This, above all:

This, above all: To be God's best for The Coach and for Anna

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why I am not a children's writer

Because I stink at it, that's why.

But, see, I didn't know that in 1999. So the very first story I wrote in my entire life was, dum-dee-dum, a story for children. I thought it was easier to write for minds still developing. Mistake. Big one.

It was about a question mark.

"A what?" my buddy Abet asked. We were waiting for our tapsilog with extra egg at Rodic’s, the UP institution of our dormitory life; sixteen years after we met in 1983, and we still couldn’t wean ourselves from Rodic’s.

"It's about a question mark," I repeated. I had not written the story yet. It was just in my head, prowling.

Abet smiled. It was so easy for me to be vulnerable to this friend. He too was a soul-seeker, restless in either of his two professions, engineering and lawyering. He and I connected: we had the same woes.

“His name is Quentin. Quentin the Question Mark. And he’s very sad because unlike the other punctuation marks, he was rarely used. And if he was, it was always with a quizzical note at the end, as if people were perplexed or doubtful. Like, ‘Where am I?’ or ‘Are you there?’”

I said it all in one mad rush so that Abet, with his genius IQ, would not have time to object.

Abet chuckled. I was getting a little desperate to prove to him that, hey, this could be a great story. “Quentin wasn’t like, say, the period, which was declarative, with such a stabilizing effect, so calm and dignified. He spoke with authority. And Quentin wasn’t like the exclamation point, which was sparkling and energetic, so vigorous. You use the exclamation point and you’re like jumping cartwheels, ‘What a life!’ or ‘Woohoo!’”

By this time, Abet was laughing, apparently also using a lot of exclamation points while he did.

“So on Quentin’s birthday, when no one in the Land of Grammar remembered that it was his day, he decided to leave, just like that.” I snapped my fingers, hoping the extra action would add, well, more action to the story. “At first no one in Grammar noticed he left. And when they did, they thought it was cool. The students had a blast because the teachers could no longer ask questions. No exams, no recitation.”

What the heck, by this time, I was laughing too. It did sound ludicrous, but I was on a roll. I didn’t know better.

“Slowly, things went berserk. The TV game show hosts could not ask questions. Jeopardy! was cancelled. People could not ask for the price of broccoli. Many who could not read or follow maps got lost.”

Abet was guffawing, like only he can, without restraint and with tears in his eyes—what, for me? We were seated at the table jammed next to the mirror, so there were four of us doubling up, having hysterics. It was a laugh party, and we had immense fun even before our beloved tapsilog arrived.

Maybe I should’ve taken that delightful dinner as a hint, but since I didn’t know better, I went ahead and finished the story in 2001 for a writers’ workshop in Dumaguete…

…where it did not necessarily fare better. I’m still puzzling over the effect, really, of Quentin. It was the third and last week of the workshop, and Quentin was, oh I don’t know, probably the last story to be critiqued, and everyone was most likely tired of objective-correlatives and donnĂ©es. Anyway, when it was Quentin’s turn to be workshopped, the entire panel of distinguished writers—lemme see, there was the poet DM Reyes, fictionist Susan Lara, and probably award-winners Ernie Yee, Bobby Villasis, and Sawie Aquino, too, and, oh I don’t really care to remember who else—they all looked at each other, conspiratorially. Then Susan Lara counted aloud, “One, and two, and three…” and the entire panel, mercy!, broke into song, putting their hands in the air and swinging them about, singing “Quentin the Question Mark” to the tune of (I think it was) Popeye the Sailorman.

What a sight.

I should probably have abandoned children’s writing right about then. But the Polymath, one of two child wonders at the workshop, piped in helpfully at my right. “Mudra, you can also write about Ulrich the Umlaut.” I laughed. Of course.

Germaine, to whom I told the story afterwards, was another big help. “You can write about Anna the Ampersand,” she said. And I said, “Yes, and let’s make her a matchmaker. She connects people to people, like Mark & Susan, John & Alice.” A series of children's books, why not?


