So you want to write? Michael Syjuco has some advice for you

Filipino author Miguel Syjuco believes real life experiences can inspire the best writing. — Pictures by Choo Choy May
Filipino author Miguel Syjuco believes real life experiences can inspire the best writing. — Pictures by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, July 27 — “Writing is a very solitary thing,” says Filipino writer Michael Syjuco.

Syjuco first came into prominence in 2008 when his debut novel Ilustrado won the Man Asian Literary Prize (awarded to the best unpublished English-language book by an Asian author). Solitude, he advises, entails “parking your butt in your chair and not moving till you’ve written something” — and it is this wisdom and more that he shares with new writers.

Born and raised in Manila, the 37-year-old author was recently in town for the Cooler Lumpur Festival where he gave the opening keynote of the #Fast Talks Lecture series. He also led intensive workshop sessions at the Writer’s Residency at The Dusun retreat in Seremban before the festival began.

Writing workshops is a passion of Syjuco’s. “I started writing in my room alone but then at university, I took a writing workshop. Later when I did my master’s in creative writing at Columbia University in New York, that was all workshops. So when I graduated and did my PhD at the University of Adelaide, I taught at the same time. I enjoy teaching workshops because I get to meet other writers and share my experiences.”

Currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University, Syjuco has come a long way since completing his undergraduate degree in English Literature in Manila. He shares, “I’ve been trying to write since I was 17 — that’s some 20 years. It’s not an overnight thing, but rather a journey.”

After completing his first degree, Syjuco joined some friends in their online city guide venture as the editor-in-chief. “Remember, this was in 1998 so the Internet was still new. I had to teach myself how to write features and profiles, how to review, and more just by reading. It was really trial by fire. At the same time I was writing short stories and applying for master’s degrees in the US.”

On the strength of his portfolio, Syjuco got accepted into Columbia University. He moved to New York where he continued his education by interning at The New Yorker and The Paris Review, as well as working as an editorial assistant and a research assistant at Esquire magazine.

“It was a wonderful time; I was really learning all I could. Then I fell in love with an Australian girl and moved to Australia to be with her. I took up my PhD there while working at a newspaper as a staff writer. That was the best training, honestly. I mean, I had taken all sorts of classes and workshops but working at a real newspaper was the best.”

In Syjuco’s mind there is no better teacher than actual journalism experience. “It taught me not to be precious about words. It taught me to write to deadlines, to length, to whatever brief I was given. It taught me to take editorial direction, and it also showed me the real world, the stories that are out there. Very often I get people who tell me, ‘I can’t think of any stories. Where do you get your stories?’ I’m like, ‘Oh god, just go out there, into the streets, look at the newspapers!’ I feel very often writers are very secluded and they don’t go out into the world enough.”

What is his advice for young or new writers without that sort of real world exposure? He says, “Sometimes with undergraduates, they study writing and then maybe they take a master’s in creative writing but unfortunately that is sort of all they know. So what do they write about? As a fiction writer, I like to teach students to think like journalists, to find the story. Yes, they are making up things in the end because it’s fiction but if they are looking for stories and understanding issues, then it’s not just about characters in a book but about characters in the real world dealing with real world problems.”

Syjuco looks at writing, especially novels, as a tool to understand the very complicated issues of the world. “When we write, we are unpacking these issues and presenting them in an entertaining, interesting, moving way. I think that’s the power of fiction — it’s more personal than the newspaper; it’s not as abstract as facts. I like to be able to teach students to think like journalists but write like fiction writers.”

Syjuco’s debut novel Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize
Syjuco’s debut novel Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize

However, he acknowledges becoming a journalist may not be an option for everyone. “The thing is, with the way newspapers going the way they are, it’s harder to get journalism jobs now. So if they want to be fiction writers, I think if they can become journalists and write fiction, that’s great. But if they can’t, they can be citizen journalists. They can become bloggers and study journalism as a craft, and I think any fiction writer who does that, in the end will benefit greatly.”

One common excuse given by participants in Syjuco’s workshops for not writing is the fact they have day jobs that don’t involve writing. He shares, “One of them was a lawyer and he talked about how that work was not important because he really wanted to be a writer. But I told him that’s the stuff that would make you a really good writer — that experience being a lawyer, seeing how the legal system works or doesn’t work, that’s the stuff that’s really exciting. I was quite surprised to see how they didn’t value their real world experience as much as they should have.”

Syjuco admits that before he was a published author, the challenges he faced in life used to depress him. “These days everything that life throws at me I embrace because I know I can use it — ‘What is this pain that I’m going through?’ — and then turn it into something profound or moving or funny. I try to understand the world, and every bit of understanding I can glean I share it with the world, and that’s beautiful. It’s been very healthy for me.”

Another way he had come up with to deal with depression and other problems such as writer’s block is exercise. “I’ve recently gotten into parkour (a movement-based exercise developed from military obstacle course training) and it’s something I love. It’s all about landing, learning how to fall and being fluid like a ninja. Usually I’m conscious of whatever’s going on in my life but when I exercise, I don’t think about my problems, I don’t think about my writing. I’m just thinking about making the next jump. I’m completely in the moment and it’s the only time that I’m actually like that. It has really helped me.”

The rejuvenated Syjuco has been at Harvard University since September and completed his second novel there. “It’s titled The President’s Mistress!! (with the subtitle A Celebrity Tell-All Memoir). It’s a very sexy look at power and corruption in the Third World. I hope to write a trilogy — my first book Ilustrado was about 150 years of Filipino history, that’s in the past; my second, The President’s Mistress!!, is set in the present; and the third will be set in the future about climate change and how developing countries like ours are planning or not planning for the next 50 years.”

Writing may be a solitary activity but it’s surely one that impacts everyone who reads the end results. Thank goodness for writers like Syjuco who continue to park their butts in their chairs and share their stories with the world.

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