Sex, War and Other Reasons I Can’t Write

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I received the nicest email from a woman who read my last column about sex offenders. In it she related her own story of abuse and how she’s especially keen to raise awareness among the public about the prevalence of sexual abuse and the need to erase its stigma among survivors, the major theme of that particular column. It was so inspiring to read and reminded me of how powerful a tool writing is, especially when one can use it to influence a person one has never even met, and to spark debate and discussion on an issue that other people may be too afraid to touch. I’m actually surprised it didn’t garner more feedback than I expected. I don’t know whether to attribute that to reader apathy, or just general lack of interest in the topic, or my own inability to clearly convey the message.

The woman in the email is apparently keen to perhaps continue the conversation, possibly in the public square, an action both encouraging and intimidating. Kinda contrary to the ideas I put forth in the column, but a project like this can be pretty daunting to begin with. Having just moved to this town, I’m not really familiar with the resources that are available to survivors of sexual abuse, but I suppose that’s something we can find out together, if we decide to take this a step further. If.

In other news, no feedback yet on this week’s column satirizing the gay marriage controversy (published today), but my editor did call yesterday to discuss one particular line that bothered him. In the end he chose to run it, but he did half-jokingly warn me that I may be stirring up some trouble with this particular article. On the other hand, we both agreed that sometimes, the most controversial columns end up eliciting the least amount of feedback, while those that may otherwise be light and humorous often generate the most reader responses. Go figure. I haven’t received any emails about today’s column, although I’ve learned from previous experience that some readers take days, if not weeks, to send in their feedback. As I mentioned, I did love writing that piece, and not just because, unlike other columns I’ve written, this required little to no research. As much as I love digging for facts and figures — the academic in me desperately trying to claw its way out — it’s a relief to just write and write and write without having to amass all kinds of data to support one’s argument. Takes up way less time, and did I mention it’s lotsa fun?

Meanwhile, the novel plods on. Or rather, this writer plods on with the novel. I scratched out two pages yesterday and watched another film, a 1967 Toho (Japan) feature called Japan’s Longest Day. It recounts the 24-hour period leading up to the Emperor’s historical broadcast announcing the end of hostilities in the Pacific War with the Allies. The film is definitely long — over two-and-a-half hours — but what a picture! Filmed entirely in black-and-white, it has the trademark minimalism of so many classic Japanese films: little or no soundtrack except for a handful of key scenes; a dispassionate narrator; tight, terse dialogue; lots of shadowy corners.

One or two rather graphic scenes jump out at you — it’s a war movie, but only in the sense that it takes place during the war, as the story plays out largely within the homes and offices of the Japanese military officers and politicians who oversaw the imperial campaign — but what lingers is the realization of just how close — I mean, thisclose — Japan was to virtually destroying itself, mere hours before the unconditional surrender.

I guess one can argue that the young, rebellious officers didn’t really stand a chance, but considering that coups d’etat don’t have to actually succeed in order to destabilize the country (are ya listening, Philippines??), the outcome could have been really brought on Japan’s complete self-destruction. What was really amazing was that, despite the fact that Japan had almost six million soldiers in the Imperial Army by 1945, and that they had accumulated over 1.7 million casualties during the war, these upstarts were still obsessed with fighting to the last man — which, of course, would have meant not only every man on the archipelago, but every woman and child as well. The mind reels.

I’m not really sure how this film will tie in to my story other than to give another glimpse of the military machine that my main character will be up against. The second most important character in the book is a Japanese military officer who won’t even show up until well after the war actually begins (probably a good fifty or so pages in), so this film’s unique perspective of the Japanese military ideals will come in handy. I haven’t seen Letters from Iwo Jima yet — don’t think it’ll make it to my corner of the world, so I’ll have to wait for the DVD — but that’s another one that’ll probably be quite enlightening.

One of the main things that’s really hooked me into the research is the realization that the story of the Pacific War, as it’s told here in the U.S., is awfully one-sided. Granted, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the Japanese side, particularly when you think about the Bataan Death March, the Burma railway campaign, the so-called comfort women, or the Okinawa battle, but the history behind their imperialism is so complex, and when compared to the West’s own manifest destinies (part of which involved forcing Japan to sign treaties unfavorable to its own interests), it’s difficult to argue that they were entirely in the wrong. Am I becoming a Rising Sun apologist? Hope not, but as I do more research for the novel, it’s starting to look as if the backstories will be much richer and more intricate than I ever dreamed — or wanted.

