Penman No. 90: The Monkey Wrench

Penman for Monday, March 24, 2014

ANOTHER INTERESTING work came into my Creative Nonfiction class last week (yes, folks, there is such a large and lumbering creature as CNF for me, and if there are people who think otherwise, then that’s their problem, not mine nor my students’): a piece of reportage on the natural beauty of Los Baños and Mt. Makiling. It opened with an introduction to the jade vine, a beautiful plant that’s apparently not that easy to find.

My student, the author, came across one on the mountain after several hours’ hiking. He noted that “The showiest parts of the plant, which it is especially prized for throughout the world by horticulturists and exotic plants collectors alike, are its inflorescences which comprise translucent jade or blue-green flowers. Collectively, these rare colored flowers would hang like a bunch of jade pendants or a chandelier, effortlessly decorating the forest canopy during flowering season which comes around April.”

The work then moves on to a discussion of and an argument for biodiversity, citing an expert’s opinion that “although there have been successes as in the case of the Tubbataha Reef in Palawan and the Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park in Mindoro Occidental which has been the home of the endangered tamaraw, there is enormous room for improvement in the conservation and protection of other key places such as the Peñablanca protected area in Cagayan, the Agusan Marsh in Agusan del Sur, and even Mt. Makiling, which is one of the few places in the country where the jade vine naturally flourishes.” The piece concludes with a look into new propagation techniques being explored for the jade vine, and into its market potential.

All told, the piece was very capably done, save for the usual edits and the suggestion of a better choice of words here and there. In this and in a previous submission, its young author showed skill and sensitivity, as well as an abiding love of nature, having studied in UP Los Baños and having lived there for many years.

Now here’s the thing: in my class, “good” can’t ever be good enough. My students have my mantras coming out of their ears: “Raise the stakes!” and “Push the envelope!” Critics of writing programs who keep carping that all these programs and workshops ever do is promote safe, boring, homogenized pieces should take a seat in my class. I’m far from the world’s best writing teacher, but I certainly don’t give my students an easy time, any more than I give myself an easy time. I try to give every piece, no matter how poorly conceived or executed, the attention it deserves, assuming that it’s all the student could do up to that point; if I could help him or her turn into something that at least makes sense and hangs together, something he or she could share proudly and happily with others, then I would have done my job.

But I tend to be hardest on my best students—some of whom will come to class wth an attitude, and some of whom don’t even realize just how good they are—because the hardest and yet also the most worthwhile transition to make is that between being merely good and being possibly great.

This is why I keep urging them to raise the stakes and to push the envelope, because great writing—by which I mean something substantial and memorable, in both substance and form—is far more than a matter of perfect grammar or witty language. I’d much rather have a rough-hewn but editable story heavy with human drama than a clean but tepid script with every detail correctly rendered but showing me little more than what I’ve already seen before or what I could have predicted myself. I want a kink in the character, a twist in the plot that the author’s understanding of human action will not only make plausible but even dramatically inevitable.

In the case of our “jade vine” piece, we took one big step backward and tried to assess its possibilities. What was its real or best potential subject? What was the author capable of? Sure, it was interesting to know all those details about the jade vine, and of course we all agreed that protecting our biodiversity was a good and necessary thing—but these were all safe points to make, a plea for the preservation of natural beauty that no one in his or her right mind could contest.

This was where I trotted out another of my writing mantras: “Let’s throw a monkey wrench into the works!” By “monkey wrench,” I meant an incongruous element, something that might even go against the grain of the piece, but also something that would give it more complexity and traction. I’ve sometimes found myself doing this with my own stories, usually as a check against sentimentality and predictability. In a story titled “Some Families, Very Large,” a Christmas story about a boy and his errant father, I took the story to a funeral parlor toward the end, just because it was the most un-Christmasy thing I could think of.

You don’t really plan these things from the beginning (which would make them, in a way, predictable); instead, just when everything seems to be going right, you pause and ask yourself—almost with narrative mischief in mind—“Now, what if….” What if an ambulance takes a wrong turn on its way to a pick up a patient? What if, on a trip celebrating their reconciliation, an estranged couple is waylaid by bandits and forced to reveal secrets better left untouched? What if, in a nonfiction piece making an eloquent case for biodiversity and beauty, we throw in an element of violence?

That’s right, violence—which, to be totally unromantic and untouristy about Los Baños and Mt. Makiling—has sadly scarred that otherwise edenic landscape. I reminded the author—who probably knew the circumstances better than I did—of the recent spate of horrifying crimes and incidents that had shaken up that area and UP’s campus there: the rape and killing of a coed, the drowning of two UPLB students in a stream, the fatal stabbing of a woman by her husband, a security officer who then committed suicide. These were morbid facts that, in my former life as the UP System’s top PR man, I might have de-emphasized or treated in another way; but the nonfictionist’s eye has to be bare, wide open, and utterly dry, and I asked my student to maintain that stance as well.

What did murder and mayhem have to do with jade vines and biodiversity? There’s the real challenge to the creative nonfictionist—not just the good, competent one, but the potentally great one. I suspect that writers the likes of Nick Joaquin, Greg Brillantes, Kerima Polotan, and Pete Lacaba would instinctively have known how to mesh these disparate elements together into a gripping, compelling narrative that would have seamlessly paralleled violence of one kind with another. Rather than being perfectly smooth, their pieces would have, here and there, retained a rough edge—and showed off the glint that comes with rough edges.

And that, not incidentally, is the advantage of creative nonfiction over everyday journalistic reportage or the conventional essay: it can marshall different and even discordant notes and voices together, and, unlike essays which demand clarity of thought and meaning, employ and even thrive on ambiguity. One of the CNF models I use in class is a New Yorker piece titled “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard, which begins with an image of the Milky Way in the night sky, a sick dog, squirrels, and an absent husband—before veering off into the 1991 shooting of four people by a Chinese graduate student at the University of Iowa, ending with “Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.” Messy and marvelous.

The next time you’re feeling safe, smug, or soft about your work in progress, toss that monkey wrench into the middle of the piece, and see what happens. If you didn’t see it coming, then it isn’t likely that others would have, either, and in the very least, you’d have a fresher and more provocative work in hand.

(Picture of the jade vine from

1 thought on “Penman No. 90: The Monkey Wrench

  1. “The next time you’re feeling safe, smug, or soft about your work in progress, toss that monkey wrench into the middle of the piece, and see what happens. If you didn’t see it coming, then it isn’t likely that others would have, either, and in the very least, you’d have a fresher and more provocative work in hand.”

    Thank you for your advice! 🙂

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