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Today’s guest is CW, owner of The Quiet Pond, a fantasy-themed book blog with an ongoing narrative centered on your time spent at the Pond with its magical animal caretakers running through it. It’s a unique, welcoming site inspired in part by a love of role-playing games, and I think it’s one of the best book blogs there is—not just because of the premise but also because of the friendly atmosphere, thoughtful reviews, diverse book coverage, and support of marginalized authors. I’m delighted that CW is here today sharing the story behind the creation of The Quiet Pond!

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I have had the honour of people asking me about my inspiration for The Quiet Pond, my book blog. The short version of the story is that everything about The Quiet Pond was created by a series of, what Bob Ross would call, ‘happy accidents’. I picked up a pen, opened Photoshop Elements, and just drew, and that’s how The Quiet Pond was born.

Here, however, is the long version of the story.

Growing up, I always loved to draw. When I was as young as four, I was compiling compendiums of monsters and fantastical creatures for my parents to stick on their office walls. For years I wanted to be an ‘artist’. When I learned that there could be different types of artists, I decided I wanted to be an ‘illustrator’. And when I was filled with stories of how ‘artists don’t make money’ by well-meaning adults in my life, I changed my career trajectory and decided that I wanted to be an architect. (Not, I realise now, because I wanted to be an architect, but the idea of drawing all day, even if it was floor plans and houses, felt like a dream come true for me. Plot twist: I ended up studying Psychology and Sociology.)

So when I picked up the pencil and drew a mermaid for #Mermay in May 2017, it felt like a homecoming. I remembered why I loved art — I loved creating something, loved the idea that something that I created can take a life of its own. However, I was also struck with how out of practice I was. My skill was not on par with my vision — and this frustrated me. I decided that I would draw every day. I was starting to consciously incorporate diversity into my art, so I also decided that I would draw fanart of diverse books that don’t get that much fanart. I would practice every day, which meant that I would improve every day, which meant after months or years of practice, I could become the artist that I dreamed I could be.

Granted, if I had to pick a year to pick up art again, 2017 may not have been the best choice. I had just started my postgraduate degree, was balancing a volunteering job and was working two jobs. But, in my perception at the time, that didn’t matter. I wanted to be good at art, desperately. Sure, writing a research thesis while completing seven intense classes across the year was gruelling. But I believed I had to make room for my dreams and if I didn’t draw I wouldn’t improve and get better.

I started sharing my art on social media — it was a way for me to share what I had drawn with the world so that it could be enjoyed by others too. I also found that it kept me accountable. The first few pieces weren’t fantastic, but I was still relishing in the very act of drawing and creating. Sharing on social media felt like a bonus: I shared a piece, people liked it, and I rushed to draw the next fanart. I started figuring out my style and it was clear to me that I was improving with each piece.

I never realised this until much later, but sharing my art on social media became addictive. I genuinely believe that there are very few artists out there who will say that they don’t enjoy people loving and praising their art. I was no exception. Sharing art on social media started to give me that rush or ‘high’, the kind that made me feel validated and complete. But as we all know, what happens after a high is an inevitable ‘low’ — and I felt those lows intensely. After several months, I began chasing that high of sharing my art. I felt validated when people liked my art. I was crushed when people didn’t respond in ways that I hoped. Regardless of whether I was feeling a high or a low, both motivated me to improve, to get better, to work on the next piece of fanart. It became a vicious cycle, one that both fed me and made me insatiably hungry.

In the summer of 2018 (December to February for us in the Southern Hemisphere), I finished the first year of my postgraduate degree — and started getting daily anxiety attacks. Being an Asian woman who was surrounded by narratives of the importance of suppressing and swallowing my pain, I didn’t tell many people about my episodes. But of those that I told, they all encouraged me to see a counsellor because my episodes, initially lasting five minutes, began to stretch to three to four hours at a time. (It’s funny: if any of my friends told me that they were experiencing the symptoms and attacks that I was experiencing, I would single-handedly have hauled them to the counsellor’s office. I’m a Psychology major! And yet, when it came to me, I strongly resisted the idea of seeing a counsellor, even though it was free.)

So here I am sitting at the counsellor’s office. I tell her that it’s probably the after-effects of my intense year of postgraduate study. I went to my sessions diligently. I had just done a year studying emotion regulation — yes, the irony! — and used jargon from the academic literature that I was familiar with as a defense mechanism, to hide the fact that I actually did not know what was wrong with me. I wanted the counsellor to know that I knew my emotions because I studied emotions. But the counsellor whom I saw, in all her wisdom, saw through my bullshit. She asked me about the pressures that I was placing on myself; she had picked up on the language that I had used across our sessions and had noticed a pattern. Slowly, I stopped being a pain in the ass and started being more honest and allowed myself to be vulnerable. All of our sessions culminated to a single question, that I think genuinely changed my life: “Imagine your inner self as a child and all the pressures that you put on yourself are adults telling you what to do all the time. How would that inner child feel?”

