Penman for Monday, August 2, 2021
SOMETHING VERY unusual happened to me about a week ago. Driving my little Jimny on my way home to catch a Zoom meeting, I came literally the closest I’d ever been to a quick and fairly simple death.
I was following a student driver who was plodding along at a turtle’s pace. It was a busy street so I couldn’t overtake him, and I resisted the urge to honk my horn, remembering how it was when I was learning how to drive in my Beetle ages ago. We stopped at a corner a couple of blocks from my place, about to go into a main street. The student driver either stalled or stiffened, because he simply didn’t move. I felt my patience wearing thin; my Zoom meeting was about a commercial book project that would earn me some tidy cash (enough to pay, beyond the groceries, for my old books, rusty typewriters, and other toys), and I didn’t want to be even one minute late.
The left side of the street was open, so I could overtake, but it was a streetcorner and I hesitated. That pause saved my life.
The student driver inched forward and made a right turn. I drove up right behind him, but had to brake at the tall hump just at that very corner. From my left I saw a big delivery van hurtling down the main street. Its driver had lost control; the van fell on its side, rolled over, and slid straight toward me. I didn’t move forward because I would have been hit if the van hadn’t braked, and I would have even more surely been demolished if I had tried to overtake earlier. Strapped into my seat, there was no time to jump.
As it was, I froze and, in a cinematic cliché, watched everything happen in slow motion—the van coming, braking, rolling, and coming at me. Strangely I felt very calm. “So this is how I’m going,” I remember thinking, just waiting for the impact. One, two, three—and then the van stopped, a few feet away. I saw the driver raise and wiggle his hand, and then people rushed over. I exhaled a prayer of thanks, parked the car, hurried back to make sure the driver was okay (he was), and then went to my Zoom meeting.
I didn’t tell anyone at that meeting what had just happened to me. We had a very engaging conversation, during which we established that I was not the best fit for the job (nothing to do with money but with stylistic preferences), and I bowed out gracefully, possibly to the surprise of my chatmates, who probably expected me to be more vocally disappointed by the news.
In truth, I felt liberated. For a long time now, I had felt a gnawing urge to put everything else aside and return to my own fiction, to remind myself that I still had a few good stories to tell before I croaked. At 67, I’ve begun to feel my age, in my bones and, more distressingly, in my memory and my reflexes. When I read authors and look up their lives, I can’t help noting the ages at which they published their major works, when they died, and for what reasons. (And no one beats Jose Rizal in these departments.)
That same afternoon, with nothing else on my plate for the first time in a long time, I opened a new document in Word and typed down the first thing that came to my mind, a snippet of a conversation between a young man and an older woman, set in Manila on New Year’s Eve, 1936. I didn’t know these characters or where the story would go, but that’s how I’ve always worked, which sometimes leads to dead ends but always gives me a heightened sense of discovery and anticipation. I don’t want to know what the next page will be like; that’s why I’m writing it, making things up as I go along, looking into the highlights and shadows of the scene for clues and possibilities.
Before I knew it I had started a new novel—the literary form which, I’ve often said, I least enjoy. Each of my past two novels took me years to finish. The first was done for graduate school, the second completed for a competition—neither reason, it seems to me, the best one for writing, although practical necessity can do wonders. To some writer-friends like Charlson Ong (whose White Lady, Black Christ just came out with Milflores Publishing) and Gina Apostol (starting on a new historical project), novel-writing—and doing it well—comes almost as second nature; for me it has been hard labor, because not enough of my true heart was in it. I began a third novel many years ago, and about half of it is done, but I haven’t felt like picking up the pieces just yet.
So I’m starting a totally different one, and to keep from jinxing it I’ll only say further that it will be one that will require common intelligence and not academic cleverness to figure out, that would make a good play or movie for more people to enjoy (take the illustration above as a hint), and—most of all—that will make me feel like my own writing self again, before the next delivery van turns up at the corner. Wish me luck.