Jill Chan


What is a notebook? A place to flee to in times of worry or loneliness? A stranger who remains so with you after you know him. A stranger who remains a stranger. Where do you hide? Nowhere you can still be. For in here, you are alive no matter where you go. No matter where you end up, you are here.

And in each entry, you open up to your mystery and its remorse. We die a little whenever we write to be at once alive and dead. The things around you are moving like the pen. The things inside you are faithful like the pen. And you bring it with you just so it can reveal you to all.

To be free from tragedy. That is something you wish to be. And something you can only try to be.

Just today, going to a place far yet conscious of the way, you steady yourself; you take a little of the motion towards that place.

Here you are, you say almost to yourself. Here you are alive and will be for a time.

We are mortal and we know it. It is a freedom and a death. Likewise a challenge, an indefinite article of doubt.

Forgive me if I digress. Life is one long and interesting digression. Fulfilling a need to be curious and forgetting it, we continue and hope never to come to the end. Yet we know all too well that we are wrong. There is an end. And we arrive by many means. By means both beautiful and frightening.

Beautiful in the sense that longing is beautiful. We are all longing to live so much each day, it is at once humbling and mysterious. This life we share, we succumb to its beauty and our watch of it. Our watch and ardour.

Just today, you are waiting.

What does it mean to wait, these days? Does it mean to squander time? It has become what we fault, waiting. Not what may satisfy us. For we are growing ever more impatient.

You resolve to love waiting. For today is here already and we are eager to be more present.

It is not squandering, it is a helpless loving. For the things as yet out of reach. But are coming ever nearer with each patient watch. Each patient minute.

You were waiting for sleep last night. And in your sleep, you dreamt of so many things you want. And have forgotten.

Where did they go, your dreams? Where have you left them? Or perhaps, where have they left you? For we are the ones in need of meaning.

A dream is a dream.

But a dreamer has to remember what he dreams. Or else lack every opportunity for eagerness, for plight.

To be free of what we desire, we have to want more than what we desire.

And having desired, we are liberated by want. And into purpose.

This morning, you want coffee. But now, you desire nothing more than to love.


A name. Think of the secret of that. A name brings more secrets than revelations. Think of how you were named by your parents. How it either fit or didn't.

Your name owns a big part of who you are. We are known by it. We can't escape it ever. Even if we change it legally, some essential trace of it remains. How we were first known by our very first loved ones.

Our name attaches to the image of who we are. In addition to how we sometimes cling to it. An identity. A living thing to be known by.

A name seems living and known at the same time. It is also a thing, a useful thing to live by.

Think of the first time we recognised our name. The first time we turned our head in reply. That moment when love gelled and we are one person concluded in love. We could begin then. And a name is a fit and uncompromising start. As a baby is both a conclusion to a promise and a start of that promise. A newness that doesn't ever go out of style. Like our names. We are unique and similar at the same time.

We have to be told apart by more than our names, our faces, our bodies, our minds. We have to answer to our separation. And our willingness to imagine ourselves separate. Uncommon yet similar.

We all have a name but it is far from being ours alone.

As we are named, we are present in the sight of others. We can work towards what we are meant to be. Ourselves, here and here again.


Sometimes I wonder where this writing started. This love of the solitary world. For writing is solitary, touching the endless extremes of loneliness and ecstasy. When I write, it is as if I'm free to be alone, to be indefinite and conscious.

Looking at the cup of coffee in front of you, you hold it like a person in love with desire. Something in you matches this outward stance of wrapping your hands around the cup. And I stand up, holding my own cup. I walk to the sink, turn on the tap, and wash the cup. First inside, then outside it. I bring the cup back to the table and sit down again.

Through all this, I am writing. And I am doing everything in the scene as if I am actually in front of you or you are in front of me, and we are each there, surprising the world with our presence.

It is this magic, this transformation of scene and imagination which holds me captive. I have no right to fool anyone but myself. I try as much as I can to write but only in as much as you believe―am I successful. In as much as you are made to think―am I successful. In as much as you are compelled to feel―am I successful.

But it is not me who is successful but the writer in me. The one who nudges you into thinking, losing, finding. The one who believes along with you. The one who wants to fool no one but you.

And you are right to say, I believe. And I am right to say, I believe only as much as you want me to.

And we are both believers in the art of writing.


What is success? To be able to do what you want with the most satisfaction?

To write is a success in itself. To write well, especially so.

We were all failures once. Like learning to walk and getting up from the floor, not giving up until we succeed to grow, to stand on our feet.

To write with our minds, we should bring our hearts to beat for us. A sentence is not just made up of words and grammar, punctuation but is the soul speaking.

Our hearts are not afraid to be with us.

Our minds are not afraid to wake us up.

What should we do? We should live like life is written down and our hands are ways which lead us to a word. And that word is all our words written in the search for a beauty in language. A beauty which hands cannot hold but only depend upon.

For the beauty which made your hands is now writing for you. We are never more faithful, never more decided upon. To bring what we take for granted into the world at this moment—that is a treasure you are making. To fill the empty page like a lover. To take nothing but that which is taken. That which cannot please fully.

This is the test. This is a testimony of facts. Whatever you've written testifies that you are inadequate. It is not you who write but the one who relents in you. Who obeys beauty as the sun sets in the face of the world.

You write for nothing but the meaning in you.

You are free then.


What is a secret? It is words unsaid in the dark. Or unsaid anywhere.

You bring yourself to say nothing because you mean nothing by it. You mean to lead to believe.

I have great secrets in me. Perhaps they remain in me precisely because I want them to be great. But they are in me because they want me to be with them. They want the light to shine on them awhile to know where they are, if they know why they want to remain in me.

