Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Fiction in Nonfiction

There are people who show contempt for woks of fiction, and quickly quip that the only manuscripts they read are works of nonfiction, be it history books, newspapers, or books classified under the nonfiction section of the library. But as my media teachers, history professors, and writing mentors have taught me, we are all surrounded by works of fiction, although many are not readily aware of it. Most people look to nonfiction for truth: but truth is an already elusive concept in real life, how much more when it gets penned down by far from objective authors?

First and foremost, we must remember that books and publications are written by people. They are not divinely scribed by an omniscient deity, and thus are subject to bias. Even the most factual of documents are subject to this shortcoming. Take historical accounts. An old adage is that history is written by the victors. And it’s true. Not so long ago, Magellan was a hero to Filipinos, the man who discovered the Philippine Islands. Of course presently in that same island where one of the first battles between Spain and this archipelago was waged lies two graves: one honoring Magellan, the other Lapu-Lapu for fending off foreign conquerors. Magellan might be the hero for the West, but to history books in this country, Lapu-Lapu is not an ignorant savage but the first of many heroes who would rebel against Spain.

Sometimes, it’s not even the limitation of the writer but of the medium. Newspapers, for example, can only have one front page. As much as I want people to read everything that’s contained in the newspaper, a lot of people usually just focus on the front page. This is where the headlines are placed, but have you ever asked who gets to choose what gets splattered on in front? Similarly, the editors can’t report about everything that happens in the nation. Some news articles make its way to the inside pages, others buried or filed under “future use”. An editor could easily place an unwanted (but forced to publish) story somewhere in the middle of the broadsheet, consigning it to a subtle demise.

And since we’re talking about newspapers, nothing is as unforeseen as the present. They say hindsight is 20/20, and perhaps that is an advantage history books have over tabloids and broadsheets. I mean the dailies are forced to report about the present, and more often than not, we don’t have all the facts. We have conjectures, theories, and suspicions, and we try as best as we can to tie in all the facts. As much as our conclusions are true, they could also be wrong. History books, at least, have the benefit of sifting through the various discoveries. Even then, they are made obsolete with new discoveries of their respective field.

If that’s the case with history and with newspapers, how much more with other works of nonfiction? Again, many people have this misconception that just because a work is labeled as nonfiction that everything that needs to be written must be true. They forget that nonfiction is still literary, and thus subject to the same constraints of telling a story. When I read an account, a biography, or a report, I can’t always expect the writer to throw in everything that’s true. No, I expect to read about it in a cohesive and logical manner. That means lots of edited parts, and perhaps an embellishment here and there. In reading the exploits of an adventurer, for example, do I really need to know that the person went to the bathroom five times a day? At not if you’re trying to built up suspense and excitement. Similarly, when we blog about our day, we don’t always tell the tale chronological of events: we merely mention what is the most significant, what has the most impact. And sometimes, whether intentional or not, we tie them up with fictional interludes, or at least making it appear so.

Memory is also the most fragile of things, and most of us draw inspiration from remembered accounts, recalled events. When we finally get to write a work of nonfiction, they are far from perfectly accurate. Hallucinations, epiphanies, or faulty memory usually get in our way of telling a story as it is. And even then, other people would have witnessed the same event differently. People will have different truths, even if they arise from the same circumstances.

So is truth truly as elusive as it seems, since we cannot even trust the written word? I believe in ideological truths. The small instances might not always be true, but the larger message is. When I read about a man driven by greed and selfishness, just because I read it in a book, be it fiction or nonfiction, does not mean such people do not exist in reality. They do. The same goes for other emotions, such as kindness, love, and suffering. Or sometimes it’s not the bigger picture that’s true. I might fabricate the most unbelievable conspiracy story, and while the theory might be fictional, the smaller instances in the narrative, such as corruption in government, the abuses people suffer, or the double-standard humans live with, is something readers are familiar with.

