Lessons in writing and life, from National Artist Manong Frankie

Published January 12, 2022, 7:00 PM

by Jules Vivas

The second time I met F. Sionil José or Manong Frankie, as he would like to be called, I took home three things: books, enriching stories, and invaluaAble writing tips.

THE ART OF WAR AND LIFE National Artist Manong Frankie in his study at Solidaridad Bookstore (Noel Pabalate)

Back then, Manong Frankie was 95 years old, yet he remained just as prolific a writer, as inexorable a voice against social injustice and national amnesia as he was when he was much younger. It was quite inspiring how, despite his age, he would still scale the three flights of steps going to his writing alcove at the Solidaridad Bookshop in Manila, which was where we had our one-on-one. 

Naturally, it’s not every day one gets to converse with a National Artist for Literature, which was why I asked a lot of questions any budding, young writer would ask. The first of many was “How does one become like Manong Frankie?”

He guffawed at the question and said, “Why do you want to become like me? You don’t know I also lived a miserable life. No, you develop on your own [writing] hijo.”

There are challenges in life that a writer faces. Manong Frankie warned me of two. The first, he explained, is how you make yourself better than you were the day before, to always keep improving. The second, one that he expounded on, is how to give your work and your life meaning.

‘Writing is not enough. Doctoring or soldiering, or whatever profession is not enough. You have to give your job more meaning.’

“Writing is not enough. Doctoring or soldiering, or whatever profession is not enough. You have to give your job more meaning. Ikaw na bahala dun (this depends on you). Sometimes people search for meaning for the rest of their lives, sometimes they are born with this meaning kaagad (immediately).” For the veteran journalist-writer, his life’s meaning was to make his writing purposeful to society. Simply put, “It [writing] is not just art,” he said. 

“You have to be good at what you are doing. You have to be committed first to your craft and then to the country. Because if you are not committed to the craft, anong ibibigay mo sa bayan mo? (What will you give to your country?)”

Here are some of the other takeaways from our têteàtête.

START YOUNG.

“I thought I’d never get to be 50 years old. But when I got to that age, I thought I’d never get to be 60. Then when I got to 70, ’di ko na pinapansin (I stopped minding),” he laughed. “When we look at Rizal, del Pilar, Mabini, all of them were young when they died. Ang pinagyayabang ko (what I am most proud of) when I was 30 years old, I already had three published novels.”

KNOW THE BASIC RULES.

“There are certain rules. You have to be a craftsman first before you can make a leap into art. You have to know the basic rules [of writing], even if at the end you have to break them. I distrust writers who don’t know their grammar. I distrust painters who don’t know how to draw.”

PASSION GOES A LONG WAY.

I got curious as to which among his works he was most proud of. 

“I like them all,” Manong Frankie answered without a hint of hesitation. “Writing them is a kind of liberating experience. Honestly, I cannot say I like one better than the other.” 

After a moment of thought, he added, “But my most memorable is Mass, the finale of the Rosales Saga. Because, unlike the other novels that I created bit by bit, part by part, it was the only novel I wrote from beginning to end in one concentrated writing. Tuloy-tuloy (non-stop). Sometimes I did not eat for two days. It was very intense, a kind of ‘trip,’ like with the drugs. A very good trip!”

Manong Frankie started to work on Mass during an eight-hour plane ride from Hong Kong going to Paris in 1976. 

“Back then, I had money, but only for subsistence,” he said, as he started sharing how he came up with the book, the memories flooding back to him, “I was paying seven dollars a day for my room. It had no bath, just a sink and a toilet bowl. I did not take a bath for a month, and it was summer back then. On the ground floor of my apartment was a public market. And since apricots were in season and were very cheap, I was subsisting on bread and apricots.”

Happily, Manong Frankie reminisced. The details he shared and the lyrical storytelling with which he shared them made me feel like I were there with him living a humble yet enriching life. “My stomach was sour,” he recounted, “Sige langokay lang (I had no problem with it).”  

I was reminded of our first meeting, when he taught me about passion, that every writer should be as passionate about their craft as people who were in love, as people willing to make the greatest of sacrifices. 

His exact words back then were: “What is it that you love the most? When I say love the most, what it is that you are willing to sacrifice your time, perhaps even your life for?” 

We are bound to face many difficulties, problems that could either be trivial or just too much, but a passionate writer will never stop pursuing his or her passion.

READ, READ, READ, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE.

Forty or so minutes into our dialogue, I asked Manong Frankie about his opinion on the state of local literature.

“It is not going to die,” he said with such certainty. “The problem is not with the state of literature, but with the state of learning. With so many sources of information now, the predicament is how to digest and ingest the information. There is fake news and the change in reading habits.”

He emphasized how people now did not read long articles anymore because their attention span had become so limited.

“Some of the best things in literature and philosophy require assiduous reading, reading that will make you think,” he went on. “The development of the mind is not instant, it’s a slow process. That is why conversations are also important, whether it is between peers or with people who belong to another discipline.”

His final advice to young writers is to “read, read, read, and write, write, write! You have to be

good at what you are doing.” And it all will lead back to being committed to the craft, and then to the country.

 
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