Do writers lie?

Is your writing full of shit?

Do you write the words that your client or boss wants you to write, even if you know that these are half-truths, or are meant to manipulate people or have them believe in lies? Are you an accomplice to cultural manipulation or widespread control of consumer behavior? Journalists, screenwriters, copywriters, PR writers, even writers who work for NGOs, and many other writers working in similar positions often find themselves stuck between the devil, which is lying, and the deep blue sea, which is not having income.

Because once writers—save for those who are either upright or lucky, or both—choose writing as a money-making profession, then writing the truth is probably the hardest thing that they will ever do. The truthful writer will be hated, they will be unpopular, they might even get sued or killed, and they will most definitely not make a lot of money.

A friend once told me that even if I had to sell poison to earn money to give my son a good life, I should do it. He said that it would be a bigger sin to refuse to do what I could to raise my child well. Another friend told me that because I have chosen to do what I did, which was write copy for a living, then I should do it well. Otherwise, get out, he said. I think he’s absolutely right. No one can tell us what to do and not do. Whatever we decide on, and whatever consequence we need to face because of this decision, we alone are responsible for it. It’s all a matter of how much of it we can take—whatever it means to you.

We face the karma of our actions. It can be the “good” karma of having our own luxury vehicle and a nice place inside a posh subdivision. It can be the karma of not living the luxurious life that we could have had because we chose to go another way. It could be the karma of having peace in our hearts, or the karma of feeling guilt every time we think of the fact that we are helping sell poison, in the guise of chemical-laden junk food for example, to innocent children and clueless mothers every day. Or sometimes it’s the karma of a big name and the shiny trophies that go with it. Some writers embrace what works—sex, drama, sensationalism, gossip, mindless content—for the sake of ratings.

And we come up with various reasons to justify the lies that we tell. I call this the commercialization of truth. It is when we say, for example, that people have free will and that they have the freedom to believe or not believe what we put out there. It doesn’t take a lot to see that this tells only half of the story.

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When we are truthful, we are open. This is daigo, great enlightenment, the daily activity of the Buddhas.

In his collection of essays, The Mind of Clover, Robert Aitken, Zen teacher, author, and activist, wrote that “Self-deception, deception of others, cheating, gossip, and carelessness with language are all disloyal to the peace in our heart of hearts.” In this book the fifth chapter is titled “The Fourth Grave Precept: Not Lying,” wherein Aitken wrote that the wisdom of Not Lying comes from innate honesty, and that this deep honesty is also creative.

The way the message is expressed, along with the message itself–these come from integrity. Those who are not in touch with themselves cannot speak faithfully. Truth, therefore, comes from knowing the self. What kind of message then can we expect from those who see no value in self-examination?

Aitken’s brand of truth in communication is being referred to as the “compassionate truth.” I interpret it as the art of writing the truth with love. Aitken wrote that unlike lying, which brings disorganization and suffering to families, communities, nations, and the world, the practice of truth, on the other hand, organizes the community and helps promote the consciousness of the interrelationship of all beings.

As a writer, I encountered this lesson for the first time when I was 20 years old. I enrolled in a creative writing class under the renowned playwright and novelist Tony Perez, and I clearly remember him saying that truth is the most important element in one’s writing. It seems so simple, but it has taken me two decades to understand how deep this lesson is.

To those who struggle with truth in their writing—sometimes I go through this still—take heart. It’s not easy, but if there is anything that I learned from the experience, it’s that once you make a conscious choice to tell the compassionate truth and not the commercial version of it, you will be rewarded in unexpected ways.

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What now, Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines?

In 2012, out of frustration and sheer anguish, I started the Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines. I just arrived from an assignment in Mindanao, tired and upset about the treatment I got from the client that commissioned my services. I was restless: Why isn’t there a freelance writers’ union in the Philippines that can defend the rights of the writers and look after their welfare?

The issues are diverse: writing fees have remained stagnant for maybe two decades, quality is deteriorating, clients usually take forever to pay or sometimes never, many freelance writers know next to nothing about their rights as well as the conduct of business, most writers are underpaid while some overcharge, and possibly the most crucial issue, the Philippines has become the content mills’ important source of cheap labor.

There was a period of intense activity for the Guild when we were able to accomplish a few things. The people who used to run it with me dropped out one by one. The group remained open, although less active, and concentrated on sharing opportunities for freelance writers: mothers who can’t leave their kids at home but still need to make money, underpaid employees and breadwinners who need more than one (or two, or three) sources of income to get by, those who have physical or psycho-social limitations and cannot hold a typical 9-to-5 post, and many other writers needing access to work opportunities and, more importantly, a community of individuals who are in the same unsteady boat.

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Today the Guild does not have a formal structure but I see the strong potential of the 10,686 members (with 707 pending applications). I don’t think there has ever been an effort this strong to unite the freelance writers of the Philippines. All we writers need to do is to get our shit together and we can definitely take on the issues one by one. There is, as we all know, power in numbers.

If you want to talk about these issues with me and the other freelance writers who have signified their intention to move the Guild forward, we are meeting on January 17, 2016 at the Yuxin Center in Katipunan, from 2:00 p.m. onwards. This is also a general assembly of sorts and a holiday get-together at the same time.

Bring your smarts. I will see you there.

Teaching the teachers

I was recently invited to give a 3-hour workshop to a small group of teachers who need some guidance on how to improve their writing skills. Teachers—even those who are non-writers—are usually required to accomplish important writing tasks.

