SSM – Day Seven

Short Story MonthWell hello crickets and the occasional tumbleweed. How ya doing? Great, I hope. The weather’s balmy — today I woke up because of the cold. I’ve always been more of a fan of heat than the cold. Although with the cold, I can layer. Layering is cool, you know. Cool. Haha, that was like a pun on cold. Like, you can layer (which is cool) when the weather is cold. There’s no escaping low temperature these days. Haha. Haha. I say, Haha, chap, haha!

Okay. Today, we mix it up a little. Because this whole review thing isn’t really my thing, although I have told you guys — Mr. Cricket and Mr. Tumbleweed — that it’s not a review thing but I think you still think this is a review thing. It’s a, well, it’s a short story thing meant for communal nomnomnom-ness. But then, ya know, it came to me last night: there’s something very lonely about this whole thing. (Thing, thing, thing!) Not lonely as in Little Girl In the Corner Wishing Someone Asks Her to Play Jackstones. It’s more, well, alone. Solitary?

And then after I thought of that, I thought, well, what do you expect? I fleetingly talked about this here, how them fictionists are the real antisocial crowd, eyes wide and nomnomnom for every little detail, a little arrogant, yes, but only because it’s a defense mechanisms from all the pain in the world.

Uh-huh. Yeah.

Also, I didn’t want to celebrate Short Story Month by just reading and sharing short stories. I mean, that’s fantastic, and all that — but if I have the capacity to do other stuff, why not? We’ll still be doing the token pledge, but this easily-distracted kid here (my brain’s frying with the pressure of reading three stories at gunpoint) wants to do something else. Something different-er.

*

This here serves as a warning to the Too Long; Don’t Read crowd: Dude, this is going to be long. This is going to be long, because I — easily bored and easily distracted — want to shake things up a little by giving you an opinion. Beware, because in today’s edition of the ongoing Short Story Month exercise/pledge/craziness, I will attempt to make sense. Run for cover while you still have the chance.

That said, Sasha is here to talk about Autobiography in Fiction, mostly because there’s no escaping it — don’t believe any of the writers who say that None of that’s real. They’re not kidding anybody. When Suchen Lim was my Fiction Workshop professor about a year ago, she advised us young fledgling/flailing writers to give “It’s the Fictional I” as answer to any nosy little fuck who dares ask us is the work is based on something, if only because aforementioned nosy little fucks tend to be easily pleased by shiny terminology like that.

So. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. One, because next Tuesday I’m going to give a lecture on Fiction over at the Ateneo (like, yeah), and I’ve been seriously fretting over what I have to say, or lack of it. And this is one of those things that I might get to talk about, sanity willing. Two, because I’ve been wondering, yet again, about the politics of this thing, and (Three) as well as its reliability — reliability as in, well, how can I keep writing about and from life when I spend most of my days plastered to the bed anyway?

Number Three raises a curious little issue, especially about the plastered-to-the-bed part. During my Ethics class (Philo) with Fr. David, he gave us a journal article on hysteria, and melancholia, and how, for the longest time, it was a woman’s disease. It was a fascinating read, really, never mind that it was a couple of inches thick, and for the life of me I could not figure out what it had to do with Ethics. The first couple of pages were about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and her hysteria, and how, depressed, she was advised to have but two hours’ intellectual life a day.” And so she gots Teh Sad, and she wrote about it. Tada, #24 – The Yellow Wallpaper. And Gilman talks about why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. I lost myself, teka lang. Wait. Uh. Oh yeah. So. That story’s one of the better known ones that oh-so-evidently leeches from real life.

I’m not saying that it’s inevitable. Just that, well, it happens. At least, it does for me, very much so. (Note seamless seguie into Me Me Me!) In my poetics essay for my thesis, I talked about Real Life in Fiction in part III, from page 11 to 16th, double-spaced. I’ll excerpt some parts here, because I want to, and because, haha, copy-pasting saves me the trouble of having to actually think about new ways of saying these things:

According to popular belief, every writer dreads and scorns the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” (It is a question no one has bothered to direct to me, not once, which prompts me to raise my own questions regarding the obviousness of the answer.) If I were to be asked this, the simple answer—“I get my ideas from real life, usually my own”—would be far from forthcoming. I shall patronize myself by saying that perhaps it comes with age, this inability to profess that the fiction I write has been largely wrought from real life, and would undoubtedly continue to be so, with varying levels of audacity. More established writers are likely to attest, “Yes, I wrote about my witch of a mother, and only changed her first name” without batting an eyelash (Mario Vargas Llosa comes to mind, whose novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was based on his courtship of his wife Julia, an aunt by marriage). But I cower behind the convenience the simplest definition of fiction affords me—fiction: that which is not real—and employ it to keep the rumors at bay. As a young writer, there is a great deal of embarrassment to attesting that most, if not all, of my stories are wrought from experience, and alternately jump to daydreams and conjecture—the inevitable judgment would be: How do I dare write of the world when I have not seen that much of it? That, and the censure supplied by the notion that, as John Cheever puts it, “any confusion between autobiography and fiction debases fiction.”

