Writing to Live, Living to Write

There was a time when I was seriously obsessed with the lives of writers: I read accounts of how they spent their time, I did a lot of research to find out who their influences were and I swore to see every documentary there is detailing their lives.

I wanted to know everything about them and all of that was just me being extra, because I wanted to get the secret formula of how to be a legit writer.

writers

By: Wendy McNaughton

And then I came across this:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

— Somerset Maugham

That, along with reading more books made me realize that really, you just have to do it.

But then there’s the idealistic + romantic side of me which yearns to have days like this, five out of seven: wake up and meditate, sip coffee while writing my morning pages, transition to “real writing” (whatever that means), walk + run + be outside, have a decent lunch, edit in the afternoon, see friends/be social in the evening.

But I’m not Marcel Proust, as much as I love him, because I did not grow up rich therefore I have to worry about feeding and supporting myself. Which is where Manjula Martin’s book comes in handy — Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living (Amazon | Indie Bound) — as I try to make sense of what it means to be a writer, beyond the writing part.

Scratch is a collection of essays and interviews edited by Martin, a different kind of a backstage pass on how writers “make it.” And when I say “make it,” I don’t just mean once they’ve been published, but how they manage their day-to-day existence. Like, how do they pay their bills? Do they go on vacations? Do they have enough food?

slide_347086_3672151_free

By James Gulliver Hancock

What I love about this book is that the writers take us further deeper — the struggle of physiologically, mentally, emotionally supporting themselves while bravely and painstakingly committing pen to paper. Continue reading

Advertisements

#SavetheNEA: A Campaign to Save the Arts

As the plane touched down in SFO from Manila on the eve of March 16th, not only did I step out of the plane with a heavy heart, I was also dumbfounded with recent news. Being away from the States gave me the false idea that for a second, I can get away from Trump. But there I was, waiting in line at the immigration kiosk, reading about the orange bloviator’s latest move: eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other agencies.

I was jetlagged, already homesick but most of all, I was angry.

NDT

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what all of this means. As Trump moves to present his federal budget, he has chosen to eliminate what constitutes 0.002% of the $1.1 trillion budget. While it may seem inconsequential, losing $300 million is a huge blow to folks, programs and projects which have been traditionally underfunded: artists, writers, magazines, libraries, local television stations, radio programs and other projects.

According to the American for the Arts Action Fund:

1) The NEA is the single largest national funder of nonprofit arts in America. NEA grants help leverage more than a 9 to 1 match in private charitable gifts and other state and local public funding.

2) The NEA also has an exemplary partnership with the states, with 40 percent of program funds distributed through state arts agencies.

3) With only a $148 million annual budget, the NEA investments in the arts helps contribute to a $730 billion economic arts and culture economic industry, including 4.2 percent of the annual GDP and supporting 4.8 million jobs that yields a $26 billion trade surplus for the country.

4) For more than 50 years, the NEA has expanded access to the arts for all Americans, awarding grants in your congressional district and throughout all 50 states and U.S. Territories.

5) NEA funding reaches small, rural towns through its “Our Town” grants and specifically helps our wounded soldiers and veterans with effective arts therapy.

And it’s not only the arts that’s losing funding but also a milieu of other agencies as he, unsurprisingly, increases the budget for defense. John Oliver takes a jab:

As a queer Filipino immigrant writer in the Bay Area, this hits close to home. Not only will opportunities be taken away at expanding the arts and uplifting the voices of marginalized communities, it also has far-reaching consequences across the globe. Case in point: my homeland, the Philippines.

Trump’s proposed increase in military spending comes at the heels of a recent allegation concerning US naval officers in the country:

On March 15, 2017, Admiral Loveless, four retired Navy captains and a retired Marine colonel were charged with corruption and other offenses [in the Philippines]. Among the charges includes accounts of “raging multi-day party, with a rotating carousel of prostitutes” and accepting bribes from Leonard Glenn “Fat Leonard” Francis in the form of gifts, luxury hotel stays and prostitutes. “Fat Leonard” is a Singapore-based defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to defrauding the Navy of tens of millions of dollars.

GABRIELA USA

So what can we do at this point? The most important thing is to 1) reach out to your local representatives, express your outrage/concern and urge them to fight against Trump’s budget and 2) spread the word by telling your friends/family/neighbor/crush/ex-lovers/others and blast it on your all your social media profiles.

