Creativity and the Art of a Useful Life

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Amee, a fellow blog writer, commented on a previous post about how Pinoy parents aren’t keen to encourage their tender offspring to pursue artistic vocations. It got me to thinking as to why that’s so, especially when you consider that the Philippines as an independent republic was formed partly on the basis of the writings of one man, Jose Rizal. Rizal was a writer, scholar, linguist, doctor, artist, philosopher, architect, farmer, musician…the list of his accomplishments is astounding in its depth and breadth. He’s best known, however, as the writer of two classic works of literature, El Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere, both of which helped inspire the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish Empire.

With a national hero of such literary pedigree, what’s with the low status Pinoy parents bestow upon creative careers?

I personally know of no Filipino families whose elders actually encourage their children to pursue artistic or literary passions. The tragedy is that I know of many Pinoys and Pinays who have tremendous creative talent and yet are stuck in professional jobs with high salaries and little personal satisfaction. Not that I think that doctors, lawyers, accountants, nurses, and engineers aren’t necessary or even fascinating professions, but when their practitioners are simply in the field because of parental pressure to “make something of themselves,” I do strongly believe that humankind has lost more than its actually gained from their turning their backs on their dreams.

And I realize that this phenomenon isn’t restricted to Filipino families, either. I don’t know too many others whose parents were all that crazy about them chasing after dreams of becoming actors, poets, basketweavers, kazoo players, or ballet dancers. The legacy of our ancestors consists not only of technological, pharmaceutical, medical, and scientific advances, but also of artistic and literary classics, reaching all the way back to Chaucer, the Bible, the Greek and Roman philosophers, playwrights and satirists. Revolutions have been launched not only by technology but also by the pen and the brush. Every city needs its engineers and doctors as well as its writers and painters. I recall one story where someone (an artist?) said that creating art is just as important as saving lives, because without the former, what are we saving lives for?

Amen to that.

On a related note, I had a conversation with a brilliant artist friend of mine the other evening. She said that all art is autobiographical. Now, that’s not exactly an original or earth-shattering statement, but it was the first time I really thought about what it meant. If writing truly is autobiographical, does that mean that every story I write — not including the pedestrian articles I write for consumer magazines — I’ve injected a chunk of my history, if not my psyche? Frightening thought. In order to create really good, meaningful art that will change lives (not just your own), is it necessary to dig deep within oneself and open doors that one has heretofore chosen to leave closed, if not ignore altogether?

If one only chooses to write from the surface of one’s psyche, does that make the work shallow? Does a writer have to be left quivering at the end of a book or particularly feverish writing section, overcome by disturbance she’s created by venturing into the shadowy corners of her heart and soul? I’ve heard writers say that the best writing comes after one has peered into the void, which I assume to mean the darkest parts of themselves. Unfortunately, the problem I’ve always had with that description is that, for most people, I assume there isn’t an actual void there, but more of a swirling cauldron of black thoughts, painful experiences and mind-bending emotions that can literally make one ill just by thinking about them. It would be great if it really is just a void — a black emptiness — but we’re all stuck with enough baggage to give O’Hare International a run for its money. And who wants to stick their hand into that muck?

No wonder a lot of people can’t or won’t write. It’s too bloody scary. You pay thousands of dollars in therapy fees over several years, only to have to vomit it all out again onto your computer screen. (And yeah, I chose the word vomit deliberately. Conveys just the right emotion to describe the feeling of revealing one’s secrets to oneself, not to mention a critical, paying readership.

It’ll be interesting to see how much of my novel will be autobiographical. Obviously, it’s not in the narrowest sense: I’m not a Japanese-American doctor, nor do I live in Singapore, and I was born decades after WW2 ended. However, it’ll be a testament to whether or not I’m committed to writing a really good novel if I can endure the unpleasant task of self-reflection enough to leave at least a little fragment of myself embedded within the story’s own heart and soul.

MRA

p.s. Movie alert: Saw The Navigator again for the 3rd time last night, although the last time I saw it was the early ’90s. Brilliant, thought-provoking film, and one I can see over and over again and learn something new. Not everyone’s cuppa, but I love movies with multiple layers of meaning, especially when some involve religion and spirituality. And the kid who plays Griffin is astounding.

