“To essay is to try, to attempt. You write the personal essay not because you have the answer, but because you want someone to witness it.”—Eliza Victoria, during the 26th Ateneo HEIGHTS Writers Workshop.
I learned to write based on an expectation. To be smart was to be able to communicate that smartness and show it off in a way that seems smart. When I realized early on that I was good at school, I conflated it with being smart and needing to show it.
Writing was one way to seem smart.
I don’t regret it that much, though. It opened me up to the possibility of writing as a means of creative expression, even if I started to love it through the lens of academic achievement. There was always a calibration in my head when I wrote—specific rules to follow, best practices, the optimization of following what was expected based on provided rubrics while exceeding those expectations. There was always a plan, a clearly defined purpose when I wrote—almost always tied to scholastic achievement.
But when the academic pretenses fell away, I realized that I still loved to write. And I wanted to learn how to write without being prompted by a textbook.
Going into the Ateneo Heights Writers Workshop, I came with essays I started without a step-by-step plan or a decided direction. They didn’t have clear, singular topics from the get-go, and I was able to write them without signposting every single point and insight along the way. There was a freedom in not naming what could have clearly been named outright—in trusting the process of writing, remembering, and exploring to name these things for you, if they had to be explicitly labeled at all.
“Forgive me, father, when your sins are mine” was an exploration into my relationship with my father and how it shaped my experiences with mental illness—if at all. It is a case study in the way our parents shape us, if they do, and if the way they shape us is actually contingent upon how much we allow them to. And if we do control how much our parents affect us, how much will we feel about how they interact with us—at what cost?
It definitely wasn’t a perfect process in the way that I did it at the time. I stumbled into a lot of roadblocks along the way—where I could not find the words for what I wanted to say, or where my fear of uncertainty on what to call something, to claim it as something I know or have realized as wisdom, overwhelmed me. In a world of words, I was, more often than not, suffocated by the lack of them.
The workshop helped me realize that this phenomenon of the uncertain, the unknown, and the difficult to comprehend and express were present in both the human experience and writing as craft. And that it was normal to not be able to name certain things—because that uncertainty is one of the reasons we write. When words fail, we use the closest ones to describe, recollect, and reflect. We use experiences and feelings. We use metaphors and the feeling that certain combinations of them evoke. We approximate words using other words, and trust the readers’ innate humanity to connect the dots that we might not be able to connect ourselves.
And while this workshop definitely taught me the right way to say things, it also taught me the importance of not saying things, and finding alternative ways to say them, even if they are obscure. When I am unsure of how to interpret the world around and inside of me, I will be able to find reasons to explore what I thought was unexplorable. I will find reasons to write about what cannot be said in simple terms.
There is so much in common between living and writing. There are human experiences we will find hard to explain, and topics that seem impossible to write about. And while the academe often teaches us to always find just the right solution, that exact justification for what is going on, the accurate wording to get a clear and concise point across, writing tells us that it is okay for words to come up short on the first attempt. Experiences are meant to be explored, felt, and bridged together by human understanding. And perhaps, that is what is most comforting: to know that the world is more than our words, but just enough for humanity to never run out of things to explore.