Monthly Archives: August 2012


Holy moly!

Four months left on my self-imposed countdown to finish a set of stories.

I have, so far, only these:

  • Two stories I’m satisfied with–hurray for small mercies!
  • Another that’s 2/3 done and on its quintillionth iteration (no such word but there should be considering the sheer number of revisions this story has gone through)
  • The beginnings of a story on friendship and all the glitter that surrounds it
  • A story about going home, which is turning out to be an essay
  • An essay on a shipwreck off Palawan, which is really about why I dive even when I’m deathly afraid of water
  • An essay on face value, possibly my own
  • A half-essay on my father that had started as a blog post, which I’m not sure I’d want him to read

Oh, I’ve been remiss. I need to finish these and then write new ones. How can I in four months?

First, I have to stop perfecting my stories. I should just write. The poet William Stafford said, “Write to your lowest standard.” I should write and do the rewriting later.

Second, I have to do a little each day to fulfill this project. The days are long but the years are short. Each day toils on slowly, yet the year suddenly twists into another –ber month (it’s September in another day!), hitting us in the gut and leaving us gasping, Where did the time go?


Somewhere in the busyness that I call my day, there must be at least a half-hour I can carve out for writing. Maybe when my three-year-old is swallowed whole by Disney Junior. Or in the one minute it takes for the conditioner to work on my hair. Or maybe I just have to wake up a half-hour earlier than the rest of the world.

I just gotta.


Standing up

I was lost in my writing when my three-year-old barged into the room, asking me to play with her. My mind was still grappling with images, and it took a second for the frames in my mind’s eye to shift to and settle on the real world, where my daughter was already bearing down on the laptop.

I was sad to let my other-world go and felt guilty that I did (we mothers have an auto-guilt mode for whatever good or bad we do).

Then I remembered that my daughter fuels my writing. She gives me material. Playing with her is like priming the pump. So I stood up, remembering Henry David Thoreau’s words: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” Life is my material, and I have to go find more of it.

We writers are always writing: when we look at someone, we are more likely storing in our mind how the neon lights play against his pallid skin, blue and pink against his forearm, or how the corners of her mouth twitch when she lies.

Perhaps we look at life differently. Part of us often step back and catalog an event taking place. Our being “in the moment” is lived thrice: once, when it happens; twice, when remembered; thrice, when reduced to words.

Catherine Drinker Bowen shares the same thought, “Writing, I think, is not apart form living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.”

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Brake and break

I’m writing on acid-free paper, and wondering if my thoughts are worth the paper’s archival value.

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A few weeks ago I was writing a speech for a homecoming event, and rediscovered some truths: that our success is only as good as our legacy. May the message I had written strike hard, strike true.

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A father’s heart

Photo credit: NJCoth

My third post for my column Mothering Heights for OSM!

“My dive buddy, David, a photographer and an artist, was born a fish. Even when I had a few years’ head start on him, he still takes to diving better than I do. He is unfazed by the weight of the sea, unafraid to take risks even when his decisions violate PADI safety guidelines as well as all the laws of physics. I was his buddy when he first dived in Anilao, and he should’ve paid me for that service for he kept speeding after every fish he fancied, parting away from us, and I had to tear after him each time to lead him back to the group—not an easy feat for David had a UP swim team’s body, built for speed.

When we dived Kho Tao, Thailand, our entire team had to do an emergency ascent after a mere ten minutes: we had lost David underwater. He had seen something interesting and tore after it. His lust for life and all its beauty proved far too irresistible.”

Read the rest of the column post here.

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Something old, something bored

Photo credit:

Writing Exercise: Write about someone dull who becomes interesting.

Many Mornings Like This

Like many mornings like this, he rises at exactly 6. Too early, and he feels the cold in his bones. Too late, and he feels his weight gather in his ankles by midmorning. He rolls to his right, groans, and plants a palm on the bed to heave himself up, slowly. He pauses, waiting for the room to stop spinning. When the room rights itself, his feet finds his slippers and he shuffles to the bathroom. He coughs, three times, the harsh intake of air clearing his lungs of phlegm.

At fifteen past 6, hair dampened with water and neatly combed back, he takes his seat at the breakfast table. “Good morning,” he tells his wife, who snorts. She brings him his plate: two pieces of bread, lightly toasted and with the edges removed, a packet of jam left unopened, sunny-side eggs not touching each other. And he smiles his thanks, but more brightly so on this day he plans to kill his wife.

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Calling myself a writer

“:Drawing Hands” by MC Escher

In my first year in creative writing school, our fiction teacher told us, his timorous class, “Have the gumption to call yourself a writer.”

