Friday, April 23, 2010

An Email Exchange Which, Hopefully, May Teach Something

I had an exchange of emails with PGS contributor Dean Alfar about types of stories and the readers who read them, as well as approaches to storytelling, and other things.

I have a feeling that the email exchange may help others also, readers as well as writers, so I asked Dean Alfar if I could share this on my blog, in the hopes that someone out there may learn something from our exchange, whether how to do it, or how not to :D. I'm grateful that he said yes.

Please just note that the email exchange reflects only the viewpoints of two people; there are sure to be more ways to do it, more ways to "skin a cat", more ways to "tell a story". In fact, I'd appreciate it if others would share their thoughts in the comments section, in the hopes that even more could also learn.

Even if you're all reading this exchange in media res, I'm sure you'll all be able to tell where we're coming from through context.

Dean's parts are in blue; mine, in red, copied-and-pasted from the email body.

I hope this'll be worth the read for you.

Could this be a matter of taste? I mean, your taste versus others'? Certainly taste/preference plays a huge role in reading. Some people like a certain kind of story; others don't. What you characterize as 'bland' (the adjective I agreed to), for me, is safe, easy, not a challenge. If the goal was to simply 'tell a story', then you and I and many other writers can do this easily, in the same way any one can with the basic understanding of cooking can cook an egg. But to push the analogy further, there are actually many techniques for cooking eggs beyond simply frying them. If the goal is to produce a simple fried egg, you got it made already. But how about an omelette? a soft-boiled egg? My sister, a chef who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London, tells me that she knows over 100 French techniques for cooking an egg - techniques, not recipes (such as putting a raw egg in a bowl and then putting that bowl in another bowl full of boiling water - without the water touching the egg).

This egg analogy has helped make things a lot clearer! Makes it clearer than just saying "there's more than one way to skin a cat" or "there's more than one way to tell a story".
As writers, we seek to go beyond simply telling a story the basic way - beginning, middle, end. We study literary techniques, styles, narrative tones, etc so we can tell stories in different ways - and tell different stories. There is nothing wrong in light stories (stories that have a light subject matter, that are uplifting, that are popular, that are safe). In fact, from a mass perspective, these types of stories are what the audience wants (as aside: consider the local film industry in terms of commercial films and more challenging films, indies included. On one hand, there are those who just want to produce what will be popular in terms of ticket sales so they make money by appeasing the masses. On the other hand, there are filmmakers who consciously attempt to tell different stories in different ways, often commercial failures, but sometimes commercial successes). But if we, as writers, do not attempt to grow in our craft and experiment or challenge ourselves, we'll end up with 'bland' stories, mostly of the same type, told in the same old ways. There would be no Gabriel Garcia Marquezes, Salman Rushies, Neil Gaimans or Kelly Links (each of whom, by way, also enjoy commerical success). We would not be looking for work by Borges or Salinger or Stross. My first point here is that we've got to grow, and that often means pushing ourselves to write beyond our comfort zones, or what is easy, or what is
While I agree to the truth that taste matters, I don't particularly subscribe to writing for the taste of the greatest number of people. In my case, I want to tell the types of stories I want to tell in the manner in which I want to tell them. If people don't like one, too bad for me - the comfort I take in that scenario is always twofold: 1) others will like it (and in a small way, vindicate my effort, through a letter of comment, word of mouth or review); and 2) that is just ONE story and I have others to tell, again, in different ways.

Part of my 'writerly' poetics is happily donning the mantle of a lifelong student of writing, always looking for ways to improve my craft. I'm only as good as my last published story, and I'm rarely truly happy or gung-ho about anything I've written. I delight in my creative tension, always questioning myself in terms of "does this work?" and "is it good enough to be published?". I advocate growth, even through failures or growing pains as I learn. The times I fuck up are as important to me as when I win an award or get international commendations or simply get published - because I have a terrible need to learn from experimentation. The act of trying is part of my psychological makeup - which is why I tend to push friends to write more, to be better, to compete for awards (in my personal case, to see if I am still relevant, if the type of writing I do can stand toe-to-toe with the usual realist winners, to see if I've still "got it").

