Whenever my friends ask me why I love to teach, my standard answer is: Teaching helps me maintain my sanity. Teaching gives me the opportunity to interact with the university administrators and staff, and to share the little knowledge that I have with my students. All the prep work and the angst that come with correcting term papers pale in comparison to the fulfillment that I experience when my students acknowledge and thank me for being part of their learning experience.. And when one is fulfilled and happy, it’s hard to be unhinged.
However, when I am asked why I continue to write, I don’t have a standard answer. For one, I am not a trained journalist. Most of the time, I don’t know where to start. Drinking a bottle of beer or two sometimes helps stimulate my thoughts, but not always. In fact, in most cases, I feel overwhelmed by the task.
Some people believe that writing is a talent that one is born with. Some skills are easier for talented people to learn. Talented people can easily learn the art of writing. I can think of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Edgar Allan Poe and our very own Jose Rizal, Fr Horacio de la Costa, SJ, to mention a few, as writers whose writing skills are innate.
But as an ordinary mortal, I don’t think that I was born with impeccable writing skills. In fact, I am still learning how to write. Most of the time, I am unfocused though motivated.
A quick note on when I started writing and why. I started writing seriously during the martial law years when I was a college student. I would occasionally submit articles to The Guidon, AdeM’s college newspaper, and sometimes to selected national magazines. I did this because I thought I had some ideas that I felt needed to be shared. The idea that anyone would read them was almost non-consequential.
The thought of majoring in journalism and become a full-time writer covering the evils of martial law – which in the first place was what motivated me to write – never crossed my mind.
Sometime in the mid-‘70s, while working in a bank in Naga, Eli Angeles asked me if I’d be interested to write in Bicol Star, a local newspaper. Of course, I agreed. In fact, I was elated because it gave me the opportunity to write about social issues.
I wrote under the pen name of Bro. Fernan. Fernan was the nom de guerre of Rolando Federis, an activist friend who was tortured and killed by the military on his way to Bicol on October 1, 1976.
He was with Adora Faye de Vera and Flora Coronacion who were both raped during their tactical interrogations. Coronacion was eventually killed and her body was never found like that of Federis. Meanwhile, De Vera was made a concubine by one of the officers for several months until she was able to escape.
The death of Federis and Coronacion has since then colored how I view life and what really matters when choosing a topic to write about.
I am pretty sure that bloggers and newspaper columnists always ask themselves what they should write about. I grapple myself with the same question every time I sit in front of my computer to write an article.
When writing, however, I have a general rule that I follow during all these years that may differ from other writers. The rule is simple: Write with a social conscience. It’s not original. I learned this from Carlos Bulosan, the US-based Filipino writer in the 1930s, who many considered was in the same stature as Steinbeck, Tolstoy, and Tagore, to mention a few. He once wrote, “It was only when I began to write about life and people I have known that a certain measure of confidence began to form as my periscope for future writings.”
To me, this means allowing myself to be educated by my surroundings and thinking critically of what I see, what I observe, and what I read. When I write about something that is unknown, ungrounded and baseless, I am uninspired and feel irrelevant. This is the reason why it’s hard for me to write about something that is fake or something that prevents me from what Bulosan calls “participating with his fellow men in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life.” Life for Bulosan is a collective work and also a social reality that a writer must participate in.
I’ve read tons of articles by Filipino journalists who avoid writing about what Bulosan calls his “grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all and giving a literate voice to the voiceless.” Their grammar is perfect and they avoid all those oddly phrased sentences, but they cannot identify with the aspirations of those who are voiceless and the disadvantaged. I just don’t get it.
I am sure I will encounter a number of people who will not agree with what I write. This I get. But the payoff for siding with those who have less in life is worth it. Writing about their joys, their dreams, their aspirations and even their fears gives me an ownership over what I can do which no one can take away from me.