Penman No. 187: Journalists and Fictionists

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Penman for Monday, February 15, 2016

 

MY GRADUATE fiction writing workshop—CW 211—opened last month, and I was glad to see that all my 12 or so students were taking fiction with me for the first time. I don’t mind when students study with me over two or three semesters—especially the best ones you want to see through to their first book—but a fresh crop of faces is always a relief of sorts, because you can be assured that everything you say in class will be new to them.

As a first-day practice, I ask the class members to give a brief self-introduction, as a writing workshop is almost like a support group, and requires a certain degree of intimacy, so people should know each other right from the beginning. The self-intros also give me a sense of my students’ backgrounds, from which I might be able to get an idea—albeit a very tentative and imperfect one—of the kind of fiction I can expect from them.

This semester, I have several students coming from Journalism, and I told them, with a semi-serious laugh which they returned, that it was usually the journalists I had the most trouble with in Fiction class. Now why did I say that?

Let me explain, first of all, that I was a journalist myself, and still see myself as a part-time member of the press. Indeed when, in high school, I began firming up my ambition to become a writer, it wasn’t to become a novelist or a short story writer—it was to become a journalist, in the belief that there was nothing nobler and more exciting than to get the news and be the first to tell the world about it. I achieved that ambition—or at least the start of it—when I was hired as a general-assignments reporter by the Philippines Herald and later as a suburban correspondent by Taliba in 1972, as an 18-year-old dropout, but martial law put an abrupt end to that. It wouldn’t be until 20 years later, in 1993, when I was back in a newsroom, though no longer as a reporter but as an editorial writer for TODAY, and in 2001 as a copyeditor for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, about the same time that I began writing this Lifestyle column for the STAR.

That’s not much of a career as lifelong journalists go, but it’s been enough to leave me with a healthy respect for the work that journalists do, especially in comparison to that of the fictionist, which I became as well. Both are difficult, and require their own kind of discipline; neither is particularly remunerative, although journalism, if undertaken as a regular job, will at least provide a steady income, while fiction must remain a strictly part-time avocation for 99% of its practitioners in this country.

When I teach a class in Creative Writing, I always tell my CW majors that they should never feel superior to journalists, because they don’t know what it’s like to have to find, write, and turn in a story every afternoon of every working day. Creative writing students like to bitch that they don’t have enough material, enough inspiration, and enough time to finish their magnum opus (which at the end of all that whining might turn out to be profoundly underwhelming). Journalists can’t even complain about these things, because they simply don’t factor into the making and delivery of a news story. Material? That’s for you to find or create. Time? A few hours. Inspiration? Your paycheck. I’ve commiserated beerside with journalist-friends over the travails they had to suffer to get a particular story—but only after the story was sent in, and not before.

So with all this admiration and respect for journalists and their job, why do I say they give me problems as fictionists? I’m generalizing here, of course, but the answer isn’t too far from from what, ironically, is a journalist’s chief virtue: they can’t let go of the facts. They find it very difficult to switch to a make-believe mode, and even when they do, their stories are thinly-disguised newsfeatures wanting in compelling, internally driven drama. When you point out a problem in the narrative—say an unlikely turn in the plot—the journalist’s defense will invariably be, “Well, that’s what really happened!”

Unfortunately, in fiction, “It really happened” just doesn’t cut it. What’s real in fiction is what’s on the page. Real life might provide the material and the inspiration for the fictional story, but that story has to acquire a life of its own, regardless of its origins in fact. This is why I tell my students that everything they submit to the workshop is fair game for criticism, and that they can’t and shouldn’t take it personally when someone comments that “I think the mother in this story is very narrow-minded and selfish,” even if that mother was based on one’s beloved mom—it’s “the mother on the page,” as I call that character, that we’re following, believing, and either rooting for or disliking.

And the first day of fiction class is also when I trot out one of my favorite quotes, paraphrased from Mark Twain: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Just think about it: we accept incredible reports in the news that we wouldn’t buy for a minute in a short story, even in a fantasy, because we expect fiction to adhere to an internal dramatic logic, whether it’s set in a garage or in a galaxy far, far away. The factual world has no such givens; things just happen, often for no apparent reason. That’s why fiction had to be invented: to make sense of life in the raw and all of its inconsistencies, paradoxes, and mysteries. (The opinion writer aims to do that as well, but on the plane of the abstract, using words like “justice” and “freedom”, which you normally won’t find in a well-crafted story; they’d be implied.)

If it’s any comfort to the fact-loving journalist, there’s another kind of writer whom I’ve discovered to have equal difficulty transitioning to fiction: the poet, for whom every word and turn of phrase is painfully precious, and a ten-page story might as well be an epic. But that’s fodder for another time.

 

[Image from thenextweb.com]

One thought on “Penman No. 187: Journalists and Fictionists

  1. Fiction writing being a way for us to better understand life and its many complexities…hm, yes, I find that quite agreeable, sir. And fiction feels less worthwhile when it’s written more in the summarized and compressed form that news reports use, indeed. Although I do agree when it comes to news reports having merits (because it’s better to have a slight clue than none about what’s going on around us), the form of news reports only show bits and fragments of experiences, and perhaps that’s a reason behind the forgettableness of news reports. The form of fiction is a more vivid imitation of how we experience life, making it a more interesting way to learn more about the reality we live in, I think.

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