Yesterday, we took up Graham Greene's The Basement. Chary Lucero confessed that it had been the story that had pulled her back to write something after 20 years of silence. All those 20 years spent raising children.
During this period of silence, NVM Gonzales had pulled her aside one day and asked, "Why aren't you writing?" And she said, "I can't seem to write like you anymore." NVM said, "There's only one NVM Gonzales."
It was obvious she treasured that encounter, because NVM was, in his own way, telling her, "There's only one of you, Chary Lucero."
The punchline, as she took it was: "Write like yourself."
But it also meant, "You'll never write like me, NVM Gonzales."
The more I think about it, the more I realize that many "established writers"where I come from go through a period of silence. Yesterday, Chary Lucero's confession; a few weeks back, Butch Dalisay's (before writing the noir story he shared with our class, he said he'd been silent for 10 years or so.) Maybe many established writers around the world go through that too (ex. Louise Gluck; George Oppen).
But I wonder whether people here stop writing not only because they are busy raising money or children, but because establishment has elevated the activity of writing into a kind of high art that only a rare breed of individuals can practice--simply because these are the people who have proven themselves worthy of practicing this art. That the only kind of writing that's acceptable--that's literature--is to write "like NVM".
So that those who can't seem to write like NVM simply give up. And raise money or children or plant camote instead.
Good for Chary Lucero that NVM was able to tell her what he did.
But what about the others who aren't so lucky?
"It's the natural law of attrition." -- That's what my supervisor at the law firm said, when I mentioned that some new graduates were worried about the firm's high turnover rate. The unspoken assumption being that the ones who remained were the best (the smartest, the most competent, the most hardworking) and most deserving--the ones who bail out weren't worthy of remaining in the firm, or making partner.
But see, the ones who do remain are not necessarily the best or most deserving--only the ones who were perceived to serve the firm's interests best. Some of the really good lawyers opted out, unable to take the internal politics, the law firm "culture" that demanded face time in addition to office hours, that deified the woman lawyer who goes to office even as she is already in labor (true story; held up as a model to be emulated).
Every associate serves the firm's interest by making money for the firm. Where I used to work, each associate was required to turn in at least 7.5 billable hours of work everyday (I usually turned in 4 or 5 hours more than that)--which doesn't seem like much, but is, when you factor in the time one needed to waste to instruct your secretary or the messenger, chit-chat with office mates over lunch, or with a lonely law-firm partner in need of comfort, or attend one of those endless non-billable meetings you were required to attend for "professional development"--things you needed to do to build friends and allies within the firm. And you needed those allies. Otherwise, it would take you 13 instead of 6 years to make partner. If you ever got to be partner at all. (Some who stay on never do.)
But what purpose does it serve to facilitate such attrition when writing is concerned? To make it seem that everyone ought to write like NVM Gonzales, or not write at all? Whose interest does it serve to get rid of the beginners who seem like so much dead weight?
I suppose nature has its own wisdom, and one simply follows the natural law. Let only the fittest survive.
But what if the old law office is neither efficient nor effective? What to do with voices that do not fit, but require guidance, nevertheless?
What if the establishment churns out brilliant writers, who then stop writing, silenced by the establishment's demands, and their own interior discomfort with the system?
The assumption that those who stop writing are weak and never were meant to write in the first place might just be as flawed.
What do you want from me? the teacher asks the troublesome student, What?
From where I stand, most students seem to be interested in figuring out his or her (writing) intentions. What am I trying to say? Am I saying it effectively? There will always be something in canon that resembles their latent desire, their hidden intention--but they do not realize it yet.
And so I wonder whether it is the best way to browbeat young writers into believing they cannot write literature--I suspect many of them are not thinking about themselves as writers-of-literature. Most likely, they are only thinking of learning how to do something they love (or read and enjoy). Some are more advanced or ambitious than others. But I believe this (learning how to write, because they love writing) is the starting point.
But I suppose, if you are already in a graduate studies program for creative writing, you ought to be concerned about writing literature. The school is the cradle of establishment, after all.
That, or you're interested in subverting establishment, and are on some strange quest to know it intimately first (know its weaknesses, etc. etc.). But there is always a risk that before you can even do this, you'll be eaten alive by the very monster you are trying to subvert. Besides, it's too much effort, requires too much time. Who has the time or energy to wage a guerilla war? Why even do that? We are all already dying. Better to spend the rest of our days making the stuff we believe in, creating the things we love.
A guerilla war. It's pointless when your starting point is love--love for literature, love for creating through the written word. It saddens me when pedagogy couches even the act of writing, the vocation of writing, the craft of writing, in terms of war--in the language of natural law.