Writer in agony

There might be formulas, techniques, or tricks in writing. But every time you buckle down to write, you start from zero

BLEED WORDS Leonid Pasternak's 19th century painting The Throes of Creation

It’s a complicated thing, writing is. All you need is the truth, but it’s hard to do. No matter how much you lie, no matter how capricious you are, given to delusions or illusions or the denial of facts, you have the truth with you all the time, but expressing it is another story.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that there is no way you can teach writing. There might be formulas. There might be techniques. There might be tricks, a framework within which to paint the truth in words. But in the end every time you buckle down to write, you start from zero, as if you are writing for the very first time.

Sure, there are so many words to come to your aid, but in truth you only need a fraction of the contents of a typical dictionary to write down your thoughts. The keener you are on using words that are truly familiar with you, that truly resonate with you, that are truly meaningful to you, the more likely it is that what you write will sound authentic. That’s why I’ve long given up the thesaurus, except as a means to widen my vocabulary. I’ve long given up on words that are new to me. I’ve long given up using other people’s words, except to quote them—and only after I’ve written my piece—as a form of reiteration, a kind of punctuation.

But each writing exercise is an adventure, a journey into the unknown. You start on a blank page and launch yourself into a new world, whether you glide, soar, drive, dive, dig, or claw your way into it. There is a school of thought that recommends that you write only what you know. It’s true, but not all-true. Writing must have the joy of discovery, for both the writer and the reader, or else what is the point of it? I was once tasked to write about cigars and I smoked cigars before, during, and long after writing it. 

Writing, indeed, is an education. Imagine if you were to write about prostitutes or the new president, a murder mystery, the ghosts of Intramuros, the migrant crisis of Europe, the secrets of your heart, the findings of your soul search...

PAIN PAL Lifestyle journalism is characterized by blurred boundaries, presenting facts in a playful, more interesting manner and balancing information with creativity (Illustration by proksima)

Or you can try and control as much as you can by drawing up an outline, a plotline, a copy flow guide before you do any serious writing, but I have never had much use for such things. In seven out of 10 interviews I’ve done as a journalist, I would show up without as much as a questionnaire nor would I record the conversation or even take down notes. I figure if I don’t remember anything from the conversation, then there is no point writing it all down. But I’m older now and I do not trust my memory as much. It’s time for change.

Still, when I’m writing, it’s like mind straight to paper and, in many cases, such as in this one, I try to do without intervention from dictionaries, thesauruses, Google, and other references. When not feeling confident enough to write anything of value, I defy all sense of inadequacy and just get started writing, staring the blank page in the eye and tackling it before I’m ready. It doesn’t always work, but getting started is, well, the only way to start. Sometimes, I only need one good sentence to get the rest of the sentences flowing out of me. Sometimes, I agonize over a million sentences before I get the right one and then with the right one, throwing everything else, I start over again. 

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. —Ernest Hemingway

I have no scientific proof for this, but writing gets so much harder when you entertain thoughts that it’s a kind of suffering, a torture, an agony. I try to make it seem easier by thinking 1,000 words are all it takes to get it done, or five pages (or 200 pages), or one hour (if it’s an article with 1,000 words or fewer). There are times I do write continuously, not minding my grammar or my syntax or my choice of words or the organization of my thoughts or even my facts, and then once I’m done, I start rearranging the flow, replacing some of the words, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, verifying my facts, crafting the whole thing. That’s also hard to do—some writers say rewriting is the more important phase in the process of writing—but somehow I find it so much easier if I have something to work on, so it does work that I have a draft, no matter how rough. Other times, I write sentence per sentence, not moving to the next sentence until I’ve perfected the sentence before it. I think this is called agony writing, which was once upon a time exclusively my way of writing, but not since I discovered that when the mood strikes I can also just write automatically and then, once the draft is done, spend my energy turning it into a shape that pleases me.

Like I said in the beginning, which has so far led me here, I console (or delude?) myself that whatever it is I have to write about, I should do okay if I stick to the truth. The truth is all you need to write, the truth that comes from the way you experience things, see, hear, touch, taste, feel them, and the truth that may resonate with the reader, who might have experienced them the same way, who might be moved to look at them differently, who might see, hear, touch, taste, feel them for the first time. 

But I try not to be a hostage to the bare facts—I take liberties in dressing them up, stretching them to a reasonable extent, challenging them with alternatives, transposing them to a different context, flipping them over, turning them inside out. A word of caution, though: Creative liberty is not a license to lie. You need a point of view to be able to do this without mangling reality and you need years of experience, years of writing, or boundless imagination to have a point of view. In many cases, except on the frontpage of a newspaper or in a news report, the facts are not enough, especially in lifestyle journalism or in feature writing or in creative nonfiction, where mood, entertainment, style, or even pizzazz is necessary, where the truth must ring a bell, touch a chord, elicit memories, evoke dreams, call the reader to action, or, like every work of art, simply provoke thoughts, inspire change.

It’s such an intimidating task, writing is, even terrifying enough to paralyze even the most seasoned writer, to think that, in this country, its worth is only half recognized, if at all. But I soldier on. I just write, just like now. I started on the blank screen and here I am, with enough words on the screen for a thinkpiece. I’ll try not to edit it too much once I finish. I’ll try not to edit the soul out of this that I wrote mind to screen, heart to screen, soul to screen, with only the truth, the truth of my own experience, my truth as my guide. 

So help me Calliope!