The selfish writer

Writing in style: The expandable ego

I’m taking off from a Facebook post I wrote once upon a time, which I headlined “Write from the heart, but must your heart be bleeding?”

In that post, I wrote: “Yes, or so said Ernest Hemingway, who believed that a writer has ‘to be hurt like hell before (he) can write seriously,’ but I don’t believe him completely.”

Immediately, I countered myself, because I do believe that a little hurt goes a long way in helping a writer draw more profound stuff from deep within himself. It’s like wounds, literal or metaphorical, cut through our shields and that is how life, or what it really means, reaches us. Kurt Vonnegut also said something to this effect. He said, “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

I’ve always maintained, however, that writing is a discipline, especially for writers like me, a journalist who has been trying to beat daily deadlines since 1998, when I first joined a newspaper as its lifestyle editor, or since the early 1990s, when I started doing editorial work for a monthly magazine. Before that, I spent over four years in advertising, writing copy, which again could not be at the mercy of muses of light and dark inspirations or else I would have lost my job before I could commit anything to paper. What did Norman Mailer say about this again? He said, “Being a writer means being able to work on a bad day.”

But, in my experience, there is a big difference between writing for a living, such as newspapering or editorial work, and writing for yourself, writing as you, in your own voice, not in the voice of the company you represent. Which is why it took me over 40 years to produce my own book, Write Here Write Now: Standing at Attention Before My Imaginary Style Dictator (National Book Store, 2012), but only four years to produce the second one, HaiKu And Other Poems (Anvil Publishing, 2016). Shortly, I launched a book of short fiction, Manila Was a Long Time Ago (Anvil Publishing, 2018), but of the 16 stories in the collection, I wrote the first one in 2012. What I'm saying is I needed over 40 years to muster the courage to commit my name on the page as an author, but first, between 2009 and 2012, I had to go through three years of being lost and hurt, some kind of lingering anxiety that nearly brought me to the end of my rope as a professional writer and editor, to nudge me in the direction of writing a book that was mine alone. So there, I guess Hemingway was right.

Perversely, the good news for writers who are seeking depth of character and depth of thinking is we all hurt. We all get hurt one way or another. No one is exempt from undergoing sorrow or terror or doubt or betrayal or profound disappointment, or even a deep sense of emptiness, the gamut of life’s hurts, no matter how they try to avoid it. It’s just a matter of opening yourself up to it and then finding expression for it on the page.

In a way, I agree with Hemingway, who by the way also said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” When I was young, I used to wonder if there were people in the world who could look out on the far, seemingly unreachable horizon and not feel an ache in their heart for the life they could live had they been on that other side? I mean, who doesn’t get lonely, even those we are presumptuous enough to call shallow? We all know that one person who seems to have everything going right for them, whose life is so perfect and stable while we are on this rollercoaster ride we call life, but no matter how insulated they are, no matter how well they might have sheltered themselves from the facts of life, I have no doubt they know enough about poverty and dying and diseases and loss and failure and broken hearts. You can be selfish in this world, but you can’t be completely clueless about what makes it unbearable.

I think I understood it better when the late Filipino novelist, essayist, and national artist for literature, our very own F. Sionil Jose, told me one day, while I hung out in his writing nook on top of his bookshop Solidaridad on Padre Faura in Ermita, that a writer, like any artist, must embrace his ego. “We all write from experience,” he said. “Don’t worry that you are self-centered. All artists are.”

Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players… I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them. —Gore Vidal

You can be a selfish prick, yeah maybe, licking your wounds, undressing like an exhibitionist before the world, compressing the universe into a playground that is all your own—that shouldn’t take away from your talent and the power of your pen. Before I turned 40, I came to a point when I said to myself, “No more new friends!” I figured that I’ve had enough people to care about in this life, and caring is too much trouble, especially since to care about one person is to care about everything and everyone else that they care about, their family, their pets, their dreams, all that, so I said enough. But then I turned 40 and I have since multiplied the number of people I care about, friends and family, especially the kids of my siblings, by so many folds, so what did I just say? This is life and you cannot avoid it, unless you die right now.

But if you are a writer, self-centeredness can work to your advantage, that is, if you realize that the self is expandable. You are you, but you are more than you. You are your family, you are your city, you are your country, you are the whole wide world, you are the entire universe, as big as you can imagine it.

And all the hurt and happiness in all the universe are yours by which to seek the truth, stretch it, reduce it, propagate it, defy it, confirm or challenge it, leap off from it to fantastic worlds of your own making.

But, as F. Sionil Jose used to remind me time and again, you must be “rooted to the ground,” rooted to your street, your city, your country... you must be rooted to who you are, rooted to yourself because in all of the universe, in all of this world, in all of your country, in all of your city, in all of your street, in all of your family, only you are you.

Only you live this life, see this life, reimagine this life the way you do.

I guess that is what it means when F, Sionil Jose said it was okay to be self-centered. Besides, as William Zinsser, the American author of On Writing Well, put it, “Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.”