Truths and consequences
I was mortified. I wondered how he came to have that book in his book case. I wondered why he stuck it at that place, because my own bookshelves have an authorial order to them. I would never place Gabriel Garcia Marquez beside Jerry Seinfeld unless I wanted to humiliate both of them, and I don’t know about Neruda, but Sir Jimmy did not seem a bit offended at all that his monumental book was sitting beside something, well, far less monumental. Far, far less.
I wondered if he ever read my book. I wondered if it would be a good idea to ask. Or maybe I should pretend it wasn’t me who wrote it. Should I turn around and run away? Why did I even get that book published, anyway? What was I thinking?
So I gritted my teeth and asked him, in a very small voice, “Sir Jimmy, how come you have a copy of my first book?
“Which one?” he put down his glass of brandy and walked over to his book case.
“That one,” I pointed to it.
He opened his book case and took out the book. The space it had left looked puny, inconsequential.
“This one? Oh, you wrote this?” he turned the book over and over in his hands, smiling. I knew he had read it, and I knew that he probably gave up after the first two or three essays, perhaps even just after the first paragraph of the preface. I dared not even ask.
“It’s not very polished. I wrote it when I was ninteen,” I said, silently thanking every single one of Sir Jimmy's kindness genes.
“Oh, don’t worry. Almost all first books have a purpose.”
“I guess so,” I said, and looked on sadly as he put the book back between A Native Clearing and The Complete Poems of Pablo Neruda. It was just the sorriest place in a bookshelf to place Awakenings.
I thought I got over that by the time my second book, Little Freedoms (Giraffe Books, 2003) was released. The writing was less flighty, the essays were longer, and the author was less of a writing klutz. For a while, I basked content in that conviction. Perhaps it helped that I have not read the essays in Little Freedoms since it had been released.
Oh. My. God. I felt that same mortification, that same chill running up my spine, that same heat burning in my cheeks, and that same desire to be swallowed alive by a heaving, broken earth. I drove over to Intramuros in the middle of January to pick up my fifty free copies of the chapbook from offices of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, ran back to where my car was parked outside the main entrance of the Manila Cathedral, read the introduction by Sylvia Mendez Ventura, and, right there, inside my car, in front of the Manila Cathedral, I died.
The kind, compassionate Sylvia Mendez Ventura had the good manners to speak well of my essays in her introduction, but I get the feeling that she had to take a deep breath and rummage for a while in her treasure chest of kind words to pull it off. The last paragraph to her introduction says:
The virtue of an informal essay comes not so much from its subject as from its writer. It is the writer’s personality that shines forth in her writing style, reflecting her emotions, whims, moods, and turns of thought. Thus Maryanne Moll can say, in all honesty, “My essay is myself.”
Well, four years after I had written the darned thing, this much I know. My essay is NOT myself. At least those essays are not the me that I am now. Not anymore. I don’t even write essays for traditional publication anymore. Aside from this blog and from that one rare time when I was really fired up over some issue last year (see Soaring Ineptitude) I have practically stopped writing essays altogether.
Now it’s fiction I write. There’s less of me that’s revealed in fiction, and I find that more comfortable. Also, fiction moves with the times. There are always various ways of interpreting a short story, depending upon the generation and sensibility from which it is being read. The published essay is pretty much like a skin tattoo: It makes sense when you get it, because it’s vibrant and so you, but when you grow older it starts to look rather frumpy, pretentious, and so not you, and so you just either keep it under your clothes or spend 50,000 pesos to get it surgically grafted out of your system. The difference between the published essay and a tattoo, however, is that with a published essay, you can’t do that.
I would love to have commisserated with other Ubod Writers at the grand launch last 6 December 2005 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, basking in shared embarrassment, but I was in Naga with a bad case of arthritis. And then I realized perhaps it was just as well. The Ubod chapbook took three years to release. To have gone there would have been to stare at myself, from aeons ago, being taken seriously only now, and I don’t even like my ideas from four years ago. I remember Ian texting me as he was going over his camera-ready material for Ubod. “Ugh. How barriotic!” he said of his work. At that moment, I could not think of a word to top that. Now, I still could not. Oh, wait, maybe barok.
In life, we have old clothes, old shoes, old bags, old crushes, things that we were crazy about then but are horrified at the thought of now. (i.e. How could we even have thought that embudo jeans were fabulous?) But with writers, it doesn’t end there. We have early published work. That is what we get for publishing too young, too early, too soon. We have cast our vanity and naivete in stone, and we shall forever be judged through it. Oh, the horror! The sheer, copyrighted, ISBN-ed horror!
I flipped through the Giraffe Little Freedoms just a couple of days ago, when the mortification from reading the Ubod introduction had faded away to a faint, dying shame. Yes, my essays there WERE myself at that time. But now, who knows who I am? I have moved on from those two books, I suppose, clinging to my fiction the way mold clings to moist and decaying wood. I am moving away from my past, one book at a time. This time I am carefully choosing my truths, carefully choosing my consequences, so that in three years, ten years, twenty years, or sixty years, when I come face to face again with all my previous work, i can stare back at into the eyes of all the pasts I have left behind and say that they have all been worth the words, the paper, the launch, the wait.