happier way to feed his family.

I am a wordsmith (not necessarily by trade, though most of my career endeavours do involve in large part a mastery of the English language) seeking a permanent position in the publishing industry to build up my writing career. My writing style is best described as fearless, friendly, and fun.

By fearless, I mean I am not afraid to broach controversial topics (of course, within Singapore’s OB marker range). I have a strong curiosity in my ways, which leads me to ask hard questions where hard questions are necessary.

By friendly, I mean I set myself to be highly approachable in conversation, and highly amenable to meeting and engaging people. I also make it a point to simplify my writing for common simplicity and readability, a skill I garnered from dealing with lawyers who pride themselves in complex legalese befitting of the 16th century lawmakers who authored the English common law system.

And by fun, I mean I have a sense of humour, and I’m not afraid to use it.

I’ve attached my resume for your kind attention and (hopefully) pleasurable reading. Samples of my work (commercial and non-commercial) are available on request, if not semi-permanently etched in the vast digital world which we would commonly term the World Wide Web.

Do let me know if you are interested to meet up for an interview. I’ll buy you coffee.

Regards,

Winston Tay

I sent this letter as an introductory email to 6 magazine publishers, both print and online; 5 of them got back to me within a week – I think the last one got filtered into the addressee’s spam folder. And 2 of them never got to looking at my resume before calling me. I ended up having a lot of coffee that month; and as if I needed proof that decisions made in a huff are ultimately not the best decisions one can make, my last coffee session resulting from this over letter would end up tasting extremely bitter.

Making The Blogfather: My Lawfully Shredded Life

A nong, nong, time ago, I used to be a civil servant. Yes, I used to work for gahmen. The Supreme Court, to be exact. As a court transcriber.

This was back in the day just before technology fully infiltrated into our lives; the transcription team would take turns to make cassette tape recordings of court hearings, then after we finished the session, we’d have a 2-hour timeframe in which we’d individually work on behemoth computers with big-backside 19″ CRT monitors installed with Windows 98 and Word 97, to type out transcripts based off our recordings, and then send them off to our department head to compile all the transcripts together before the day ended. There was an entry test for the job: you had to type a minimum of 45 words per minute to qualify. I had only 2 years experience with computer keyboards prior to this job, but fortunately I managed.

And that was as much qualification as I had to enter the legal industry. But enter it I did. 9 months into the court job, I was poached by my then brother-in-law (who co-owned a law firm with my sister) to write for a website that sought to pair people who needed legal representation with a large network of lawyers. Officially, I was known as a content development executive (we made up occupational titles as we went along), but on my namecard, my title was “The Kid” (because we ended up not liking the occupational titles we made up).

And I was still a kid back then; I was 23.

As the partners focused on beefing up subscriptions and developing the infrastructure for the website’s core business, I was charged with overseeing the design of the website user interface as well as proofreading and editing articles submitted by the lawyers (most of which came from the three lawyers running the project). And a little later, I even created a subsection of the website which I lovingly called the Court Jester, where I would curate lawyer jokes, and even write Onion-style parody articles, much to the bemusement of the legal community-at-large.

But it wasn’t always fun. The website was conceived at the height of the dotcom boom, and launched as the era passed its peak. There was a lot of in-fighting as well, a downside from everyone being so close and comfortable with each other that we were practically family (in my case, half of us actually were).

2 years later, our dotcom bombed, but not before I decided to go back to school. I enrolled into a polytechnic and focused on mass communication and media as a full-time student for the next 3 years.

One diploma, one job, one marriage and one kid later (a total of 8 years), I (re-)joined the law firm at the request of my now-ex brother-in-law (sigh, divorce lawyers), as a sort of a writing and marketing consultant to change the way lawyers talk to people – clients and court alike (that’s a rather mindset-changing blog post in itself). And for a while, it was a secure, stable job that more than paid the bills and allowed me to explore my own potential. I even found time to start Dear Xander in December 2011, and 3 months later, Blogfathers SG! as it was known back then. 

It was during this time that I truly understood the power of writing well. We decided to take an actual case and apply my style of writing to the lawyer’s style of, er, layering, and came up with court submissions that read more easily and expressed intentions and logic more fluidly and richly than the more common, drab and dry legal drivel. We got a better verdict as a result, and kept our client, too.

But there was a rather heavy downside to working in a law firm that specialised in civil litigation and divorce: it takes a very strong mind and an even stronger heart to watch people bickering over large amounts of money, and witness marriages break apart on an almost daily basis, either through the client meetings that we conduct, or through the opening statements that the lawyers draft, or through the affidavits that they write, or through the paper trail you have to pick through – bank statements, receipts, letters, emails, phone messages – in order to determine which side is more skilled in weaving the non-fiction into their fiction.

After a couple of years, I decided I needed to leave to find a better way to be happy, and in large part to maintain my sanity as a family man.  It was only at this point that I really started considering writing as a full-fledged career option,  even though I was already writing professionally, both in-house at the firm and as an occasional freelancer in lifestyle magazines, and the jobs I held in the legal industry thus far had elements of writing infused in my scope.

So I tendered my resignation, quite honestly without formulating much of a plan (much to my wife’s chagrin). thereby committing myself to conduct the personal upheaval of my own life that people might call switching careers.