How To Write A Story (Not About Love)
pen/ typewriter / computer
memories (must be ready to be shared with the rest of the worldâ€”examples: the blue sky that hurts your eyes, the dizzy smell of daisies)
a basic storyline (with a beginning, middle, climax, and end)*
*The premise of a storyline should be familiar to you by now, and it need not be complicated. Maybe you can start with your grandfatherâ€™s death, or the first time you had sex, or the quiet of your high school corridors on Friday afternoons after exams, and proceed from there. Postmodern stories, which do not use these conventional forms (i.e. vignettes, etc.) shall be discussed in later lessons.
You can either write in longhand, with a pen and paper, or type out your story using a computer or typewriter. Be forewarned, however, that you think faster than you write, so writing a story by hand may be time consuming. On the other hand, computers can lose your work, and you have to wait for them to print. Typewriters are probably the best for writing stories: they flesh out your ideas without slowing down our train of thought.
To proceed, you will first need to develop distance from these memories. Be careful to relate to them with empathy; but be detached enough to be cleave them from you so they can run around freely in other peopleâ€™s heads.
(The mint-green underside of an angelâ€™s trumpet. The sound of breaking glass.)
Avoid the topic of love. You do not want to sound cheesy, or fake, or contrived, or repetitious and endless, as most stories of love are wont to be.
When you first begin to write you probably wonâ€™t sleep, and youâ€™ll probably sit in front of your typewriter until 3 oâ€™clock in the morning. Just thinking. Youâ€™ll be drinking coffee with way too much sugar and smoking the cigarette you know you shouldnâ€™t be having. If youâ€™re lucky youâ€™ll start.
You write down the scene: today, this week, this month, this year. Nearing the end of the twentieth century. In your head, in your room, in your house, in Diliman, Quezon City, But before you forget, you will need characters. As a beginner, you might want to center on people who have been important to you at one point or another in your life. You could begin with a boy.
You object? Starting with a boy does not necessarily mean that you are writing a story about love. Starting a story with a boy does not necessarily mean anything. Just that writing about another person enables you to better deal with examples, as it were.
So, this boy. You pretend that this boyâ€™s name is Andrew, which is not his real name, you do not use real names because you do not want to sound desperate and pathetic and retarded by using his real name, which would embarrass him and make him hate you. You say that he is 20, a year older than you. And maybe he has shaggy hair that he is growing, having just finished his CMT. That he has the shyest smile. You say that you were blockmates in your freshman year in college, that youâ€™ve known him for three years, and you put in the story that you are friends. He would have to play guitar and meet your mom and he always wears white, crew-necked t-shirts with ripped jeans and Converse hi-tops. When asked why you quote him in your story:
â€œBecause I hate color and I hate collars.â€
He wears the same shirts over and over, and he says its because he canâ€™t be bothered with choosing what to wear, so he just grabs whatever is on the top of the pile in his closet. Everybody makes fun of him, but you think this is cool, and endearing. Deep inside, you know that itâ€™s not funny, because he is really, really rich. He lives in Forbes Park and they only have 3 cars, all of them not new. His dad is a TV celebrity, his mom a political adviser. Theyâ€™re on the society pages a lot, and they do not glitter.
But this isnâ€™t why you like him. In fact, you say, like him in spite of all this. You like him in spite of the fact that his family has whole avenues named after them. In spite of the fact that his grandfather was a Japanese-killing general and his grandmother was the first woman doctor of the Philippines. You like him in spite of the fact that they have condominiums in Baguio, waverunners in Tali and haciendas in Tarlac.
Why you like him is easy. You like him because he doesnâ€™t care. About anything. Because he looks like a little lost boy. Because during the first few weeks of school he would talk to nobody, too shy to even raise his hand in class. Because he has never had a girlfriend. Because he is a fourth Chinese. Because he walks with a stutter. Because he is six feet tall but slouches so much he looks 5â€™10.â€ Because his hair flip-flops in front of his eyes. And you know you would like him even if he had no car and less than a hundred pesos in his pocket.