But beyond these excuses and evasions, I believe in the inevitability of reality sliding into a literary form whose label is synonymous with Not Real. In my fiction, the mundane and the familiar are not just subjects, concepts to take apart and rebuild all over again, with more than a little embellishment—they are the source of what I write, often the stimulus as to why I take pen to paper, fingers on keyboard. I get my material from things that strike something in me (be it a list of open secrets written on the deathbed, be it a woman stepping out of an evening and into the household of a father and son), from the people around me (whom I give halfhearted disguises, for ethics’ sake), from my own life (a conversation begins a story, a frustration transforms into a detail).

. . .

I took snippets from my own life—words, gestures, people, events, scenes, fantasies—and peppered them liberally with the devices of fiction and storytelling: the decision to invent a chronology, deliberate misdirection (because autobiography in fiction could cross many thin lines), and at some points, just plucking elements out of the air as I wrote—to create a story.

And then, you may ask, what about catharsis? What about simple, pure conceit, that you stuff your work with your own La-La Land. Well, my dears, I’ve always believed that literature is conceit — I have something to say, and damn it, I’m dedicating three thousand words to that. My poetics essay (it’s so damned iffy for me to say/write down “poetics”) answers that too, because I’m relevant like that, yo:

I admit that my fiction is, at some point during the process, cathartic, my catharsis. However, I do not view my craft and art strictly as a means of therapy. I may put into words my many crises, trying to make sense of my life through a collection of choice nouns, verbs, adjectives and the odd preposition.

I may gather facts from real life, but I take caution not to be bound by these facts.  (This makes tense personal relationships for the fictionist—those misdirections at work once more: the “right” to include other people in the story, and how faithful the depiction must be; the flimsiest of disguises to benefit the coherence of the story is likely to affront the flimsily disguised person-turned-character.)

A fact about my writing process: it is not unthinkable for me to labor over an outline of a story, drafting a character’s movements, actions and reactions. It is not unthinkable, that when I do employ this method of preparing to write a story—not unlike a chef arranging his ingredients on the kitchen table before the actual cooking—the end result is almost always a lackluster assortment of scenes involving wooden characters who make the wisest, most obvious choices which only make them appear dumb, and, well, boring. And it is rare that I actually produce a whole story, failure or no: for me, plotting the course before the actual execution holds no excitement. Knowing what’s going to happen robs me of the anticipation and the challenge of creating something from scratch. And it’s just no fun at all. I have accepted the fact that I am a writer who’s produced stories on the exhilaration of momentum and, in some cases, panic—the thirty minutes before the story is due for class, the day before the Palanca deadline.

And I am the first to admit that it is odd, even ironic, that this facet of my writing process, this aversion to outlines is ill-fits the technicality that real life already provides the outlines for me. But then: freedom from outlines, therefore, grants me the opportunity to take over where real life breaks off. One of the ways I construct my fiction has a lot to do with how strong my memory is. Inventing alternatives, fictionalizing, is reactionary—that of a person who went through the experiences which are the basis of the story, and that of a writer who has to transform, at its simplest, an anecdote into a self-respecting piece of literature.

Rather than just being a response, my catharsis is an aesthetic response.

Call it artistic license, the absolute freedom in your own little world. And this method of manipulating the What Really Happened to the What Could Be—this is one of the more challenging aspects of being a fictionist, this is what I relish doing.

Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. has written, “Obviously, fiction allows us to share parts of our lives and thoughts with others—not directly, but through a screen which not only protects us, but which we can manipulate to enhance or to distort the image that filters through.” I believe it is the fictionist’s conceit to escape to the fictionalized world for a variety of reasons, ranging from the desire to simply share, or to create a fantasy, or even to indulge the vindictiveness that everyone has in them.

However, I do try not to jeopardize the writing process—the putting up of the screen—by overt self-indulgence. Chunks of my fiction might tend to be autobiographical, but it is not autobiography. There is constant pressure to improve on my handle of the craft, so that nothing appears purely cathartic (in the most self-serving definition of the word), so the story doesn’t get jeopardized. I think there is more at risk in the story when the events or the persons are drawn from real life: they may be real to me, they may, to my eyes, be bursting with dramatic significance and deep insight—but I always have to work twice as hard to make this real to the reader. That is, before I estrange the reader, I must estrange myself, and those events which I know are true: employ the craft of fiction to create a story that, ultimately, should matter more than what it is based on. I am conscious of creating stories in which no one is two-dimensional, figures so stereotypical that anyone could discern that they are based on a real person so distorted by intense emotions and sentiments as to render them fake, distasteful. And so evil ex-girlfriends get humanity, histrionic mothers get beautiful, beatific heartaches.

See? I even used the word conceit. I am nothing but honest. :p

My admittedly Pollyanna-ish essay ends with: “At the heart of it, literature is personal. As one who writes, I have the privilege and the faculties to stand a step away from things, but ultimately, everything boils down to those distinct motions and sensibilities that make an individual human. One aspect should never dominate the other—a balance must exist that renders craft (at its simplest: a technical mastery) into an art that is not afraid to be unfaithful to What Really Happened, and instead manifesting What Is.” Note that propensity to capitalize. Whatever.

There you go. You still with me, Mr. Cricket, Mr. Tumbleweed?

This is the part where I’m supposed to tie it all together and give you the cute little bundle of Good Idea. But, again, whatever. Pretending to be intelligent strains the maquillage. Hm. This blog entry just goes to show that whenever I attempt to make sense, it’s epic fail. You have no idea how many times I lost myself while I was writing this.

***WHAT THE HELL IS SHORT STORY MONTH?

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About Sasha Martinez

Her sins were scarlet, but her books were read.

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