First and foremost, I think reading challengers readers to think. The easiest thing to do is to simply believe what other people have to say; to let others do the thinking for you. Some people hide under the cover of nonfiction, when the fact of the matter is, there is more truth in fiction that one could ever realize.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

[Essay] Humanity's Constant Struggle

There’s this one statement which I often hear, usually in the context of a break-up: “I won’t change for anyone except myself.” Now that strikes me as arrogance, as if change was something to be avoided, or something we can control.

What is change? Is it good or bad? In theory, it could be either one, or sometimes, both. Yet within each human being is a desire to remain as is, to resist change, even if it’s for the better. It’s a perfectly natural tendency. When there is a lack of change, there are no surprises. Everything goes as predicted, and it’s easy to succumb to complacency and comfort. Unfortunately, this also breeds stagnation, and we stop growing, stop evolving into a better person. Change might be the logical choice, but fear of the unknown usually gets the better of us. “Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t know” is an obvious cliché that results from this mentality.

In reality, change is inevitable. Even the most ardent of resistors will change. Time will age us, cause us to develop new habits, or alter old ones. Yet it is possible to slow down its progress. In that, the most adamant succeed. Change over the physical body, we have little control of. Change over our minds, we have considerable power over. Not total control, mind you, but nonetheless a considerable sum. Take for example the story of Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz. At the hands of his foreign captors, he was asked to renounce his faith in God. No matter what form of coercion they employed, no matter what form of torture they practiced, he did not relent. Lorenzo Ruiz died a Christian. Did they succeed in battering his body? Yes. Were they successful in changing his belief and perspective? No. Yet even if St. Lorenzo Ruiz survived that ordeal and was set free, there would have been a part of his mind that would have been changed. It might have been the trauma of being tortured, or perhaps the shock at seeing his companions suffer. His faith in God might have remained, but there are other aspects of his mind that could have been altered, irregardless of whether he’s conscious of it or not.

There are two ways to change: voluntarily, or involuntarily. The latter is perceived as undesirable, sometimes even evil. For example, when a hurricane hits your home and transforms your life into a pauper, we see that as a curse. Or perhaps when a girlfriend or boyfriend asks you to change this certain quality of yours, we still consider it an involuntary change because it did not stem from our own initiative. Compare that to a person who suddenly decides he or she wants to change for the better. It might be a realization that he or she should live a healthy life, hence exercising daily from that point on. But is such a dichotomy valid, that voluntarily change is always good, and involuntary change bad?

In truth, it all boils down to two factors: foresight and pride. If a man suddenly wins the lottery, does he curse the fates for giving him such an unexpected windfall? Foresight tells him that it’s a good thing, so he takes pleasure in such an occasion, even if the circumstances behind it was involuntary. But human foresight is not infinite, and a few years later, the same man might find himself living a lonely and horrible life, thanks to the familial squabbles such riches brought him. Or take a detrimental occasion, such as losing your job. One immediately thinks that it’s a bad thing, that getting fired is far from an auspicious circumstance. You might curse your employer and fellow employees when that happens, but a few years later, look back at it and think that it’s the best thing that ever happened to you, especially when a bigger company hires you for your now-available expertise, or paves the way for you to start your own business. In either scenario, we lacked the foresight to recognize if it’s a good or a bad thing, and simply assume the immediate repercussions.

But what about pride? Well, some people take comfort that their decisions are voluntary, whether it reaps rewards or ruin. As much as we decide to do what’s good and right, we also decide to do things that are detrimental not only to ourselves but to our society as well. For example, our vices are our own choices, whether it’s drinking or smoking. I could easy think one day that hey, I should start smoking. And this perpetuates until the end of my life. Health-wise, it’s not the smartest thing to do, but we condone such a habit because it was ours to begin with. Compare that to our parents or doctor ordering us to eat our vegetables. While eating vegetables is a healthy option, we resent doing so, not just because of the taste, but the fact that doing so wasn’t our decision or that someone else was compelling us. This kind of mentality is magnified when a part of us changes due to someone we have a dark past with. It might be a former employer, a previous lover, a relative we’ve quarreled with, or a friend turned nemesis. For example, when living with your girlfriend, you might have had to give up a bad habit like smoking, or learned a new skill like cooking. When you break up with her, there’s a desire to rebel, as if to assert your own individuality, or to scorn the other person. You start smoking again, especially when you encounter your ex, or perhaps you never turn on the stove again, for it brings back too many memories. In this case, we reverted to our old selves due to a conscious choice that traces its roots to pride.