You like him as half the girls in school like him, but, you think, for totally different reasons. Girls flock in droves to where he is, make up excuses to meet him, call him up at his house and hang up when he answers. You know this, and you are proud, because he hangs out at your house to play guitar. This is why you are friends in the first place.
Once he told you (and now that you remember this you know you have to put it in your story) that he would be happy if he lived in a little nipa hut, four feet wide, without amenities, without electricity, as long as he had his amp and his guitar. And then you asked him, â€œBut wonâ€™t you need electricity to plug in your guitar?â€
You say that when you think of him, you start feeling cold and hot at the same time. You have difficulty breathing, as if you were upside down. This feeling stifles you so much you get ulcers in your stomach.
At this moment you may think that your story is not going anywhere, that you are repeating yourself. You try to explain. You like him so much youâ€™ve dissected him: his long fingers, his floppy hair. You feel that by taking him apart youâ€™ve drunk up his essence, because he is a weaker presence without you, that his life has no story without you. Your lives are tied up in inexplicable coincidences.
Like this one: in an interview for the school paper, you meet his grandmother, who discovers that the two of you are friends. She says, â€œYou must be a very nice girl, then, because Andrew doesnâ€™t like girls.â€
Wrong, you think. He likes girls enoughâ€”gorgeous ones with snapping dark eyes and curly eyelashes, long-legged girls with flashy smiles and even flashier cars, but he doesnâ€™t dare to do anything about it because he is too shy. He tells you all this because he trusts you, and you long to comfort him, give him personality, pour him some self-esteem in a bottle. But you are too short, too fat and awkward to even try.
You write that after this conversation, you got drunk and kissed as the sun rose in the Sunken Garden.
Even though this never happened. You write it down anyway, because, hey, itâ€™s your story and you can put in whatever you want. You could get married and have kids and turn into rock stars that give big benefit concerts for Brazilâ€™s rain forests. You could swim all the way to Jamiaca holding hands. Monkeys could fly out of his butt if you want them to, just because itâ€™s your story. Just because.
Or you could write the truth and say that nothing romantic had ever happened between you. That he never liked you that way. That youâ€™ve never even touched his face. But whenever he talks to you, you get so flustered you have to stare at his forehead so you donâ€™t get so distracted. And that he hardly talks to you unless he needs somethingâ€”homework, maybe, or grass, or Piaâ€™s number.
Now that you have the characters, you could put in a little dialogue, for a change of pace. This part of the story, not quite the middle, would be a nice place to put in the dialogue. The purpose of the dialogue is to make a self-contained, introspective piece come alive. Plus, being privy to secrets only story characters are supposed to know makes a reader feel like god.
You try to decide whether it would be better to put in your talks about religion, or morals, or just describe some funny story. Like the time he scream-sung â€œAliveâ€ by Pearl Jam in your living room, because he thought nobody was around. Or the time he told you that he was a Satanist, because Satan accepts all things. Finally you pick one of many kilig-instances. It is in Piaâ€™s house, and you are plating Spin-the-Bottle. You are all drunk.
Pia spins the bottle and it points to you. you pick Truth, because you are chicken shit. John, your best friend, asks,
â€œWould you kiss Andrew?â€
â€œEww, NO!â€ you say, making a face. You donâ€™t want everybody to know you like him. Plus, you donâ€™t know how to kiss.
â€œYou wouldnâ€™t kiss me?â€ Andrew asks, incredulous. Or maybe you just think he was incredulous, because you are paranoid about him realizing that you have a crush on him. For days and weeks and months afterwards, you wonder what it wouldâ€™ve been like if you HAD kissed him. You think, maybe in a dark corner, or the garden, or the empty space of his carâ€™s backseat, where he wouldâ€™ve whispered something cheesy and soft in your ear. Maybe. Maybe then you wouldâ€™ve grabbed him and touched him and stroked his hair. You would do what he asked you to.
Later John tells you that Andrew said, â€œSiguro (a blank space for your name here) didnâ€™t want to kiss me because she thinks Iâ€™m ugly.â€ Which John duly reports back to you, because you are best friends. When you hear this, you die a little. Ugly! As if! That is the last thing you think of him! And you hit yourself on the head.
