Sunday, March 02, 2008

Toying with reality

Reproduced here is a paper I delivered to a panel compromising of DM Reyes, Rica Bolipata-Santos, Exie Abola, Karla Delgado, Anina Abola, & Elbert Or this past Tuesday as my final requirement for graduating from the Ateneo Creative Writing program. Because of the 10-minute limit, the paper presented was a shortened extraction from my 25-page academic paper submitted the week before.

Creative nonfictionist. I believe to be called one is a rebellious commitment to view lived experience in different lights, and it is a rebellious commitment to find imaginative uses of literary techniques, all in order to best render in words the exposition of facts and the human experience beyond what can be witnessed in a lived dramatic situation.

It’s not as easy as writing a moment from one’s past. At least that’s not how I make this type of writing out to be, why I’ve chosen this path for my training as a writer in the Ateneo.

Perhaps the most common designation of creative nonfiction is a type of writing which employs literary skills in the writing of nonfiction. I think the key word we find here is literary, meaning it should be considered literature, side by side with poetry and fiction. There is an art to creative nonfiction, some would say is an art, demanding from its author expression, creativity, and craftsmanship in conveying and commenting on lived experiences or in exposition of researched facts.

A creative nonfictionist holds a similar responsibility as that of a journalist (or any writer of nonfiction for that matter) in that he cannot invent actual facts or events. His material must have been witnessed or discovered. But his edge over the journalist (some would call it his demise) is that he can “invent”—consciously or subconsciously—the lens through which his readers are to be informed of these facts and realities.

Viewed in this manner, creative nonfiction speaks of an innate propagandist quality, a level of imposition that becomes more and more subtle or pronounced the more adept one is at rendering his intent. It could be a form of protest, rebellion, a middle-finger, if not simply an eye opener.

What I call an arrogant and artistically competent mix of literary technique and disciplined journalistic reporting, Tom Wolfe and his New Journalism movement, introduced to me by my original nonfiction mentor, Dr. Queena Lee-Chua, shattered my dated views of nonfiction and introduced me to a level of experimentation I thought only seen in modern poetry and film.

Wolfe led me to Hunter Thompson. After Thompson came Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and a lot more of Wolfe, with his longwinded dialogues, moments of stream-of-consciousness, and even sound effects from engines. And the best thing about all these undulations and warps in language and form—with punctuations manic, freewheeling, jumping off the page with all-caps and italicized sentence fragments, word fragments, sound snippets—was that they were all used to talk about what was real. Things that really happened. Things that mattered. The human experience with social commentary and a whole lot of style.

The attitude seemingly being advocated here is one of a sort of complex and serious sense of play.

While New Journalism made waves in the United States around the 1960s, Nick Joaquin had already been displaying such creativity in reportage here in the Philippines in many of his character profiles, in the articles he wrote for publications like the Philippines Free Press, and in essays like “The House on Zapote Street.”

These examples can be considered landmarks in the writing of nonfiction in that there appeared a conscientiousness to render moments in a manner that delivered the inherent messages of the experiences more creatively—not just in the way that traditional journalism taught. Traditional ways of conveying had inadequacies in capturing totalities. Too literal became too simple.

I was hooked, high, drunk on it all. All this was affecting not only my writing but my views on creative nonfiction and the standards I think it should be judged by.

I think we must begin, when assessing a creative nonfiction piece, with the notion that just because something really happened, it does not mean it is real on paper nor is it worth reading about. It must be rendered believable and significant. The literary technique most often used in creative nonfiction is that of narrative, or conveniently described as having been written like a work of fiction. I think the widespread use of this technique is only natural.

Though I have used the narrative form in my creative nonfiction many times, and I believe in its effectiveness, I have certain qualms about just limiting oneself to this one technique in rendering reality; often it could use the aid of other techniques. An explanatory science essay about cancer, for example, may not have a narrative in it, but is definitely creative nonfiction if, let us say, the author uses war as a metaphor to elucidate how chemotherapy drugs work at the microscopic level.

Again, what we have here is defiance over what’s expected, a rebellion, a middle-finger—if not brash stubbornness. But isn’t stubbornness a sign of commitment?

I won’t begin to deny the cathartic element of writing but in reading a personal essay, there are those who like to credit the element of courage in proclaimed creative nonfictionists which allows them to write private accounts of their lives, making a story narrative out of it for everyone to read. But if creative nonfiction is to be called literature, judging it must go beyond the commending of a writer’s courage to reveal himself.

Being a creative nonfictionist entails you have stories to tell or points you want to make. But it also entails the maturity to know when something is worth sharing or not, the discernment to see if there is something there beyond just sharing, the patience to realize this, and finally, the creativity and facility to choose the right techniques to render these stories and their messages. And it is with regard to the latter point that courage should be celebrated—the courage to exercise one’s creativity and imagination in service of the truth.

An interesting event cannot turn into an interesting story without a competent writer. You may have died and resurrected three days later but without an able chronicler with the right facility to relate the experience in written word, the experience is all for naught.

“He’d Rather Be Relevant,” which received recognition from the Palanca Foundation, is perhaps the most personal piece I have ever written. It is autobiographical through and through, chronicling my personal battle with bone cancer when I was in high school. But it is written in the third person. The character M was talking to an observer, the writer of the piece.

Now I’ve been accused of being weird before but there has never been a point in my life wherein I was talking about myself to myself. It all happened, but never in the way that the dramatic situation literally presented it.

