Poor is the reader of the writer or the journalist who doesn’t read

Here is the transcript of a speech I delivered before a writing symposium at the First Pacific Leadership Academy in Antipolo, Rizal.

Good morning!

Before we start the day, I think we have to know a little more about why we are here, why you are here, why I am here, and why we are in this together.

Let’s start with me.

THE GRIND The author working at the office

I’ve been an editor since the mid-’90s, I started as a writer in the magazine Lifestyle Asia, before it was bought by the One Mega Group shortly after the original publisher died. Six months later, I became editor of a sister magazine called Taipan, a men’s magazine focused on Asia’s richest, most powerful men. And then I became lifestyle editor of Manila Standard, during and after which I became editor of various magazines covering a whole range of topics, from travel to city life to fashion. I am now lifestyle editor at Manila Bulletin and also editor of its Sunday cultural magazine Panorama.

I don’t know why I ended up a journalist, except that because I read a lot, I wanted to emulate the people I was reading and therefore I wanted to be a writer. The first time I ever used the word journalism, I think, was in fifth grade or fourth grade, when I wrote on my notebook: Arnel Patawaran, B.A. Journalism, University of the Philippines…

At that time I was a “fictionist.” I read only fiction and I wrote only imagined stories—short stories, novellas, and later on, even full-feature plays.

It wasn’t until high school, with influence from my dad, that I began reading opinion columns. I read the newspapers, particularly the front pages, only for information, but the opinion columns, at that time, I read with the same pleasure I would draw from, say, Mario Puzo or Robert Ludlum or Stephen King. These were the only parts of the newspaper that I read like literature. The rest was—and still is—to just sort of keep up with what’s going on—earthquake, epidemic, 9/11, the death of a president or a king or a queen, etc.

There is virtue in both reading for mere pleasure and reading for a specific purpose—knowledge, understanding, self-advancement… For the journalist, there is equal virtue in each.

But as you can see, what’s basic is reading. There is no one person who can stand here before you to teach you better about everything you need to know about being a good journalist or writing well than a life of constant reading. Read, read, read, as they say, and there is a reason they say that with such urgency, three times!

Poor is the reader of the writer or the journalist who doesn’t read and, in most cases, you hardly ever read anybody who doesn’t give you an aha moment, right? In everything we read, we sort of look for an OMG moment or a moment when we feel we discover something and after reading, we can sit at the breakfast table and say, “Hey, did you know that so and so is so” or we can meet up with friends and say, “There’s a new club opening in so and so next week and we have to be there.” Or “there’s this new stuff at this store.”

In a way, that is what writing is about. In my case, this is what journalism is about.

Journalism is from the French word jour, which means “day.” All these things we read in our newspapers, our magazines, our newsletters are stories of the day or our times. Journalism traces its roots back to the hunting/gathering age, where the men would hunt and women would stay in the cave, where the men who were too old to hunt would stay, too, and often become the storyteller, telling stories about the forests, the wood nymphs, the dwarves, the dragons, the sun, the moon, the stars. Those were the forefathers of journalism. The first journalists in history, never mind that some of their stories we now reserve for fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia—fire-breathing dragons and witches were as much a part of their culture, a part of their time, as terrorists are a part of ours.

But OK, let’s fast forward to the ’90s, when I began to turn a new leaf from advertising to try my hand at journalism. I started as a writer in a society magazine called Lifestyle Asia, the first six months of my life then was the most fulfilling ever in my ongoing career, if only because then I was no more than a storyteller. My job was to look out for stories to tell the magazine readers, month after month after month. The magazine was also the first glossy in the history of Philippine publishing. Mega at that time was just starting out, so we sort of paved the way, experimented with how we could tell the stories of our rich, to display their houses, to inspire and to provide our readers with aspirational pegs of the life well, wisely, and luxuriously lived.

THE WORLD INSIDE BOOKS There are so many benefits from reading from improving vocabulary, increasing empathy, to reducing stress, and preventing cognitive decline (freepik)

Did I think then that I was a journalist? No. I considered myself a writer. I thought journalists were more serious. It was only lately, when I began to teach English and journalism at some schools, like San Beda College, De la Salle-College of Saint Benilde, and the School of Fashion and the Arts, that I began to see major differences between journalism as I knew it—meaning front page news, opinion, business, crime, all the heavies—and lifestyle journalism, which covers the whole gamut of life, from food to fashion, from shopping to travel, from leisure to businesses and careers, from cradle to grave. Even then lifestyle journalism isn’t all about the good things. Personally, as a lifestyle journalist, I’ve written about climate change, life on death row, poverty, prostitution, the reproductive health bill, and such. That too is life, after all, except that, as opposed to the news reporter, what I write about these things need to be over and beyond the facts and I need to tell you stories about them, stories that grip you, horrify you, worry you, concern you, and allow you to put yourself in their shoes, the way fiction does, the way movies do.

Now then let me ask you a few questions.

Would it be fair to say that in order to be a successful fashion magazine editor, you should be fashionable? Would it be fair to say that in order to write a column about success you should be successful yourself? Would it be fair to say that in order to be a great food reviewer, you should be a cook or know how to cook? Would it be fair to say that in order to write a book about children, you have to be a parent or a guardian or a child?

The answer from most of you is a Yes. And the answer in most cases is Yes, unless—and may I say this with emphasis—unless you read and let me say it again for more emphasis, the answer is yes unless you read.

Is Emma Donaghue a five-year-old? Was Mario Puzo a member of the Mafia? Did J. K. Rowling go to The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Do you think that the creator of Yoda was someone who could have lived a thousand years to have had the wisdom of the centuries?

Now let’s set writing aside, and let’s talk about our favorite fiction or movies, since most of them are drawn from fiction anyway.

Do you have to be prostitute in order to write about prostitutes? Do you have to be a five-year-old in order to write a story from the point-of-view of a five-year-old? Do you need to be a boy to write about boyhood? Do you need to be a spy to write a spy novel?

Is Emma Donaghue a five-year-old? Was Mario Puzo a member of the Sicilian Mafia? Did J. K. Rowling go to The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Do you think that the creator of Yoda was someone who could have lived a thousand years to have had the wisdom of the centuries?

So again we go back to how powerful our minds are and how we can make it even more powerful by constantly feeding it, by reading—OK, maybe reading is the second best way to enrich the mind because the best way is to live, to wake up every day with a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonder. This is what leads you to make the most of each day, to think about the sunrise and the sunset, the nuances of your personal relationships. This is what makes you want to travel to discover what’s beyond your immediate world. This—curiosity and a sense of wonder—is what makes you want to go into a new club, ride a horse, learn to dance, learn a new language, fall in love, jump off the edge, step beyond the familiar.

And this is also what makes you want to read.

Even if you travel every day, you cannot discover enough of the world, but by reading you experience so much more. You can learn enough about Paris years before you set foot there. You can learn enough about Pluto even if you or anybody else never get there at all.

You only have 24 hours a day, six to 8 hours of which you spend sleeping, but if you read, it’s like you push your limits, you go beyond 24 hours, you go from this year to centuries ago or centuries from here, millennia.

As George RR Martin, after whose fantasy epics The Game of Thrones was adapted, once said: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”