A writer learns from every experience

by Kristina Brooks

Alison Singh Gee“Being a writer is not for the timid or fearful,” says Alison Singh Gee ’86. “You have to challenge yourself, if not physically, then emotionally and intellectually.”

Gee should know. She’s taken both physical and creative leaps all of her life, landing in places she might not have foreseen when she was growing up in Los Angeles in a Chinese family of six boisterous kids, feeling too intimidated to speak out or tell stories.

Despite the chaos, her upbringing was rich in inspiration, from the Chinese characters that led her to write her own poetic, non-linear narratives to the gifted teacher who read the entire Little House on the Prairie series to Gee and her classmates, guiding the aspiring writer “to consider my own life as a grand adventure.”

As a student at Scripps, when she was searching for her own identity and place in the world, Gee felt she’d found a refuge where she could flourish as a writer and a thinker.

“Scripps instilled in me the romance of intellectual life,” Gee reflects. Her education also led to more concrete rewards, such as an internship with an in-flight magazine, an experience that taught her writing and research skills and helped her forge important writing contacts in Los Angeles.

Taking a leap abroad, Gee went on to earn a master’s degree in literature from the University of London, and, from there, she took an even bigger chance for the sake of growing as a journalist.

“In my mid-20s,” Gee says, “I packed up and moved to Hong Kong by myself because I knew I would find more trailblazing stories there. That led to my getting an editor’s job at Time Inc., winning an Amnesty International Award for human rights feature writing, and doing some of the most meaningful stories of my life. In Asia, my whole life changed.”

What followed was eight years as a staff features writer and correspondent for People magazine and publications in numerous magazines and newspapers, such as Marie Claire, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times.

While Gee credits much of her success to luck, her talent, hard work, and constant desire to challenge her own beliefs and abilities have been the engine behind that luck. While she embraces the romance and artistry of a creative and intellectual life, she is also unabashedly practical about the working life of a writer in the 21st century.

“Very few writers can exist on book advances alone,” Gee says. “Most writers must balance professional writing with personal, creative writing.”

“I recall an interview I did once with Gwyneth Paltrow in which she discussed her range of work — from blockbuster schlock or rom-com, to a Sylvia Plath bio-pic. She said that she moved from one genre to another, not only to stretch herself as an artist, but also to make some money! Ultimately, that cash in the bank would allow her to take on the projects she desperately wanted to do. I feel the same way about my writing. I think the beauty of being an artist is moving from genre to genre, not compartmentalizing yourself, and being flexible. You learn something from every experience.”

Besides her varied writing experiences — from human rights-focused features to celebrity website reports to her new memoir — Gee also teaches writing through UCLA extension, a day job many writers find soulsapping. Gee finds the process inspiring.

“In order to teach at a high level, I must deconstruct my craft, and read the best nonfiction I can find. The passion and inventiveness of my students always astounds me. Their energy and ideas feed me. Teaching makes the world new again for me.”

As she awaits the publication of her memoir, The Peacock Sings for Rain (St. Martin’s, 2011), which chronicles her experiences at her husband’s 100-year-old ancestral manor palace in northern India, Gee believes she has made a natural progression from investigative journalism to the personal investigation a memoir demands.

“It may be harder to start a career at a blue-chip magazine now,” she says, “but my advice to Scripps students who want to try is: be brilliant, creative, and harder working than the person next to you. “Also, move through the world with kindness and generosity. That will get you farther than you could ever realize.”

“Most writers must balance professional writing with personal, creative writing.”

 

« »