Saturday, March 07, 2009
By Susan Lara
About two years ago, I was interviewed by Bookwatch, the NBDB magazine, for a special issue on women writers. Their first question was “Why do you love to read?” I remember beginning my reply by saying “I like this question, much more than ‘Why do you write?’ which I dread because it never fails to stump me.”
And now the dreaded question is right before me, and I was told to give a 30-minute long answer.
What I usually do when facing something I dread is to break it up into manageable chunks. So I would like to divide my answer into two parts: “Why I started writing” and “Why I keep writing.”Why I started writing
When Flannery O’Connor was asked why she wrote, she said “I write because I’m good at it.” That may sound arrogant, but it makes a lot of sense. You do whatever you’re good at, and that makes you feel good.
Once, when one of Robert Frost’s students had the temerity to ask him why anyone should write in the first place, Frost said, “I don’t know why you should write, but I know why I do. I don’t get the same satisfaction out of doing anything else.”
That resonates with me. When I was a child I tried to create my own stories by emulating the tales in the children’s books my father brought home after work. I invented people, imagined fantastic things happening to them, frustrated them with obstacles, made them victorious, and rewarded them with happy lives ever after. That made me feel powerful, and it made up for the powerlessness I felt as a child.
You see, I am the youngest of five children. My parents had two sons, followed by two daughters, two years apart from one another. Twelve years after their second daughter was born, I came into my parents’ life, sort of an afterthought. When you’re eight years old, and the sibling chronologically closest to you is 20, you feel your smallness more acutely than children with siblings not much older than they. I made up for that feeling with my imagination. I created my own world, a world in which I decided who lived, or died, and I experienced the flat-out childish delight in playing god. Any child who has played with dolls and action figures can relate to that. Even Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska is not immune to the intoxicating power of the imagination, no matter how illusory or temporary. She celebrates this power in her poem “The Joy of Writing”:
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.
What started as a compensatory mechanism continues to this day, although the reasons have become more complex. Pleasure is still part of it—my friend Rowena Torrevillas once wrote about knowing the “pleasures of grasping a word, of judging its heft and roughnesses and its fine, sharp edges.” I love that image of the writer grasping a word, holding it just the way a jeweler would hold a precious stone, feeling its heft, its weight, its importance.
Yes, I will always take pleasure in the romance of living by the pen. But you and I know, that romances turn into marriages all too soon, and we need more than pleasure to sustain them.
I was never a big fan of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, but I realized how sensible he is when I read his comment about the writing profession: “I don’t enjoy writing, and I certainly would not do it for a living. Some people do, but some people enjoy flagellation.”
Truer words were never spoken. Flagellation. What an apt metaphor for what we do.
Despite the pleasure writing brings, despite the proliferation of how-to-write books with titles like Anybody Can Write and seminars with breezy, perky titles like “Creative Writing Made Easy,” the fact is that writing is not easy, and it doesn’t get easier the more you do it. Writing is one activity where experience doesn’t count. Every time I sit down to begin a story or an essay, I feel like a beginning writer all over again. And for all my talk about discipline, I have a string of work-avoidance tactics long enough to last me a lifetime, ranging from sharpening pencils I don’t intend to use, to emptying my spam folders and recycle bins, to organizing my closet—anything to delay having to face that blank screen, and that blinking cursor.
And when I finally confront my story, I spend hours looking for the “inevitable word,” the precise word for which there can be no substitute, to describe my character, the character with whom I wrestle and quarrel because he can be as infuriating as a toddler going through his terrible two’s.
And for what? Not for any monetary reward, I assure you. For handling a business writing seminar, I get paid P10,000 a day—that’s two or three times as much as I’ll get for slaving over a short story for months.
And when you have enough stories for a collection, you come up with a book—but let’s not even talk about royalties.Why I keep writing
Few writers write for money, and those who do, acknowledge that there are easier ways to make a living.
But I was hooked from the time I studied fiction writing under National Artist Franz Arcellana. The first story I submitted to the class was ripped to half—almost literally—by the class. And Franz, who was the soul of gentleness, said the epigraph—a line from T.S. Eliot, I think—was well-chosen. I felt sorry for myself, but sorrier for Franz, as I watched him struggle to find something else to praise, aside from the part that was not even mine. After class, I confessed to him that I was dejected, discouraged, and wondered if it was worth it for me to persist.
“Look,” he said, “you have a story. Only you know that story. Only you can write it the way you do. What if you die tomorrow? Then the world will forever be ignorant of what you know, and you will forever be responsible for that ignorance!”
Thus, the concept of stewardship of one’s talent was instilled in me before I was even sure I had the talent to steward. This was later reinforced by my next mentors, the late Edilberto Tiempo and National Artist Edith Tiempo, Dad and Mom to many of us.
So, while I started to write because I could, and wanted to, I keep writing because I must. That word, “must,” has to be taken in both senses: in its sense as duty and its sense as compulsion, because stories cry to be written, and will not be silenced until they are on paper. John Ciardi once told a group of powerful businessmen: “An ulcer… is an unwritten poem.” It is also an unwritten story.
Life is a story. It has twists and turns, heroes and villains, rising and falling actions. But it’s easy for the day’s events to lose their meaning and direction in the routines of daily living. By writing I give order, form, significance and permanence to the fleeting and seemingly random incidents that happen to me and people around me; I am the tube and mirrors in a kaleidoscope that give shape to random pieces of paper, beads, and confetti. I try to reframe experience in a way that, although intensely personal, reverberates deeply in someone who reads my story. I suppose I can give the same “message” in a speech, but the experience of living through the fear, the terror, the humiliation, the ecstasy, whatever it is I want to share with my reader—I can give only through the evoked reality of a carefully crafted story.
Writing is a way of seeing life whole. That involves seeing life through the eyes of other people, especially people I do not agree with, people who irritate me, people I’d rather not see on Monday mornings, or when my day is just beginning. People I would tend to demonize, if I were not a writer.
It is not possible for me to demonize anyone, because when I create my story’s villain, I do more than write a biographical sketch; I inhabit my villain. I see the world through his eyes. I find the dark places in my soul—we all have these secret dark places—and stay there for a while. I imagine how it could be if I decided to pursue my own interest regardless of who gets hurt. I have to accept that I’m not all sugar and sunshine; that a part of me is capable of stepping on people’s toes, capable of hurting them. With this act of acceptance of my dark side, I could write this villain from a place of understanding—knowing that I could be him or her; that this villain is not a one-dimensional caricature, but a whole person, just like my hero—with vulnerabilities, fears, miseries, as well as hopes and dreams as real and intense as mine.
Writing—writing fiction, especially—is my way of feeling the commonality I share with everyone else. That balances the literary ego that every writer must have to be able to bear exposure, which is what we do when we turn our lives into stories in which our readers can recognize us, as well as themselves.Delivered during the observance of World Book and Copyright Day Jointly sponsored by the National Book Development Board and Intellectual Property Philippines Filipinas Heritage Library, 23 April 2008
[posted with permission from the author]
Labels: philippine literature, writers, writing
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