The dream of any aspiring author is to have their work published, to see their name on the cover and their work on a shelf. Often times, their work is rejected. Some persist despite rejection, some do not. However, few would think to build a whole publishing company, and even fewer succeed.
Yet, here stands Charissa Ong, an author, a designer by profession and the owner of Penwings Publications, who has crafted her own success from rejections and the lows of her life.
As a person who always wears their heart on their sleeve, Charissa has never been shy to document her personal melancholy or concerns in public. However, instead of seeking comfort through the presence of others, she took it to her blog.
Acting as a coping mechanism through her darkest times, including the heartbreak which launched her passion for writing, Charissa eventually challenged herself to hone her writing skills by writing a short story of various genres every week. In between her short stories, she would have, what she likes to call “poem breaks”, which acted as opportunities for her to rest her mind in midst of her short stories.
“As I wrote more, I started having more and more poem breaks, and who would’ve known, now it’s my main thing!” laughed Charissa.
Eventually, she published her work on Instagram, a tipping point in her writing journey as it was through the platform that Instagram offered that Charissa found a community which encouraged and drove her work.
However, as the years went by and as her Instagram support system grew, the stigma of illegitimacy surrounding “Instagram poets” remained. Wanting to prove her worth as a writer, she decided to publish a book of her own.
Yet, she was met with rejection at each publishing house she went to.
“Many publishers didn’t want to publish my book because they weren’t sure how to market it,” she says.
Feeling defeated and distraught, her Instagram followers told her, “why don’t you just open your own publishing company?”
The seemingly nonchalant response of “why not?”, embarked the then 24-year old on the journey of the incredibly bureaucratic and tedious process of building Penwings Publications.
Taking the name from her final year project at the One Academy, Penwings is inspired by her own motto, “give your pen wings to fly”, embodying her dreams taking flight and now, with her company, she is able to give the pen of other’s wings.
It was a time she considered a “dark place”. Taking it to Google to ask her many questions, the more she Googled, the more she didn’t know, and the more she didn’t know, the more unsure she grew. Even when consulting her parents, they asked “are you sure you want to do this?”
With the doubt from her parents and herself, there was an internal struggle for her to fight to convince herself and her family that she can and wants to do this.
“So I made a slide, for my parents, to convince them to buy into this company that I wanted to build,”
“I had to push myself to believe, if not me then who, only I could see the end product,”
With the support of her parents and a new-found confidence, the research and the stream of dumb and eventually intelligent questions began. Having met with a multitude of printers and educational book publishers, the idea of her company was taking its steps to becoming a reality.
Throughout the entire process, family has been the most crucial aspect. Her mom, having been experienced with building companies, was able to assist and aid Charissa through the mind-numbing and tedious procedures.
“Without my mom, it would’ve have been so difficult, especially since I’m bad with numbers,” laughs Charissa.
Soon after, Charissa decided to take a leap of faith and emailed MPH’s support email to inquire of their interest in becoming her distributors. With that, she brought her “ugly manuscript” and some market analysis to the MPH office, but she leaves with the ability to proudly say her book is now being sold in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.
As a book hater in her past life, her books, Midnight Monologues and Daylight Dialogues, act as an invitation to the world of literature with the collection of poems and short stories found in her books to reel in all those who never bothered to pick up a book.
“My poems are a challenge on perspective. It is an extension of what people already know and my take on it as I turn it on its head,” explains Charissa.
Her writing, which is influenced by novelists such as Khaled Hosseini and Neil Shusternan, is interpretive by nature and are Charissa’s personal take on traditional literature.
Having started off as a means of self-reflection and coping, Charissa’s writing has flourished to be diverse, thought-invoking and heart-wrenching, especially with the publication of her second book, which she reveals contain a multitude of poetry styles.
“I call it increasing the skill of the pen, I want to see how far I can push the English language despite all the restrictions,” says Charissa.
As an adventurous person by nature, she sees everything as a challenge. Her writing is much more than her thoughts on a paper, they are careful calculations and cautious executions, as she believes that each poem must have the potential for readers to make it their own.
