Thursday, May 05, 2005

write up your alley

I do not believe in the old chestnut "Write only about what you know". That kind of thinking is limiting, narrow-minded and ultimately produces nothing new, except perhaps for the rare flashes of insight that are most likely not so unique at all.

I do not mean "Do not write about what you know". By all means do. It will give texture, verisimilitude, nuance and flavor to your writing. But do not listen to anyone who says you can only write about what you personally have experienced.

All fiction is make-believe, whether it is the precious "literary" social realism or marginalized speculative fiction. The entire gamut is not real, and any scale that attributes value and heaps lavish encomiums based on "closeness to reality" for the all types of fiction is dubious at best.

What determines worth then if not the strictest adherence to the commonly-held notions of reality?

The quality of writing in terms of structure and craft. The epistemic use of language to express ideas. The depth of characterization that bares the human condition. The exploration of imagination. The beguiling ability of the text to enfold while unfolding. The alchemy of words.

Yes, you can do all of the above while writing within the safe parameters of what you know. But really, what do you know? Most likely, you are a student or a professional, trapped by school or your employment, member of a family and a community, cycling a daily routine - like me, except for a handful of quickly mined experiences, quite mundane (unless you're actually like someone from a Michael Crichton novel - you know, a paleobotanist/concert violinist).

If we write only about what we know and experience personally, all we would produce would be slice of life-type stories that become insufferably pedestrian after a while. The truth is this: the lives we live are ordinary but our thought lives are extraordinary.

That's where imagination reigns. That's where we are superspies and assassins, superheroes and knights templar, crafted barbers and ethernauts, explorers and challengers, man and woman and alien and god and other. We climb mountains, plumb secret oceans, travel through time, engage in political treachery, make a difference, create the family we wish we had, and find love, hope and meaning.

And that's only scratching the surface.

As writers, we are taught in school to adhere to reality, to kowtow to convention, to stay within the cloying parameters set forth by our literary ancestors (the ones who insist that the only Filipino literature worth reading or talking about is a rectitudinous literature concerned with the plight of the poor, poor child riding a carabao through the dying ricefields). We are taught to abrogate imaginative writing, although it is obvious that imagination is the key to creating a vibrant Philippine literature. We are trained to hold on to realia, and to base our work on what we can touch. Ingrained deep in our literary bones is an aversion to the fantastic, as if by writing in such a way about such things we demean our literary patrimony. We need to undermine all this and imbue ourselves with a recusant manner of thought.

Do not listen to them. Stop listening to them.

Write about what you know.

Write about what you do not know but can imagine.

Write about what makes your heart soar or weep or tremble.

When you manage to stop listening to what people tell you to write or not write, you will come to the amazing realization that you are your own boundary - and the key to new roads is your own imagination.

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