The Literary Career
February 3, 2012 1 Comment
Jonathan Lethem wrote, “I was what I would be if I wasn’t a writer.” He had been a bookstore clerk before attaining literary fame. This idea made me stop and think about my own career trajectory and whether I wound up where I should be, and what I would or could have been.
After all, good friend Ken Ishikawa once told me, “You know Carl, you don’t really spend too much time in any one job.” This I thought, was being adventurous, trying out new paths, expanding one’s horizons and capabilities, and a way to stay excited about work, by keeping it varied and always new. Apparently it could also be misread as lazy, easily bored, and unable to hold down a job.
Of course, the concept of what one would be if not a writer has to be contextualized for our culture. Save for the privileged few born into families of immense means, all writers work at some job or other apart from writing. It’s just not economically viable to live off of one’s royalties when those royalties, book sales, and print-runs in general, are all of a limited number. It’s economics of scale, and in the very small Philippine book market the literary writer serving a primarily Filipino readership (and that readership very limited too, because even though a lot of Filipinos read, not a lot of Filipinos bother to buy or read Filipino books) has to accept that there just isn’t enough money floating around in the industry to sustain his or her literary ambitions.
Everyone works at some other job (that other job being the real, paying one). Often it’s in the academe, teaching or doing administrative work, or a mix of both. There are your writers in the newspapers and magazines, earning a steady living off one kind of writing to sustain another. There are writers in media like TV, movies, or radio, usually working behind the scenes as producers and script writers. We’ve got a lot of writers working in advertising and marketing, writing copy and handling creatives. Some become lawyers or public servants. Others handle businesses. Or a varied mixture of these. It’s hard to think of a profession that doesn’t have its writers, whether those writers pursued that, or whether they were already professionals and then decided to write. But writers are all over the place.
The first work that I did regularly and was paid for, was as a librarian when I was in junior high. The library was a few blocks from my house, and a block away from my school. After school I’d head over there and put in a few hours, arranging books, making sure papers were filed properly, watching to make sure people didn’t try to sneak books out (no one ever did), helping people find and check out books, and on occasion making book recommendations. I always appreciated the recommendations I got from librarians when I was a kid, and so I wanted to help people in the same way. Sometimes I give this unsolicited help to people in book stores. The money I earned from it went to comic books, basketball cards, ice cream shakes at Johnny Rockets’ (the authentic stuff, thick milk shakes with extra scoops of ice cream on the side), corndogs, and movie tickets.
I wasn’t really aware of many career opportunities at the time. I thought maybe I’d like to make movies, since I loved movies so much. I also entertained the possibilities of becoming an astrophysicist (because Space is cool), or a paleontologist (because dinosaurs are cool), or an archeologist (because Indiana Jones is cool). Who knew that jobs existed like social media guru, or multimedia specialist, or web professional, or Creative Writing professor? No one made movies about those jobs. And my parents had at an early age pounded it into my head that I would become a lawyer, restoring family honor and re-establishing the family name with my accomplishments. Or something. It was all rather vague, but I was supposed to top my classes, get a scholarship, go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton, and then law school.
Well, that didn’t happen.
My family moved back to the Philippines and then fell on hard times. I was informed that if I did not get a scholarship or get into UP, then I’d just stop school. While my top three dream jobs at the time were: 1) rock star; 2) Navy Seal; and 3) rock journalist, and I had obediently filled up my college application forms with “political science” which would lead to law school supposedly, I was suddenly faced with a very different future. The OSY, or Out-of-School-Youth in our neighborhood had some career options: carwash boy, water delivery boy, construction, and if you were lucky, ask your parents for money ‘til you could get back in school.
I luckily got into UP. That was something, and I’m not shy about telling people what a lifesaver passing the UPCAT was. I got lucky. And I’ve grown exceedingly to believe that more people should be thrown this lifesaver too, more people in need, people who need a break, need a chance.
I got some lucky breaks. Found work as a journalist as an undergrad. This after I was stiffed for my first writing job. It was a college paper and I had written and submitted an essay that they printed. As a freshman I was ecstatic to be in the paper, to be recognized like that. And then I found out there was money for it. What more could you ask for right? Then I showed up to the office, asked for my check, and was told that someone else had already claimed the check. What? I didn’t claim it. Someone did, they said. And that was that. Afterwards, I started getting small checks for work in magazines and newspapers, and since then I’ve been contributing to some publication or other. (As a side note, that was only the first of many times that I would be stiffed of my writing honorarium.)
