At the last day of the 2012 Manila International Book Fair, Dr. Isagani Cruz held a seminar Write Your Own Book. There were two questions that stood out in the discussion and that stuck in my mind the most: “Where will I write?” and “When will I write?” Space and time, in other words. The answers to the two questions are stunningly similar:
“Anywhere, as long as it is the same place.”
“Anytime, as long as it is the same time.”
The two answers are unthinkable. Why should I write at a definite time, say 9pm – 12mn, rather than write at any convenient time, when all the mundane responsibilities are dealt with? Why should I write atop the plastic table at the second floor rather than anywhere I can conveniently put my laptop on?
It is obvious that these answers will not make you become more creative, or generate more words, or recombine ideas. Rather, they are meant to keep you committed. Treat of them as your principles. Writing a book is a demanding task – Butch Dalisay describes it this way (for novels, but the same goes for all books written in the Philippines): “We sleep, eat, defecate, and fornicate with our novels perched on our shoulders.”
Writing books eats up chunks of our lives, with the confounding worry that whatever we turn out may not be so good, after all. For every book you see on the bestseller list, there are hundreds or thousands whose presence is fleeting.
So in completing a book, surviving all the countercurrents in this country that can prevent you from writing is a must. Writing should be on top of all priorities when writing – not daydreaming, doing household chores, or tending to domestic disturbances. Stick to your goal when writing a book – completing it – and dodge everything else in the way. That is easier when you are in a “safe zone” in a “safe time”, not when you are in a place where the earnest distractions of the outside world can pile up upon you. Even if you have to go into a cheap motel to finish your writing at peace. Even if you have to sneak into an attic for a few hours of near-perfect serenity allowing you to concentrate.
Also, writing at a definite place and time – and upholding your schedule with the precision of clockwork – is also sound practice in focusing. If you can’t remember the writing practices you promised you’ll do, how can you expect to remember the main point of your book? You may change your writing habits when you think they’re ineffective or when pressing circumstances require you to, or you may change the thesis of your book, but when you commit to something, hang on to it tightly.
After the seminar, I asked Dr. Cruz a single question, which I hope the right one. “If you can summarize a writer’s best practices into two bits of advice, what would they be?”
I received these answers: “The first one is to read a lot.“ “The second one is to write everyday.”
Reading a lot is easy to do everyday, for Dr. Cruz didn’t mention any specific book to read. Perhaps it’s just a fine way to reinforce a vision of the future result of your writing. Reading a lot, while planning your own book, can also pound this reminder: if you’re benefiting from the hard labor and mental struggles of writers, why not do the same?
Writing everyday is an exercise in commitment; do not think yourself as a part-time writer, but a full-time one. At least one word a day would be good, according to Dr. Cruz – the late writer Francisco Arcellana did just that. A minimum of one word a day en route to a carefully crafted short story may appear like grinding stones, but that’s commitment to the bones.
The two given answers are also keyhole insights to why Filipino writers are rare. First, Filipinos do not read a lot, to put it bluntly but accurately. As a mass, we read because required to do so in school, not really for the aesthetic and cognitive pleasures that it can bring. Second, in a poor country with more pressing needs than the urge to put thoughts on paper (and whose habitual logicians and theoreticians are derided as pilosopo; I think this is one of the few countries in which contemplators are socially derided), writing can get relegated to last place.