By this time your reason for writing this story has to become evident. A rising action, something that constitutes a shock, a climax, a justification for the past three pages. At first you say that there is really nothing big enough to merit more description and dialog and characterizations, but youâ€™re lying. You know why you began this story. You know why.
In the middle of your association with Andrew, letâ€™s say you made some big changes in your life. Sick of the drawn out feelings you have for someone who does not like you back, and regretful you ever laid eyes on him, you move to a school where you know nobody and the grass is always green. In another city, you stop getting drunk and playing Spin-the-Bottle. You hang out with different friends. You hardly see Andrew anymore, but you donâ€™t miss himâ€”he is always on your mind anyway, and you want him out.
You go out of your way to avoid him, until one day you see him wearing black. Another day you see him in his car with a tall, skinny girl with big boobs. â€œHer name is Ana,â€ John tells you. â€œTheyâ€™re classmates in French.â€ Thinking hard, you remember that you met her once, at a concert. Back then she didnâ€™t seem worth remembering.
Andrew now looks more manlyâ€”his hair is long enough to ponytail and there are hard edges to his face. He doesnâ€™t slouch as much, and now he wears loafers instead of Converse hi-tops.
And then it is a year later. It is Piaâ€™s party and you are all invited. Ana is there, too; she arrived with Andrew. As a couple. You can tell by the way they move in sync with each other, as if they knew beforehand where the other was going; by the way their shoulders are close enough to touch but do not quite make it; by the slight way she touches his elbow when she has to leave the room. That was all, but he follows her out anyway.
Since you last saw her, it seems like Ana has grown in stature, that she takes up more space than she used to. Now Ana is the big black hole that looms in the corner of your eye.
Ever since you saw them in his car, youâ€™ve had a niggling perception in the back of your mind that Ana and Andrew were going to end up together. You knew this was going to happen. You just didnâ€™t expect to be flattened by the eventuality of it, the concreteness of the fact. Somehow, you are disappointed by his choice. Ana was pretty, but why was she so outgoingâ€¦so talkativeâ€¦soâ€¦preppy, even?
You see her in her sleeveless black top, describing some funny thing that happened to her. She is flailing her skinny arms about. She looks like the kind of girl who would match some coÃ±o boyâ€™s souped-up car, his mag wheels, his polo sport, his golf clubs. She didnâ€™t match Andrew. They stick to each other for pretty much the whole night, and you smile til your face hurts, because you donâ€™t want other people to know how much you want to push Ana into the pool. You even talk to her, for a while. John says to you, â€œyou had your chance with him,â€ but you shake your head, no.
That night you dream of Andrew and Ana in the party and you wake up with a big headache. But you need more than two aspirins to get rid of them, walking together, still in sync, in your head. Your chest feels numb and tired. Maybe if you stabbed yourself with a knife you would feel blood gushing out and you would know you were alive.
You do not know why you are this upset. It is not unusual; youâ€™ve felt this way about Andrew plenty of times before. Although you havenâ€™t in a long time, and you thought you were over him. But you donâ€™t just feel bothered, you feel cheated. Maybe you wouldâ€™ve felt better if Andrew was with a hippie chick straight out of a Groove Nation catalog, someone with a little more originality. Someone more like you. at the party, Andrew was wearing a bright blue collared shirt and his smile was easy on his face. Maybe you would feel better if he didnâ€™t look so much like another person. Maybe you would feel better if he WERE a different person altogether.
Then you remember your story, which should be wrapping up. For a beginner, it shouldnâ€™t be too bad. You would have the denouement right hereâ€”the final resolution of the plot, but not yet the end. You try to think of a proper ending but nothing comes to mind. You look for a good way to get out of the confines of Andrew and Ana and the bad dreams and white shirts, but there is really nothing. There are no vacations, there is no fresh air.
Then you realize that instead of you controlling the story, it is controlling you. a short story is supposed to be a symbol of the universal life, but that is a myth, you understand? There are no universals. The end does not exist. This is your life. You try to get a hold of yourself, but you cannot push the idea out of your head when the idea had made you.
– Previously published in the Philippine Free Press, 1998