The money I made helped throughout college. I had to think about money and rackets and making ends meet. But as graduation loomed, I had to start thinking about what I would do with my life.
What’s the easiest thing? Go to a job fair. That’s what I did. Handed out my resumes to various booths. And I didn’t get any call backs.
Three months passed and with graduation just two weeks away, I had nothing. I feared becoming an unemployable college graduate. I started eyeing a knife and thinking about what it would feel like cutting my skin. I hadn’t done that stupid stuff since high school, and yet here the thought was, suddenly appealing. I sent a distress call to my friends, Ken and Cos, who had to hear me grumble through, “I’m a piece of shit. I can’t find a job. I should just kill myself,” before I hung up and then collapsed into a fetal, obese ball in my bed. They took me to the arcade and after a few hours of shooting zombies I felt better about myself and my plight in the world.
Not long after, I’d get invited by my friend Daryll Delgado to work with her on a project. This would lead to a series of projects in NGO/Development work that, along with my freelancing gigs, would sustain me for a number of years.
It was during this period that I would get my first taste of the perks of being a journalist, being sent to events, press junkets, and at its height a trip to Singapore where I got my own suite in a five-star hotel, where I had two bathtubs and two king-sized beds to myself. I wiped out the hotel mini-bar, fell asleep in the bathtub from drunkenness while listening to The Verve, and wrote a poem where I fantasized courting Celine Lopez, who I had mere hours before, been partying with. They won’t remember me, as I’m sure there are many journalists, many junkets, and to them this was just another one of those. But Celine and Tim Yap took me out for a night on the town in Singapore, and I would find myself dancing with her while they racked up massive bills ordering champagne and Jack and Cokes for me.
In my time as a freelance writer I interviewed so many people and wrote so many articles. I was recently going through my outbox that had some of the essays still there and I can’t even remember writing some of those articles. I do remember interviewing Mishka Adams, who I, for the brief moments that I was in her presence, fell in love with. I committed myself to not having a girlfriend until I could find one that was like her. I didn’t have a girlfriend for a long time, and I would like to flatter my ex-girlfriends since meeting her by saying that I did, indeed find them as smart and charming and beautiful as Ms. Adams.
I also interviewed two of my favorite authors. Well sort of interviewed. When I met Neil Gaiman, I had this list of questions that was running through my head, all of these things that I wanted to say and ask of a literary god. I held my hand out to him and he took it, pulled me close to him, and wrapped both his arms around me. I melted into his arms and when he let go and we sat down for our interview, I sputtered and blabbered and managed a few questions before settling into a kind of heady repose. David Sedaris too gave me a hug, and we chatted for much longer than the time that I was supposed to get to talk to him; I like to think that we hit it off. His dedication to me: “I wish you were my English teacher.” I also got to meet M2M, the teen singing duo (when they were a little past their teens) but as is often the case when faced with beautiful women, I failed to say anything sensible.
One morning I was online, and then my friend Gabby Lee popped up on YM and asked me if I would like to teach. I had applied to teach at the UP English Department before, but I was rejected for lack of MA units and other reasons undisclosed to me. I thought teaching wasn’t for me. But I took up the offer, just to try it out. I realized that I loved teaching, loved the experience of discovering literature and helping kids find joy in reading. I also realized that I hate teaching grammar. But hey, that’s part of the package. Part of the package too was dealing with terrible parents who were more than ready to blame their kids’ shortcomings on teachers, and terrible administrators who think they know what they are doing when they haven’t the foggiest. I learned that I either had to shut up and bear with the system, pay my dues and kiss ass and wait my turn if I wanted to make suggestions to make things better. So despite my love for the students and my belief that high school is the best and most crucial time to expose a person to good literature (it’s the age when they can be most affected by it, and hit them here and they will read for the rest of their lives; earlier and they aren’t ready for it, later and they might already be too set in their ways to open up to books), I moved up to college level teaching.
After a hit-and-miss year in UP, I got asked to run a start-up online design company. Online design solutions and that racket. The whole thing was a fiery failure, succumbing to the three things that can cause a business to fail: 1) underfunding, 2) mismanagement, though I was running day-to-day operations properly and coming up with output, the board above me was bickering and making bad decisions; and 3) not being able to deal with a time of economic crisis. Still, I learned valuable management lessons there, and it was there that I began my self-education about business and marketing. This would help later when I decided to publish Kobayashi Maru of Love as an indie, and then when I would take up positions in the publishing industry.
