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 données. 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?