Veteran journalist Jullie Yap Daza, good friend and mentor of AA Patawaran, declared in a speech during the recent launch of Patawaran’s book “Write Here Write Now” at Powerbooks Greenbelt (P399 at all Powerbooks and National Bookstore branches), “there’s no mean bone in his body.” It was either Daza, after all these years, still didn’t know Patawaran that well or she wanted to spare us the details.
As Patawaran, or Arnel to friends, so vividly described in the chapter “So Write!,” he once exchanged heated words with a fellow editor in a daily they once worked for. I won’t deprive you of the chance to savor the chapter yourself, one which really hit home as far as I’m concerned since the author and I both belong to the same profession.
Suffice it to say that in Arnel’s desire to advance his argument, he resorted to an unlikely but very effective example involving a fire and a Chanel fashion show. Yes!
To his readers, it was hilarious as well as revelatory: a quiet, frail looking and seemingly nondescript journalist like Arnel, if pushed to the wall, especially when his work and reputation as a writer and editor is at stake, is capable of inflicting far bigger damage on his tormentor.
For the first time in this blog’s young history, I’m using the Q&A format (a.k.a. the lazy and unimaginative way of bringing one’s message across) to share with you an abridged version of an email interview I recently did with Patawaran.
If you want to know more about his book and my opinion about it, please read my story on the Arts & Books section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s December 10 issue.
Disclosure: I consider Arnel a friend, but due to limitations set by time and space, we don’t see each other often enough to allow us to nurture and take that friendship to new levels. Although I admire him as a person and as a writer, there’s still a healthy space left between us, which I think allowed me to view his work for what it really is.
alexyvergara (AYV): What and who inspired you to write this book? Was it an idea percolating in your head since you became a journalist, or was it a more recent development?
AA Patawaran (AAP): It’s a recent development. The idea came to me around Christmas time. It wasn’t even a Eureka moment –I just decided I wanted to write—for me. I had no idea what it was I wanted.
I wasn’t even sure if I should write fiction or non-fiction. But when I think about it, maybe it started way back before I went to New York to cover the fall 2012 fashion week.
I wasn’t really in a good place, wasn’t even sure I was in the right place anymore. Things were changing around me, but I was still doing the same, I was still the same.
I wanted to sort of reinvent myself or improve myself or to dance with the tune or learn, do something new. Around this time, I started going to the gym, praying the rosary, started fantasizing about learning hip-hop.
Maybe it was mid-life crisis. And then some time late last year, I decided I wanted to write.
There was all this talk about the quality of writing going down, about virtues going extinct, about everybody not caring to go deeper anymore or to say it right or to do it well or to be passionate about writing.
Everybody wanted to be Anna Wintour or a blogger but nobody cared about a good sentence anymore—or so claimed some people. So, at some point, I said, “No, peplum is seasonal, but good writing is forever.”
AYV: Why a book such as this one, and, say, not a book about fashion and etiquette for your initial offering as a published author?
AAP: I wrote about what I could offer. I played around the idea of Strunk and White at first, but I’m no master of grammar and I don’t want to be. It’s more fun to be a student of grammar. But a love of words, a passion for reading, for sentences that leap off the page—this I have and this is what I feel I am in a position to share.
AYV: Having read the first few chapters, I understand now that it’s not a how-to book. Who exactly are your target readers and, in your own words, how can this book be of help to them?
AAP: At some point I decided this could be for bloggers or the “Anna Wintour wannabes.” There’s so much freedom for writers now and, as a result, there is so much abuse as well as so much indulgence.
But as I wrote chapter after chapter, I decided this could be for anyone who has to write—and that’s all of us—artist or auditor, songwriter or store clerk.
The subtitle of the book, Standing at Attention Before My Imaginary Style Dictator, I hope, would make it clear to those aspiring to be in the lifestyle beat, in magazines, in fashion blogs—that your words, spoken or written, always have much to say about you and your personal style.
Bad grammar can ruin your reputation as much as a bad dress can, but it’s not just about grammar, it’s about propriety, correctness, care, restraint, everything we associate with elegance.
AYV: What are the challenges you’ve encountered in writing the book? Please cite concrete and juicy examples.
