Writing is Hard to Love (Confessions of a Composition Junkie)

Philbert Dy’s tweet made me think a bit. See, there’s something about “loving writing.”

Ten years ago, I’d probably say that Mr. Dy is right. After all, I was a young man of 22, as eager as any impressionable young writer would have been. Now, it just doesn’t seem that way anymore. I write every once in a while, but most of my writing now takes the form of outlines and presentation slides, and perhaps the occasional piece of work I ask from a harried copywriter just to keep myself busy. Writing—the kind that passes for the “serious” kind—comes by way of things passed on to me by acquaintances and friends who could use a hand. Months ago, I’ve still harbored a little bit of an ambition to write—and to “make my mark” on magazines—until a certain jadedness took over.

When it comes to loving writing, writing itself is hard to love.


The Breaking

The soldiers brought the victim to a holding cell, his hands bound with rope and his feet shackled with chains. The room was barren, save for a couple of bamboo cots. The room reeked of things you would expect from places like these: sweat, urine, and animal dung that wafted from the boarded-up windows. In the room flickered the light of a solitary gas lantern, casting a pallid yellow glow on the cracked concrete floor.

“San Juanico,” the commanding officer said curtly, as if referring to the bridge miles—or perhaps a short walk, who knows—miles away. The crickets chirped a little louder. A lone rooster crowed in the distance. The prisoner’s eyes, swollen from lack of sleep and bruised from the unforgiving blows of truncheons, lit up in fear; the whites of his eyeballs piercing the darkness briefly.

“San Juanico” was nothing more than a euphemism for the torture invented by the Marcos regime at the height of Martial Law. Countless activists have been made to suffer the sentence, named after the great bridge that connected two of the country’s poorest islands. The bridge was a marvel that would be shared in postcards for generations to come; the torture was a memory best left forgotten by those who miraculously survived it.


The Crimson Stain

That’s not a scarlet terno that Imee Marcos is wearing. Rather, it stands for the mountains where Macliing Dulag was killed. His blood ran down the slopes of the Cordillera in much the same way he wanted the Chico River to flow. To his dying breath—and years thereafter—Dulag fought against the hydroelectric power that threatened the survival of his people, in the hands of a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

That’s not Imee Marcos gracefully crossing her well-formed, tanned legs. Emmanuel Lacaba’s legs were found in the same way, tied and chained, as his corpse was dragged to an unmarked grave. In 1976, Lacaba was captured with a pregnant 18-year-old comrade in the underground, and was shot with a .45 caliber bullet not once, but twice. His crime was to write literature in opposition to a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

That’s not a tasteful bodice that highlights Imee Marcos’s ample curves. That bodice conceals how forces of the constabulary killed Edgar Jopson in 1982. He was found alive in Davao, but was still executed. It took nine bullets to murder Edjop: chest wounds, arm wounds, leg wounds. This son of a grocer became another statistic in a very long list of human rights abuses in the 70s and 80s, and personally earned the ire of a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos.

Those are not the features of Imee Marcos, carefully airbrushed. Those were the walls put up along the routes whenever any foreign dignitary or visitor passed by to visit Malacañang Palace. Entire edifices were built around the Philippines to celebrate and commemorate the “New Society,” all the while those displaced are kept hidden from view. For one cannot be seen poor and starving when guests come by to entertain—and be entertained by—a dictator named Imelda Marcos.



The Big Against The Small

“It is therefore in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest.”

– Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” Mythologies

When you break wrestling down to its essentials, the general context of wrestling is quite simple and straightforward. Some compare it to David and Goliath, but I’d rather much compare it to Samson breaking down the pillars of the Temple of Dagon. Before this all descends to the Bildung and frisson of analyzing simple things, it’s quite simple: in a match between the good guy and the bad guy, the good guy gets kicked and slammed around first before he mounts a comeback and beats the bad guy. This may last for as short as a quick 5-minute match, or throughout a whole storyline.

For those enthusiastic about pro wrestling trivia, this pattern emerges throughout the history of the spectacle. Take Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Or Shawn Michaels and Vader. You can even go back as far as the match that started it all: the muscular, chiseled George Hackenschmidt versus the athletic and toned Frank Gotch. In a post-“wrestling-is-scripted-not-fake” understanding of professional wrestling, it’s easy to see why passionate wrestling fans all over the world think that the WWE brass is screwing over Daniel Bryan in favor of the Big Show.

But isn’t that the very basic foundation pro wrestling is built on: the battle of big and small? And isn’t that applicable to things like, say, life itself?

* * *


For Mom Edith

It’s been over two years since that lesson on the porch of Edith Tiempo.  There were 15 of us, fortunate enough to be in that little world, about to be taught a quick yet meaningful lesson in writing by the Grand Dame of Filipino Poetry herself.

I still remember the lesson from Mom Edith: form must grow together with content.  Meaning arises naturally from the subject of the piece, but it should also reverberate.  “How do you write a better poem?  You should read and revise, but do not revise to the point of destroying your work altogether” she said.  “Like a bell… the sound still reverberates.  And a good poem is no different from the sound of a good bell.”

