Fragments from/on living a writing life

Nonfiction by | November 4, 2012

Lina Sagaral Reyes was the keynote speaker and special guest panelist to the recently concluded Davao Writers Workshop 2012 held at Lispher Inn last October 15 to 19. The address below was her lecture at the opening of the workshop.

Being with you, a youthful crop of writers grown on the rich soil of Mindanao cultures, I also come home to the Writers Workshop, as a bond of people claiming and reclaiming the right to write.

I come home to the community ritual of writers: for the fellows, a rite of passage; for the panelists, the rite of relaying wisdom (as well as folly?) to the next generation.

It has been a long journey home. This is my first ever workshop in 19 years. The last workshop I attended was held in UP-Baguio in May 1993. On my way home to the island of Bohol via Manila, I hitched a ride on the fellows’ bus to Manila. My seatmate on that transitional ride home was Ricky de Ungria.

But I did not have an inkling that in eight months, I would find myself in the shores of Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte.

Nineteen years later, as early as February this year, it is the same Ricky de Ungria, now like me also a migrant worker on Mindanao, who would ask me to come and join this workshop.

We gather here on the ides of an October that shall burn in the memories of a larger (an)Other Mindanao as a day when one of the long, wearying Wars on this island begins to end.

For in a few hours, at around 1:30 p.m., at the imperial city of Manila, in the halls of the basilica of Philippine politics called the Malacanang, the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), are set to sign an agreement.

I particularly like the way a local radio commentator in Cagayan de Oro called it in the Binisaya: “Kasabutan nga magmatuod sa Gambalay sa Makighiuli-ay og Buot tali sa kagamhanang republika ug sa MILF.”

How does this community of writers as culture bearers – fleeting, temporary, ephemeral that we are — how do we connect to/with the Mindanawons out there, on a trip to the halls of political power, claiming the spaces associated with popular resistance and empowerment in Manila — Mendiola, Plaza Miranda, EDSA?

And come to think of it, as we open in conjunction with a peacebuilding initiative, we will be closing on Friday, with warmongering in our wake. The other, estranged, hurting Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) will gather in Davao City on Saturday, the 21st.

Which of the texts that we will read in the coming hours and days will add some weft or warp to the fabric of Bangsamoro consciousness, or add at least to our understanding or confusion on the Bangsamoro? Who will try, other than themselves and the journalists, to critique or interrogate the concerns of the Bangsamoro on the literary front? Have workshops like this one we are conducting already become inclusive of such aspirations? Who among us will embed and embody into the textures of their writings this historic moment?

This fugitive by the fringes of the literary regions will leave the nitty-gritty of the writing process and the specific techniques and practices of writing better and writing well, to the professors, for in that department, I am like you, still always in search of learning lessons. Instead I would like to share some fragments on the writing life. Four fragments as homage to Heraclitus and four fragments to honor the four workshops sponsored by the DWG.

Fragment 1: Writing by the numbers

It is up to you as the writer to choose whether to go slow or hurry up.

You can allow yourself to be consumed by the passion of storytelling. Or you can be joyful or uncomfortable even in the absence of your own texts.

The American poet Emily Dickenson, single and solitary pastor, wrote more than 1,800 poems in the course of her short and solitary life of 56.

The professor, mother and wife Ma. Luisa Igloria, barely 50, has published at least eight books of poetry, and for almost three years now writes a single poem each day (the last time I checked the blog,, she has written 681 poems).

The feminist, anti-war and human rights activist Robin Morgan publishes a book of poems every year for the past 15 years or so.

Or will you be like us, commoner mortals, who write the occasional poem when the lightning of inspiration or desire strikes or when the black tar of anger oozes a river? Or the Sendong of grief floods your inner terrains?

Consider that there are other things that might catch your attention. Other far more important things than this itch, this craving to thread words together. Building a family, a church, supporting the nobler cause of charity or resistance. You can get pre-occupied with an occupation, otherwise called a job.

Or a hobby. I, for one, would not mind placing the ballpen and paper aside and taking up the crafts of embroidery and quilting, and gardening as these for me are equally important rituals of creation.

Fragment 2: The writer is reader. The writer as reader.

The writer is the reader. If you want to write, read. You will find yourself drawn to books or e-books, or libraries or websites and blogs of your special interests. Follow that particular bliss. Immerse yourself in the worlds of other writers. There, you will find friends and companions.

Browsing through the web and the second-hand bookstores, I have discovered new friends: Kathleen Jamie, author of Findings and Among Muslims and Ruth Padel who wrote, Tiger in Red Weather.