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Getting along

A while ago The Coach asked me to pray with him. He prayed for our friend M, whose marriage is a step-yes, step-no non-union; for her little son, A, who at six thinks that by hating his father he is loving his mother; for grace in fulfilling our calling—that is his term for his coaching and my writing, bless him; and for the child/children we desire (whenever he starts praying for twins, I silently add a little caveat: Lord, when in Your most gracious will, You answer his prayer, please grant the resources and the strength to raise—gulp—twins).

Then he prayed for us, for our relationship. “Panginoong Diyos,” he said, “we don’t have a perfect marriage. But…” and then he semi-laughed, so faint I could discern it only from the way his voice rose and fell in slight singsong, “…we get along.”

A few hours before, while he was trying to earn brownie points by washing the dishes he should’ve done waaaaaay earlier, he had mentioned how many of our laugh-out-loud times are fun only to us and don’t elicit as much amusement from others, when shared. I thought maybe he was referring to those fun times when he was praying, but now I think he was truly, honestly grateful, and perhaps a little surprised, that we get along—in spite of.

Getting along 24/7 is incredibly difficult, even when you love the other. The very things that you used to consider cute in the other could be the very same things that exasperate you no end. It takes enormous strength not to nag a spouse (The Coach) to please put the dirty clothes in the hamper, as well as enormous grace to forgive an erring but unrepentant partner (me) who still doesn’t know how to say sorry. Little things—like not jiggling the flush handle a couple of times to stop the water closet from continuously flushing water (me) or forgetting to water the plants (The Coach; his classic line: What? We have a plant?)—could start a war. It is unbelievably easy to fan a spark of irritation into an inferno simply by hurling grand generalizations that start with, “You never…” or “You always…” Dangerous ipse dixits that attack the person instead of the fault or omission can escalate, and before you know it, one will end up sleeping on the couch, while the other tosses and turns in bed, pretending she (all right, me) is justified in locking the door. (That’s why you gotta believe them truisms printed onto mugs. For a time I sported a drink holder that read: Marriage is the only war where you sleep with the enemy.)

Getting along takes the right combination of and timing for blindness and deafness, perhaps more so for The Coach, since I can be quite crabby, PMS or no, and veer annoyingly to the dramatic. If, say, he were to ask me where the key to our inadvertently locked bedroom is kept, I simply wouldn’t tell him where it is: I have to lean my head to my left, tap my fingers on my cheek, one after the other, look up to the ceiling and say not so nicely, “Hmmm. If I were to die, say, right now, then you’d have to break down the door to get your pants so you won’t be in your boxers when the guys from the morgue arrive to pick me up.” Oh, I can be so annoying, even to me.

But The Coach has learned to just snort at my affectations (as well as know what items are stored in the utility room), even before I learned not to carry over into our home any dramatizations that should remain in my writing. I just zip my lip. And somehow we get along.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Just out

Phoem Barranda graces the April issue of mph, one of the mags I copyedit. (The inimitable Adel Gabot is the Big Chief.)

Check out the cover in this blog's sidebar.

He did it his way

Boy, oh boy, you gotta check out this site and catch this French techie sing his entire CV.

He struggles with the English lyrics, his guttural Rs and the unforgiving IT terms getting in the way, and there are about only 4 or 5 discernible notes in the song. But we forgive him, for not only did he provide us subtitles, he also gave us a pretty good laugh--the good kind.

Anyhoo, Frenchie received 180 job offers. He now works for the Microsoft graphics team. Beat that, American Idol!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Writing and compassion

The Polymath (i.e., my brainiac friend, P) thinks the strength and beauty of Alice Munro's fiction lies in her compassion for her characters. I agree. (That, and her richly connotative language.)

Author Crawford Kilian in his blog highlights the importance of the writer's attitude:
Some successful writers just transcribe what their inner authors dictate, and have no idea whether it's any good. Paul Theroux thinks about the act of the writing, and the attitude of the writer, and makes that an important part of his storytelling.
My lack of compassion for my characters and lack of attitude to my subject (what my teacher says is my story's lack of authorial voice, though the literary glossaries define authorial voice as something else, dagnabbit, getting so confused!)--these hinder the piece I am struggling over.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, why it’s so hard for me to sit still, read and write. I have tons of books worth every other writer’s while, but only recently regained the spirit to open them. I have stories that boil in me, yet all I’ve drummed up in the past five months is wanting.

