The biggest secret to my award-winning writings is reading. Reading beyond my comfort zone, reading difficult pieces, reading the overrated classics. Even an occasional cursory reading of trash literature.
If I am lucky, I read something that shakes me to my core, provides new insights, changes my beliefs and perspective, gives me that rare A-ha! moment. And then, I would strongly aspire to write something like it, and something decidedly better. When I am polishing my drafts, I am conscious of my intended and future readers. I want them to be quivering in delight, or with mouth gaping in shock, intellectually challenged, or simply enchanted and amazed at the power of well-strung words, and well-wrought sentences.
Ironically, to win the prestigious Palanca, I have to treat its standards as the lowest possible requirement for my work. To win (and knowingly decide that I have won even before the judges could read my work), I aim to do better than the works that inspire me. The judges’ validation is always a good thing, especially for fragile, insecure, and/or beginning writers. On the other hand, good writers, especially if they are wide readers, instinctively know when they have written real-life winners.
History and art sometimes repeat themselves. I know that I repeat myself—and maybe I repeat others, too. I know that I often dress up old themes in new clothes. I can do that because I study the times, the trends, and the generations. The changing world, the evolving morals, and the emerging needs.
From my readings and experience of the world, I decide what I could give the universe (or my Filipino readers). In every contest piece I write, I work with purpose and passion like it is the last piece I will ever compose before dying—even if I’m actually working on three projects at a time. The sense (and pressure) of “my only one chance to change the mind of readers and save the world”—that gives me the adrenaline rush to work to the finish, and the endorphin high of an artist at work.
"To save the world!"—the nobility of such goal! If my writing can’t aim to save the world, why should I waste time creating it? Ten percent of the time, that is how I write.
Ninety percent of the time, I write for fun. But to be clear, what fun writing produces isn’t Palanca-worthy for me. I still do it, though, if only to practice my sentence architecture, or to jazzercise my vocabulary, and give myself a chance to stumble upon fresh metaphors.
Personally, I feel it is easier to win the Palanca nowadays than in the past century. (I won my first Palanca gold in 1998.) There are probably more cultural theory readers/judges than formalist experts on board now. With the Internet explosion at the start of the millennium, and the pandemic experience at the beginning of our new decade, I truly believe that anything is possible in 21st century Philippine literature, if it is not already at the tip of our fingers.
Twenty-two Palanca awards, including the Hall of Fame, in 25 years is not the whole story. My real story is persistence, versatility, and flexibility in the 21st century global, and multiple, realities. And so, still I read. And so, still I write.