Life and Lemons

I wanted a Barbie Doll

My last reflection paper for school, and most likely the last one I will ever be forced to write for a grade. It was a good exercise on hindsight, no matter how much I cringed doing these assignments. It put into order my eternal musings, and I think I will continue writing bits of these, even if only as Notes in my iPod. These things are highly personal, but somehow I kinda wish people can see them and make comments. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just hungry now xD

When I was a kid I wanted a Barbie doll. I was very clear about that to my mother. I think I got her trademark grunt as a reply, or maybe it was a biting lecture on why sexist toys will do no good whatsoever for a seven-year-old girl. One day a roving encyclopedia salesman passed by our street, and next thing I knew a delivery truck was pulling over our gate, then boxes of World Book volumes 1-22 were littering our small living room.

I would have settled for a Play-Doh, I thought grudgingly as I arranged the heavy books. These hardly look like Malibu Barbie or any of her friends. As I was sorting the pile, I discovered five thin volumes of fairy tales that arrived in place of out-of-stock science books. With no new dolls to play with or clay to model into inedible hamburgers, I huddled in a corner and read.

It may not have been that moment, but that is the farthest one back I can remember. Looking back, that could very well have been a well thought out plan by my mother—bury me in books with princesses and witches and pretty drawings, to distract me from my coveted doll and from real life playmates who were knocking at the gate. She preferred having all her children inside her house at all times, that mother hen. Her plan worked though. I did get distracted, and it stuck.

Soon I graduated from fairy tales to pocketbooks, from pocketbooks to chick-lit and now to young adult, which I find oddly more relatable than those stories about posh/wacky girls in their fabulous twenties. Somewhere in the middle of that trail of fiction—some dog-eared and periodically revisited and consumed, others with spines hardly cracked open—, I deemed myself able enough to write a few paragraphs of my own.

I’ve been trying to recall when exactly that decision was made, that significant moment between me and my pen. It was definitely not in penmanship class. There was one English class though that stands out, one teacher in elementary that stuck with me. He was giving me consistently high marks for my essays, but he returned one persuasive essay with a note that read like a sermon: “you’ve done better than this.” I was hurt, embarrassed, and inspired. The 11-year-old me at the time though was just pissed. But I worked with a vengeance to prove that teacher wrong, and I maybe am still doing that now.

So I have found a hobby. That’s how I thought of it. Passion is a word indecipherable to a child, even to a confused adult. I only knew that English is a subject I liked even if the teacher is a Hitler. I liked doing my essays, though I would complain about them with my friends just to look cool and normal. As I read novels I would think—nose wrinkled and upturned—I can so write like this too. I swooned over Edward and Bella, editing as I read, thinking that if I had written Twilight I wouldn’t have gone on about the vampire’s perfection for three long pages, back to back.

I was only inwardly arrogant, of course. My pride was easy to hold in since I hardly talk; people hardly notice. But they have noticed my ‘hobby’ easily, and soon they were reaping a few benefits from it. My hobby résuméis long and rich in variety. I have edited term papers, helped write a thesis (and secretly enjoyed writing mine), contributed countless feature articles and even embarrassing poetry (they read as if written by a drunken person). I’ve done yearbook write-ups for three batch-mates and a friend from another school. I made them look good and yearbook-quality interesting. I knew I was not an expert and little if any of these will count as valid experience in the writer’s field. But I was proud of my work and my heart will do happy jumping jacks whenever I wowed my ‘clients.’ I was happy to do all these for them for free, with hardly any begging required from their end. They didn’t even need to bribe me with dirty ice cream or fish balls.

It seems like a perfect fit, writing and I. Writers usually live inside their heads, can have eccentric quirks, and prefer the solace of their notebooks (now laptops and/or iPads) over the noise of a crowd. It is impossible to write without quiet after all. I can check off these characteristics easily, even if that means admitting to my few weird tendencies (i.e. I itch if I am within range of bad grammar, and I often correct my friends as they speak. But I am terribly susceptible to typos). I think of Emma Thompson’s character in the film Stranger Than Fiction, living as a hermit in a stark white apartment with only a typewriter for company, hair disheveled and unwashed for days, like her crumpled clothes. I think, see that’s how a good writer looks like. She fits the personality perfectly. Maybe the higher the introversion quotient, the better the writer, but still that begs the chicken-and-egg question.