“It has to make people think. It has to be able to be customized to each person’s need. Every single story has to feel personal to the reader, it has to be valuable to them,”
Working as User Interface & User Experience (UIUX) designer, Charissa utilizes all the psychology skills she has from her design background to write about the experiences and struggles of others, which contrasts to the perception which others hold that designers are incapable of writing due to being visually driven.
“It leads to me question, can I tap into the minds of my readers? Can I go into the dark places of the mind and fetch up and what is needed to be said and articulated? I want to feel like I am helping them, connecting to them, relating to them, as if there’s a cord,”
Despite her bravery and her fearless, Charissa, was not unlike other aspiring writers. Just like every other writer, insecurities and feelings of inadequacy were common.
However, instead of allowing herself to fall victim to her lack of confidence, she took it as a means for progress.
“To grow is to be believe that you are not good enough, not to have it be self-destructive but for progress. The feeling of not being good enough can always be used to one’s advantage to improve themselves,”
“If you notice that you aren’t good enough, then it’s good, you’re aware, at least you can take some action instead of wallowing in some dark corner with rain,” she laughs.
The community that she has, has played an incredibly vital role in keeping her afloat in the midst of her doubts and the chaos of starting a company. With the feedback that she receives from her Instagram posts, she is able to better herself through the process of trial and error.
More than just the feedback is the security and the validation which the community provides, allowing her to feel a sense of belonging and adequacy. Without her loyal readers on Instagram, she would have never published her first book.
“Honestly, with the first book, I just wanted to print 100 copies and give it to my friends for free. And if the first book hadn’t gone well, I would never have written the second book. The second book is really just dedicated to them,”
As an author with such a deep devotion to her readers, one would imagine balancing writing for herself and the market to be extremely difficult. However, she finds there to be no chore as she enjoys writing all that she does.
“Personally, I love writing about the self and reflections. I love short stories the most so obviously I include them in my book. The market likes all the sad stuff, so it’s inevitable that I will include those as well. It’s a fifty-fifty balance, but I still pursue what I like to write anyway, and people end up liking them too. So, it doesn’t really matter what I write,”
Now, with the ability to call herself a published author, Charissa now has something tangible to call her own. When seeing her writing on her blog, she could never validate its worth despite its intrinsic value especially to those who succumbed to stigma surrounding online writers.
“I can grasp the concept of why they think so, because you can’t put a monetary value on it until you put it into a product. Printed products are more legit and it allows others to invest out of their own product, so in these many ways, it validates it’s value,”
Above her individual satisfaction, she is the happiest of all that she is able to put Malaysians on the map.
“There is a lot of stigma surrounding local authors. I’m very happy that I am able to contribute to the community of Malaysian writers and there have a lot of support from Malaysian writers and I feel very warm knowing that. However, there have also been a lot of sceptical writers who don’t believe in my work.”
“I just want to do more and break the stigma surrounding local authors, instead of complaining. I hope this will alleviate the Malaysian writing community and help them see ‘If she can do it, we can do it too!’,”
Charissa believes that the Malaysian writing community can do so much more to produce content which can put them on the map. She thinks that we have to look past what we see locally and think internationally.
“Malaysians are very turned off by content surrounding Malaysia, writers have to see what people are reading and what the want. The interest over the years have changed, having been influenced by international cultures, people are craving for content outside of Malaysia. You’re not selling Malaysia, you’re selling a concept. After all, we are more than just Malaysians.”
However, she is not calling for an erasure of Malaysian content. In fact, she gives ode to Malaysia in two of her short stories in Daylight Dialogues, but she recognizes that there is no need for the highlighting of Malaysia.
As a parting advice to all aspiring writers, she encourages them to do more than just write the book, but know who their audience is and how to market it.
At the end of the day, the creative writing industry is a business and your writing is a product, therefore she emphasizes the importance that market analysis has.
Midnight Monologues and Daylight Dialogues are now sold in bookstores in Malaysia, Singapore and soon, the Phillipines!
To keep up with Charissa and her poems, you can follow her on Instagram!
To find out more about Penwings, click here!
Featured Image Source: M Talent