I have every possible tool: the (requisite?) Apple, journals, and fountain pens. I have my own nook carved from the walls. It is mine alone.

I have time, perhaps not that much, but there is time, nonetheless.

The Coach is giving and forgiving. He gives me space. He washes the dirty dishes I leave lying for days. He doesn’t mind the mess of a week. He overlooks the unmade bed, takes out the garbage, cleans the toilet, lets me oversleep in the morning, irons his own clothes, and orders takeout. He kisses me while I sleep, hugs me from behind as he passes me in our home's teeny hallways, drives me to school.

And I just sit here, bleeding.

Aye, I think I need to go back to the reasons why I write.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Maybe each person has at least one talent that's utterly useless, one that won't change the world or earn him or her a cent--say, wriggling the ears one after the other, or tying a cherry stem into a knot with the tongue, or knowing which among the walnut, coconut or peanut is not a nut. (I still can't figure out how the non-nut will rock my world, but apparently law schools think it might generate good lawyers since I saw that question in one law entrance exam. Go figure.)

Mine is spelling words out loud and backwards, with hardly a pause. Give me a word, a second or two to visualize the word in my mind, and I can more or less spell it backwards without missing a beat. Jon, friend of my soul, thinks it's like thinking twice at same time: spelling it the right way and spelling it the wrong way, like juggling two balls at a time. He seems impressed. I will be, too, as soon as I branch out to spelling entire sentences backwards. Utterly useless.

My friend, Germaine, is dyslexic with words. She would inadvertently jumble her words, uttering phrases like "throwing pigs to pearls" or "putting your mouth in your foot," which, because of the riotous fun we've had over her unpremeditated bon mots, doesn't count as useless and is therefore disqualied from the enumeration.

Jon's specialty is mixing up his syllables, like, saying base to base casis instead of case to case basis. Useless and dangerous. What if he tells his wife You deviler instead of You deliver? Like I said. Dangerous.

We three freaks--spread out in the archipelago, and coming together a precious once or twice in a year--had laughter for freakbast at Bizu last Monday. Had our beloved Benjie been free to join us, it would've qualified for what Germaine considers the life of our time.

This severely-priced slop was my breakfast: two pieces of ham on bread, some greens, with two poached eggs smothered in goo. (The goo was quite good.) And I ordered a basket of bacon on the side. Yum.

Friday, April 07, 2006

In his eyes

Twenty years ago last January 9, The Coach and I started dating: he was 19, I was 18, and the rest of the world in our eyes was fresh and wonderful and passionate and carefree.

The Coach, now 40, surprised me with an enormous bouquet of flowers, so many they filled three vases and took me an hour to fix (plus another half-hour to clean up after my mess). Silly me, I couldn’t help asking if they were expensive. (We are, after all, penny-pinching. Actually, he does the pinching; I do the inordinate buying of books which will take me, if I were to read a book a week, about, oh, ten years to finish.) His rebuke was so gentle I almost missed it until I thought about it afterwards. He just said, “A bit, but not for twenty years,” and smiled. Hours later he asked me if it was true that I was surprised by his present, since he always buys me flowers anyway, special occasion or no, like when he atones for sins imagined or real. And I said yes because I thought we were cost-cutting (D’oh! There I go again). And he harrumphed, properly, like an old gentleman aggrieved by the indignity of money: “Cost-cutting, cost-cutting. What's cost-cutting to twenty years?” And I just had to hug this man, this one whose masculine eyes and heart could not see that some of the flowers he bought in the huge bunch had probably withered earlier but were artfully hidden by the flower peddler to make a quick buck, the same eyes and heart who tell me day after day, truthfully, wonderingly, that I am more beautiful today than yesterday. I love eyes like those, because they know when to skip over unwashed faces and past flabby thighs, and even the occasional PMS that furrows the forehead. And it is true, what he said over a year ago, looking up at me while we were rummaging the fridge for leftovers: “Jan, would you agree with me? That we are happier now than we have ever been?”

Yes, honey, we truly are.

This is how a writer commits suicide

I should be revising my stories. In about five hours I need to finish my papers for Chari's fiction class. Yet here I am, creating a blog.

Look, Ma, no hands.