Things I learned: On Artistry and Art Life

Writer and storyteller, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, shared a link on her blog to a speech given by Ursula K. Le Guin upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In this speech, Le Guin speaks not only of the need for visionary writers, but she also speaks of the need to discern between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

At the end of her speech, Le Guin says that the name of our reward is not profit, it is freedom.

I think of freedom as I reflect and go through the notes and the memories that I have from New York and Janis Ian’s masterclass in artistry. Le Guin’s words resonate with the lessons learned from my time with Janis.

In New York, Laura and I talked about Janis’s commitment not only to her art, but also to taking hold of the business aspect of her art practice.  It was an aspect that she brought up a number of times and listening to Le Guin talk of freedom, serves as a reminder that whatever proceeds come from the exercise of one’s art–they all go back towards the artist being able to keep on practicing that art.

The practical truth of it is that we cannot exercise or develop our art when our energy is gone, when we are too tired or worn out, or when we our head is filled with worry.  I think of how I would never have finished or published the stories I have if not for being given space and time to practice my art free from the stresses and the tensions of daily life. I am grateful to my fellow practitioners–to the artists and writers who have opened their homes to me and who have so generously given me flights of freedom.


To be able to practice our art in a space and time when we are free from thinking of anything else but that practice is a vital and precious good. The writer cannot live without writing, and practicing art means we must be able to center ourselves on the work most of all.

Which then leads me to a question Janis Ian asked repeatedly in various sessions:

“Who among you wants to be famous?”

In thinking on that question, we are forced to recognize that fame does not equate into freedom, fame is not the same as success.  Indeed the boundary between fame and notoriety is so thin that it’s easy to cross over without realizing it. Rather than fame,  I value more the freedom to practice my art, and the knowledge that I have remained true to my vision.

Because, as Janis Ian reminded us, no one else has the vision that we have; and while there are many things in this life that can be faked, talent and art can never be faked.

Even as she said these things, she reminded us too that talent is not enough. The artist must do the work–must master their craft. If talent is a spirited horse, craft is what will ensure that your talent will not run away with you. In the course of the week, Janis continued to emphasize the need for artists to grow and add to their skillset (what we also call our toolkit). As artists,  we need to be constantly developing ourselves.  Being equipped with a wide range of skills makes us capable of answering to the call of opportunity.

I think of these things and I think to myself–the sky is unlimited.


One of the interesting features of our week was what Janis called the Museum Wall. At the end of the week, we were asked to answer the question: What does all great art have in common? I’m sharing the image of the wall here. You answer the question.


For the record

For self-care reasons, I’ve requested that my name be removed from any publicity connected to The SEA is Ours. I’ve written the organizers to say that I will honor the perk that I offered in support of the fundraiser ( a criticque of a piece up to 8000 words ), but I have stated that I don’t want my name to appear on the page anywhere. I am making a note of it here, in case people wonder why my name has vanished from the fundraiser page and also to assure the person who took my perk that I will fulfill my word.

I wish the authors all the best and am thankful to the editors for their understanding.

In-between post

Today, I decided to share an excerpt from the memoir I worked on when I started writing again. Rereading it, I realize just how clearly it describes what happened to me–the slow erosion of self, the gradual erasure and subsuming of who I was to the personhood of the man I married–because, as my mother told me: it is our duty as wives to submit to our husbands.

In time, that erosion of self led to a complete forgetting of who I was and what mattered to me.

During one of my first sessions with my therapist, she asked me if I could name anything that I liked doing before I married and moved to the Netherlands.

Tell me, she said. What are the things that you enjoy.

The only thing that I could name and that I could cling to was writing. It was as if I had forgotten the self who lived before I came to this country.

Before I came here, my world was filled with life and art and sound, music and dance and song and laughter; discussions and debates over the dining table; books and words and loud speculations about the future.

I learned to hide those things because Dutch folks don’t like loud voices, because the way we laughed at home is considered unseemly here, because grown up people do not dance, do not indulge in fancy–not in this small town where I live in.

Today, I am engaged in reclamation. I have colored my hair–not an atrocious color, but still scandalous enough and I am wearing my colorful clothes.

I call my eldest son, Kuya (Filipino for older brother). I laugh and dance with my youngest child. We chatter, we make noise and we don’t care if the world shakes with the sound of our cheerfulness.

Things I learned: New York and Janis Ian’s Masterclass in Artistry


This time’s visit to America was started off by me singing lines from “Seventeen” to the customs officer at the entry point to New York.

“So, what do you intend to do in New York?” he asked me.

And because I had been bottling up my excitement for so long, I did a fistpump, smiled wide and said: “I’m here to meet Janis Ian.

When the border officer shook his head and failed to recognize her name, I decided to give him a song sample. ( I also said: You’re an American, how come you don’t know that this woman is one of the best American Folk Singers ever?)

Imagine me: standing in JFK, a row of tired and grumpy people standing behind me, and there I was, bursting into song.

The guy behind the counter shook his head (he didn’t recognize the song!). Still, he laughed (he’d been quite solemn), wished me a wonderful visit, and stamped my entry ticket.