Am reading Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. I hadn’t really understood the role that fear plays in every writer’s life. I just thought I was alone in this malady! Check this out: “Among rookies and veterans alike, the most basic writing fear is of simply not being up to the task. Now that I’ve told the world, and myself, that I can write, suppose it turns out that I can’t? Even the prolific Anthony Burgess said he thought constantly about giving up writing because of the debilitating fear that his work wasn’t good enough.”

Well, thank ya, Jesus. If Mr. Burgess himself dreads not only the horror of the blank page but also the terror of the filled one, I guess I’m in good company. And I like what Annie Dillard has to say about writing, how any work is in an “untamed state” that matures over time. “You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!'”

I think I’ll program a sound file on my laptop so that, when I boot it up each morning, it’ll scream, Simba! That oughtta scare the s*** out of me and get me to write.

MRA

p.s. Almost forgot!!! Having been honored with a mention in Deborah Ng’s Pay It Forward Tuesday post, I’m returning the favor. Two of my favorite blogs: Coffee with Amee and Trixia in Singapore. Amee’s a writer in LA, and Trixia is a journalist in Singapore. Check out the blogs of these smart and funny women.

p.p.s. Overheard this conversation at the local Kmart:

Elderly man: (walks, stops, looks back) Hey, I thought you were right behind me.

Elderly woman: (shuffling along at least ten paces behind him) I’m comin’. I’m just trying to make sure I don’t poop as I walk.

Thanks for that, Ma’am. All the Kmart customers that day were especially grateful for your caution.

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5 thoughts on “Sex, War and Other Reasons I Can’t Write

  1. Hi, Marjorie! πŸ™‚ LOL @ the overheard conversation.

    The Ralph Keyes book sounds excellent — I’ve thought about the fear factor, too, when it comes to writing. Sadly, it’s all-too-easy for us writers to intimidate the heck out of ourselves. There’s so much we want to achieve, but we fear we aren’t up to the task, and that fear can be paralyzing.

    And fear is only exacerbated by the up and down roller coaster ride of the submission process, the vagaries of the publishing industry, and of course people who are quick to tell us unpublished writers, “If you don’t have quick and speedy success, then you stink as a writer.”

    Goodness knows strong self motivation, focus, and courage are needed to stay on this path for the long haul!

    Best of luck with your novel — sounds like what you’re learning in your research is fascinating and heartrending.

  2. Hi Marjorie.

    Thanks for the compliment.

    It’s funny how you like reading my blog and Trixia’s. Trixia and I used to work for the school paper during our college days.

  3. Hi, thomma lyn! Ya, you should read the Keyes book sometime. Very inspiring. There’s a great quote in it that I tell myself each time I face a blank or half-finished page with dread: If you’re not scared, you’re not writing. Quite reassuring. πŸ˜‰

    From what Keyes says, everyone from the novice writer to the accomplished, published one has these fears. E.B. White was apparently a master procrastinator. Not that that should give one license to procrastinate, but it’s good to know that what we think are debilitating fears are, unfortunately, part of the whole process.

    Hey, Amee! Ya, I think I found Trixia’s blog through your list of favorite links. I love knowing what other literary Pinays are doing out there, and she sounds like she’s doing fascinating work in Singapore. I’m actually planning a trip down there later this year or early 2008 for some research into my book. Love the city.

    Cheers,
    Marjorie

  4. Hi Marjorie,

    I hope to meet you in Singapore, when you come over for your research. πŸ™‚ Here’s to more conversations online, for now.

  5. Hi, Trixia! Thanks for visiting!

    Ya, I’d love to meet with you while I’m in Singapore. It won’t be until the end of the year at the latest (more likely the early part of 2008), but I’m already lining up people to see. I’d be very interested in talking with you some more about your research on comfort women. Looking forward to cyber-chatting with you.

    Cheers,
    Marjorie

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