Monday, August 20, 2007

Perfectly Flawed

(My entry to The Philippine Star's "If My Life Were A Book..." essay contest ;) )

For someone who writes for a living, I have not had the easiest time identifying what sort of book would best reflect how I see my life. A book, in all its edited, published, art-directed state, suggests to me a fully-formed, finished work. And really, my life is anything but fully-formed and finished. If anything, I feel, at thirty-four, that I’m just getting started.

Since writing my first “book” (a Nancy Drew-esque mystery slapped together by paste complete with my own drawing of a blond girl on the cover) at age nine, I knew I wanted to become a writer “when I grow up”. And since then, becoming a writer has been my life’s biggest challenge precisely because growing up has been. How does it feel to be a grown-up? How does one know when one finally is? More importantly, how does one get there?

The problem was that, for a long time, I was very conflicted about adulthood. On one hand, I couldn’t wait to be earning my own money and being able to do whatever I pleased without having to ask my parents’ permission. On the other hand, I dreaded having to be motivated by “obligation”, “responsibility” and “sacrifice”—words that seemed to belong exclusively to the adulthood lexicon and which to many adults have come to mean staying in a job they didn’t like, sticking to a marriage wherein they weren’t happy, saying things they didn’t mean. The adult world around me seemed such a joyless, dishonest, generally unappealing—except for the money part--existence that I did often wonder why anyone would even want to “grow up” or why people are encouraged to. It just didn’t make sense to me. Like death, growing up was something I knew was inevitable. But at the same time, I was hoping I could stall its inevitability.

So stall I did, steering clear of anything that reeked of “adulthood”--a regular 9-5 job and jobs that required a uniform; savings; insurance policies; investment and property; “settling down”. All the things adults were supposed to do and have, I wasn’t even sure I wanted. So there I was, stuck in limbo land—not a kid anymore, but not exactly an adult, either. There was no real movement in my life, no moving backwards nor forwards, just going around in circles that I might as well have been standing still (at least, then, I wouldn’t be wasting so much energy). And there’s nothing like being stuck--not knowing where to go next--to make one think and consider: Now what?

Little wonder that my writing was at a similar standstill. As my chosen form of expression, it naturally and simply mirrored the state I was in. I was writing almost everyday and had completed a novella, some screenplays, a play, but none of them were anywhere near getting published or produced. Why? Because they still weren’t good enough to show anyone else—an editor, a publisher, a producer, a director. I was busy lamenting my works’ being far from perfect, finding them infinitely inferior in comparison to the great works of my literary and dramatic heroes. I kept revising and revising, hoping to get closer to the level of those works that I admired but at the same time, getting more and more frustrated at how far off I still was.

Had I not been so caught up in my own frustration, it probably wouldn’t have taken me so long to make the connection between being a grown-up and being a writer. The aim of writing is to be coherent, at the least. And I have come to learn that the continuous attempt to be coherent—to have one’s life make sense at least to oneself--is what grown-ups do. We may not always have our lives all figured out, but to constantly try to, anyway--not abandoning the effort no matter how frustrating and pointless it can get--is what really makes one a grown-up. It is the same tireless effort—this time to have things figured out through the written word--that makes one a writer. Our effort implies that we recognize we do have a choice whether or not to make sense, to be coherent. And that it is a choice we do not make just once, but have to exercise again and again.

Coherence, understanding, a sense for things—these do not simply drop on one’s lap. They take effort to achieve. Paul Arden, in his book Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite, says: “The effort of coming to terms with things you do not understand makes them all the more valuable to you when you do grasp them.” And since many of us turn away from things that require effort—fixing a troubled relationship, being able to afford the house of our dreams, traveling to our dream destination, pursuing our long-held childhood ambition, finding out what we truly want--few things in our life are of any real value to us. If we can’t have what we want now, with little or no effort—the healthy relationship, the great house, the dream vacation, the dream career—we dismiss it as “unrealistic”.

Well, I’ve thankfully realized that what was unrealistic was me thinking I would suddenly wake up and be a full-blown grown-up--like adulthood simply happened to people--or that I would suddenly, just by wishing, whip out prose that would make E.M. Forster or Edith Wharton weep with pride. What my virtual paralysis taught me was to acknowledge, respect and trust my process, those little steps that may seem tiresome—even insignificant—but which will surely take me where I want to be. Shifting my focus from the end product to the process meant paying attention to the little steps, focusing on what was happening now, right in front of me, instead of what had already happened or on what was yet to happen. It meant learning to see a moment as part of something big, maybe even grand; at the same time recognizing the bigness, the grandness, of a single moment. By shifting my perspective, I became kinder to myself, less frustrated at my work and seeming slow progress. I thought, progress. Movement, at last. Never mind “slow”; “progress” is good.