Reader, I had never felt so vulnerable in my life. I promptly started sobbing my eyes out.

You see, across my sessions, I talked a lot about my art. Not consciously, but it was a big part of my life and I talked about my grand mission to improve. I think my counsellor saw through that: that, yes, I did want to genuinely improve, but I was tearing myself apart from the inside over this huge burden for me to draw, improve, draw, improve, draw, improve. I placed so much pressure on myself, for something I genuinely loved and gave me so much joy, that it was the reason why I was having anxiety attacks.

Needless to say, I was devastated. Perhaps I wasn’t that anxious anymore, because I had decided to step away from my art and take a break, but I was crushed. Reader, I can’t tell you how awful, how heart-breaking it feels to think that you have to choose between your health and your dreams. I chose my health, begrudgingly. If I hadn’t felt like my anxiety was taking away my freedom to be a person that was present and coping well with life, I would have chosen my dreams.

My counsellor then made a suggestion: ‘draw something that makes you happy’ and ‘try and not share it on social media; draw for yourself’.

Sometime after when I got over the heartache of giving up on art, I sat down at my laptop, opened Photoshop Elements, and thought deeply about something that would make me happy. Well, okay, I like animals. I was also very passionate about sustainability and conservation of endangered animals. Earlier that day, I ran into a friend from high school after not seeing her for many years, and an inside joke we had together as teens was this little axolotl dance that we’d do. Have you ever seen an axolotl swimming through the water? They wave their arms in little circular motions and it’s adorable. And because I had bumped into her, I remembered the ‘axolotl dance’ we would do together so I just… drew an axolotl. And what would make it cuter, just for the sake of it being cute? If that axolotl wore a flower hat!

First Drawing of Xiaolong
My first drawing of Xiaolong!

This sounds very dramatic, but something happened when I drew her: I just laughed. I’m not an expressive person when I’m alone, but I genuinely just started giggling because this little axolotl was just so darn cute. I had no idea at the time that the little axolotl that I drew would eventually become the main character of my book blog, The Quiet Pond. I called her Xiaolong, which means ‘small dragon’ in Chinese, so that an important part of me was now a part of her too.

For some reason, I felt very invested in creating a little universe of small animal characters. Drawing them was easy too and didn’t stress me out because they had very simple designs. Over the next few weeks, I drew Varian, who is a nonbinary toad who likes to sew, and then I drew Gen, a turtle who likes to do gardening, and then Amina, a hedgehog bard because I always found wayward hedgehogs in my garden. They all possessed magic because I just honestly love the idea of magical animals who aren’t really doing anything amazing or extraordinary, but are just living humble and quiet lives by a magical and mysterious pond that is capable of extraordinary power and goodness.

When I started crafting stories for them, something that was important to me was that I wanted Xiaolong’s voice to be full of hope. Xiaolong’s characterisation was easy — she’s a chipper axolotl who loves everyone, welcomes everyone, and accepts everyone for who they are. She is kind, she is sweet, and she is excited about life, not because she has a grand mission but because she’s simply in awe of the simple but daily miracles that happen every day. Although there are times where it feels easy to forget, I do genuinely believe in the things that Xiaolong says or thinks. I wanted Xiaolong to represent the joy that I want to see in the world and the kindness that I wish we all showed each other — and I subconsciously wanted to remind myself of this too.

At the time, I had no idea what I was doing it or why I was doing it, but I did know that drawing these magical pond animal characters, even if it didn’t really make sense, made me so happy. My motto when creating the Pond is to ‘make it happier, make it cuter’. Moreover, I found that, when things started to get difficult again, The Quiet Pond and its universe was my tether to joy. It reminded me of the good that does exist, what is worth fighting for, and even on my rainy and cynical days, that there is a part of me that believes in all the goodness that the Pond celebrates.

So that is my inspiration for The Quiet Pond: what made me happy at the time, in a time when I desperately needed something genuinely happy and good. The Quiet Pond, its characters, and its mission of promoting diverse literature and uplifting the works of marginalised authors represents my greatest and most daring hopes in the world. The Quiet Pond came to be because it was my attempt to craft my own joy. It’s only been a year and a half since I created The Quiet Pond, but all things considered, I think I did a good job. I am trying to be at peace with the present, to worry less about the artist that I want to be, to just enjoy art and what I can create for myself and for others, and to just continue making cute things that make people smile, even if it is tacky as hell.

CW CW is a Kiwi-Asian book blogger from the Aotearoa (New Zealand). She loves middle grade and young adult diverse literature, and you can find all her thoughts about them in her fantasy-themed book blog, The Quiet Pond. When CW isn’t reading, you will probably find her drawing wholesome and heartfelt art or taking photos of her five chickens.