Writing lessons

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - November 30, 2020 - 12:00am

In a couple of days, I will be 96 – that makes me ancient! But thank God – although I’m no longer physically fit, this mind is still keenly creative and, most of all, it still remembers.

It has been said that literature is the noblest of the arts but in all these years, I have rarely if ever considered myself as an artist. As a craftsman yes, who must know his tools, words, his passions and obligations not just to himself but to his tribe, his country. That he is involved in a perpetual contest with himself – and is as good only as his last creation.

In today’s Graphic sponsored webinar, I will be recounting the development of our literature in English. And for this week’s column, I am putting on record a few of the most important writing lessons I’ve learned.

It is all hazy now, but I remember clearly that when I was in Grade Five and ten years old in the Rosales Elementary School, my teacher, Soledad Oriel, gave me the Derbyshire English translations of Jose Rizal’s novels. The Noli Me Tangere was the first novel I read, and after I was through with it, she gave me Willa Cather’s My Antonia, then Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I was mesmerized. These novels opened for me a new and dazzling world and I’ve never stopped reading since then. There weren’t many books in the school library; seeing me eagerly reading, my mother went around the town, borrowing books. When I went to Manila for high school in 1938, I spent time at the National Library, then at the basement of what is now the National Museum of Fine Arts.

After World War II, when I was in college in 1946, I was fortunate to have as my teacher, the writer Paz Latorena, at the University of Santo Tomas. She gave me James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake to unravel. She encouraged me to read and learn from what I’ve read and then write my stories, not tell them. Every writer should know instinctively the difference between writing and telling.

And during that time, Fr. Juan Labrador, the Dominican and dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, taught me how important clear thinking is so that I would also be capable of clear writing. He said that the writer should create a clear unblemished window for all his readers to see through.

In the 1950s, Wallace Stegner, the Stanford University writing guru, lectured in Manila and emphasized the need for the writer to be contextual and to write honestly of his time and place.

In the 1960s, I also read Albert Camus and he, too, confirmed what I already believed, that the writer must be an engagee – actively engaged with his society as a rebel. Ernest Hemingway – I never got to meet him but I read almost everything he wrote. After a while, his style appeared repetitive and dull, but he said something which I also practised: “Do not empty the well.” As a writer do not be too explicit and explain every minute detail. Leave something mysterious, inconclusive, even chaotic if necessary and from it let the reader make his own conclusions. This is why some of the stories and novels I wrote do not have conclusive endings. “Bitin” – so the reader is made to think and in the end enjoy and profit from what was read.

Samuel S. Vaughan, my editor at Random House, got my work when much of it had already been published in Manila. We had beautiful sessions. He was an astute student of character and both of us agreed that it is the character in fiction that grabs the attention of the reader most. He reiterated man’s complexity, that he is not all evil or all good. This is actualized in my novel, The Feet of Juan Bacnang, which some of my readers say is based on the life of a leading politician.

Way back in 1955, when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, I met the novelist, A. B. Guthrie Jr. I was 30 years old and I had already written three novels in the Rosales saga: Tree, The Pretenders and My Brother, My Executioner, all of which were serialized in Telly Albert Zulueta’s weekly Women’s magazine. I had already systemically plotted the saga starting with the novel, Po-on, which by then I haven’t yet written because it required a lot of research. In fact, the first chapter in Po-on was written in 1958 and the whole novel was finished in 1984.

Guthrie was lecturing on writing historical fiction. I had a long meeting with him. The writer, he said, must make history alive with people, with faces and problems. In his recreation of the American migration to the Western part of the United States, he dramatized the many obstacles the settlers surmounted in their epic journey. I had all this in mind when I finally wrote Po-on and the flight of Istak Samson’s family from the Ilokos to the Central Plain of Luzon. But in trying to humanize historical characters, in Po-on, I committed a gross error in attributing syphilis as the cause of Apolinario Mabini’s paralysis. I immediately rectified this error of course in the succeeding editions, but the harm was done, and I hope this will serve as a warning to writers who may be tempted to accept gossip as truth.

And finally, this I did not learn from anyone, or if I did at all, what I got was from my dear mother who early enough taught me compassion and most of all, humility. So, this is what I have tried to impart to all my students and to all the young writers who read me: be true to yourself.

Writing from my life, I know it’s pure ego and vanity that motivated me. But early enough, I also realized I was not writing for myself alone; I was also voicing the feelings of my kin in that village where I grew up, giving them and my countrymen memory, shaping their dreams. I’ve done this with perseverance and dogged industry; by so doing, I hope I had given this transient life some meaning, ennobling each trivial day. All these as compulsion, as duty and as a Filipino.

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