Penman No. 49: To the Writer at 25 (Part 2)

John and ChristinePenman for Monday, June 3, 2013

TO CONTINUE from last week, here’s what I told my young audience at the 20th Iligan National Writers Workshop (that’s them in the picture above, with panelists John Iremil Teodoro and Christine Godinez-Ortega in the foreground) at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology:

Writing in The Atlantic a few years ago, Max Fisher addressed the question of age and artistic productivity. “When in life are we most creative?” he asked. “Do we peak when we are young and energetic, or old and experienced?” Fisher brought up three answers, each with its own champion.

First, he suggested, “We peak young.” He quoted Kazuo Ishiguro—who incidentally is my exact age, born 1954—who said: “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them budding or promising, when in fact they’re peaking.” According to Ishiguro, he had been “haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40.”

Second, “We peak in middle age.” Fisher cites a psychologist from UC-Davis who established that while “poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s… geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age…. Unlike poets, who peak early and fade quick, fiction writers tend to ripen and mature with age.”

Finally, says Fisher, “We peak old (sometimes).” Here he falls back on Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame, who points out that “Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.”

I myself suspect that, with enough research, we can come up with all kinds of numbers to support any one of these propositions. There will always be the prodigious Marlowes and Poes and Rizals and Plaths who will streak like a comet across the night sky in their 20s and 30s—and perhaps not incidentally die soon after. Some writers, even if they live long, will produce a burst of brilliant work in their early years, and then drop the pen, or be little heard from again.

Paz Marquez Benitez published the classic “Dead Stars” when she was 31, and Angela Manalang Gloria came out with her book of poems, which she would be known for, at 33—but they would forever be those 30-somethings and no older in our literary appreciation. Nick Joaquin published his first poem, “The Innocence of Solomon,” at 20, “May Day Eve” when he was 30, and “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino when he was 34, but The Woman with Two Navels wouldn’t come until he was 44, and of course he continued writing and publishing practically until his death at 86 in 2004. NVM Gonzalez was 26 when he published The Winds of April in 1941; he was 43 by the time he wrote “Bread of Salt” in 1958, and 46 when he published The Bamboo Dancers in 1960. And like Joaquin, Gonzalez demonstrated longevity, working well into his last years. Speaking of longevity and sustained production, we have Leo Deriada and Tony Enriquez, plugging away, I’m sure, at another prizewinning novel or story, as they’ve been doing all these decades.

We’ll see, however, that most of our best writers, especially those who lived past their 70s, produced their most memorable work between their 20s and 40s. Rarely have we found a Dostoyevsky, who published The Brothers Karamazov four months before he died at 59 (my present age). Jose Garcia Villa’s writing might as well have ended with the comma poems of Volume Two in 1949, although he lived for nearly half a century more. Franz Arcellana’s literary legacy really lies in Selected Stories, published in 1962 when he was 46; I know of no more stories that he wrote until his death 40 years later in 2002.

You can draw your own conclusions and prescriptions, but this is mine: write what you can when you can, the sooner the better. The best time to write that story or that poem in your head is today, not tomorrow, and never mind if it turns out to be bad, because that’s what tomorrow is for, for the insightful and merciless and inspired revision that separates the mediocre writer from the truly talented and committed.

Of course I should also say that to writers of my generation, with a slight difference: write what you can while you can, because tomorrow may not come around. Today we live in an intensely youth-oriented culture, and some days it may seem like only the young get all the attention—which they deserve—but we are not in competition with them. Rather we are competing with ourselves, with time itself, and with the ages.

Now, what would I do—or what would I advise a writer to do—if I were 25 today?

1. Focus on your first book. If you write only one book in your life, then this will be the most important thing you will leave behind, not counting your children—or maybe even counting them. Your first book will be even more important than an MFA or your MFA thesis, which, truth to tell, no one but your defense panel will read. Some students I know dithered for years in a vain attempt to perfect their MFA or PhD thesis projects. For me, much of that was wasted time. Do a thesis worthy of passing—and then spend time cleaning up the text and shaping it into a reader-worthy book, a book with your name on the spine. And of course there are good books and bad books, and some days you wish an awful author had desisted from publishing and spared a few trees. But you’ll have to take your chances and get that bad first book out of the way, or you’ll never get to your good second one.

2. Focus on your second book. Your first book will likely have expended everything you’d always wanted to say. So now, what? Once you’ve mined your own young and unavoidably angsty life for material, what’s left for you to write about? Why, the world of course, although that world may seem awfully small at 25, especially if you haven’t been looking too closely at anyone but yourself and your friends. The real challenge of writing for me isn’t writing about oneself—which is, admittedly, an inexhaustible subject, a continuing mystery—but about strangers, whom the writer then makes as familiar as oneself. That’s what the best writers have done—perform great acts of invention, of transport, of sheer imagination. You have to believe to believe that there is more than one book—indeed, more than one life to plumb—in you.

3. Attend a workshop or two, but learn to hunker down and to work on your own. Young writers today seem enamored of workshops, and that’s understandable to a point, as writing is among the loneliest of labors anyone can assume, and the young writer will need the affirmation and the comfort of the company that workshops provide. But workshops can’t be a crutch; life isn’t an eternal summer where you can keep tinkering with a draft in the hope that someone out there in some workshop will finally like it. Past your second or third workshop, keep the workshop in your head, and begin to write, in productive solitude, in the silent company of your presumptive fellows—Chekhov, Rilke, Salinger, Joaquin, Alfon, Gordimer, Lahiri, or whoever moves you to do as they did.

4. Stop arguing, and leave the polemics and the criticism to others. You don’t have time for that, and it can distract you from what you should be doing, which is writing more of your own work. While criticism can help clarify our own aims and means, these debates can sap too much of a writer’s psychic energy, energy one needs for his or her own poetry.

5. Lastly, listen to old fogeys like me, and listen closely—but make up your own minds, make your own mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make them, or you’ll never get anything right. Not everything you write will be a work of genius; indeed, much of it will very likely be immemorable. But if you endeavor to write well and to write enough, sooner or later, that masterpiece you might be remembered by will come. Desperate to earn a living from his writing, Chekhov wrote more than 200 stories in his lifetime; except for the most devoted fan, no more than a dozen of these stories will be familiar to us as classics. But he would not have come up with that glittering dozen if he hadn’t written 190 other less worthy pieces. So nothing is ever wasted in writing. Your misfires and your false starts are part of your investment in the enterprise of a lifetime.

Would Rizal be Rizal without the Noli and the Fili and Mi Ultimo Adios? Perhaps, but he would be a diminished Rizal, whose martyrdom would have lost much of its resonance. Will it be sacrilege to suggest that we admire Rizal less for his actions than for his writings? Were his writings not, in fact, largely his deeds? In any event, they are what live on—what he wrote at 25 and in the few years left to him after that.

As Hippocrates put it so well, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” often transposed into “Life is short, but art lives long.” May we all write something worthy of surviving us—the sooner the better.

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