11 May 2009

Manila Times column for 10 May 2009: "Writing what you know of the world"

original post here.

By Libay Linsangan Cantor
Writing what you know of the world

In writing workshops, beginning writers are often encouraged to start writing about what they know first, before venturing out into writing about more complex and unfamiliar material. I agree, and I also don’t. I think all writers—newbies or not—should heed this encouragement.

In literary workshops, I have often heard the advice that a writer should focus on the world that s/he knows, first and foremost, before writing about things outside their worlds. We writers are often trained to look for that precious insight, that one thing (or two) that would differentiate our story from others’ stories, the thought that would hopefully inspire or rouse readers to think about things around us, about a particular aspect of human existence. I agree with this.

Far too often, writers tend to turn their back on their own backyards, so to speak, and write about things that are “more exciting” or “more challenging” that they see in “other worlds.” I just wish they could look around them sometime, so they could discover that something or someone within their vicinity could actually serve as an inspiration for a story waiting to be told. For instance, I remember meeting this woman whose maiden name sounded like the name of a very old school in Manila. When I inquired about this, it turned out that the school was indeed owned by their family and it was about to be sold. That alone puts their family in a certain historical position that only she has the privilege to tell and unfold in a story. Since we were in a documentary workshop when we met, I suggested that she write and make a documentary about that aspect of their family, and she mentioned that it was indeed one of her future plans. I hope she went through with it.

This is not to say that we writers should just stick to writing what we know. If we want to write about things outside of our own spheres of existence, that’s also great, but only if the proper homework is done. What I mean is that writers should do their research when they’re writing about something unfamiliar to them. It also happens that sometimes, writers tend to take short cuts and write what they know of a certain thing without the benefit of research. Thus, material such as these appears shallow, impressionistic and often unrealistic. Authenticity is still the key; if your plot seems unbelievable because of faulty information or details, then the story won’t fly.

Just imagine the tons of stories we’ll hear from different walks of life, if only one out of a hundred Filipinos shared them with the world. That’s a lifetime’s worth of anthologies, not to mention a good contribution to our recorded culture and history.

Comments? Suggestions? E-mail libay.scribevibe@gmail.com. She is also at libaycantor.multiply.com.

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