AAP: Nothing juicy. This book never got in the way of my life, but I stole time from my life to write this. This is so cliché but in hindsight there were no challenges that didn’t eventually turn into opportunity.
While writing this book, I realized how little I knew, so I was studying the whole time, like I was back in kindergarten. And then before summer this year, I was invited to teach at San Beda College.
The course was “Effective Writing in Accounting,” so there I had to learn and relearn business writing. I felt so unworthy at first, but I fell in love with it and I think my students saw the love and reciprocated, even though as a teacher I was a little impatient, irritable, and demanding of their time and attention.
But I’m happy and honored with the experience. It was like everything was falling into place and it was being made clearer and clearer to me that this was what I was supposed to do: to teach people how to better express themselves in writing.
AYV: Did the ideas come in fits and starts, or did they flow smoothly from start to finish? How come?
Fits and starts for most chapters. I’m an agony writer. I agonize over one sentence before I can move on to the next one, but I learned many tricks while writing this book, one of which is to write every day, even just for 15 minutes.
I never really wrote any of these chapters on a proper desk. I wrote during car repairs or during a car wash, at 24-hour cafes, on my iPad, while the crew was busy with hair and makeup during a shoot.
As a journalist, I don’t really depend on inspiration—I write when I have to, especially when I was with a daily—so it might have been a little easier for me.
It’s really easier when you write every day, even just for 15 minutes, while waiting for your turn at the dentist’s. Looking back, I know now why it was so much easier for me to close a daily newspaper section than a monthly magazine.
AYV: In so many words, what do you think ails Filipino writers in English today, whether they’re journalists or literary writers? How can they start addressing the situation?
AAP: I think now there is not enough love for the craft. People are looking more at the perks and privileges, like they want the byline, even if the article sucks or is not good enough.
It’s not just the writers. Everybody wants everything fast and there is so much self-entitlement. And people read less. You can’t even begin to discover the joys of reading, let alone writing, when all you ever do is scan the pages.
And plus I think, as editors, our generation is kinder, less demanding, sometimes more caring about the writer’s feelings than about his work.
You can’t really scream at a writer now, like my predecessors used to do, because now the writer can just walk away and move to a call center, where the salary is sometimes up to three times what a startup writer gets at newspapers.
AYV: In your honest opinion, do you think blogs are good for the written word? Hasn’t the written word taken such an unfair beating in the hands of bloggers who don’t know what they’re doing?
AAP: Like every magazine or newspaper page, a blog has so much power and potential. The only thing terrible about it is anybody can do it, even those undeserving.
Well, just because you can doesn’t mean you should—or as, the late Dolphy said, “Madaling tumakbo, paano kung manalo.”
The other thing I don’t like about it is it doesn’t require an editor. Everybody needs an editor, especially for something that comes out on a regular basis, daily, weekly, monthly, and even once in a while.
Blogs are like fast food. They skip many steps and they lack many ingredients or are simply all fluff, sometimes even poison or regurgitated material.
AYV: Reading your book, you make it sound as if writing is easy and the most natural thing that springs forth from every individual. We all know it’s not true. How can non-writers benefit from your book?
I have some chapters devoted to what basic things you need to know if you only write when you have to, such as when HR demands that you explain yourself in writing after an office brawl or when you need to compose a love letter or when you need to text your boss about a loan or an advance.
Everybody has to write—and everybody has to read. Just because it’s hard—and yes, even reading is hard, now that there are easier things to do—doesn’t mean you should give it up.
If I had all the money in the world, I’d pay everyone to read. I used to give my teen cousins 100 pesos for every book they read. I’d usually start them out with Catcher in the Rye.
AYV: And now for the age-old question: Are writers born or are they made? What is your honest opinion? I know you can improve on the craft, but can writing be learned? If yes, how can books such as yours help the aspiring writer?
AAP: Reading is the only way to learn to write well. All writers are readers first. Writing is a form of emulation. I think it’s a skill, and some do it better than others, but the others still have to do it right.
You need time to hone this skill, strengthen it, improve it and the best way, the only way to do it is to do a lot of reading. Even then, the learning never stops.
AYV: What do you do for a part two?
AAP: This book is exhilarating and excruciating in equal measure. I’m not waiting for inspiration for the next the book, but right now there is still so much to do to make Write Here Write Now serve its purpose.