The bells toll in grief for Mom Edith’s passing, but they ring true in her legacy. Not only for the body of work she left behind, but in the minds and hearts of the writers she taught over the years. We were all her children.

Our batch – one made memorable by the cases of beer drank at Hayahay and the infamous story of ten people getting stranded in Siquijor Island for literally missing the boat – was “fortunate enough to learn at the feet of Mom Edith.”  That surely may be construed as something high and mighty, but there was no other place where I personally learned more about the art of writing than in the National Writers’ Workshop.

Or, more properly, Mom Edith’s workshop: the one she worked hard for and sustained, the one that she made renowned and respected, and the hundreds of fellows that have considered her the matriarch of a group of writers that includes some of the country’s greatest and most respected poets, essayists, and fictionists.

It was fun to see it: the way she treated Jimmy Abad as still her student, the way Ernesto Yee referred to her affectionately as “Mama,” or the way even Susan Lara and Chari Lucero listened intently; even if for the entire duration of the workshop, we looked upon them as teachers and mentors.  If anything, it was a sign of how pervasive Mom Edith’s legacy is.

I wouldn’t say that I know her work by heart – which is a shame, really – but if anything, her greatest gift to the craft and the work was what she taught.  If not for the workshop she and her husband started, the ways of our words would not grow.  She laid standards, lit beacons, and in my case, rang a bell that somehow stood for me as the standard and beacon of what good writing should be.

We live in a world where art is only recognized upon death, or when they’re controversial enough to be part of the headlines.  In her passing I think the most timely and fitting way to pay tribute to Mom Edith is to share her work:


When you reach for me in that obscure
World where like ashes of the air
Your eyes and hands and voice batter
With a stark and ghostly urgency
The transparent doors of my closed lids,
I struggle to confine the precarious grace,
The force, the impulse of this fantasy;
Yes, I grieve. But in its sure
Wise way it is this grief that bids
The ghost to go.
This is the reality we stand to lose:
That the push of muscle strength
Is also the dear enfolding brute embrace
Of reason shocking all our length,
The loss is gain for the will to choose
The distance-given right to know.

When we left her residence at Montemar that afternoon, I left her two tokens of my appreciation: weaved tapestry, and a couple of wooden figurines of highland warriors.  I’m willing to bet that they’re set aside somewhere in her curios and tokens collected over the years.  I’m sure that I’m just one among the hundreds she has called her “children” by way of the art and craft of writing, yet I’m equally as sure that the most fitting way to say thanks to the Old Lady of Montemar is to keep writing.  To know that form and content grows together, that meaning comes forth naturally but making that meaning reverberate is the task of writing itself.

There are those out there who can probably write better eulogies or more fitting tributes, but I think it’s best to leave mine here as a belated gesture of thanks.  Among the many teachers I have had who taught and encouraged me to write, it is the confidence, trust, and magnanimity of Edith Tiempo and her workshop that made me see more meaning into what I do.  Perhaps, one day, I can pay it forward.

Tonight, her sons and daughters grieve for her loss.  Tomorrow, and for days on end, we shall celebrate the work she has made possible.  Rest in peace, Mom Edith… and thank you.

The Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo Train

This is a story told to me some 20-odd years ago, when I was still enamored with toy trains.  I still like toy trains, but I had to change parts of this story: the story of the Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo Train.

That’s right, a Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo train.  I write bad stories, so here goes.

Once upon a time, there was a little one-car train that pulled a coach along the rail line.

Every day, the train carried its coach along the line.  It went, Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  It passed along the lake, through the dale, over the hill, and under the bridge where the schoolchildren passed by every day.

One spring morning, the controller decided to add a coal truck to the train.  That way, they didn’t have to load up the train’s tiny tender too often.

So the train went, Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  The lake was full of fish, the dale was full of cows, the hill’s sides were covered with flowers, and the schoolchildren marched in single file on the bridge to the schoolhouse on that spring morning.

The next day, the controller decided to add another coach to the train.  He thought that by having two coaches, they could get more people to board the train every day.

So the train went, Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  The lake now had some boats, the dale now had a barn, the hill’s sides had a few houses, and the schoolchildren rode their bikes on the bridge to the schoolhouse on that spring morning.

One summer, the controller added a flat truck to the train.  The flat truck was to carry more goods, like containers and boxes and crates and machines.

So the train went, Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  The lake was teeming with fishermen, the dale now had fences and silos, the hill’s sides were now full of beautiful white houses, and the teenagers hung out on the bridge to the schoolhouse that summer afternoon.

A few summers later, the controller took the old coaches and trucks and the flatbed away so that the train can haul the circus coaches.  Elephants, lions, trapeze artists, they all rode the train.  The Ferris wheels, the carousels, and all the attractions were loaded up on the coaches and hitched onto the train.

So the train went, Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  The lake reflected the fireworks shot off to the sky, the dale filled with the glowing and spinning and whirring rides, the hill’s sides had tents all shapes and sizes, and the parents walked their kids on the bridge to the Big Top near the schoolhouse that summer evening.