After all, John Keating/Robert Williams (RIP) said it best:

c7c0mg-u4aenvdh

* * *

Read more:

14 Authors on the Life-Changing Impact of the NEA (Electric Literature)
Laura Callanan on Inequality and Art
Fighting to Give Everyone Access to Arts and Culture (KQED)
Mike Huckabee: A conservative plea for the National Endowment for the Arts (The Washington Post)

Creating as a Must

Einstein said it is intelligence having fun, Matisse said it requires courage. The word conjures up images of lone painters hurling pain and a thousand ideas in their studios, or of writers cranking away on their typewriters. It’s a catchphrase thrown in conference rooms when faced with an impossible task at hand, used to summon the right side of the brain for insight and imagination. From one end of the world to another, it has also been invoked for the purpose of survival.

Whether it is used for artistic, commercial or life-preservation pursuits, creativity appeals to what is most human about us — the need and the ability to create something out of nothing for a purpose outside of ourselves.

At the same time, it has also become elusive. It’s not that time wears out our ability to be creative; it is because as we get older, we somehow acquire more fear. Our experiences, specially the bad or painful ones, The thought of creativity also speaks to our youth, when we are most fearless and uninhibited. At a time when we are bound by “efficiency standards,” “service level agreements” and “productivity models,” its use almost requires a luxury of time we do not have. Ironically, its employment is what created those terms in the first place, all for the glory of profit.

I’m interested in creativity not for profit’s sake, but for the expansion of the mind, heart and spirit. The kind that propels us to create work that is meaningful, that resonates with our most natural instincts. The kind that sees people as kindred, not competition. And most of all, the kind that stretches our capacity to be kind, generous and loving.

Over the years, I’ve acquired books that have spurred me in the process of creating — titles that have not only nurtured one’s creativity, but have also aided in instilling mindfulness and spirituality as a reader and a writer.

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work, Elle Luna’s The Crossroads of Should and Must and Seth Godin’s What to Do When it’s Your Turn have all been eye-opening, generous in their lessons.

I picked up Kleon’s books at Green Apple Books in San Francisco during a time when I wasn’t consistently writing. I was always eager to find books and frankly, any advice on how I can bring myself to the page.

And surely, these books helped. A lot.

img_7894-1

img_7900-1

I also came upon Elle Luna’s book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion after reading a post on Brain Pickings, the creation of Maria Popova (her On Being interview with Krista Tippet is unmissable).

Luna’s book starts off with the same dilemmas most of us have when it comes to actualizing our most passionate pursuits. We are beset with innumerable shoulds from our parents, families, religion, institutions and other dictates of modern society. Figuring out our musts then becomes arduous in a sea of shoulds. 

With its playful illustrations, thoughtful prose and lines from beloved artists, the book invites the reader to look within themselves, making the process of investigating our musts a gentler process.


And then there’s Seth Godin’s book What to Do When it’s Your Turn (And it’s Always Your Turn) which arrived in my doorstep back in 2014 with a gift: an extra copy of the book.

I’ve long been a fan of Seth since I subscribed to his blog. His books Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? and The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? were influential guides as I sought to further my own creativity and push myself to create work that matters.

On days that I feel overwhelmed with my shoulds, Seth’s wisdom prods me to remember my musts. One of the most indispensable things I’ve learned from him is that we’re now past the industrial economy; we are now in a connection economy where more than ever, we have the most opportunities of creating work that truly resonates with people.


I was struck by this idea of connecting since then. In a lot of ways, I’ve taken Kleon, Luna and Seth’s advice to heart and created Libromance.

I had a previous blog for six years and created a total of 86 posts, where I published about 20 posts on some years and 5 on others. My blog lacked focus and consistency. Although it was a medium for my writing, it wasn’t until I started fine-tuning what I was most passionate about (reading) and infuse it with the best way I knew how to be creative (writing) that this blog was birthed (January 1, 2016).

It wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t. The act of creating at a time when we are bogged down by fear, our shoulds and other things in life makes the task of following our musts even more urgent.

Most often than not, creativity has been ssummoned by work that goes beyond ourselves — in the service of our loved ones, our communities, future generations.

