Friday, December 14, 2007

A Long Random Musing on Reading vs Writing, Guilt, and Others

My friend Bhex is currently in New Zealand and she has a long entry on her encounter with the library there. What I like about Bhex is that we can peacefully contradict each other and bounce off each other's ideas.

Like her, I share her frustration with the country's seemingly inadequate libraries (but to clarify, that's not to say that we don't have good libraries lest I offend my librarian readers; it's either they simply don't suit my particular tastes, they're difficult to get to, they're not well publicized, or there's a significant bar of entry such as enrolling in a private school or university). And honestly, I don't have a practical solution to solve that dilemma. If it's any consolation, there are librarians out there discussing about the matter such as The Filipino Librarian and Zarah (check out her coverage of the Spec Fic talk at Xavier's Library [1, 2, 3]). And as I've written before, emerging technologies is making education a lot easier such as the potential of eBooks (to which Bhex will contend that not every Filipino can afford a computer--which is true--but I think the potential is for future libraries to stock computers where documents can be read).

Another of her complaints is the lack of "customer-friendly sales schemes" from bookstores and publishers but I think the lack of customer service is a symptom of the Philippine culture as a whole rather than limited to the book industry. One thing I noticed in comparison to my travels abroad is that the Philippines has good human customer service--that is the employees go out of the way for you and is evident by our lack of self-service gas stations (there's always somebody there to refuel your car) but we lack good product customer service. What's good product customer service? Things like refunds or -gasp- customer satisfaction. I mean in countries like the US, there is such a thing as returning a commodity because it didn't meet customer satisfaction. There's nothing wrong with the product but it was returned nonetheless. Of course I don't blame Filipinos for lack of such a service. The Chinese businessman in me is wondering at all the potential abuses of such a policy. Suffice to say, other cultures trust their customers and we don't (it's best left to your opinion whether that's true or not).

But my main point however is that despite both conditions, it's not an excuse not to develop good writers. Now Bhex believes that in order to develop good writers, people need to read good books. Numerous times in my blog, I've espoused writer, write, and write. But at the end of the day, I'm not contradicting Bhex's idea. I mean what inspires people to write after all is to read. And Dean said it himself in his novel-writing seminar that seminars and the like don't teach us to write but we all subconsciously learn how to write by reading. Yet I also think there are limitations to simply reading in the same way that a teacher can be good at teaching (how to write) yet never be a great writer himself and a great writer never being able to become a good teacher. Suffice to say, reading is not writing. I can read all the books in the world and never become a competent writer. Likewise, I could have read little or a lot of "trashy" books yet become a competent writer. There are several explanations for this, everything from the act of writing hones your craft to becoming conscious of the act of writing. But let me simply say this: in order to be a good writer, one must strike a healthy balance between reading and writing. I can't imagine a writer who never reads although I can imagine a prolific, talented writer who seldom reads just as I can imagine a prolific reader who seldom but skillfully writes. The thing is, there are several avenues to becoming a good writer and there is no one formula to guarantee success for everyone. The best anyone--including myself--can give are suggestion and hopefully it applies to you. And here's a secret: not all avenues to writing have been discovered. In fact, the "rules of writing" are really just guidelines. New techniques, new methods are being discovered as different writers try out new stuff--sometimes out of ignorance. But yes, I have a bias on writing as opposed to reading. Because I've been stuck on the latter in the past. You might have read all the important books that need to be read and gained the knowledge how to write the best novel--but until you actually write it down, all that potential is useless. And let me tell you, at least for writers like me, we always feel inadequate, we're always worried that what we write is never good enough. And so we might never write what we want to write, or worse, write it down but never show it to anyone else, perhaps hoping that one day it will be discovered and published by one of our friends and relatives and be a famous writer post-mortem. Or I could make do with what I have now--insufficient as it may seem--and start writing, other people's opinions be damned. It might not be the perfect document but at least it's something. And if I don't get it right now, I'll try again. And again. And again. (To sum it up, it's Gabriel Marcel's primary reflection vs secondary reflection.)

This essay however isn't simply about promoting my writing beliefs and agenda. Rather, it's to explain at how not to make excuses for one's self. I do think that if you're really determined to become a writer, you'll find a way to acquire the books you need to read (whether it's taking a part time job, borrowing it from a friend, talking to a mentor, etc.) or in the event that you can't, try your hand at writing anyway. It's about taking a pro-active stance (and what I mean by pro-active isn't necessarily being hard working in persistent but more of creating opportunities instead of waiting for them) although that's probably hypocritical of me as I'm not pro-active at least as far as my writing is concerned. And then I can very well imagine my heritage being levied against me: how easy it is for me to say that considering that I'm not poor, that I had XX years of private education, that I met the right people at the right time, etc. That's all true but as I also said, that's my heritage just as you have yours. I mean sure, I have certain advantages, but I also carry my own weaknesses and burdens, just as other people have theirs. There have been nights that I've wondered if I could only have been more talented, perhaps born in an earlier or later era, etc. I can wonder about all these what-ifs and they'd probably make a great story but it does little to help my current situation. Maybe you're more talented of a writer than I am: that's your advantage. Maybe you're more experienced in the ways of the world, you can relate more with the common reader: that's your advantage.

Last but not least is the feeling of guilt. Bhex in her entry narrates at how she feels guilty about enjoying all the reading privileges in New Zealand. But my question is, aside from writing about it, what good would it do to dwell on the fact? It's not like you can suddenly juxtapose yourself with an impoverished youth just dying to read all those books. And honestly guilt plagues a lot of local writers, whether it's authors feeling the need to write about social realism or socially relevant texts to including Filipino locales, characters, or events in the works they write. I feel that guilt but it shouldn't stop me from doing what I need to do. Some writers, they get over this guilt and write what they want to write. Others, they reconcile themselves with this guilt and incorporate their agenda in their writing--some to their success, others to their detriment. For the most part, I don't think we should be hampered with guilt: either get over it or do something with it but don't wallow in it.

Before I end, I have two more statements I want to say but Dean said them better. In his paper on speculative fiction, Dean says that while realism us to write literature that matters (to which I disagree because speculative fiction can matter), it is the reader who selects what literature matters to them (which is something I cannot disagree with because as much as insightful or not this post might be, it's my readers or non-readers who decide its value). And in his talk on Read or Die's seminar, Dean says "It is one thing to be a lover of reading, like I am, like you are. But if we were all readers, there would be nothing to read if no one were to write."

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