I guess this is the difficulty I face since my comfort zone is to be a hermit and write for myself; even if the stuff I put out is not published, I'm okay with that. I have to learn about "audience", at least a bit more. But I'm not sure I can give up fully my preference for being "alone". I have to find a way to work through this, somehow.

In your case, I definitely prefer your later work as well as what you characterize as your darker writing - not necessarily because of subject matter, but because your techniques, your voice, is powerful. Cherry Clubbing POV and craftsmanship are great. The sensibilities and terseness of The Sparrows of Climaco Avenue are terrific (this may be my favorite story of yours, Kyu - it is elegant, sophisticated, finely observed and jewel-like in its tightness - napakalinis. I'd give Climaco an award if I were judge and it were an entry. It is thought-provoking, like your story with twacking in the garden. I lump in your "evolved" stories "Beats" because of the fine writing in some portions and the overall sensibility/feel of it - also quite sophisticated.
Don't get me wrong with what I have to say next, okay? If the positive feedback of readers is important to you, if you wish to please those readers, you are of course free to cater to them with your other types of stories. But take it from me - also a reader, and also a writer - your later stories are better. Find a way to balance your need to please with the need to grow - otherwise, you won't. You'll feel duty-bound to your bland audience who will want the same old thing.

No, don't worry, I'm not taking it wrong. It's not positive feedback I'm after, not even feedback per se. I'm secure enough in myself that I don't need or look for it, positive or negative (but I appreciate it when it comes, especially if I can learn from it). I understand that there are many who read and don't bother responding. It is simply my observations that the "bland" ones (I wish I could come up with a better adjective than that; it's not entirely appropriate) garner more responses than those that are not. Which is why I asked you about reader psychology/behavior, if that plays a part, and you answered me there very well when you mentioned "mass perspective" and "what the audience wants". I'm grateful for this, as it's helped in my education of "audience".

Most people like it easy. But I personally find that kind of writing boring. I have a finite time of life, and a slice of my lifespan I've chosen to devote to writing. I'd rather maximize my time and produce something I'm happy with, rather than concern myself with what will make the greatest number of people happy - because I am sure I have an audience, a small one, a minute one, perhaps even just one or two. That audience is willing to give my writing a chance, will read my strange stories, and hopefully, will want to write their own stories in their own way.

I'm still going to do my "light" stories, I suppose, every now and then, if ever the mood strikes again. They're for myself, I suppose, in that I want to affirm that there is something "good" in the world that I observe. And maybe it serves as a balance also to the "evil" that I also observe, and which comes out in my more sinister stuff, hehe, maybe it's a reflection in stories that the good is more boring than the bad, eh? Who was it who said "evil is just more fun"? Or, if I can use superheroes as an analogy, someone did say once that Batman, Superman, and Spiderman are interesting, but it's their roster of villains who are even more interesting.

Make peace with your creative tension, the push and pull between safe and not-safe. All this is just one stop in your 'writerly' journey - who knows what you'll be writing next year? Or the decades after? Write what moves you, and if written well, it will move someone, and perhaps more someones. But do not choose NOT to grow.

Yes, thank you. I do have to find a way to work through this, as well as to find a balance between my penchant to just be by myself, alone, and to get used to going out every now and then so I don't end up getting "cave-sickness". I have a bit of the hermit qualities of Salinger in me (hermit-qualities lang, ha? Not the talent), but not as much as he has. I'm grateful for what you've shared, seeing as you're further down the public road as a writer than I am. The problem with hiding as I've done is that you become insular, sort of like China when they locked themselves away from the world, or Russia when the iron curtain was still up. You still progress, you still learn, but you do so in a self-made vacuum; and really, opening up even a bit can do wonders in making me learn from others. Thanks for taking the time to share. I truly appreciate it.


Blogger axilog14 said...

Many thanks for posting this! I highly respect both you and Dean as agents for the cause of Pinoy genre fiction (and Pinoy literature in general), and dialogues like these are much appreciated by the country's clandestine legion of aspiring writers (yours truly included)

2:36 PM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

@axilog14: You're very welcome! I'm happy that this entry has helped you, axilog14! Keep on writing and reading! Thank you!

1:28 PM  

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