Sometime in 1963, I wrote a letter lauding some deed of then-Secretary of Education Alejandro Roces and sent it to The Manila Times, not really expecting much that it would be minded at all. But wonder of all wonders, the letter got published in just a few days. And there, in letters bold and bright, was my first-ever byline in print.
I don’t know about other writers’ feeling at having that experience, but mine was heavenly. It’s probably just as much glorifying as a mother feels while beholding her newborn for the first time. And for that reason, I must cherish this day five score and eighteen years ago. The Manila Times was born so that perchance for me, if I were a fish, to have waters to swim in once the writing bug bit.
You might say, what’s a letter to the editor anyway? It’s just a piece of scrap ultimately meant for the trash bin for containing not a bit of literary value. But mine was no ordinary letter. It was a miracle worker. It convinced me early on that I could write. And write I did for the rest of my life since then.
“I could curse you,” said my father upon knowing that I would no longer be a civil engineer, which he wished. I kept quiet at the reprimand, keeping my words to myself: “Just you wait, Tatay. Just you wait.” I never got to say the words. I could not tell Tatay just how long his waiting would be.
To be sure, it would not be easy. I had no schooling at all in writing, and the only pretense at literary craft I had done before was a skit, which I directed as a class presentation when I was in Grade Five.
But I had been a glutton for reading. Comics, Sunday newspaper supplements, you name it, I’ve read it. Reader’s Digest? Certainly. The encyclopedia? More so. Bedtime stories? Best maybe, but this was never a consideration when upon graduation from the elementary grades, I got the supreme honor of being the “Most Voracious Reader.”
“The best way to learn how to write is to keep on reading and writing.”
That was the advice I got from the late Vicente Rivera Jr., Literary Editor of the Weekly Graphic Magazine in 1965. Evidently concerned that I might be getting discouraged by the avalanche of rejections of my contributions to his section, Vic would write me such notes and attach them to the manuscripts that he sent back. Finally out of school, having permanently aborted my engineering studies, I was then working as a stay-in janitor-messenger in a travel agency in Binondo. That stay-in status gave me whole nights of pounding the typewriter for churning out short story manuscripts so endlessly it must seem that a friend of the agency owner who was doing PR for a brewery company would taunt me with ridicule: “The only good thing you are doing is you are helping the paper industry.” I would gape at the remark, quite baffled. And he would blurt out in harsh laughter, saying, “Imagine the tons of bond paper that you consume with what you are doing.”
“Just you wait, Jimmy Boy. Just you wait.”
At this point, I am constrained to flash forward. The time was 1970. That guy Jimmy had been waiting at the editorial offices of the Makabayan Publishing Corporation, publisher of the Weekly Nation, one of three leading magazines during the period. He did take time to wait, three, four hours maybe, so as to get an appointment for Luis Nepomuceno, producer of the Nepomuceno Productions of which he was the PRO, with the entertainment editor of the Weekly Nation — named Mauro Gia Samonte.
Vic Rivera’s advice had borne fruit. I had kept reading and writing until, at long last, in 1965 I had my first-ever short story published in the Weekly Graphic, “Forest of the Heart.” That story would, a decade later, form the core of the screenplay of “Tag-Ulan Sa Tag-Araw,” the Vilma Santos-Christopher de Leon blockbuster film that I would write for direction by Celso Ad. Castillo. And the performance of the movie would tee me off in a career, both in screenwriting and in film direction, successful enough for Tatay to say he had not waited in vain. He got the pleasure of being included together with Nanay in one of the movies I directed.
But didn’t I say, “If I were a fish”? I did, indeed. And as a fish, I was gasping for breath when Henry Sy suddenly dealt the Philippine film industry a death blow by banning adult movies in SM theaters, which comprise 80 percent of movie exhibition outlets; and adult movies were what the Philippine cinema was mainly about.
But then again there was The Manila Times, ever eager to provide the fish that I had always been in waters in which to catch my breath. In 2010, Mr. Dante A. Ang offered me to write an entertainment column–hardly realizing that he was actually continuing a tradition begun in 1963. The encouragement I imbibed in such beginning had stuck with me all the way through my varying ventures into yet uncharted facets of a writing career.
When literary writing didn’t prove particularly rewarding, I got myself into movie reporting, which eventually landed me top posts as editor of entertainment magazines. This adventure brought me into serious study of films hands-on that eventually would make me a most prolific moviemaker, with more than 50 credits to date. In 1991, I was tops in this field, with 6 credits to my name in a year, and that’s for movie direction alone, not counting those for screenplay.
The point in all these disclosures is that they show the depth and breadth and height one can reach from one simple act of writing a letter to the editor.
So now, here I ended up writing a column, Director’s Cut, for the paper I had my name first gotten into print.
In my opening article, I likened myself to the salmon, that sturdy, amazingly persevering breed of fish that get laid as eggs in a river source deep atop the grand Niagara Falls in North America and once hatched swim in the water downstream, downward still through the turbulence of the falls and the rapids below, ending up in the Pacific Ocean where it earns the name “The Great Pacific Sprinter.” For what it does for its entire lifetime is chart the whole immense course of that ocean, as though in an endless quest for depths yet unfathomed, truths yet unknown. And finally rounding the waters of the Pacific, the fish swims back to where it all began, swimming upstream in defiance of the turbulence of the rapids and of the extremely steep Niagara Falls whose terrible head no man can ever survive but which the sturdy salmon forges with unbelievable skill and stamina, surging upward against the head and getting itself carried down by its momentum, which it actually uses as a propeller for getting itself higher up the falls than where it was before. On and on that way, the salmon does the stunt, until in one mighty flip on the edge of the raging waters, the salmon executes its final humbling of the terrible magnificence of Niagara Falls. From then on, the swim back to the salmon’s nestling place at the river source is relatively easy.
Certainly I’ve done my own roving of ocean waters in my life. My disgust at Henry Sy’s killing of the movie industry led me to abandoning Director’s Cut. In the ensuing period, anything written would be nothing but PR for ABS-CBN and GMA 7, the only two movie outfits blessed by the Henry Sy action.
But at no instance had I stopped writing. Where no paper would entertain my works, I’d written them in blogs or in posts on Facebook, or contributed them to websites here and abroad.
I knew I was up against my private Niagara Falls and I must summon all the energy and perseverance I could to overcome my own terrible water heads, to get propelled over their rage and turbulence and onto the stream where alone I could proceed to my own river nestling place.
With my current column in The Manila Times–this time on politics, my passion, albeit my perdition–My Say, I feel I have reached that nestling place. Again, thank you much to DAA for that. What’s left to be done is accomplish my own final act.
I have this habit of playing with names, and with my own, I fancy the idea of deleting “TE” from it if only to avoid affinity, no matter how remote, with a tyrant whose name also ends with those two letters. So that leaves “SAMON.”
But something seems lacking there–as I feel I need. A little more life. So I may do what’s still left undone, say what’s still left unsaid. As a salmon must forge the river on to reach its source where only it can execute its final glorious act of siring and laying its egg, there to hatch for the cycle of struggle to repeat over and over.
Only thereafter can the salmon burst in the grandeur of dying.
And so to SAMON, inject a tiny bit more of longevity, yes, “L”! And that’s the salmon in me.