The failure of the company coincided with the big break-up that led to the writing of KMoL, and led to a short period of hibernation. I hid in my room for a long while. Then I was culled out by the need for money, and I was lucky enough to be offered work as a researcher by one of my literary idols and mentors.
This period led into my being offered an editor position at The Philippine Online Chronicles. With how that turned out, I cringed and gnashed my teeth as I typed the site’s name. Yet that opportunity, as editor of Metakritiko, would lead to an outpouring of great writing from a lot of great writers. I take pride in the fact that I was able to collect so much amazing writing from so many writers. Ah but that venture too suffered from management issues and I soon found myself walking away from it, despite the great satisfaction I received from putting out those remarkable essays.
Prof. Hidalgo then asked me to become the Business Manager of the UST Publishing House. She was rebooting the USTPH, and I welcomed the opportunity to work on something that suddenly needed to be new. The first thing I did: I started moving the furniture around. I believe in the importance of space, and how work space helps to define the kind of work. I believe that publishing houses should not be treated as factories or standard offices. They should be treated as design studios, the artists and editors and everyone else endowed with a sense that they are not just producing a product, but they are creating art and beautiful design. I wanted the space to convey that. After getting rid of so much unnecessary furniture, getting rid of disgusting wires and replacing them with wifi, and cleaning up all the clutter and detritus of the usual office, I had created an office space that conveyed a sense of largeness, an opportunity to expand one’s mind, to walk freely and let the space inspire.
Unfortunately, the priests had other plans for the space that I had just cleared up, just as they had other plans for me. I found myself soon jobless. This was a crushing blow, as despite all of the frustrations that come with any kind of job, I loved working for the USTPH. I loved my colleagues, people who I believe are among the best I’ve ever worked with. I loved the sense of doing something important and I loved the support that I received from Prof. Hidalgo when I had a crazy idea that I wanted to try out. I thought that I had found what it was I was really meant to be doing, found what I was good at, and I did a good job. And still, I found myself unemployed, sitting in front of the Playstation, not needing to wear pants.
It caused much doubt. If I found something that I was good at, and I couldn’t hold the job down, how was I to do anything? This was a terribly difficult question to face down as I neared my thirtieth birthday.
I lucked out and found myself in the UP Press, as well as back teaching in UP Diliman, which is where I am now. I wonder what kind of career, what kinds of things I might have done, if I had not been trying to be a writer.
All of these decisions, every single job that I took, was chosen because I thought that they would help me to write better, or give me material to be a better writer. Working in design, at the publishing house, and the press, those jobs were taken because I wanted to be a part of the mainstream publishing industry. Adam and I had been around slinging rocks at the big boys for years. I figured it was time to infiltrated the industry, try and push it forward, to force innovation and change from the inside. But still, these had to do with writing, literature, the literary life.
What else could I have been? Once I applied to be a Corporate Communications guy at Meralco, at the urging of my aunt who worked there. The P50,000 paycheck was not too shabby, and I had the credentials for it. I was interviewed and aced the interview. All I had to do was pass the exam and I was in. I showed up and took the exam, which surprisingly had an overwhelming number of math questions. I was called and told that I had missed passing the exam by one item. I was disappointed and asked if there was anything else I could do to make up for it, since I really wanted the Comms job. The person was surprised and said, Comms? You took the exam for engineers. We’ll have to reschedule if you want to take the exam for comms.
Guess that job wasn’t meant for me. I’ve also tried other jobs, tried to do the whole corporate thing. But some way or another, interviews don’t pan out, call backs don’t happen. I hate to think that this thing, where I am right now, that it is as inevitable as the ending of a short story is supposed to be. But it does seem that I’ve constructed and executed a life where I am left with very few options than to succeed in writing and teaching.
If you’d have asked the young me what he was going to be when he grew up, he would not have been able to name any of the jobs that I’ve worked in, or continue to work in. He’d have asked you, when you told him Professor, if that meant that I got to wear a Fedora and use a whip, or if I had telepathic powers. Still, I’d like to think that kid would still be proud of his future self, writing sci-fi (Space and dinosaurs!) and being a professor (like Indiana Jones!). I’ve been a lot of things, and there are many other things I would still like to try out in the future, but these I believe will be inextricably linked to writing.
What is the one thing that I would love though? I would love to just write. To not have to do other things and just be able to write what I want to. A kid can dream.