20 January 2008

Tips for Young Writers at a Workshop

1. So far, you have focused mainly on craft, on yourself as a writer. Let me now pull you back, zoom out, take you back to the context in which you find yourself. Let us talk a little bit about yourself as a writer in society, in the country, in the global community, in an environment that is rapidly degenerating.

2. But I don’t mean that you should write about your society, your country, the global community, or the environment. That would be the end of your being a writer.

3. You should write only about yourself. But you must make yourself worth writing about.

4. You owe it to the world to write. That is your contribution to humanity and development and progress and the environment. You must write. And you must write with all the energy and talent that you have.

5. There is no such thing as a part-time writer. Look at Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Gary Kasparov, Lisa Macuja, Cecile Licad. You have to be obsessed with writing. You have to be so obsessed that you do not do anything else but write. There can be no compromises with your art. All pianists and painters and dancers practise their art five, ten hours a day. You must also. You must also write ten hours a day. Otherwise, give it up right now, right here. If you cannot see yourself sitting down in front of a computer or typewriter or a blank sheet of paper for hours, forget about being a writer.

6. Why do you think the Philippines has not produced a Nobel prize winner? We certainly have the talent. Everyone that has been with you in this writers' workshop has the talent to win a Nobel prize. Believe me, we are better writers than many of those that have won recently. But no one in this country is going to win the Nobel today because no one among Filipinos works full time at writing. You cannot be the best in something if you are doing something else.

7. But you have a chance to be a full-time writer. You will be a writer in the next millenium, and times will change, have changed.

8. You have to make yourself a better writer. Because writing does not come from nothing, and because all good writing comes from personal, not just vicarious, experience, you must experience everything, I mean everything. It is time for you to be friends with all kinds of people, not just your kind of people. It is time for you to go up the mountains and breathe for yourself the air that is there. It is time for you to go to Makati and dress up and try to get through the corporate jungle. It is time for you to have sex. It is time for you to fall in love, deeply and without restraint, and then to be rejected completely unexpectedly, to lose the greatest love of your life. You have to experience everything, if you want to be a writer.

9. You may point to Emily Dickinson and say that she never experienced anything. But read her letters, and you will see that she did. She fell in love with a married man, and that love colored everything she wrote. She knew how birds felt as they came down the walk, because she had herself been lonely. Or you may say that Shakespeare wrote about political things when he was a mere actor. But he wasn’t. Recent scholarship has shown that Shakespeare was a fugitive from Elizabethan justice, because he was deeply involved in a coup plotted by Prince John against Queen Elizabeth. He was as political as anyone, and you can see it in his plays. Or you may wonder why Amado Hernandez wrote such powerful novels, or of course Jose Rizal, and all you have to do is look at how they lived, how they experienced everything, particularly Rizal. Only one who had gone around the world and lived in poverty and in riches could have created the characters Elias and Ibarra. You cannot write from nothing.

10. You must give up everything for writing. You owe that to your society, to your country, to the world, to nature. Above all, you owe it to yourself.

(These are my notes for a lecture I delivered at the National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City, Philippines, in 1997.)

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