Sunday, March 07, 2004

ivory tower

Growing up as a writer, I found myself writing in solitude. Don't get me wrong - of course all writing is done in solitude (yes, even a collaboration because you need to write your part yourself before you compare notes with your co-writer and go through the bloody process of integration). But having access to other writers, your peer group, well, this was just not the case for me.

I started to write seriously in college, and over at the University of the Philippines, the existence of cliques and the "in crowd" proved detrimental to a new writer like me, who did not want to engage in the politics of asslicking and mutual admiration.

So I wrote on my own, ignoring and ignored by the "established" writers who were based in the University. I didn't know who was who because it really didn't matter. Until I met my first mentor, another writer who was somehow considered outcast because of several reasons - his advanced age, the nature of things he wrote about, his eccentricities. Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero and I hit it off. He found in me a young playwright with a thousand questions, and I found in him a willing teacher who was happy to share his experience. One of the biggest reasons we connected was our love for plays, and somehow, in the enclosed literary caste system of the time, playwriting was considered less "serious" than fiction.

It was Guerrero who encouraged me to write like I had never written before, to be unafraid and uncompromising in my developing style, to seek my voice and shout loud. He wanted both of us to compete in the Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature - because in all his years, he had never been recognized by that august body.

So we wrote a play each and I was astounded when we both were the only playwrights that won that year. Even more shocking to me was the fact that my play placed higher than his.

He died soon afterwards and I felt the loss of my friend like the heaviest thing in the world.

I picked myself up and continued to write, winning more awards, getting my fiction published in magazines, and slowly slowly slowly learning about writing.

But apart from him, I had no one. No one to talk to about writing outside of the few classes I took in writing. Until I was invited by Ed and Edith Tiempo to the Silliman Writers Workshop in Dumaguete.

The set of epiphanies I experienced there under their guidance, kindess and tutelage was the equivalent to several cerebral and spiritual coronaries.

Invigorated, I wrote some more, won some more, then stopped writing. Obstensively, to concentrate on my life: marriage, career, the real world.

That was 1995, when I turned my back on plays and fiction and all my writer friends.

It would only be in 2001 that I started writing again. I put together a comic book, "The Lost", which owes a tip of the hat to metatextual claptrap and Pirandello. Then I started writing new fiction, particularly a sequence of stories for Hinirang, a reimagined Colonial-era Philippines with the fantastic thrown in.

With a group of talented individuals, I began to feel creative again.

Last year, I made my first international professional fiction sale to Strange Horizons with "L'Aquilone du Estrellas". I also won my 5th Palanca Award for "The Onan Circle" and the miraculous "Siglo: Freedom" was published.

And this year, "Simeon Rex" is becoming a reality, "Siglo: Passion" will be created and published, the set of stories for "Forlorn" will be written, and "L'Aquilone" will be reprinted in the Year's Best Anthology of Datlow, Link and Grant.

It's really hard to believe.

But more importantly, other writers, complete strangers to me in all but name, made contact with me from across the ocean and digital divide and shared their stories, giving encouragement and giving me a sense of belonging to a greater whole.

And these are people I've never met, persons I've with whom I've had no previous correspondence. Writers whom I knew only by their writing. And yet they took it upon themselves to give a kind word.

And to share their stuff.

It may seem like a small thing, but to someone like me for whom encouragement was in short supply early in my writing life, it takes on a great significance.

Because part of me is ever always challenged to reach the high standards set forth by writers I respect. And their kindness makes it an even more worthwhile endeavor.

Which is why I try to make it a point to encourage other writers who seek me out, or those whose paths intersect mine for an instant or even a lifetime.

So thank you, thank you, you know who guys are.

Though by necessity I continue to write in solitude, it's good to know that the ivory tower's walls are porous.

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