So in the spirit of Seth, and everything and everyone worth creating for: Go make a ruckus. 

Sunday Spotlight: The Rituals & Routines of Creatives

I recently picked up Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work after seeing the cover at City Lights Bookstore, at San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, once the home of beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac. I’ve always been fascinated by the routines, rituals and creative practice of artists — from writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Pierre Bonnard.

When you are moved by a particular book or a painting, it’s hard not to wonder about the life of the writer or the painter, what induced its genesis, how it was created. It is a curiosity out of admiration and a tiny hope of, perhaps, being able to recreate the process with one’s own work.

3028428-inline-i-1-creative-routines

The book contains a glimpse of the lives of about 161 artists — writers, painters, thinkers, philosophers — in a few pages detailing their routines and at times quirky habits while doing their work. I am thankful for Currey’s work on this compendium as it enlightens and entertains, in a way that calms the nervous and anxious writer’s heart.

I am always most curious about writers and I’ve featured a few writers here on my blog and in others. Reading and writing about them has always been a joy. After coming back from the Philippines, I read Bob Ong for the first time after it was recommended by a close friend. His book Stainless Longganisa is part-memoir/part-writing manifesto, and it is filled with references only Filipinos would understand — truly unmissable.

I’ll never forget Ong’s words on not letting the space alotted for our words go to waste. There are things to be written, ideas to be shared and ultimately, worlds that unravel between the writer and the reader. And there’s nothing quite like that intimacy, all on paper.

And then there’s Marcel Proust, the French writer whom I’ve actually never read before. I read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and it was a detailed picture of the writer’s work and life, from the lavish parties he attended to the writing he did in bed. I have an illustrated copy of In Search of Lost Time that I’ve yet to open, and I think this will only nourish my understanding of his work.

I wrote about how reading the book can give birth to a different way of looking at the things around us, however grand or mundane. Proust was a sickly man, who was domestically helpless, who wrote with an adequate bedside lamp. He managed his day-to-day existence with hired help who fed and clothed him, as he wrote scrupulously.

There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his. (Marcel Proust)

3032874-inline-1a-daily

And then there’s Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a book I read a couple of years ago. I was still living in Oakland at that time and Dillard was with me every time I crossed the Bay Bridge underwater, in the shuttle on the winding, uphill streets of San Francisco. I remember being mesmerized, enchanted by Dillard, who wrote about birds flying under her chair and locking herself in a cabin, devoid of the world so she can write.

Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair. (Annie Dillard)

Her practice consisted of avoiding appealing workplaces, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark. The work of Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds me of this, in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The SympathizerDillard preferred to revel in her solitude, a feat in itself that sought to highlight the passage of time and how we spend our days.

Reading has always been, and will always be my first love. Writers also cannot stress this enough — that in order to write well, one must read a lot. Dillard mused on what constitutes a good life, what an appealing daily schedule looks like. It is her, who said after all, that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less, time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. (Annie Dillard)

I also just finished Stephen King’s On Writing: A Craft of the Memoir, as he documents his childhood and what has informed his writing throughout the years. He provides the reader an in-depth look on his experiences, life lessons and warns forthcoming writers of the perils of shortcuts and easy way outs; the book review will be out this Tuesday on Libromance.

At the core of Currey’s book and at the heart of Ong, Dillard and King’s routines is the act of putting pen on paper (or fingers on the Macbook) and writing away. Nothing is clearer and simpler than the act itself, no matter how many workshops one takes, or whatever fancy tools one uses (I got a trial version of Scrivener, a writing software, once to help me write a book only to discover that it made the whole process more daunting). The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it best:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

* * *

All photos & infographics from this post are lovingly made by the cool folks at Info We Trust.

L’intimité de la vie quotidienne, with Adam Gopnik and Pierre Bonnard

I visited the Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia exhibit over the weekend, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I have never heard of Bonnard nor seen any of his works before, but as of late anything French has been a keen interest. The second part of the exhibit, curated by Esther Bell features the artist’s intimisme, painted works which detail domestic interiors with an intimate subject matter. He depicted scenes at the breakfast table, women reading the newspaper awashed in morning light, tables laden with food. What Bonnard does is capture these moments tenderly, reminiscent of the way the writer Marcel Proust proposed a different way of looking in Alain de Botton’s How Marcel Proust Can Change Your Life.

img_6922

The Breakfast Table (ca. 1925, Oil on Canvas)

The effect of these painted works on me was heightened, with Adam Gopnik’s book Paris to the Moon fresh on my mind. I got a used copy at the SF Big Book Sale in April, after seeing Alain de Botton’s (again) praise on the cover. I picked up it in a hurry without reading what it was about, and the book proved to be an exercise in good judgment.