So if a book were to reflect this movement in my life, it would have to be one that looks like it’s progressing, too—like it’s becoming--rather than looking all polished and finished. A collection of my own stories in their first, second, third, maybe even fourth—anything but “final”—drafts, the book would be this imperfect yet (or perhaps on account of that) interesting work-in-progress. Its unfinished, evolving state would, I hope, suggest my new-found focus on and patience with The Process.

The book would be self-published and it would sit on a bookshelf, matter-of-factly owning its flaws—its typographical and grammatical errors, its political incorrectness and moral unsoundness, its plot and character inconsistencies—alongside books that give off an aura of perfection. I also hope it would reflect what I’ve come to know about perfection: that, like the horizon, it will always be beyond our reach yet, at the same time, will always be exactly where we are.

It would be prefaced by a line from a Chris Cornell song, Sunshower, that goes: “All you’ll be…you are today…”

My book would be a perfectly flawed piece of work. And I would be perfectly happy with it.

The Beauty Of A Contest

I just joined another writing contest. My nth one since deciding seven years ago that I was going to write what I want. For a living. In a Third World country like the Philippines. Yikes.

Writing what I want, for myself--while a fabulous concept when I was employed--posed a strange, unprecedented challenge for me. For the first time, it gave me nothing to fight against or to resist. At least, nothing that I was used to, like an egotistic, chauvinistic boss; a too-stiff and too-constricting work environment; unimaginative, demanding clients; tight deadlines.

With nothing and no one else to help define my work or to blame it on--all the things I had raged against, of which I had decided to free myself--I was slapped in the face with the realization that working alone is a bitch. It's like stripping down to nothing, not even one's undies, in the middle of the Ayala-Makati Ave intersection on a Monday morning. There is nowhere to hide and the question that swirls in one's head is: "Why did I think this was necessary again?" No wonder many people didn't do it, preferring to be employed and, um, clothed. It seemed, by far, the saner choice.

Since I insisted on being naked, anyway (perhaps a latent exhibitionist streak that was only making itself known), and a bit insane, relying on nothing and no one besides my kapal-muks and lakas-sikmurs, writing contests presented itself as a perfect crutch. It gave me just the right amount of pressure, but none of the unnecessary stress of my previous employed status, to make me come up with work I was proud of...ON TIME.

So what if I was baggy-eyed, my head buzzing from sleep-deprived delirium, and panting down the street to submit the notarized three copies of my work to the Palanca office at 11:55 PM, five minutes short of the annual literary contest deadline? I was pumped up! At least, nobody put me up to it. Whatever stress I was feeling was completely, unblinkingly my choice. If I didn't make the deadline, nobody would miss me. I wouldn't get a salary deduction, a less-than-stellar employee evaluation, nor the evil eye from my boss. But I would have another sleepness night, and this time I wouldn't be feverishly finishing my play or short story or essay; I would be staring at the unfinished work in my hands, berating myself for being such a lazy-ass slowpoke, being hugely disappointed at myself. THAT, as far as I'm concerned, is a worse fate.

Winning a writing contest is always a great thing and while, at the start, it used to be my primary objective, I now join contests to help me complete my work. Writing contests, with its deadline and, sometimes, theme can be incredibly useful that way, especially for someone like me who values personal freedom so much that it sometimes threatens that other thing I value as much--being productive. My freedom as a writer means nothing if it does not encourage me to produce work. I tell all my writing students this. And that is why a big part of our writing program is to join writing contests. It is not to make them medal- or recognition-hungry which makes them write only what they think will win instead of what is authentic to them (although that's a real danger), but to use these contests as a tool to effectively articulate all the thoughts and ideas that free-spirited people find so difficult to do.

My latest essay is the product of my joining a writing contest--The Philippine Star's "If My Life Were A Book..." I don't know what the verdict is on this one and honestly, I've not been losing sleep over it. I like the essay and I'm proud of the time and thought I gave to it. So I'm sharing it with any one of you who may be interested.

To my writing students: guys, asan na essays niyo? ;)