ON the last day of the writing workshop, P. left me his copy of British short stories.
Among his instructions was: be assiduous in reading and writing, and stay away from the TV.
A sober banker by day, P. kept a deranged pace of writing and rewriting in the long lonely hours after work until it was time to brush his teeth and shake out his banker self for another day.
This was several years ago and I don’t know if P. is still at it, mixing up his sane and insane sides.
But long before I got his book, I’ve been P.’s fellow acolyte. When the sanity gets too much, I take down this world, carefully folding along the old lines before shoving all that emptiness in a drawer I keep at the back of my mind.
In its place, I put up a reality that may or may not exist, depending on the ravings of imagination, either the writer’s or mine or both.
That, in two paragraphs, is the place of fiction in the life of someone who makes a living by writing and teaching about writing.
I’ve followed P.’s imperial instructions to the letter except, ironically, for the immutable, which he reserved for the last: avoid technology.
For P., harried for hours to count and recount other people’s money, the television set waiting in his parents’ living room was the very embodiment of Wiles Distracting a Young Writer to His Doom. Cold and inert as waiting malice, the colored Sony pounced on P. the moment he stumbled home.
Unlike P., I am not under the sway of our four-year-old Panasonic.
But I have my own Fall to confess.
My unraveling began, as the street parliamentarians chant, with the state’s lopsided subsidy for education. Anyone who wants to get this generation to read more should not look for an ally in publicly funded libraries. These are cemeteries where history is laid to rest. Or, if the librarian is not looking, where the flames of romance are fanned through the bad reading and bad imitation of bad poetry.
Yet requiring class readings of my selections seemed uncomfortably close to mandating reading. Giving away titles from my collection, I may have occupied my students’ school breaks and travel lulls, but just weaning and separating myself from old companions left yawning spaces of emptiness, not to mention niggling unease over marginalia jotted beside a phrase or a passage.
Then I discovered the Net. Not only did it sidestep the Third World piracy of photocopying publications, save forests and look askance at the inbred pettiness of government requisitioning, the Internet was actually cool for the young.
As many of my students are blogging and networking, no push but a mere tap is required to get them to read online. At a click of the mouse, budding journalists gained entry to the archives of www.newyorker.com, with its eight pages of the life and letters of Orianna Fallaci and her unconventional brand of journalism and demagoguery.
Not even the great Italian agitator herself could have inveigled a young person to finish eight printed pages of unrelieved text. Nor could the student’s penurious teacher part with P400 for a monthly copy of The New Yorker for later classroom photocopying.
But the online article is the Great Leveler. And anyone with a really restless mouse can click on nearby links: a meditation on Obama, subway porn prose and fiction.
It’s not fiction with a capital F, according to P. It’s literature without the carnality of paper, its weight, texture, smells.
With the online non-linear pattern of reading, I wonder how many young people discover fiction in the glut of celebrities and virtual pals. Or if they do stumble, do they stick it out with these works of the imagined life?
How will P. view my Fall? Will he denounce this treacherous selling out to Technology? As soon as I finish reading Andrea Barrett’s reflections on tying up scientific inquiry with literary journalism (www.theatlantic.com), I’ll Google, Gmail or maybe leave a comment on P.’s Facebook.
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* First published as “Matamata” column in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 15, 2009 issue