To give some context, this particular set of teachers carries the burden of writing individual reports (about their young students) that are comprehensive, engaging, and accurate. Failure to do so might lead to lost opportunities for the student, in terms of sponsors cutting off financial assistance, etc.

The point is, when you are writing with such an enormous responsibility in your hands, you need to know what you’re doing. Otherwise, opportunities could disappear and dreams could end. It’s best to exclusively entrust certain kinds of writing to able hands and minds.

(I previously posted Before and After writing samples written by one of the teachers in this workshop. Unfortunately, she did not see the opportunity to push the message for the benefit of a greater number of people and asked me to take down her samples.)

 

The space between compassion and surrender

We think we understand it well. Be compassionate. Help others. We remember Jesus saying that whatever we do for the least of His brethren, we do also for Him. In my writing life I try to write “compassionately.” Working full-time to write for a cause. Choosing my themes for my feature articles. Rejecting clients and brands whose values are not aligned with mine. Writing for so-called change. But it has never been that simple because compassion is a double-edged sword.

During a recent workshop-meeting with fellow writers, we talked about karma. I said that sometimes we need to go through difficult experiences so we could atone for previous mistakes. That if we didn’t, the debt will remain unpaid. And the Universe is such a strict record keeper.

Many times I am immobilized by the knowledge that my acts of compassion may be interfering with other people’s opportunity to settle their karma. Often I find myself in this space where I am torn between helping in a direct way, and helping by doing nothing. Where does compassion end and surrender begin?

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The writer’s pen has power. Wield it wisely. Words have energy; channel them towards the right places. To be able to discern where to write, what to write, for whom to write, the writer needs to know where to move from this weightless place.

ACER’s Work #LikeABoss Campaign: A Lesson in Responsibility

Those who have been following the conversation in social media (Work #withdignity) would know that a number of freelance writers, primarily those from the Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines, were up in arms last week over the unfair and inaccurate representation of a freelancer in Acer Philippines’ Work #LikeABoss campaign. Today, almost everyone is in agreement that the advertising materials that came out do not paint an honest picture of what a freelancer really “looks” like. Acer Philippines took down all of the 7 photos from their Facebook album and replaced them with more positive illustrations and messages. That’s all good, and I personally thanked them for being open to criticism and for responding to our call.

But as far as I’m concerned, this is not about Acer. It’s about us.

This incident is an opportunity for all writers to examine their work ethics and performance. It should lead us to question why this fishball-and-martini picture exists in the consciousness of some people. It should make us realize that the incompetence and recklessness of a few will put to waste the good work of the majority.

Now that we have defended the professional image of freelancers, I hope that everyone will live up to the good name that we are trying to protect. Since all this started, one phrase has planted itself securely in my head: If you want to be respected, start by respecting yourself.

There is nothing respectful about saying yes to one-sided, unfair terms.
There is nothing respectful about accepting peanuts for your good work.
There is nothing respectful about demanding fees that you know you don’t deserve.
There is nothing respectful about shortchanging your clients.
There is nothing respectful about doing work for organizations that are not working for the greater good.

I could go on, but I don’t want to sound like a tita. Just… learn the lesson, guys.

Work #withdignity

The real master

I have studied with 7 tai chi teachers through the years. They all have great skill, humility, heart. Although it is essentially one martial art, there are distinctions in teaching style, execution, and technique. And naturally, teachers take pride in their individual methods and would go to certain lengths to shield it from criticism.

But there was one who did not.

He would keep quiet when others would be pitting one style or technique against another. When someone would teasingly put down one practitioner, this master would rather see his good points. As an observer, I was amazed by the tremendous amount of respect he gives to those who are within the tai chi family, regardless of style or method.

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From him I learned that the real master resists the temptation to brag even if he knows that he is good. He would make everyone feel that practitioners belong to one community and must support each other like brothers and sisters. He shows respect for his sacred art by showing utmost regard for fellow practitioners, whether they are beginners in the journey or long-time travellers.

I am sure you know that I am not only talking about tai chi.

This teacher did not only teach me tai chi, he also showed me what it means to be a writer.

Intention, not inspiration

When you write with inspiration (from the root word that means divine guidance), the words bloom into an impressive arrangement. But the problem for many writers is that inspiration is not always around. You sit and wait and continue to stare blankly at the page. For me, things like deadlines have always been very “inspiring.” And through many years of daily writing, I have learned to write even when inspiration is somewhere else.

Lately, however, I have been writing more and more from another place: intention. Coming from the root word that means purpose, intention implies two things. First, the will to write; and second, the goal of the writer. If the will is there and the purpose is clear, the writing becomes intentional and not wholly dependent on mood or inspiration.

Writing from intention involves sitting quietly before even thinking of the first word to put on paper. This is my meditation on the piece, where I link the work of my heart to that of my mind. At this point it becomes clear to me why I am even bothering to write a particular piece. If it’s for money, fine. I become at peace with that because I know that the work of my hands will put food on the table for my son, et cetera. But I have realized that if one includes this step in the writing process, it becomes so much easier to get rid of writing activities that are not aligned with one’s true self.

Laying my card on the table
Laying my card on the table

Writing from intention also whittles away writing goals that arise from ego. A few days ago I was sitting in front of my computer trying to compose a reply for a friend who hurt me in a rather profound way. The way it always happens with me is that I start “writing” in my head even before my hands begin to really write. After sitting in silence, however, all of my planned comebacks vanished and were replaced by a short, truthful, and constructive message that did not only prevent the escalation of conflict, but also provided space for understanding.