Benito Vergara

Story in SmokeLong Quarterly.

In books on August 26, 2015 at 6:54 pm

My story “Stone, Well, Girl” is out on SmokeLong Quarterly this week.

A Year of Writing.

In books on August 22, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Yesterday was my 365th straight day of writing at least half an hour a day.

I learned a few things:

The daily practice is non-negotiable. In the past several years I have stopped writing many times. That skipped day turns into a week, then a month, and before I knew it, I lost the right to call myself a writer because I wasn’t writing. That kind of sounds hard on myself, but really, I cannot let my writing slip like that ever again.

A consistent time and place works best. I’m lucky that I can psych myself into writing anywhere (the ferry, my desk, a plane, a cafeteria, a park, the beach, a waiting room, a hospital room at 3 in the morning) or on anything (notebook, laptop, whatever I have handy) or anytime (early morning, late at night, etc.). But what currently works for me is waking up at 5 am and getting the morning routine out of the way before I start writing — then I hop on the bus at 8 am for a change of writing venue. I find that being able to write before going to the office provides me with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I am otherwise denied for the next 8-9 hours.

My phone and the internet are the enemies of writing. Getting to Level Whatever on Clash of Clans, or a score in the 100s on Crossy Road, or leveling up my shaman in Hearthstone, wins me exactly nothing. I uninstalled them all last year, but that still left me with Facebook and Twitter and Feedly, those sly thieves of time, where I sometimes convinced myself that reading fiction and articles about writing fiction and articles about avoiding procrastination was somehow not procrastination. I can tell you what they are: they’re not writing.

Finish your stuff. This is way easier said than done. I write and revise exceedingly slowly and get distracted easily. (Like with writing quick book reviews and blog entries like this one.) I’m not that happy about my pace but right now it kind of works.

I finally have one forthcoming story (in SmokeLong Quarterly — a place I would have been scared to submit to had I known what their sliver of an acceptance rate was, so the lesson here is Don’t self-reject). I also have two other pieces making the rejection rounds; they’re done, but I smell revisions coming up for one of them soon. That’s fine.

But I also have these, in the space of this same writing year, in order of not-doneness:

  • about 18,000 words into a novel (?) set in the Philippines in the early 1900s, loosely based on Macario Sakay, a third of which I’ve polished over and over
  • a handful of flash fiction pieces that could easily be revised to doneness or made longer
  • a steampunky kind of story about a woman who guards a machine (unfinished, but getting close to a full first draft)
  • a few pages into a crime story about the hapless driver of a Tondo gangster (unfinished)
  • several pages into a story about a bunch of office workers lost in the desert (way unfinished)
  • a personal essay about my father (still way unfinished)
  • a few pages into my “Goddess of Lost Things” story (very much unfinished, but wouldn’t you like to know more about this girl and this village and what happens when an asteroid passes over)
  • a page or two into a story about Jose Rizal, medical examiner / detective (or supernatural investigator, I haven’t figured it out yet)
  • and I’m also cleaning up an old creative nonfiction essay about me as a young reader (unfinished, but it’s undergone several drafts).

As I said, I gotta finish. (I like thinking of the above as my product backlog, to bring in terms from work.)

I have the best readers. Writing may be a solitary act, but without my community of fellow writers and readers I am nothing.

If there’s only one takeaway from this year of writing, it is this: it’s all about doing the work. I’ve been told I have talent but at the end of the day it’s nothing but a field lying fallow if you don’t sit down and do the work.

My mother asked me if I had a goal. I told her, in all honesty, that my only goal was to write every day.

Weekend Reads; also, Rereading, and Some Tweets on Tweeting

In books on July 12, 2015 at 8:16 pm

I am not a big re-reader, and I know I should be. I happen to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy once a decade for some reason — not because I am a huge Le Carré fan or of the spy novel in general (I am neither) — but because there’s a mystery in its patient rhythms, in how the story progresses through ellipses and silences, that I still cannot crack. I figure I will read Maria Dermout’s The Ten Thousand Things again sometime soon, in the same way that I will watch Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love again or reread Francisco Arcellana’s “The Mats.” You know, just because.

We all, of course, have different relationships to texts (novelistic or filmic) at different ages, and our life experiences necessarily provide us with shifting lenses through which to read them. The books don’t change; we do.