Of course I’m not saying that as long as the end-results are good, it shouldn’t matter whether the cause was voluntary or involuntary. People can typically be classified under one of two categories: those who act, and those who react. The latter are more likely to respond to involuntary change. When unpleasant circumstances hit them, that’s the only time they grow. That’s not to say that’s entirely bad: some reactive people, when encountering a disaster, might be so determined that they turn a disadvantage into an advantage. When a typhoon hits their home, he or she rebuilds the entire city. The other type of person builds things out of their own initiative: they don’t wait for favorable conditions, but instead start working now. They change irregardless of the current circumstance.

People usually fall somewhere between the two: I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s purely voluntary. Unfortunately, meeting someone who’s perpetually involuntary is a possibility. Perhaps the problem with being involuntary is the fact that you wait for an external stimulus for you to change. You might be good at coping with crisis, but if it never arrives, then you’ll never grow as well. Of course a voluntary person can learn a thing or two from the involuntary person as well. Conditions, after all, are dynamic and ever-changing. One needs to adapt to the situation if one were to succeed, and in the endeavors that a voluntary person will start, those types of encounters cannot be avoided.

A voluntary person, however, has one important quality that needs to be respected. He or she has pride. And make no mistake, while pride can get in the way of getting the job done, pride is what gives us our dignity and our humanity. Do I really want to live a life where everything I accomplish or do is dictated by someone else? Voluntary people change because it is their decision to do so, but taken to the extreme, are the types that will claim “I will change for no one except myself”. Hence healthy doses of being voluntary and involuntary is needed. A person will grow, sometimes by their own choices, and sometimes by uncontrolled events.

Change is honestly a difficult concept to embrace. If you observe most people’s lives, growth is usually achieved when adversity is encountered. And I don’t think I’ve met anyone who asks for problems. Even the most voluntary of people, who for example might start up their own business, will not look forward to the trials he or she will face. They merely see it as a hurdle to overcome, to be avoided if possible. Yet difficulties cause us to grow, to evolve, to become better people. Perhaps the only thing that can console us during such times is our mentality. The question we should ask isn’t “why me?” but rather “what can I learn from this, and how can I grow from it?”. It’s easier said than done, but growth usually comes with a steep price.

If change is such a primal force and humans claim to possess free will, is it possible to choose not to change? The very act of choosing not to change already alters us, because previously, we did not have that sort of mindset. But philosophical babblings aside, does our inability to resist change limit our free will? Actually, there is a way to resist change, and many people take this recourse. When adversity strikes them, they give up instead of adapting to the situation. It’s called suicide. Disregarding the metaphysical and the afterlife, death has a certain finality. A corpse can’t change his or her views: it’s already locked in place at the time of death. Your body can rot and decay but your mind ceases to change. When the Japanese executed St. Lorenzo Ruiz, did they continue to abuse the corpse? Probably not, because you can’t convert a dead man. His faith and belief had already been established. They could have killed Ruiz’s family, city, and nation, but that means nothing to a dead man, and would not convert him to their beliefs. In death, our body undergoes one last transformation, and then everything else ceases. Perhaps the last act of someone who commits suicide is not to be free from this world, but rather to be free from change and the circumstances that cause it.

If death is the opposite of change, what does that tell us about life? It’s easy to perceive people, places, beliefs, and ideologies as static entities, when in reality, the only thing constant about them is that they are in a state of flux.