As I walked away, I heard the lady who had been standing behind me give the officer a loud and cheerful greeting. I hope the officer was smiling still.


One of the things Janis Ian taught us during the week in New York, was that fear is a construct. Except for atavistic fear, every other kind of fear is something that we’ve learned and what can be learned can be unlearned.

When I was standing in that line, I thought of my first visit to the US when I could hardly say a word to the officer behind the counter and ended up getting detained and interrogated for about an hour. I felt the familiar tickle of stress and the teary urge to break down.

Then, I realized that I’d traveled a long way. Friends had offered me this chance, and I couldn’t possibly spoil it by giving way to stress and anxiety. So, instead of mumbling through the interview, I squared my shoulders, spoke up and followed through with the song routine because…well, the worst thing that could happen was that they would send me back home again. (Also, who cares what people in line thought of me. The likelihood of them seeing me again was so small.)

The week with Janis Ian was marked with so many instances where I had to face up to the constructed fears that stood in the way of me doing things.

Coming out of JFK, I felt a huge burst of confidence. I was in New York, standing on the edge of change.


To the artist, change is a constant. If we’re lucky, change means growth and development–a deepening of the work, a deepening in insight, growth in perception and understanding. Maturity not just in the work but in ourselves as human beings.

The following statement is in The Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s preamble:

Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. 

I would dare to exchange actor with artist and say: Growth as an artist and growth as a human being are synonymous. If we remain stagnant, if there is no growth, what does this say about our art? What does this say about us? What does this say about our practice?

Regardless of what field of discipline we occupy,  our exercise of our art, our commitment to our work is what differentiates us and binds us together in a global community.

On twitter, I posted a question Janis Ian asked that I felt is very key to all of us who are engaged in the practice of art: “Whose bones are you standing on?”  

There’s so much to unpack about that question. So much that can be said about ancestors, about the litany of names that have brought us here and continue to carry us through. We are one in a chain and I am grateful for the bones I’m standing on.

Check out the board below and think on these things.



Sunday Morning Rambly Thoughts

Finding the words to talk about new adventures is often challenging. Here I am in New York City,  I have met one of my musical idols, have met with women I love and admire, and have found myself engaged in conversations that challenge me, inspire me, and compel me to look at various interactions in my life with new eyes.

Janis Ian said to me that it seemed to her that I was at the start of something new. I can’t help but agree–whenever I come to America ( once for the CW workshop and now for Janis’s masterclass), I find myself at a point where I must make decisions that may seem tiny to some, but are the equivalent of life-changing to me.

I find myself thinking of the Robert Frost poem that my sister loves so much–that one about two roads diverging into a wood and I can’t help but think of how life brings each of us to these forks in the road. Do we take the left? Do we take the right? Do we take the road that’s safe and known, or do we take the one that’s less travelled? And as Frost has said: the road we choose will make all the difference.

Making a choice isn’t easy. I find myself wishing that it were, but I don’t think life is meant to be easy anyway. I came out of a loving home, a nest where I was sheltered as well as my parents could, but even when there, I had to make a choice on whether to stay cocooned and separated from the hardship of the world around me, or to engage and see and know and understand that the society we live in isn’t egalitarian.

There is a larger mass who grow up in the absence of that access to shelter, to good nutrition, to healthcare, to education and the numerous minutae that we take for granted. Things we consider as simply being, are often luxury. Take for instance how here in the West, we take running water for granted–back home, running water is a luxury that only the very wealthy have access to–and then it is only the super-rich who can be assured of that kind of luxury where they don’t have to worry about whether there will be water tomorrow or not. Having grown up with this absence, each time I turn on the tap, I remember how my mother would caution us and tell us to conserve and recycle water.

Luxury.  To not have to worry that the tank will run out.

It’s easy to grow comfortable, to become complacent and inured to the hardship of the world. As long as it doesn’t touch us, we can rage, we can shout our anger, but we are still cocooned because that hardship is at a distance.

A white man can never fully comprehend the hardships a black man goes through. It’s easy for non-blacks to bagatelize the uncertainty of life as a black person. ( This is what happens when we say #alllivesmatter when black folks say #blacklivesmatter.)

Much as we want to believe that we live in a society where we are all equal, we do not and we need to make choices. Those choices won’t always be easy, they won’t be the road well-traveled, but choosing to walk that road, choosing to leave the comfort of the cocoon behind, choosing to open our eyes, step out of the box, engage fully, embrace the uncertain and the uncomfortable–these things, they do make a difference.

An odd little tale

My Clarion West Writeathon report came in and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much I’d raised. I’m releasing another bit of previously unpublished work today in honor of that.

I can be a Rock Star was written back in 2010–I suppose you could call it an experiment in black humor or the unreliable narrator. I really am never sure which one it was. I just wanted to go with the flow and find out where the music would lead and it led to this tale which is somewhat odd. I do hope you’ll enjoy the read.

It is an aswang story of sorts and was great fun to write.

I think the psyche is this wonderful untapped resource and truthfully the line between sanity and madness is quite quite thin. ;p

Thanks for sponsoring the Clarion West Writeathon writers. I hope you all enjoy this odd little offering.

