Photo: View of Gangwon mountains, my first morning in Toji
Two years ago, to the day, I arrived in Toji*. It was pitch black when I arrived in Wonju, a moonless night. Not quite able to figure out the boiler (I’m a girl from the tropics!), I spent the night trying to stay warm, wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into this time.
But the next morning, light—the most beautiful light I had ever seen—filled my room. I threw open the curtains and watched morning colour the sky, filling in the shapes of the mountains, the rice fields before me golden yellow. On my porch, a dead cicada, the last notes of summer fading in the trees.
I sometimes think of those two distinct memories as a larger metaphor for my stay at Toji, and the light it brought into my life during a very difficult time. I had been trying to write a novel for some years, but with (then) three year old twins and a full-time career, writing felt like pushing a car uphill. I was doing nothing right: my mother was constantly on my back for neglecting my children, while at work I felt unsatisfied and under appreciated.
Toji made me realise I was indeed doing nothing right—but it wasn’t about my parenting or my work. I’ve written earlier about the rebalancing I engaged in the year after I left Toji, but here I wanted to share another insight: I was trying to be a writer, without doing anything that was really enriching my writing.
Art comes from that quiet place inside when you are alone and your mind is quiet—and I was never alone. In fact, I feared loneliness so much I packed my days with work and surrounded myself with people. At Toji, I learnt to be still. To sit, unmoving, and watch time. To embrace my loneliness. To let my art emerge.
*Toji (토지 or土地, meaning earth) is the title of a historical epic by Park Kyong Ni, whose foundation funds artist residencies in the Gangwon mountains in central South Korea.
Photo: Half moon over the Gangwon mountains, view from Toji
I have been thinking, of late, about time. As a writer, one of the most effective tools we have is the ability to manipulate time. Whether we speed up a story through exposition, linger in the present through sensory detail of a scene, or in what often feels like sleight of hand, returning to the past through a flashback or sense memory, then back to the present.
This morning, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, my phone started buzzing with mid-autumn wishes from friends around the world and pictures of early fall. Pre-pandemic, I was accepted to a residency in Seoul in fall and had plans to gather with my friends from Toji. Instead, I write this from my desk in Singapore, no idea when I will see my friends again. When will this end? When will we be able to stand outside this time? I only know we are in the thick of something we do not yet quite understand.
Outside the rain has slowed. A fall-like breeze brings in the smell of wet leaves. Tonight the moon will rise, luminous and full again.
Where will you watch the full moon tonight? And what will you do—if not today, in the near term—to enrich your art?
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I’m a bit too embarrassed to watch it myself, but if you missed our conversation organised by the UK’s National Centre of Writing on Who is The Mythical English Reader?, here's a video link.