Saturday, March 06, 2010

Dear R.

When I read the banner story of Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 5 issue, I instantly thought of you.

“Higher tuition in 15 schools” is the kind of headline that might as well bleed in great gouts of red on page 1 for the fear it strikes in parents.

But it’s news, too, that can chill a young person’s heart.

In her Sun.Star article, Princess D. Felicitas reported that the Department of Education refuses to name the schools because the increases, whether approved or pending, are too “sensitive”.

Do we even need it spelled out? For any working-class parent, whose life’s mission is to bequeath an education so that one’s child can have a choice—“the only true freedom,” wrote the poet Cynthia Ozick—the escalating cost of education may reduce us to rooting around the wrong set of choices, precisely wrong for NOT being choices at all: asking a child to quit school to work and help out, choosing only the brightest or the toughest child to send to school, transferring a child from small, expensive classes to free but crowded classrooms with harassed teachers, even leaving out books from the monthly budget.

Because we are adults, we steel ourselves for the worst, for a future that’s unrevealed, unknowable and thus distrusted because it will mark the ones who make us most vulnerable. Where is the parent that does not desire the best for one’s own?

So we swerve naturally into these missteps: we think we know better, we choose for our children, we advise the best course for “security”.

But you paused long enough to hear your child. And emailed a stranger to ask about your child’s chances as a writer.

Since second year, your child dreams of a life of writing. Now editing the campus paper, this child will still not let go, though that dream may seem to recede as she awaits the results of exams taken for the Accountancy course you’ve foreseen. Law, as you’ve advised, may follow.

That was a long email I sent in reply, heavy and dense with comparisons of curricula and academic areas of excellence, career path and compensation packages, trade hazards and insurance.

After reading this paper’s Mar. 5 headline, I realize I sent you a mistake. There’s no advice a stranger can give your child except that which you are already doing: listen to her.

A professional newsroom can refine and polish a journalist in ways that years and years of classroom learning cannot. But anyone can take up Mass Communication, Nursing, Accountancy, Law, and Plumbing and Heating—and still live to write.

To write to live is challenging enough. But if your child lives to write, she can only do so by listening to herself.

Recently, I finished “The Blue Flower.” It is the story of an unfinished story. The book reminded me of another novel, “The Bookshop.” A mouse of a widow risks her life savings when she opens a bookshop. She later learns that “a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.”

Both books are written by Penelope Fitzgerald. She took up writing at the age of 58. This jam- and chutney-making grandmother, as profiled by a reviewer, wrote early novels that were inspired by her life: writing a mystery to amuse her dying husband, working in a bookshop, living in a houseboat that sank twice in the Thames.

Three of her novels, including “The Bookshop,” were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She won the Booker Prize for “Offshore,” set in a houseboat community. Chosen for the American National Book Critics award, “The Blue Flower” is regarded as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

Finally, I share two pieces of advice for writers from another Booker Prize winner, Margaret Atwood:

Rule 1 is “Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”

Here’s another: “Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.”

College is optional; the self is all the material a writer needs. Cheers, R.! 01973226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 7, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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