6 thoughts on “Creativity and the Art of a Useful Life

  1. Hi Marjorie.

    I think Pinoy parents see the arts as a risky profession, risky in the sense that your future won’t be as stable compared to being in the traditional professions. They want their kids to make more practical choices so their futures can be secure.

    There are Filipino families who encourage their kids to pursue artistic passions but these are usually those who are financially well off. Or on the flipside, those who want their sons and daughters to join showbiz and maybe save the family from financial strain.

    In the end, I think it all boils down to financial security.

  2. Amee, so true. I just wonder if financial security will be as big a deal with 2nd-gen Filipino-American kids when they have children of their own. Not that I’m dissing financial stability — I’m a huge advocate of it! — but I’ve found that entering a profession one hates just for the money isn’t a guarantee of either emotional or financial satisfaction.

    I’m going to take back what I said about how I know of no Pinoy parents who encourage their kids to go into art. My dad’s sister and her husband were successful actors in the Philippines in the ’80s, and now I guess their kids (or some of them, anyway) are somehow in the business as well. I don’t know if they were encouraged (one of them was so bad, though, that I’m sure he was eventually discouraged, but I’m sure they weren’t dissuaded.

    Cheers,
    Marjorie

  3. Hi, Marjorie! I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I couldn’t agree more that humanity loses when artists are discouraged from following their passions. So much emphasis these days is placed on what’s seen as practical, but what can be more practical for humanity than to encourage those people who want to sour above the literal, the concrete and commonplace, to do so? Cages don’t do anybody any good.

    And like you, I see writing as a tremendous act of courage because writing deeply, writing truly, demands that we writers dig deeply beneath the surface of our psyches, prepared and armed and steeled to deal with whatever darkness, whatever muck, and whatever beasties we might find there.

  4. Hi, thomma lyn! Thanks for stopping by!

    I do think we’ve lost something now that education has become such a commodity, a way of ensuring financial security rather than as a tool for joining civilized society and becoming a productive citizen. I’ve nothing against money or the Bill Gateses of the world — I’d lurv to be Bill Gates and have his money! — but the man himself is a creative genius and wouldn’t be where he is today without it.

    Re: writing. You know, sometimes I have to wonder what someone like James Frey must have felt when he was writing all those fabricated stories in his bestsellers. If writing takes courage and a great deal of self-reflection and -awareness, then what kind of thought process must go through his mind when he plumbs the depths of his own soul and finds it so wanting that he feels the need to borrow someone else’s experience and claim it as his own?

    Cheers,
    Marjorie

  5. Fascinating info on Jose Rizal. I’m embarrased to admit I know nothing about him, but you can be sure I’ll be Googling him shortly to learn more.

    The idea of all writing being autobiographical came up recently with a co-worker who was telling me about putting a current family situation into a short story he was working on. I’m sure he’ll do fine with it as he’s a skilled writer, but it reminded me of other people I have known who take that sentiment too literally. I think it’s important that the emotion and the revelations behind the writing come from our own experience and unflinching reflection, but that a piece can really suffer if you literally take the plot from something that really happened to you and just change a few names and details and what-not. I find only the very best writers can get real perspective on events they’ve been involved in – most who draw too closely on “real life” end up casting themselves as the hero or the victim to far too great a degree.

    And finally, as for financial stability… boy, could I use me some of that! 🙂

    Great post!

    Marilyn

  6. Thanks, Marilyn!

    Yah, I have plenty of material I could glean from my own life, but I’ll wait till everyone involved is dead before I even try to write about them. I completely agree that writers seldom have enough objective perspective to write about an event they were involved in and be able to give it the depth and structure it needs in order to succeed as a story deserving of attention.

    I’ve no problem with the writer inserting herself consciously (or not) in her own story. I imagine stories as being like dreams, you know, where every person in one’s dream usually isn’t that actual person in real life, but rather a reflection of the dreamer herself. But all stories have to have strong characters and some kind of progression, culminating in an ending that resolves most (if not all) conflicts and witnesses changes in the characters. Unfortunately, real life is usually a lot messier, so just a straight-out reporting of an event as if it were a short story would be flat-out dull, if not utter nonsense.

    If you have a chance, do check out Rizal. He was one of those historical figures whose entire life story seemed destined for greatness.

    Cheers,
    Marjorie

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