A movie I found charming and sophisticated in my late teens now seems unwatchable and, well, icky; Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a perfect example. Watching Antonioni’s L’Avventura in your relatively carefree mid-’20s is a very different experience from watching it at a decade later as an unhappy and bitter divorcee.

While I am glad that neither my parents nor the librarian at my elementary and high schools kept me away from books that I “wasn’t yet ready for,” I am sure there were books of my youth that were clearly lost on me. One of those books was To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read in the Philippines before I was a teenager.

I remember almost nothing of it, in the same way I remember almost nothing of the film which I saw around the same time.

And back then I knew almost nothing of the South, or of the Civil Rights Movement, or the implications of the African Americans sitting in the rafters and standing up for Atticus Finch. (Was that scene in the book?)

So I read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman in The Guardian without much to compare it to, and reviews of the book will inevitably compare it to closely to the first novel. I found the chapter quite engaging, with the sentences beautifully constructed, and was eager to read more — but perhaps I should re-read To Kill a Mockingbird first, with a sharper critical eye. But is it still called “re-reading” if I first read it without historical context, a world and a lifetime away?

  • The other book coming out on July 14 — and the one I’m most excited about — is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Here’s a powerful excerpt, in “Letter to My Son” (The Atlantic)
  • “The internet means we’re a community and there’s no such thing as oversharing. Even this identity, Linda. We’re one in a way we never can be in real life. We’re an online forum past midnight.” Christine V. Nguyen, “Real People and Fake Friends: Linda Evangelista” (Entropy)
  • James Brubaker’s “Four Sci-Fi Variations on a Grandmother” (The Austin Review)
  • Two stories with something in common (guess): Hector Tobar’s “Secret Stream” (from ZYZZYVA, via Electric Literature)  and Emily Wortman-Wunder’s “Trespassing” (The Masters Review)
  • “She speaks to you as if you could speak back. Find a voice in your throat that wasn’t there before. She asks you questions, one after another, and though you can only answer Yes or No, you wonder if you are choosing the correct answer, or if one Yes or No in the wrong sequence could change everything, could alter your fate.” From earlier this year, Sam Martone’s chapbook “An Object You Cannot Lose” (Cartridge Lit)
  • Kerry Howley’s “The Cage of You” (Granta)
  • You might not agree with the assessment that “Elvis’s musical lift-off was never a simple black and white equation; it was more like a backroom radio left on between stations to pick up a tingly mix of all the different sounds in the air that month,” but what a sentence, what an essay. Ian Penman (again), from 2014, on Elvis; “Shapeshifter” (London Review of Books)
  • Otessa Moshfegh’s “The Weirdos” (The Paris Review)

Also, I thought I’d get back into using Twitter, but I clearly don’t know how to use it. I tweeted these below:

I suspect my reticence on Twitter has to do with a kind of tweet performance anxiety

Because I recognize two warring impulses in myself, or to be precise, my Twitter self, or the self I project on Twitter.

The first is equivalent to the nonchalant toss of a gum wrapper into a waste bin,

Where, like those early, tentative, Facebook statuses, I announce to the world that I’m eating a ham sandwich for lunch,

Or that the disco version of the Star Wars theme, pew-pew sounds and all, was playing at Safeway as I placed a jar of peanut butter in my cart,

And by treating Twitter as such — the repository of thoughts, relevant only to myself, flung into the ether —

reinforces the notion that I’m having a pointless monologue, except that other people may be listening in, but I know they don’t.

The second is the mystifying pressure, mostly self-generated, to announce, and not just retweet, something that promotes my own “content”

like a new blog entry, or an old blog entry, which of course implies the infrequency and a quick exhaustion of tweets on my end,

Or write some retweetable bon mot, with a labored incorporation of ‘80s song lyrics, or some nugget of wisdom mined with great effort,

Or some cruelly precise act of derision, or a Seinfeldian observation about the world we live in and life in general,

Each word, each character, polished and gleaming, chosen with care and agonizing deliberation

but projecting that same indifferent quality as the swing of the arm throwing that aforementioned gum wrapper.

And between these two overlapping compulsions one must add the need to engage with other Twitterers, to seek them out, to give praise, to follow

And perhaps retweet their words, which I suppose acts as a kind of validation,

though I myself traffic in the same cheap thrill when I receive the notification that I have been retweeted or favorited.

And so this, in combination with my two warring Twitter selves, explains this peculiar anxiety as I plunge into Twitter again.

Follow me, if you like: @thewilyfilipino.