Last Saturday I participated in a workshop with friends from the UP Writers Club and the editors of the 2011 Kritika Kultura special literary anthology, Mark Cayanan, Chingbee Cruz, and Adam David. It was refreshing to discuss the craft of writing with similarly concerned individuals again, after such a long period of merely dialoging with texts and their authors. It was a mixed-genre forum, and, having never attended a poetry workshop before, I was quite captivated by the discourse on morphemics, syntactical play, and the formal elements of a poem that spared no phoneme the question of justification. Been feeling quite sabaw too, so I’m grateful to everyone who upped the ante of the discussion, especially to Vincenz Serrano, who, I suppose, only dropped by for his friends our KK editors, but nonetheless read our works on the spot and offered such insightful critique.
I’d cite all the interesting questions raised during the workshop but this blog being what it is, and me being me, of course I’d talk about myself. A few years ago I’d been so disconcerted by Cristina Nehring’s harangue against the navelgazing prevalent in contemporary nonfiction that whenever I wrote anything about myself and my feelings with attention to craft, I’d feel a nagging sense of shame. What that resulted to was a period of literary inactivity smattered with a few stilted, if informative and opinionative pieces until I admitted to myself that I have little of consequence to add to topics of public importance, which pundits of course have already amply glossed. The one topic I am exclusively privy to, and one that I have, all my life, sought to investigate and thereby master, is the subject of my self, so why not write about that. Besides, I need someone to talk to sometimes, and since I find it very difficult to converse with people about anything of personal, emotional moment, I pin myself for my own dissection and diagnosis to a blank page. Talk about narcissism.
What I submitted to the workshop was a collection of pieces I’d posted on this blog over a period of more than a year, chosen for their leitmotif of unease. I titled it “Notes on Restlessness” and it consisted of essays on dysania, anxiety, perpetual motion, wanting, fatigue, confusion, and belief. It’s a patchwork, to be sure, and strung on a tenuous thematic unity, but each section was meant to be a sort of grammatical investigation of its heading (expounding on the various shades and forms of, say, apathy), so I hoped that, despite the stylistic fragmentation throughout the work, in at least each of its sections one would see organic coherence. I got more than I’d hoped for—for all its purported instability, the readers found the piece too poised.
What struck me most was what Carlos Quijon said—about the voice being too self-assured, the language too graceful, the piece too certain in its assumptions and proffered truths—mostly because he’d been saying the same thing about my writing in every workshop we’ve had since we were classmates in Ma’am C’s nonfiction class three years ago. I can’t deny that he’s right, and that I rather like my writing that way. I guess you could say I’m stubborn. What I wonder about is whether this stylistic sangfroid is such a barrier to the appreciation of my writing. Where does one draw the line between craft and personal preference? Is the issue about the voice sabotaging the project of the piece, or about the personality that suffuses and molds the piece being, simply, annoying? The harder question to ask is whether I actually care. I say this not to snub his opinion (or our friendship), or that of any other person who’s bothered to read me (and whose time spent on these words I value), but to launch into a discussion of why I write.
I write for myself (what a surprise). Of course now and then I would write with a firm intention to inform, or to sway others, or to state and support ideas that need greater expression and traction. But I think that, as Anna Kamienska put it, “I have no talent. I’m not talking about the literary marketplace: I mean how I see myself. I write poems for myself, like these notebooks, to think things through, that’s all.” I know many writers, some of them my friends, who would scoff at the idea of writing-as-therapy, say it cheapens the medium and the craft. But I am tired of beating myself up for what writing means to me in the face of its supposed public, transcendent purpose and place in tradition. This is why I hesitate to say I am a writer, preferring instead to present myself as an editor though I’ve been at it professionally for little more than a couple of years; this is why I hardly make an effort to get published. No matter the cost of honing my craft, I often think that what I want to say isn’t worth this facility. Much like talking to myself, when I write I don’t think anyone is listening. Or gives a shit. (Not that I don’t like people to care about what I write—on the contrary, whenever people tell me that something I wrote touched them, I feel a flush of pleasure and gratitude, and not a small measure of surprise, which says a lot about my kind of vanity—I try to write the sort of thing I’d like to read, and I assume most people would have divergent tastes. Or have far better things to do.)
But lemme get back to the workshop. Mark said it was hard to comment on my piece, because the things he would have liked me to change were the very things that I was good at—elegant language, clear thinking. I privately agreed that it would be like asking a runner to shoot himself in the hams so he could garner audience sympathy. The runner’s eyes are trained on the finish line, not on the stands; he cannot hear all the hollering, only his own ragged breath.
The other thing they asked of my piece was vulnerability, which is a funny thing to say to someone who’s loath to exhibit it in real life. I may have no qualms about eviscerating myself and splaying my bowels upon the page, but I don’t let my own mother see me weep. If I write with emotional impunity, it is because I otherwise try so very hard to hide feeling; but oh doesn’t all that empty, white space invite release. But I suppose my pronouncements in the piece seemed less like psychological vignettes and more like a report on a Rorschach test: these are what I observed, and these are my findings; whether you agree or disagree is beyond me. If the work’s manner of expression seemed too neat, well that is the way I think, and am. It takes so much effort to warble your own thought processes, and I guess I am lazy. Or too attached to my voice, feeling it to be true. The predicament of the personal essayist, according to Virginia Woolf: “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.”
How to write with tittering, when in the process of verbalizing thought you accomplish what you set out to do—to yoke the chaos, get a handle on the formless that promises to overwhelm. How to fumble with bewilderment when you’ve been questioning your existence from the age of six, and have since developed habits of mind on which certain enabling assumptions snugly rest? How to write nonfiction about the self that does not sound like the self?
I can’t go on in this vein. If I do, then I must conclude that I have no business writing, if all I wanted was to think things through and not walk the reader through the thinking. It’s a pretty depressing thought, better reserved for the weekend than a Monday.