Paris to the Moon details Gopnik’s move to Paris with his wife Martha and his son Luke from New York in 1995. He talks briefly about his childhood, blithely recounting the cardboard Parisian policeman he once had, family vacations in Europe to meeting Martha, who loved Paris as much as he did. I had to heave several sighs of wistful longing. After Luke was born, the family made its way to across the Atlantic to an apartment on the Left Bank street, second floor.

The odd thing in making a big move is the knowledge that your life will be composed of hundreds of small things that you will arrive at only by trial and error, and that for all the strikes and seminars you attend, the real flavor of life will be determined, shaped by these things.

 

My fascination with Paris, and France in general, started with literature (as do other things in my life). It wasn’t too long ago when I regarded France with a bat of the hand, scrunching up the side of my face after rolling my eyes and mouthing “colonizer.” But James Baldwin changed all of that.

When I read one of his books, Giovanni’s Room, I was glued to the characters of David and Giovanni’s lives in the tiny room that was ‘theirs.’  I started reading more about Baldwin after that, wanting to understand why France was ideal for him. When you hail from a Third World Country, it is usually the American Dream that permeates your ancestral and personal ideal. In an interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin states: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. 

Nevertheless, France became a refuge for the writer, while I joined the nameless group of writers who think of France as a sort of literary mecca. While I have never been to the country, I think Gopnik summarizes what draws the Francophile in:

It is not an old or antiquated Paris that we love, but the persistent, modern material Paris, carrying on in a time of postmodern immateriality, when everything seems about to dissolve into pixels. We love Paris not out of “nostalgia” but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafes, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look.

 

img_6961

The Cafe “Au Petit Pucet,” Place Clichy in the Evening (1928, Oil on Canvas)

img_6960

La Place Clichy (1912, Oil on Canvas)

Continue reading

Life Lessons from Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull 

My path to reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. was through reading other books that quoted and referenced him, a process which I’ve come to love. This was how I read Joseph Campbell too as I’ve written in a post earlier. My fascination began with Steve Jobs, the late visionary leader of Apple; I read his biography last year by Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart to a Visionary Leader.

At a pivotal point in Steve’s career after being forced out of the board of Apple, he started working with Pixar Animation and met Ed Catmull and John Lasseter. It was at Pixar where he was first humanized, and it was because of Ed’s style of leadership.

“I liked him from the moment I met him,” Steve told me (Schlender) once about Ed. He found him an intellectual match. “Ed is a quiet guy, and you could mistake that quietness for weakness — but it’s not, it’s strength. Ed’s really thoughtful, and really, really smart. He’s used to hanging around really smart people, and when you’re around really smart people you tend to listen to them.

Steve listened to Catmull. Though he could often come across as a know-it-all, Steve was constantly trying to learn. Trim and professional, Ed was ten years older than Steve, making him as much of a mentor as a colleague.

Theirs was a quiet, sincere friendship, enabled in great part by Catmull’s maturity.

steve-jobs-ed-catmull-john-lasseter-pixar

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter

It was at this point that I wanted to know more about the President of Pixar. At the first turn of the page you can already sense Ed’s humanism: the dedication on the third page simply writes “For Steve.” Continue reading

Architectonic Feelings in Old San Juan 

Back in November 2015, a friend and I went on a brief trip to Puerto Rico. I had made plans to fly back to the Philippines a year before for three weeks, to attend a women’s conference and to spend time with friends and family. Around July, I discovered that the conference has been moved to an earlier date and I also needed to stay in the Bay as some pretty special folks were visiting.

I just finished Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness and my trip to Puerto Rico came into full view right away. After sleeping at the airport in Orlando, Florida to catch the earliest flight the next day, we rushed to our hotel to shower, change, acclimate to the city.

Our first stop (and the only one I was able to go to): Old San Juan.

In silent awe. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (November 2015)

Continue reading