These two British poets are like me also engaged in creative non-fiction or literary journalism. Kathleen is a travel writer and Ruth does investigative environmental reportage and has written the book, “Tigers in Red Weather”, a book originally conceived to run away from a heartbreak but evolved to become a book on the wild tigers and the people and organizations involved in their conservation.

Before them, when I was a fiercely enamoured by street activism, Naomi Shihab Nye, Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich enamoured me, too.

Natalie Angiers, Jamaica Kincaid, Diane Ackerman — reporters who hitch a ride on the wagon of creative non-fiction, and also write poetry and prose — provides me the inspiration on writing literary journalism, on serious issues on health, the environmental issues and the marine sciences.

And recently, I have found (figurative) nutriment in cookbooks. I, who do not cook. And I seem to find novels that revolve around food and cooking. These include popular novels found in secondhand bookstores, like Carol Field’s Mango and Quince, The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and The Book of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. And I look forward to finally reading the novel, The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, which promises to approach food and cooking and sibling relationships with equal measure.

Fragment 3: the P-word

The talk of writing models, icons and idols bring us to the P-word. All over our Facebook newsfeed in the past few weeks is the long-running account, the pummeling and brickbats against Sen. Tito Sotto, a pro-life advocate, who read a speech allrgedly plagiarized by his staff. Before him, over in the international arena, the journalists Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer suffered the extreme heat of scrutiny.

Like the ducks and monkeys in our freshman psychology lessons, we are expected to learn by imprinting, by imitating. But as creators, we are expected to find novel ways of telling a story. We are told even if there are just so-and-so master plots but we are compelled to express an old narrative in a fresh, unique, individual way. We say, we must cultivate a voice of our own. It will take time to learn this. Although, for some really talented creatures, in no time at all.

Even in this age, cut-and-paste texts are a convenience we must live without.

For one of the least flexible rules of this trade is to be original. You are allowed to share the same dream, pursue the same themes, tell the same story but you must claim it as your own, say it in your own words, in your own voice. Only then can it become different stuff.

Otherwise, you must suffer the consequences of literary justice. The half-life of your infamy is epic and may last at least a millennium. And in the world of your own disturbed imagination, you are forever a fugitive at the fringes of the literary landscape.

Fragment Four: Find a way home

The writer lives the precarious and solitary life. But even then take time to come home. Seek connections to traditions as a writers workshop, or if you cannot claim a home as inheritance, then establish one.

The internet has trivialized the concept and context of “Home” as a virtual reality. Just a click and you get there, to a button marked, “home” as to anywhere else in the worldwide web. But this is not the home that I am meaning to let you stay and linger in for a while.

For a writer, home is where you develop context for a life, and later for the texts.

Even if you are always on the road, or has become what the Chilean poet and performance and installation artist Cecile Vicuna calls precarista (homeless), follow the Japanese Matsuo Basho’s state of mind when he wrote this haiku: “Every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.” Make the earth your own wide home and let the gypsy in you strive to feel at home everywhere, anywhere.

May this space, this room be our commongrounds, where we will be at home and welcome everyone to feel home in the next few days.

As the poet Garret Hongo has written in Volcano, his memoirs of Hawaii, as he approached his mother island, his island home: “I wept and felt like falling to my knees in daedal mimicry of my soul’s Icarus…. What radiates as knowledge from that time is that there is beauty in belonging to this earth and to its past, even one locked in mystery and prohibition, unstoried, that exceeds all the passion you can claim for it… Every singer of every mountain of magnificence in every land knows it. I wish you knowing. I wish you a land.”

Allow me to repeat his words: “I wish you knowing. I wish you a land.” I say this not only as a longing but also as a supplication to the gods, as a prayer.

Amen and thank you.

Lina Sagaral Reyes is a cultural worker, journalist, and poet. She won the Palanca Award in Poetry 1987 for “(Instead of a Will These) For All the Loved Ones” and in 1990 for “Istorya.” See more of her bio at

3 thoughts on “Fragments from/on living a writing life”

  1. Hello Lina…. kmusta na, long time no hear… since our Sun Star Cagayan de Oro days in the late 90s….Miss our good old times in the newspaper, though no fun sa atong gagmay nga mga sweldo….hehehehe…. I am now based here in Washington DC (also Virginia and Maryland too), and occasionally commute to New York City on some events. Am happy to hear of your continued support and devotion to poetry, culture, and journalism….Saludo jud ko nimo, forever and ever….Bye and best regards…. LLOYD

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