Sunday, March 21, 2010

Early And Late, By Butch Dalisay

Sir Butch Dalisay shares some interesting observations about his writing when he was a young man, and back when he was a younger man ;-P, in this article of his, Early And Late. An excerpt:

LAST WEEK I promised to share a few paragraphs from my first Palanca-prizewinning story, “Agcalan Point,” which I saw again recently for the first time in 35 years. I’m going to do this not to praise myself, but precisely to show how artificial my voice was back then, and how it’s changed since, by way of talking more generally about how writers and their words change over time.

Here goes:

“Approaching Ginbulanan harbor from the west, as it is the only entry the sea leaves open short of tearing your craft apart with its sunken teeth, the traveler meets Agcalan.

“From afar you perceive a decrepit Spanish fort more than a thousand feet above the bobbing horizon, thickly overhung with clouds in the month of August. From that crown Agcalan plunges madly downwards into jagged slivers of gray sandstone into the sea, carpeted by a fine silken spray.

“Treachery lurks but a fathom below; ships passing this point must have crews of redoubtable courage. So far from the open sea, so near to land—and there the danger lies, to founder on some ill-anchored reef or be crushed against the immutable cheek of Agcalan.

“Agcalan has always been there, and you have only seen it now. It has seen everything, and you know nothing, a speck of flotsam in time and space, and you are overwhelmed. There is majesty in the primeval, some godly attribute magnified by the prism of the transparent mind, and it is here.”

Now let’s a do a little self-analysis.

Note the tone and setting of the story. It doesn’t happen on a typical Tuesday on a city street. It starts on the swell of the ocean, wrenching the reader from the familiar. We are introduced to a “decrepit Spanish fort,” suggesting a bygone era, cloaking the piece in a mythic mist. This effect is reinforced by words and phrases like “thickly overhung,” “redoubtable courage,” “ill-anchored,” “majesty in the primeval,” “godly attribute,” and that last mouthful, “the prism of the transparent mind.”

Those lines will probably get past or even be liked by an impressionable audience. But looking at them now, as the 56-year old reader rather than the 21-year-old writer, I can sense a certain stridency, a palpable anxiety to be taken seriously, which seems easiest to achieve with the use of windy, resonant, polysyllabic words.

It’s the bane of wet-eared writers, this notion that big words and foggy settings will get you far. It’s an understandable crutch, especially when you don’t feel too confident about your material—or haven’t found it yet; a retreat into the romantic past provides a good excuse for mock-heroic prose and a touch of melodrama. I find myself having to tell my students to unlearn this tendency by, among others, asking them to throw their thesaurus away, especially when the only reason they turn to it is to find a fancier word for something as basic as “talk” (expostulate?) or “walk” (perambulate?).

For comparison, here’s a scene from a story I published in 2002, when I was 48: “Some Families, Very Large”:

Click here to read the whole entry.

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