Winter came, and the controller brought back the old, heavy clunky trucks to hitch up on the train.  The train was to deliver coal to all the houses and villages.  The loaded trucks themselves weighed more than the elephants, and the wheels rusted out by snow, salt, and age.

So the train went, Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  The lake was frozen, the dale was quiet and snowed in, the hill’s sides covered with snowy rooftops of factories spewing out soot and smoke, and the poor people thrown out of their houses by the factory owners lived under the old bridge keeping themselves warm that cold winter’s night.

Many years later, in the fall, the controller attached Super Duper coaches to the train.  Everyone loved the Super Duper coaches, with full reclining seats, fluorescent lighted floors, and satellite TV and Internet.  They didn’t bother replacing the train, since the coaches were Super Duper.  What mattered was that the train got the Super Duper coaches where they were supposed to go.

So the train went, Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo!  The lake dried up and there stood the Super Duper Mall, the dale was gone and became the Super Duper Used Car Lot, the hill’s sides became the Super Duper Condominum Complex, and the Super Duper Employees of Super Duper Corporation rode their Super Duper scooters over the bridge to the Super Duper Headquarters that autumn dawn.

A few years later, summer arrived and the train was battered.  Beat from the trucks, beat from the coaches, beat from the flatbed, beat from the Super Duper Coaches, and just plain old beat.  The controller tried adding cars and coaches, but the hooks didn’t bite into the chains as well as they used to.  The wheels of the train didn’t coast along the rails as fast as they did before.  And try as the old and aging controller may, the old boiler of the old train had just enough left to get the little train moving to the scrap yard.

So the train went, Chugga Choo-Choo!  Chugga Choo-Choo!  But it was chugging along on a very different line.  There was no lake, no dale, no hill, and no bridge where it was going.  It was just a short, moss-covered, rusty old line from the station, passing by the quarry, up and over the dump and into the old scrap yard.

That same night, as it moved along the conveyor belt that led to the furnace, the train went, Choo-Choo!  Choo-Choo! for the very last time.  Chugga, Chugga… CRASH! And the silence in the yard said it all, that the little train was no more.

The original story had the controller fix the train. The controller repaired the boiler, gave the train a new set of wheels, and the old-brand-new-train was speeding along the lake, through the dale, over the hill and under the bridge.

Then again, 20-odd years or so after I first heard that story, I don’t see a lot of Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo trains anymore.

How the Bishop Stole Halloween

* – Inspired by this story.  Wrote this in the style, method, and theme “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Theodor Seuss Geisel, in a poorly-executed manner.

Every kid down the village liked Halloween a lot
But the Bishop up his Church, however, did not.

It happened every October Thirty-First
The kids in their costumes, out their doors they burst.
Some dressed like ghosts, clutching pails shaped like pumpkins;
Little zombies and vampires, the scary little munchkins.
Knocking on doors of houses, saying, “Trick or treat!”
And a handful of candy for the scary kids they meet.

“This madness must stop!” the Bishop said:
His eyes bulging wide, his face turning red.
Every year the kids walk by without offering Mass,
They’re all after the candy from the houses they pass.
“It’s the work of the Devil!” the old priest exclaimed
He was angry, mad, and even inflamed.

He stared at the Churchyard, his eyebrows in knots
He preached at his pulpit, hating the tots
“They’re just after the sweets, and dress up like the dead
They don’t go to Church and they harden their heads!
Curse Halloween!  What to do about it now,
I must stop this madness, but then again, how?”


Pre-Adolescent Lyric Poetry

I believe that children should use big words early in life.  They must be taught to be highfalutin, for them to be able to grasp the complexity of the English language.  Simplicity invalidates the wealth of terminologies within the paradigmatic pool, forcing us to make syntagmatic constructions that invariably result in the misconstruction of what we communicate.  Nothing can concretize the validity of this argument that the repetitiveness of so-called “nursery rhymes,” that only facilitate the continued miseducation of our children.  Without being properly acquainted with lexical possibilities during the formative phases of basic education, we ourselves give rise to the jejemon in our midst.

Poetry, taught to our offspring at such a crucial stage in development, can sometimes be devoid of the necessary elements for them to innately process and configure the algorithmic relationships between elements of language.  Language is a procedural facility; we must be able to conscienticize our children early for them to understand that simplicity is in fact idiocy.  By reconfiguring the pre-school plantilla to trigger the accelerated improvement in the Language Acquisition Device, we can mitigate the consequences of simple-minded, plebeian use of language.


Where The Rue Go

Today’s Inquirer headline brings me back to sex stories.

I’m not talking about Literotica: I think that animal-related euphemisms for genitalia are confined to the American mindset.  I’m not talking about erotic literature either: I’m talking about Filipino porn stories in the tabloids at the back of the news stands, smack right next to the lotto numbers and the horse race results.

Forget “pussy,” where “puke” would do better.  “Cock” is too… avian, sosyalin, that one would use the more masculine, brusko term: “tarugo.” The act of intercourse isn’t “making love” or “fucking,” but appeals to the war-like state of mind of a man with a raging erection, and a woman with insatiable sexual appetites… but first…

A break tag.