A kick in the pants

asian girlBy Butch Dalisay

More than a couple of times this past summer, in nearly all the writers’ workshops I attended as a lecturer or panelist—in Baguio, Hong Kong, Dumaguete, and Iligan—I found myself saying the same thing to some hapless fellow. I said it as nicely but as firmly as I could: “This needs a kick in the pants.”

By that I didn’t mean that the story in question deserved to be tossed into the trash bin. Workshop panelists of yore were wont to say such hurtful things, if only to watch the fellow on the hot seat squirm and burst into bitter tears, but I’d like to think that we’re long past that kind of cruelty. We do our best to be more helpful these days, and my comment was made in that benign spirit, as unfriendly as it may have sounded.

So what exactly was my beef?

It had to do with an observation I’ve often raised in this corner in respect of much of the new writing by young people that I come across in my classes and in workshops. And that’s the frustrating fact that many young writers don’t know what a real story is—a complete, fully rendered, emotionally engaging and satisfying story, the kind of story you’d like to read over and over again, and that leaves a welt on your memory for years afterward.

Here’s what I keep seeing young writers do: they’ll detail a character and a situation to bits, explaining all manner of complication besetting their hero. They can do this very well, being in possession of an English honed by TV, Hollywood, and Starbucks, an English they don’t just write but speak in everywhere they go.

But when things just begin to get really interesting—somewhere on Page 9, when something you didn’t expect looks like it’s just about to happen—the author pulls the plug and declares the story over, as if to dismiss the reader with a coy “That’s enough.” The idea seems to be that this intensely focused, microscopic investigation of a character and a problem—say, a young woman’s ironic inability to make meaningful connections to others, despite the fact that she works in a call center—is enough.

But it’s not—there’s been loads of exposition, but the story hasn’t really moved far beyond us knowing who this person and what her problem is. We’re still in the problem, which the author has worried like a bad tooth, but it hasn’t really been brought to a point of real drama—the kind of drama that gives us headaches and heart palpitations because we’re that engrossed in the conflict and its possible outcome.

But how many stories written today leave you breathless like that, aching to turn the page?

Too many drafts I’ve seen resort to abrupt conclusions—premature ejaculations, if you will—because of the writer’s unwillingness or inability to take real risks with the story, indicating either a fear of the unknown (which no real writer can afford to have) or, in some cases, a lack of the kind of emotional maturity and sophistication you need to be able to navigate the dimly lit paths the human mind and heart can take. Instead of producing real dramatic substance, many young writers depend on tricks of language—on witticisms, for example, instead of wisdom—to carry the story.

So how do you bring a story to that memorable point?
When I tell my students that I want to give them and their stories a kick in the pants, I could be meaning one of two things:

1. As I explain above, I’d like them to push their narratives to a point beyond the visible horizon, to that “somewhere we’ve never been” that even the capable writer himself or herself will not have predicted until he or she began writing the story. (I never plot my stories beforehand; I may have a vague notion of how it will end, but I’d rather let the story itself lead me at some point, so everything remains fresh and wonderful, rather than plotted and predictable. If I can plot it, someone else can, in the same way—in which case, why even bother?)

2. I’d like them to step out of their comfort zones and immerse themselves in the cultural, social, and economic life of the nation. I suspect that this is, indeed, the deeper problem, one of cultural illiteracy and alienation: our young writers, especially those who grew up in privileged surroundings, know and may even care little about the rest of society, and therefore can’t have much to say about the world beyond their own gated villages and schools.

Again I can appreciate fantasy and its attractions, but I think it’s tragic if a Filipino teenager knows more about Hogwarts than Cubao. The challenge I pose to my young specific writers is to bring Hogwarts to Cubao, to find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

So, all together now: raise the stakes, and push the narrative! Bring us somewhere we’ve never been!

This essay originally appeared in the author’s blog Pinoy Penman 3.0 and is being reprinted with permission.



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