The Communal Experience that is Dance

I attended a wedding yesterday. It was  wedding between two young women who shared Filipino roots and because of their connection to the Filipino community, there were quite a good number of Filipinos present.

There’s a different dynamic to dance when you do it together with those you share a common bond with. Beyond the bond of knowing these two young women and having shared in the ups and downs of their lives, there was also the bond of those of us present as being Filipinos who share a common experience of migration.

In celebrations like these, dance becomes like an act of affirmation. We face each other, we join each other in a circle, we pair off with each other and we dance.

I’ve written dance into a number of stories and in particular,  the significance of the Ifugao dance. In Bagi, these lines embody how I feel when I dance the Ifugao dance, whether it be in the privacy of my own home when my spirit prompts me to engage in it, or whether it is in public when I am asked to demonstrate it or to share it with others.

Bagi isn’t available online, but I wanted to share these words from the work with the reader as it captures the feeling of being a Filipino still reaching and longing and yearning for that connection to home.

On this distant shore, she becomes the earth that is beyond her grasp. Her body is the homeland. Her voice is the song of the wind through stalks of ripening rice. Her arms are the sunrise. She is the harvest. She is the welcome home.   – From Bagi: Ada ti Istorya as published in Bahamut Journal, Issue One

Down Memory Lane

So today has been a day spent sorting through the paper chaos that has piled up through the years. Sometime ago, I just stuffed most of my work into plastic boxes to be sorted through sometime in the future–I never really did get around to doing that until today.

In one of the boxes, I found a number of spiral and bound notebooks from my highschool days. Stories written in longhand which made me laugh. I didn’t realize just how much I’d written back in the day. I’m still looking for the notebook that contains a complete draft of my first attempt at a novel–it was a historical romance, written in long hand over a number of weeks.

In the meantime, I’m sharing a photograph from one of the notebooks. It just tickles my fancy to be able to do that here. I know, the English is flawed, but I was in highschool when I wrote this.


I think this was a story about a fish. Something I may rewrite for the kids when the mood arises.

New Free Fiction

I did promise that I would post new free fiction and this time, to commemorate the fact that I’ve raised 53 bucks for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, I’m publishing something that’s never been published before. I think I sent this one out once or twice and then forgot about it.

When I wrote The Singing of the whales, the rising of the waters and the harvest of tears, the image in my head was of Roxas Boulevard. When I was still in college, it was part of my daily landscape and there’s a different quality to it at night as compared to during the day. I know it’s considered more dangerous at night, but I remember being stuck there with a friend once while we waited for a taxi or a jeep or just any kind of transport to take us home. Across the street there were a number of bars with neon lights and I always found myself rather curious about them. There was one in particular that drew my attention as there seemed to be a regular jazz band playing.

So, it was that memory that made me think of this story and writing this story felt like dreaming on paper. I didn’t really plan this story to be this way. I was curious. I wanted to follow the opening lines and to find out where they led me. Writing this story was an experiment–whether it’s been successful or not depends on the reader. I do like that the story features sisters and the thing is this: no matter what differences I may have with my sister, I also love her fiercely. So, I suppose it is love story of sorts.

Writing progress

I’ve been working slowly on the Cartographer’s World novel. I have the world so fully formed inside my head that I sometimes feel like I’m walking in that place and introducing people who populate it as well showing out the sights while I’m at it. While Siren from Song of the Body Cartographer plays a major role in this novel, there are other characters who intrigue and catch my attention with their own stories. I should probably start a character chart soon as the world and their stories come out on the bigger canvas. Writing a novel is an immersive and fun experience.

In the meantime, I’ve also been working on two different stories. One which springs from an image of a person looking out towards earth from the viewing deck of a generation ship. It’s a pretty cliched image, I know, but the possibilities that exist there…I found myself thinking of where this person came from and where this person was headed to. I also thought of possible dialogues that were running through this person’s head as the ship draws farther away from earth. This is the first time I’m attempting something like this and I’ll admit it’s a bit daunting, particularly since using the first person pov is something I’m not very good at.

I was prompted too by the thought of what happens when someone is sent into exile where the exile benefits those who are in power. It’s not an easy story to write and I rather hope it ends on a good note.

The second story that I’ve written a draft of is a bit of a fun caper. This one was inspired by a conversation I had with Tade Thompson on family coaches. I meant, the person who helps families restore structure in the family setting but somehow this morphed into something else .It’s a lot of fun and also involves some really cute animals. <g>

I haven’t talked about it on here, but I am participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. I’m hoping to raise at least 200 dollars for Clarion West and have promised to post a previously unpublished short story for every 50 dollars I raise. I’ve just raised my first 50 dollars, so watch this space for a free story soon. I will be sure to post about it on twitter and facebook and will also let my sponsors know that it’s up. Please do check my profile at the Clarion West website. There are lots of other fabulous authors participating, so you can take your pick of who you wish to sponsor.

Finally, I have been sitting on a bit of good news. I received an acceptance for Magnifica Angelica Superable and just sent out the signed contract this week. I had a lot of fun writing Magnifica Angelica. I think I chuckled to myself while writing most of it.

I’m working on updating and revamping the book blog, but will post more about that once things are better in place.