LAST WEEK, it was Iligan’s turn to host me, among other writers, for the 20th National Writers Workshop under the auspices of the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and I was honored to deliver the keynote, which I’m excerpting this week and next. Here’s what I said:
It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of friends and comrades in the profession, including many luminaries of our national literature who happen to be based in the Visayas and Mindanao. I’m especially glad to be addressing our young fellows, for whom I wrote this talk, for special reasons that will be shortly clear. In fact, I’ve decided to title this talk “To The Writer at 25,” aimed at writers of that age, give or take a couple of years.
Why 25? Let me cite a statistic that, depending on how you take it, could either be empowering or overpowering. It’s a figure that’s been there all along but which no one seems to have thought about too much, probably because no one really knew what to make of it or recognized its potential significance.
And here’s that fact: Jose Rizal finished writing Noli Me Tangere in December 1886 and published it by March 1887. At that point, he was still no more than 25 years old.
Rizal had less than ten years to live after that. But by the time he was executed by the Spaniards in 1896, he had written two novels and parts or fragments of five more, as well as dozens of important essays and poems.
Think of that for a minute—the Noli by age 25, the Fili by age 30, and a lifetime’s work by 35. If only for these, then—at least in my book—Jose Rizal does deserve to be a national hero, and not incidentally a National Artist.
Those of us who are now far north of 25 might recall what we were doing at that age. We may have been already writing by then—I know I was—but I doubt that we were laboring at or even thinking about a Noli, or even a novel, at that time.
At 25 I was married and a father, and I’d won a few literary prizes, certainly not enough to convince me or anyone else that I would go on to any kind of greatness, but enough to suggest to me that the rest of my life would be inscribed by literature, that I would do well to take it seriously, for better or for worse. I was out of school, and I had not even gone to my first writers’ workshop, but I knew, in my blood and bones, that I would go on to write more and more things, as inchoate as those things were to me then.
Indeed, for most of us not named “Jose Rizal,” 25 seems to be a good landing on the steps, a firm pre-departure point for a future in writing. Interestingly enough, in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published when he was 31, T. S. Eliot specified 25 as the age by which one should have made some crucial commitments—among them, an embrace of tradition or “the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year.”
It wasn’t even at 25 but a few months after turning 24 that Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his first novel titled Poor Folk, now nearly forgotten in the wake of his greater and more mature work but a critical and commercial success in its time. In fact, so intent was Dostoyevsky on pursuing a literary career that he published his second novel, The Double, a month after Poor Folk.
Edgar Allan Poe was even more precocious, publishing his first book of poetry at 18; he had three collections of poetry by his 22nd year, and turned to prose at 24, winning a prize for his story “MS. Found in a Bottle.”
Eighteen was also the age when Sylvia Plath published her first story in Seventeen magazine, in 1950; that year, she wrote in her journal: “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.”
I could go on and on, about this and that writer having written this and that work at this and that young age, but you catch my drift. While there may be no real prodigies in writing, there have been, on the other hand, many precocious people who began producing significant work around their 25th year.
I bring this up because, as I prepare to embrace seniorhood in a few months, I find myself often asking if I have written enough, if I were to keel over tomorrow. But enough for what? Perhaps the more accurate question would be, did I write enough of what I could, when I could? What does age have to do with output and insight?
This is what I’d like to talk about a bit this morning, this relationship between age and productivity in creative writing. I would have liked to say not only in creative writing but in the other arts as well, but this is where writing perhaps differs the most from music, painting, and so on. As I’ve often pointed out before, true prodigies don’t exist in literature, unlike in music or mathematics—no Mozarts who can write full symphonies or Ramanujams who can solve complex equations at a preciously tender age.
We don’t find full-blown adult novels written by eight-year-olds, which was Mozart’s age when he composed his Symphony No. 1 in E Flat Major. Prodigies also abound in painting—The Huffington Post lists at least ten of them, one of whom, nine-year-old Kieron Williamson, recently sold 24 paintings worth almost $400,000 in one month and was reported to be preparing for a retrospective—yes, a retrospective.
Why don’t we have a Brothers Karamazov or even a Gone With the Wind written by a third-grader? The reason is obvious: writing involves more than vocabulary; it requires social experience, which can only come with growing up.
Even so, Rizal did an awful lot of growing up very quickly to be able to dish out the Noli and Fili by his 30th year.
It was in my 30th year, in 1984, that I came out with my first book, Oldtimer and Other Stories. Throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, my officemate and I, the late playwright Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr., then both in our early 20s, had carried on a fierce but friendly competition in the arena of playwriting. I drew first blood, with a first-prize win over Boy’s second place in the 1976 CCP Playwriting Competition—our mutual teacher in playwriting, Prof. Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, came in third—but that was the first and last time I won over Boy, over many CCP and Palanca competitions that followed. As a result, I shifted from playwriting in Filipino to the short story in English, where I felt I was safe from Boy. But in the meanwhile, we made another friendly dare—to come out with our first books by our 30th year. As it happened, we both made it—barely: he published Bayanan-Bayanan at Iba Pang Mga Dula in 1982, after turning 30; I published Oldtimer in 1984, a month before turning 31.
I recall these things because I also recall the intense awareness of age and time that accompanied our writing then. We felt under the constant pressure of a deadline—and I don’t mean just the Palanca deadline, although that was mightily important to us then, at a time when there was very little publishing going on, and competitions were literally the only game in town. Ours, after all, was the generation of the First Quarter Storm, of a brave but bloody activism that saw many of its acolytes fall at the steps of the altar in their teens and early 20s. If there was anything important we wanted to do—like write a book, or get married, or father a child—we had to do it sooner than later, because life was very likely going to be short, if not nasty and brutish.
Of course we will never really know how long we will live or when we will die—that remains life’s greatest mystery, and it’s still with some astonishment that I realize I’ll be turning 60 in January—so we really can’t tell when our most productive years will be, or when we’ll write the piece that we will hope to be remembered by. (Conclusion next week.)