Was Thompson’s character raised as a quiet child, growing up to find herself drawn to the solitary craft? Or did she find that she liked to write and adjusted herself accordingly? In my case, I know which came first. The encyclopedia versus Barbie episode was followed by many others. For one, in elementary I wanted to go to a Milo sports camp. I even dared to think of joining the singing/acting workshops at school, though I was devoid of the relevant talents. For a number of reasons, may it be financial viability or other plans for the summer, I was not allowed nor encouraged to join. Then there were the battles between parents and child about permission to go out or go to parties. Even asking to drop by McDonald’s for a sundae cone after school can be as difficult as getting Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon to sign his Hogsmeade permission slip. I am embarrassed to admit that the same conflicts ensue now. Though I am in my mid-twenties, my mother still gets a bit enraged when I get home late from a Starbucks date with friends. She once told me, “kape lang pala gusto mo, ang daming kape dito sa bahay!” Her incomprehension of the social rite was amusing to watch.

She just has a different set of values, I tell myself whenever I bite my tongue from talking back at her, or whenever I blame her for raising me a shy, clumsy, physically-uncoordinated child. I think being socially wary herself, it was instinctual for my mother to raise her children the same way. Also my father was not one of the most outgoing or outspoken people in the world, so that didn’t help either. So for me, it was the personality first. Forced in the house for a huge fraction of the day, with the TV off and banned from Shaider and Bioman, I only had my pocketbooks as friends, and then my notebooks and pen. Thus writing molded itself to me in a natural course. I don’t think my parents planned this particularly; my mother just wanted her children to stay in the house so as to minimize all possible exposure to the evils of the outside world, like drugs and alcohol and party people. Extreme though her methods may be (they seem extreme to me), it worked. I am a good kid (most of the time), and I was, in essence, raised into this hobby/passion.

So now I can safely say that I can write all day and will only complain of carpal tunnel (apart from the inevitable writer’s block). Writing has been a terrific outlet on a daily basis, even more so in the dips and peaks in my life. It’s funny that when I am annoyed or strung up or otherwise feeling heightened, my head starts spewing out thoughts in English, when I usually get tongue-tied when I speak the language. These thoughts come out tangled and require some effort to organize, but my diaries read like emotional essays nonetheless.

When I dropped the habit of diary-keeping (there was the dilemma to burn them all or risk them being discovered, the horror. And I never liked to burn stuff), I turned once again to fiction. At the initial wave of my weariness at work, I started working on a novel, the first one since my pre-teen attempts from years back. It was inspired by this Japanese drama I was watching with a favorite friend, and I was pushed to start it by a mix of wanting to do something other than crash to bed after a long day, and my irritation that the lead girl character in the drama did not end up with the boy character that I liked. I started it in 2007, and sometime 2009 it was finished and after grueling deliberation, I decided on a title. These days I return to it, obsessive-compulsively editing it, trying to chop down chapters with a critical eye, since I promised myself I would write (better) than Stephenie Meyer. Sometime in 2009 too, I started another one. They said the best way to get over somebody was to put them in literature, so in that breakup year I tried that. It was liberating and therapeutic, but I have not finished that story yet nor am I actively working on it. I’d like to think that is more because I preferred to perfect the first one first and not because the second one did not meet its initial purpose for being. Finishing this second novel is also high up in my to-do list after all.

And I have decided. I am a writer. Writing is my passion. I want to write for a living. I have known this fact for a while, but I am only putting it into words lined up for action now. Then my mind is rushed by my worries, as it usually is when I make big decisions as this. I severely lack training, even more so time to squeeze this into this juggling act that is my life. And of course, the financial, practical consequences have significant weights too. Don’t they say that artists always starve? It might be an indefinite wait, that period until publication and the actual sale, if ever these events actually take place. But still I sent out those queries through email. When I got three reject replies back, I thought, “there, I am finally growing my writer balls and doing it,” while swallowing my stabbed pride.

So I continue with my novel, slicing up sentences and shifting dialogues, trying to find friends who would give time and discretion to comment the work with a critical eye. I cringe whenever I do this; whenever I share my work it’s like sharing a piece of my heart, naked and open for people to poke on. With this going on, I look through my bucket list and sort it out. I sent an entry to Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Youngblood section but it has been two Saturdays already, so I didn’t seem to have made the cut. I am going to send one article again, and more until I get published there before I am not young enough anymore to be considered Youngblood material. I also discovered these magazine websites that publish from contributors. I’m trying my luck there too, if only for the sight of my name in that glorious byline. The byline is the best one-liner ever.

This is what the universe will conspire with to help me achieve. I always say whenever me, myself and I have our in-head discussions, that the only thing I am sure of about myself is that I am tall, and that  I can write. People who know better will tell that I am raw, or that I sin with bad grammar and composition myself, but these are things I am willing to learn and develop, for now from mere experience and practice. As it is, it would have made a world of difference if mother had gotten me a Barbie doll after all. For one, I probably would be wearing a whole lot more pink. I wonder what would have happened too if those science trivia books were not out of stock. But I guess we will never know, and I am happy with the passion that I have grown into today.

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