Of course I didn’t believe him. Two years later, I did. I was watching an Ateneo-La Salle game at the referee’s table next to the Ateneo bench when a scuffle among the on-court players erupted into a free-for-all. Alums from both schools charged into the court. From the audience behind us, two former players vaulted over the railing, swinging. It was blue and green mayhem. I scrambled under the table, took out my Palm Pilot and tap-tapped about the chaos around me. That’s when I knew, for sure, that I was a writer, when the only way for me to make sense of things was to reduce them to words, when the words were almost, almost as meaningful as the event unfolding.

A few years later, while I was being wheeled into the operating room, a doctor leaned over me. “Hi! I’m your anesthesiologist. My name is Christian Doctor.” He was Doctor Doctor, my doctor. Laid out flat on the gurney, trying to recall the words of Psalm 23, I felt an urge to create a limerick.

When you’re about to face uncertainty and still feel like reaching for a pen and paper, that makes you, in my book, a writer.

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So what about once upon a time?

Message in a bottle

I’m on the third iteration of a story draft that I’ve been working on–on and off–for a few years now. The premise is intriguing, but I keep asking myself so what? I long for the characters to tell me why they do what they do, what they long for most of all. And so what? Why do I even tell this story?

I dug out a long-ago post from an old blog: Should fiction contain a moral?

John Gardner in his essay, On Moral Fiction, argued that fiction is moral when it is true art. According to another writer’s summary of this essay, Gardner attacks what he sees as contemporary literature’s lack of moral content. In Gardner’s view, moral fiction “attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment.”

What I do not want any fiction to do is preach, such that the characters, plot and language become secondary to the writer’s not-always-hidden agenda of imposing his or her particular convictions. What good fiction does is not to teach us lessons about life or about What Should Be, but to help us “weigh and consider.” (Sir Francis Bacon once advised: “Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.”)

In this sense, then, fiction will always be “moral” because it cannot help but make a statement, regardless of whether and especially if the writer was not conscious of doing so. Fiction always makes a stand: the characters, the narrator, the author, the reader—they will all have their own worldview. If the fiction is done well, then it will not sound like a sermon; neither will it present a contrived plot designed to showcase the moral lesson. The ideas in good fiction are added to our processing (which is more often than not unconscious) of what it is to be human, to belong to the human race.

I agree with Mary Gordon—a novelist and teacher—that we should look to fiction “for moral complexity, not moral certainty.”

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A mother’s heart

Photo credit: To show them Jesus

My second post for my column Mothering Heights came out today:

Two years ago, Good Housekeeping asked me to submit an essay for its Mother’s Day issue, only 700 words. I was a mother only a few weeks old. The long wait for a child—16 years—had led us to Anna, whom my husband calls “God’s Best.”

I wrestled with the essay, perhaps the hardest I ever had to write. My heart had been reeling from tenderness, from bruising, from delight, from doubt.

The William Wordsworth sitting on my shoulder was no help: any spontaneous overflow of emotions, he had said, should be “recollected in tranquility.” I shushed him: a mother is hardly tranquil.

By the third GH deadline, I still hadn’t written much. My words sounded cheap, sentimental.

And then there was Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

Writing is at once egotistic and humbling, a struggle between vanity and vulnerability. The truest sentence—my truest sentence—is the one I needed to tell my daughter.

Read the rest of the post here.

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My copy of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is stuffed with post-its. There are exclamation marks on the margins, words and phrases encircled, and smileys scattered among the lines, lines, lines. Her generosity and wisdom have helped us conquer the tyranny of the blank page.

I am also grateful for the advice she shared on

If my generation of women has defined itself by the struggle between the QWERTY keyboard and the sewing machine, we nevertheless have had, on the whole, lives more varied, more interesting, and more satisfactory than our mothers’. We laugh deep and unforced. We write at midnight if we please.

. . .

[T]he moment of ecstase, ecstasy that comes usually at the end of a period of effortful and perhaps despairing concentration, and yet comes “out of nowhere,” not as an apparent reward but apparently as a gift, that moment stays and is present every time I remember it or reencounter the passage in which it occurred, or reencounter the reluctance that precedes it or the grace as it descends—because this is my only religion, and it is “grace,” and it does seem to “descend”—and these moments accumulate into an awareness of power in the sense of capacity, which cannot be taken from me—except, of course, by dementia or death.

. . .

You have to earn a living somehow, and doing so is honorable, even if your spirit bleeds a little. But when you find yourself as a writer taking on more and more of the tasks that seem not quite true (you know them because they register in the body: your heart sinks half an inch, your stomach makes a quarter turn, there’s a semiquaver in your throat), then it is time to say no and turn to greet the next blank page. Because the core joy of writing, the ecstase, is not in the publication, the review, the prize, or the applause, but in that magic moment when you get outside the bone box of your own mind.

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