Friday, June 19, 2009

Writer ka lang pala

By Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 17, 2009



I remember an experience I once had with the Bureau of Internal Revenue. This was way back during Cory’s time when I was still paying my taxes. I am not paying my taxes now—not since 2005, when the “Hello, Garci” tape came to light. I was paying my taxes then, but for one reason or another failed to do so one particular year. Being a dutiful citizen, and having no problems recognizing Cory as a perfectly legitimate president, I resolved to rectify it.



I went to the BIR, waited a couple of hours for my turn, and finally got to talk with an appraiser, or whatever they call the people there that deal with these things. He took the documents I handed over to him solemnly, flexing his hands like a doctor about to perform a delicate operation. His solemnity vanished in an instant as he scanned my documents, and dismay overran his face like the hordes of Atilla. He suppressed an expletive and groaned, “Writer ka lang pala!” (You’re just a writer!)


I took it those words were a reaction to the couple of hundred pesos I owed government. I took it moreover that those words were a reaction to my entry in the box “occupation,” which was “journalist.” Whatever plans he might have had about negotiating a deal with me were dashed to pieces by that proclamation, or admission. His deflation was a thing to behold. “Writer ka lang pala,” he repeated.



He stamped my papers and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. He probably wondered what he had done to make God punish him that day by sending him someone who wasted his precious time.


That is the one phrase that has stayed with me all these years, one I wear proudly like a medal, and humbly like a reminder: “Writer ka lang pala.”


I remembered this in connection with something I’ve encountered over the years while writing a column for the Inquirer. It’s what detractors tell me when they cannot find a way to refute or get around, my argument. Which is: What you say is all very fine. But those are just words, they are not actions. When will you stop writing and act?


Sometimes, friends, and not just detractors, say this as well. Particularly those who have wondered why I do not entertain going into politics. “Why don’t you run for this or that?” they ask. “With the exposure you have in the country’s number one newspaper, you have an advantage which you can turn into votes. If you win, you can be in a position to do something for this country.”


My answer to this is not that I see no way of winning, although that’s probably true too, since the vote-friendly medium is TV. My answer to that is: “I’m already a writer, as ascertained by the BIR. Why should I want to demote myself and become a politician?”


I am not being entirely facetious when I say this. My point is simply, if a bit airily, that I cannot think of a better way to do something for the country than by writing.


Doctors will never be accused of merely saying and not doing. I do not know of another profession more resolutely associated with acting. You either cure or you do not. The patient either lives or dies. No action could be more fraught with meaning, no action could be more laden with consequence.



It is writers who routinely get to be charged with saying and not doing, of talking and not acting. It is writers who routinely get to be told: That’s all very fine, but when will you act?


It is the most astonishing thing because writing is acting. That is why we call it “the act of writing,” because it is an act. And like physically ministering to the sick, it is a vital act. It is spiritually ministering to the sick, an act that is fraught with meaning, an act that is laden with consequence. When you write, you either cure or you do not. When you write, the world either lives or dies.


What the writer does specifically, an act of awesome reverberations, is to articulate. It is to put reality into words. It is to make reality real.


We’ve all heard Socrates’ famous aphorism, “A life unexamined is a life unlived.” It is a profound insight into life. It is the difference between merely existing and living. Just drawing out the length of your days without looking at where you’ve come from and where you are going, without looking at whether you have been of service to others or only to yourself, without wondering what all this means or what all this amounts to, is not living, it is just existing. You may as well not have been there at all.


It is writers most of all that make that examination, of themselves and the reality around them. It is writers most of all who make that interrogation, of themselves and of the reality around them. It is writers most of all who articulate themselves and the reality around them.


Without that articulation, the world and ourselves are just as unreal as ghostly apparitions. Without that action, the world and ourselves are just a jumble of sense impressions.


We often speak of “grasping” things when we are able to understand them. The word “grasp” is only too apt. The action, like seizing something with the hand, is seizing something with the mind, turning it around, feeling its shape, marveling at its texture, realizing (there goes that word “real” again) that it is there.


You put things into words, you make things real.


It’s not true at all that sticks and stones may break your bones but words can’t. The opposite is true: More than sticks and stones, or indeed more than Manny Pacquiao’s fists, words crush bones. At the very least, you see that in the many knife fights that break out during drinking sprees in dingy neighborhoods because someone called another names.



At the very most you see that in what writers have done. In what a writer of no mean talent named Jose Rizal has done. (To be concluded.)


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