What is a secret and what is merely private?

He is there and I know he is. That is a secret because he stands there measuring my understanding of him.

If he speaks and says things to me, that is private. I would tell people about it only if I care about them more than I care about him, our private moment together. As for a secret, I can never tell because I have not known it myself—His standing there, his presence which fills me with so much of the night.

So there it is: There are more secrets in love than in all places in the world combined.

In an afternoon, the world turns many isolated words into duets.

In a morning, he puzzles me with his sighs and remonstrations. Although he is loved, I shall not let these pass unnoticed. I will ask him why—I will be concerned with trying.

In an evening, the secret will bury itself with us, with our doubts and confessions, with the dailiness by which time busies itself.


Ever since I was young, I had no intention of marrying. To my mind, marrying was something other people did. While my sister was thinking of marriage, I was thinking of what the future might hold for a single woman.

Family has never been my strong point. Although I am close with my immediate family, I look at children with detachment, always with them as people not as legacies or relative futures.

I think that by being in love, I may change this attitude.

I am in love with the moment, in love with being alive, with possibilities.

How soon could we build a future based on love? How ardent could love make us into lovers of time, of mythologies?

I want to be sure of my need to be unsure. Doubt is welcome in this life where certainty makes us proud, makes us into selfish bores.

Will the day be settled or busy? Will it be dull or foreboding? Happy or confident? Let it wish itself well. Let us be thankful whatever the day brings.

Let us be thankful if the future brings us a life of singular bliss or arduous quests.

Is it a question of intention, this marriage and talk of marriage?

For now, I am content with being single, living a simple life, doing things which are required of me by the day and the continuance of the day.

Where hope is still there waiting to help with its head thrown back, resting quietly.

I feel hope in this life. I feel love in this hope. And I mean to live by it.


What keeps me writing? The addiction of making something out of nothing. To look at what you've written and marvel at its solidity, its price. For our stories are as present as we are.

We tell stories for the mere fact of telling them right.

Many times, I've resigned myself to hating a story I've written because it came out less then I'd planned it.

What to do with such a story but to begin again at where it started for you. Go to that place again where it spurred you to write it. To find a beginning is to find its source, its activity. Its essence.

Often I go back to it with renewed hope for the story, how it will be revived by my excitement for it. Often it will be a completely different story from the one I started from, going to a braver place than I had yearned for. A faithful place I hadn't believed in.

Then I will be excited by my story. I will be tremulous and guided by excitement. My mind will be ardent as a heart in all its beating.

I will resign from a high place and be down there among my characters, thinking like them, eating like them, loving like them, suffering like they could have done if they were living their lives for real.

Of course, they don't know this—but they are, in every other way, alive, as alive as you and I are in imagining them, in creating them. In reading about them. For we become readers after we've written our stories. So that our characters are alive even to us.


Why do I say general things when I talk? It is not that I cannot use more factual information to elucidate or describe.

It is because what I'm interested in is the in-betweenness, the decisions that fail, the things which cannot be pinpointed by just reality.

I can say he died. But I am also interested in the ways he is not dead. So in my mind, he lives. And in memory, he lives forever.

In the general shrug is hidden so many distractions, so many intuitions. Here, she shrugs but you continue talking as if sure she is listening, or some part of her is.

It is not in a sunset that the day ends but in the colours dissipating, paling into night. The subtleties of ending and starting. Of wakefulness and sleep.

One moment bending into another as if we are all waiting for tomorrow. As if we are too busy with doing to be here. Too devastated with kindness.

And he is merely agreeing. And she is crying but always with reason. Even when tears find their source in disagreeing.

And you hold your hand out to her, famous for trying. And she took your hand and smiled like a thousand silences held between two words.

I cannot say more than this though I mean to.

We are forever alive once we live. Even if nobody remembers us. Even if we die more each day.

We live in a place that's nearer than we care to admit.


To accept that one sometimes writes badly is as much a necessity as accepting that she can write.

Until one can feel okay with writing badly, to the extent that one resolves to try to write better next time, one cannot be good. It is through taking risks that one learns, and writing badly is a sometime necessary outcome of this risk taking.

To feel one is on the edge of succeeding is sometimes a nice measure of doing good work. Sometimes one even feels one's endeavour has failed, but success may be lurking in the work itself, unknown to the insecure writer.

Something akin to bravery is coming to rest upon you but you block it off with your inexperience. Because you're so used to failure, so used to the limits of your art.

To be surprised by your own good work is good.

To be surprised each time you do it is a measure of humility. A measure that you take enough risks, that good work is a gift you keep accepting from some benign force who is generous. And patient. Patient with your talent sometimes wavering and rightly set in humility.

Each good work is a testament to your obedience—a listening for the word in you. So many possibilities gaining favour in you. A manifestation of your faith, your endless patience and gentle prodding.

Some day, you will write better. Some day, words will come out of you like untamed devotion. Some night, you will pray and mean to be led.

Jill Chan writes poems, fiction, and the occasional essay. Her work has appeared in various New Zealand literary magazines (and anthologies) both in print and online; in websites in the US, UK, Italy, Hong Kong, and Australia; and in the New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive.

She is the author of six collections: The Art of It: Three Novellas (2011), published as an ebook; On Love: a poem sequence (2011); Early Work: Poems 2000-2007 (2011); These Hands Are Not Ours (ESAW,2009), winner of the Earl of Seacliff Poetry Prize; Becoming Someone Who Isn’t (ESAW, 2007); and The Smell of Oranges (ESAW, 2003). Official website: http://www.jill-chan.com
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