Writing prolificity

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Image: FUCCHA.

“Write only when there is something you know; and not before; and not much later.”
—Ernest Hemingway—

Last month, US film company Universal Studios announced the title of the sequel to Jurassic World, that science-fiction adventure film which earned more than a billion dollars two years ago. Titled Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it will be the fifth installment in the Jurassic Park film series, all of which were based on two best-selling novels by the late Michael Crichton (1942—2008): Jurassic Park, published in 1990, and; The Lost World, published in 1995.

Crichton was a very prolific writer. He had published 25 novels and 4 non-fiction books in his lifetime, not even counting several short stories that saw print in various magazines. So prolific was he that there were even times that he was able to publish two or three novels in the course of only a year. And even after his death, three more novels of his saw print. The guy was a virtual writing machine.

One other prolific writer from the US, also a novelist, was Stephen King, arguably more well-known than Crichton because many of his horror novels were adapted into films that played well in the box office. King, who is turning 70 in a few months, appears to be more prolific than Crichton; he has published 57 novels, 5 non-fiction, and several other publications (short stories, novellas, etc.).

Skeptics who have not yet read both Crichton and King might think that, with the rate that they publish books through the years, their works might had been hurried, thus robbing them of quality storytelling. But fans of both Crichton and King (myself included) will immediately tell them that it is far from the truth. Both novelists have crafted into each of their books the kind of entertainment that will glue readers to their seats for a prolonged period of time. Even in fast-paced scenes, readers will not sense any hurriedness in their writing. Each sequence, every subplot, is carefully crafted and well thought out. That’s how damn good these writers are. There is an apt adjective to describe their books: page-turners.

For sure, a lot of writers from the US are page-turners like Crichton and King no matter what genre they’re using. Many of their names are familiar to us (Judith Arnold, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, etc.) even though we have not yet read any of their works because they have become homegrown, always marketed as best-selling authors, which is always the case anyway. Back in college, I remember one brief chat that I had with one of our instructors about these amazing US writers. While our country has its fair share of excellent writers in English, how come almost none of them are best-sellers? Why couldn’t we produce such page-turners? His reply had stupefied me for years: those US authors absolutely do nothing anymore but write. And because they can afford to give 100% of their time towards writing, it is always expected that they can churn out some of today’s best stories and write-ups. On producing excellent writing, King has this to say:

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

But here in our country, the Filipino writer is forever burdened with other tasks other than reading and writing. In his book The House of True Desire: Essays on Life and Literature, National Artist Cirilo Bautista perfectly describes the dilemma faced by his fellow writers:

“…the Filipino writers cannot live by writing alone, no matter how masterful they may be.”

“My magnum opus, The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus… took me thirty years… The enterprise begot another odd aspect by the fact that I stood to gain nothing monetary by its realization; indeed, it depressed me by its fruitfulness and drove me to misanthropy by its selfish demand on my attention.”

Most of our best writers today are those who use English. Young Filipino writers are always encouraged to hone their writing craft in this language. Even the English Division of the Palanca Awards is the most sought-after contest in the country’s biggest literary award-giving body. But up to now, even after more than a century of English education, the only writer we have ever produced to be of the same caliber as Crichton or King is Nick Joaquín, and only him. It’s because the Filipino writer is poor. His writings, if of any merit, will only give him fame, trophies, but not money which is needed to sustain him. Like Bautista, the Filipino writer is always faced with the dreaded reality that no matter how he strives to make his craft the best it could ever be, he couldn’t because his freedom is limited. The harsh reality of making both ends meet weighs more than art, thus jeopardizing the quality of their works. They could have done more, but employment is a necessity in order for him to physically survive. Crichton and King (and to some extent, Joaquín) didn’t have to worry about monetary problems; they were always assured of huge sums of money. That is why they have more time to focus on the creative writing process.

But the foregoing accounts may have not always been the case. In the last century, we have had prolific writers (and researchers) who have poured their everything into their works despite the absence of any promising monetary award. They may not have had published as much as Crichton or King or Joaquín, but the circumstances they were in will astound any aspiring writer today who are also faced with the dilemma of focusing solely on their craft for the sake of quality. Take for instance former diplomat León Mª Guerrero III who was able to translate Rizal’s memoirs and novels despite his political and legal chores. And then there was the daunting task of writing Rizal’s biography even as he was fulfilling his duties as ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s in London (that biography of his ended up first prize in the Rizal Biography Contest of the José Rizal National Centennial Commission in 1961). Years before Guerrero entered the scene, another nationalist, Teodoro M. Kalaw, wrote essays every single day for the newspaper La Vanguardia. He also wrote several books on history and politics despite his schedule as director of the National Museum and as a public servant. Dr. Domingo Abella was both surgeon and historian. Máximo Solivén was writing profound and up-to-date political commentaries in his column at The Philippine Star while serving as its publisher, making him a writer-businessman. So was Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsín, Jr. who was able to helm those biting editorials that we now sorely miss in his defunct Today newspaper while serving as board of director for big companies, one of which was San Miguel Corporation (he rarely writes nowadays as he’s too busy with his tweeting engagements).

However, it should be noted that Guerrero, Kalaw, Abella, Solivén, Locsín, and a few others like them had the wherewithal to accomplish their tasks. They could afford to delegate mundane chores (cooking food, washing clothes, payment of bills, etc.) to other people so that they could go about with their writing/researching assignments without any hassle, unlike in the case of many writers and researchers today. Including myself. With five kids to raise (no nannies!) and a job that requires a rotating graveyard shift, it’s virtually impossible for me to focus on what I’ve always wanted to do: read, write, repeat.

Speaking of my kids, I remember one meeting that I had with novelist Joe Bert Lazarte in some monotonous fast food near his place in Bacoor, Cavite more than a decade ago. He was then helping me out to secure an employment with the company he was working for at the time. I can still clearly remember how he told me that when he had heard about the news of my unplanned marriage years before, he felt disstressfully sorry for me. There was, of course, no derision from his part. He was just aware of the travails of being a writer and a family man at the same time, and his being distressed was simply a show of concern. If I’m not mistaken, I only had one child back then. Now I have five. Just imagine (disclaimer: in no way am I blaming my family for my shortfalls in being a writer).

I also remember one brief chat that I had with poet Radney Ranario many years ago. Chancing upon him as he was exiting one of his classes, he mentioned to me that he was thinking of going on a hiatus from his teaching job to focus on his poetry, even if just for a while. With a frown on his face, he complained that his teaching job, even if it has something to do with literature, was also draining his creative juices.

The likes of Crichton, King, and many other US authors never had to go through such challenges. But Lazarte, Ranario, myself, and a host of other Filipino writers had to struggle monetarily just for our dreamy heads to keep afloat in this sea of unreality.

For my part, I’m trying my very best to follow at least part of King’s advise just to stay alive, to keep me sane, by reading during traffic jams on my way to the office and by blogging every day. That is why if you have noticed, I have been blogging every single day since the inception of this blog last June 24. Ideally, a blogger really has to post daily since a blog is considered as an online journal. But due to daunting challenges that I face (working as a wage slave by night, as a consultant for two local government units by day, and as a dad in between), I might not be able to keep this up. Most probably after this blogpost, I’d be able to blog only during weekends. Or during my free time. Or perhaps only if I feel the urge to write about something that I know (“and not before; and not much later”).

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, talent and discipline are the true accomplices of a prolific writer no matter what the challenges. Don’t give up on your dreams. The Filipino writer simply has to rally on no matter what the odds.

And those odds are not forever. This I believe.

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