Category Archives: On Writing

Writing on the go

Traveled three hours this afternoon to Bataan, where I will hold a technical writing workshop in the next two days. I was the only passenger in a comfortable rental van.

The drive, though pleasant, wasn’t how I wanted to use my very limited me-time. So I got out my laptop and started writing. I got carsick–I often do–so I positioned my index fingers to find the trusty ridges on letters F and J, and wrote while looking out the window.

I didn’t care about errors and typos; I couldn’t, anyway. So I just wrote, the mobile equivalent of Julia Cameron’s morning pages–seat-of-my-pants and stream-of-consciousness writing. I unfettered my thoughts, undeterred by bumps in the road or in my mind.

I came out with so much. Especially a truth I had not recognized in something so familiar. As my mind leapt from my mother to my daughter to magic, I suddenly realized this:

Before Jesus miraculously multiplied a little boy’s lunch to feed 5,000, He first lifted up the boy’s lunch basket and thanked God. He gave thanks for two tiny fish and five pieces of bread before they amounted to anything.

Before we ask for more, perhaps we should first be grateful for what we have. How can we be entrusted with much when we cannot appreciate less?

The writing exercise underscores three things:

1. I should write. My memory is weak, and my thoughts are mercurial. I think of something one minute, and I’d lose it to the void the next. I need to tether my thoughts to the ground.

2. I can write anywhere.

3. I will be OK with first drafts (Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts”). I will rewrite them later; the real writing is in the rewriting.

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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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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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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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Being. Here.

Today I practice mindfulness.

As I write this, I embrace the feel of my fingers hitting the keyboard, the hum of the airconditioner, the limits of my skin. In this hallowed space and time, I am.


Writing, sculpting

Photo credit: Writing and whittling

I am encouraged by the good feedback from friends and family on my first column on mothering and motherhood, particularly by those who are ornery readers. (Family and friends are usually not good first readers.)

I ride on the momentum. Words do beget words. I finished a post for my other blog, which I hope will take off soon. I just have to write more and identify my focus for that blog.

I agree with Elie Wiesel, that writing is like sculpting:

Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.

I am a writer. Hear me roar!

A writer who mothers, a mother who writes*

I wrote my first column on mothering and motherhood. Only 536 words. I agonized over them all afternoon. While I played tea party with my three-year-old, wearing a hat and saying the right things that made her laugh and snuggle close to me, my thoughts chased after words. I was overwhelmed by all that I had to say, by the ordinariness of all I felt.

Sometimes writing is like picking a scab: painful, grotesque, self-mutilating, but you just gotta.

This is part of that column:

I write because mothering is charged with loves, hates and raptures too big for thought and too fast for the heart. Writing connects me to parts of myself engulfed by deadlines or harassed by the day’s cares. I look for words to shape thoughts, so that each day falls into place, sometimes painfully, sometimes joyously. Like all mothers, I am a fractal art—color geometrics that are difficult to pin down, irregular but harmonious, a mix of order and chaos, creative, requiring effort and intelligence, and mostly better appreciated from a distance.

* Borrowed from Lisa Garrigues’ wonderful Writing Motherhood

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