On ‘True Enchantment’

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Very rarely do I hear fiction writers disparaged for their fiction like it was some crime or disease people should steer clear of.

Not from a film critic, playwright or anyone involved in the writing art. Not from a newspaperman, however thinly veiled.

As a genre, fiction remains timeless, a product of ‘true enchantment’. The peculiarity of the overarching disquiet it offers the reader is precisely the point why good fiction ought to be read and this with some frequency: To peeve and enrage us away from our comfort zones.

To give us reason to act: That’s the job of a good story.

This is why I agree with my good friend, a long-time broadcast journalist and conflict correspondent, when he said journalists should go back to reading. It’s a suitable clarion call, one I have fought tooth and nail to reintroduce to the Journalism curriculum at every chance I get.

Some of the most efficient journalists are the most voracious readers of fiction—and likewise writers of the same: novelists Gabriel García Márquez who wrote for Bogotá’s newspaper El Espectador, George Orwell for Britain’s The Observer, and war correspondent Oriana Fallaci who wrote the novel Inshallah.

My own humble journey as a newsroom editor had led me to distill my experiences through the writing of fiction.

Through the years, I have published one collection of fictional short tales—The Distance of Rhymes and Other Tragedies. It came out in 2013 with the thinnest fanfare. It is my very first ever collection published by an academic press—the UST Publishing House.

Even as I plan to write another book, perhaps a novel this time, my chances of finishing a full-length manuscript, however, seems nil.

My nonfiction pieces ought to be credited for this particular failure: “Blood Republic” which came out months following my collection of short fiction and published by the Philippines Graphic Publications, Inc., and The Chief is in the House again by UST Publishing House in 2015.

Two other nonfiction manuscripts which I finished last year await publication: Shot Glass, which is set to come out this April 2019 and published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press, and I, Journalist pegged by the University of the Philippines Press to come out sometime November.

For a man with dreams of making it as a writer of literature, having a day job is tough. Journalism makes it even tougher.

The demands and requirements of fact-checking your stories, editing and deciding on pieces with little hope of getting it right, to say nothing of getting published—and the chase, the interviews and lectures—siphon what is left of the middling hours I need to crank up some tolerable literary output.

God knows how I had wished I could always steal time—time off of sleep and a much-needed furlough—just so I could let my imagination soar. I stole time, yes, to my health’s detriment.

I feel weaker now than when I first started on this literary expedition some thirty odd years ago. At 55 going 56, my joints ache, my muscles convulse on their own. My immune system feels like it has dipped with the winter solstice even before they renamed it Christmas.

Insomnia had long ago claimed me for itself. My mind is not as quick to the draw as the days I devoured the dictionary. Words I once had the gift to summon at will now elude me.

Worse, I couldn’t for the life of me move past the tenth page each time I try my hand in reading before bedtime. Younger, I can read a full-length novel of 250 to 300 pages in a matter of hours—with comprehension to boot. Now, my eyes burn, my temples throb with pain.

This is where my journalism training helps me to overcome such literary discomforts. I may have ceased from writing fiction for some time, but this hardly means I have plans of stopping for good.

I still have a thousand and one stories up my sleeves, waiting, perhaps, for the day I file my retirement.

Who knows? God willing, I will be given enough time to spruce up a novel I have been meaning to write for as long as I can remember.

My experiences as a journalist and editor are highly likely sufficient for me to build worlds, fashioned and honed by reality and flights of imagination. That is, if I don’t die from tobacco before the deadline.

Now, how does that work: Journalism helping literature?

Allow me to begin with a story. Last year, I had the distinct pleasure of delivering a lecture to close to a thousand campus editors and writers together with Egdar Calabia Samar, celebrated author of the Janus Silang novels.

After the course of several hours, where we decided to enjoy a few beers at the plaza in Lucban, Quezon, together with other lecturers, we arrived at fiction as a subject.

“I envy journalists,” Egay said after having one too many beers. “Academics like me are often holed up in our rooms, relying only on the imagination for our fiction. But you, you’re right in the middle of all that is happening. You have the actual material to build worlds and characters.”

I guess that’s the one benefit of journalism for anyone dreaming of being a fiction writer. But there’s more to this than mere materials used for fictional tales.

In Neil Gaiman’s “Masterclass,” the world-renowned novelist said of the novel: “Writing a novel is like driving through the fog with one headlight out. You can’t see very far ahead of yourself, but every now and again the mists will clear.”

In light of what I am here trying, with difficulty, to explain, this is my understand of that statement: What sheer imagination can make out through the fog with only one headlight on, good observation skills—the main skill of a good journalist—can fill and add to the lack as it serves as the other headlight.

To be trained to discern the way a scientist discerns as he peers into a microscope, or the manner by which a doctor monitors the slightest hint of a disease, or the poet, while in search of beauty, discovers it in the fiercest storms: Nothing compares to a good journalist out in the chase for a story.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in fact, makes a case for good observation as the main quality of a great poet in his book, Letters to a Young Poet.

“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”

What one can see, of course, can be misleading if he or she stops at the surface of things. Journalism, to be effective, swims deeper than surface currents. It reaches for an acceptable context, builds on historical backdrop and a timeline of events.

As for literature, it could be anything from existing mythos to scientific facts.

Speaking of scientific fact in relation to literature, I recall a conversation with another celebrated author—Kristian Sendon Cordero. It was on the significance of scientific fact over and against poetic license.

The poem in question had just won a major national literary award regardless of its “skewed” scientific claims disguised as a metaphor.

“Should poetic license trump scientific fact or the other way around?” Cordero asked. It’s a question writing workshops need to answer.

While it is a commonly held belief that literature builds its plot and characters on the “whims” of the imagination, these are not altogether whimsical on the part of the author. Scientific fact, natural laws, accepted behavior of characters and creatures, as well the dictates of time and space play important roles in the telling of the tale.

And it takes a writer of immeasurable experience to not mistake one for the other, particularly fiction for reality. Talent for literature presupposes that the writer of some note knows which is which, and clearly draws the line each time.

A journalist cannot pass off his reportage as fiction for, at best, it would be a lie. That goes, too, with the fiction writer who cannot by caprice or impulse discard certain realities if only to make fiction a tad more entertaining.

Suspension of disbelief, as a rule, should never cross the line of what distinguishes fiction from a lie.

Great fiction is always way better than lies passed off as fact. The beauty of the former relies solely on these sketches of reality painted with the colors and backdrop of the imagination.

More often larger and truer than life, each fictional tale is meant to show facts and reality but from a different vantage point.

Lies, on the other hand, are merely wolves wrapped in feeble sheepskin, with the intention of actually mangling the facts, not buffing reality clean of blood and smudge.

So, whenever some smug excuse for a critic calls you “mediocre fiction writer,” be happy and content with the praise.

Because over and above the veiled insult—“fiction” being the insult—lies the truth: That a lot can be gained with the reading and writing of honest-to-goodness fiction—“true enchantment,” as W. H. Auden once called it.

To mention but one: That there is more truth in fiction than in any lie passed off as fact. That should be reason enough. G



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