I respond to those who question the ethics behind this by saying that the presentation of the dramatic situation was secondary to the piece’s point, which is still based on objective truth—things that happened to me personally within the context of a greater and dynamic socio-political setting. But I was after the effect of intimacy found in a conversation within an enclosed space like a room. Readers were discovering M together with the narrator as opposed to being imposed upon reflections directly from an I. “He’d Rather Be…” was a feat in craft, at least this is the feat I hold most dear—more than the cathartic element of sharing a personal story or winning an award, though the award was nice.

Creativity can be expressed in so many ways in nonfiction. As already touched on, Tom Wolfe plays with language and form when rendering a scene in service to symbolic meanings he may have discerned in the interactions he witnessed. Wolfe saw or felt something beyond the apparent and literal worth sharing.

I often take snippets from past works I have written, a journal or blog entry, a verse of poetry, a news article, even a list from a yearbook to help add another, perhaps less literal dimension to the transference of facts, ideas, and emotions to my pieces. It is a form I have been playing around with because of my being drawn to the resulting abstractedness in which concrete ideas are organically rendered. Thoughts are not always linear in real life; I think we would be doing the human experience a disservice if we always expressed them linearly in writing. I used this technique for my essay, “Jakarta.”

A complication of truth, some would accuse. I say a greater effort in conveying truth’s complexity.

Joan Didion used similar techniques before in her masterwork, “The White Album,” which is a piece consisting of seemingly unrelated narrative passages, interview transcripts, psychological reports, and even packing lists—perhaps the only way one could summarize the fun and turbulent ‘60s for a writer who lead such a colorful life.

Emmanuel Torres’ “Macho” was an ode to the jeepney and jeepney culture as told through description, narration, dialogue, and even found poetry using the phrases painted or stuck onto the vehicles themselves.

This sort of combining of varying passages was also the technique used by Annie Dillard in “Seeing,” leaving us to wonder what it is all about amid our marveling over the fact that we are convinced that it is about something profound—whether singularly specific or subjectively organic.

Here, a piece some would accuse of even lacking a concise thesis is lifted by creativity and craftsmanship to the level of art—one eliciting emotional investment from the reader and not relying on mere sentimental reflections on personal experiences in doing so.

Here, we lift reality from predictable journal entries about instances in time followed by reflection in logical flow to that of the dynamic interaction of the two with other aspects of the human experience which cannot necessarily be explained literally.

Here, we somewhat step into the realm of poetry, which poet Marc Gaba says holds “the task of meaning.” Often it is said that poetry is the use of one thing to mean something else, and I had always been intrigued about this elicit realm which the poet seemed obsessed to tap into. This transcendental—some would describe as spiritual—element was clearly a part of the human experience yet in literature always left to the hands of the poet.

Poems are visceral, essays are logical, and that’s that. Well, why so?

The meaning Gaba wrote about is one, perhaps, hidden in the tension of contrasting images. Easily, this is a method many nonfictionists, including myself, have appropriated. As mentioned earlier, I have used metaphor. Many have rendered scenes in their essays in a manner of language similar to that of Conchitina Cruz in her prose poetry. And as a form seemingly often presented in literal statements, what could be more trailblazing than for creative nonfiction to borrow from poetry the concept of the meaningful unsaid.

In the end, it really is a sort of complex and serious sense of play that drew me to creative nonfiction, for the discerning reader can differentiate an apt usage of technique from a mere moment of unprocessed sharing. Creative nonfiction takes ownership of one’s material, however much one is affected (or unaffected) by it, and ownership of the decisions behind one’s rendering, whether the truths one discovers move him to a cold starkness or—as often is the case with this brash 22 year old writer in front of you—a liberal sense of experimentation.

Unfortunately, a lot of the bits w/c support my views had to be cut out because I really wanted to say my main points w/in the 10 minutes. And I had to edit some parts to allow for a more "enticingly arrogant" rhetoric so the reading wouldn't be too boring (performance na 'to!). The panelists had supposedly read the academic paper in full anyway so I guess they were able to fully see where I was coming from. And the feedback was relatively good, save for Anina jokingly implying that a lot of the ideas were not mine rather Larry's.

And of that mentor of mine, well, he wasn't around, though the presence of his spirit was duly acknowledged by yours truly before my reading began. I texted Ypil & asked if he was still coming while the other presenters were up at the podium. His reply: "Sorry, I had to buy an electric fan."

* * *

Another speaking engagement & reality check: Yesterday, during the School of Humanities Open House, I (along w/Glenn) was asked by Sir DM to address the incoming freshmen of CW and their parents. As part of my introduction, I remember saying, "My time as a student of the Creative Writing program culminated just this past Tuesday during my thesis defense." It hit me then that this graduation thing is for real.

But we can't breathe easily yet, my friends; keep your fingers crossed. Judgment's still out w/ regard to Philosophy of Religion in Filipino. During my 15-minute oral finals, I spoke for a mere 5 minutes. I rushed thru the whole damn thing to make sure I wouldn't forget any of the points Audrey tutored me on. "Mukhang namamadali mag-bakasyon si G. Villanueva," said Sir Rosario. Patay!

Let the vigil begin.


Anonymous Twiggy said...

Applause. Applause. Bow. ;p

7:30 AM  
Blogger M.V. said...

salamat, twigs.

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


you've inspired me to make sure my thesis for poetry next year is kick ass.
yours was kick ass.
and i'm so happy for you and jealous (because you're truly a very good writer and you're graduating a-duh.) and proud and everything else!


10:11 PM  
Blogger M.V. said...

thanks, zoe!

i'm sure things will work out for you next year.

looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Sasha Martinez said...

And after everything, I thought: "TWENTY-FIVE PAGES?!" O_o

Oh, Martin. We rendezvous at that rocking chair, okay?

Good job. :)

11:24 AM  
Blogger M.V. said...

i don't get that bit about the rocking chair but...



9:31 PM  

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