Sunday, March 13, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Marciano Guerrero (Part 3 of 20)

Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988Image via Wikipedia

Moments of Epiphany in a Writer’s Life
Life during my pre-teen years in my sleepy town where I was born, rolled along as tranquil and inexorable as the river and the brooks that encircled and traversed my parents’ lands. During certain parts of the year the melting snows from the Andes would cause the river to grow and roar like an enraged beast, the infernal din becoming louder at night. Frightened and half asleep, on those nights, I would beg my parents to let me sleep with them.

To make me understand the degrees of noise and energy that we find in nature, my father, in a casual manner once said to me, “The noise of the river is nothing compared to the surf of the sea.” I could only imagine the sea, for I had never seen it. Yet I had a child’s idea of the immensity of the seas and oceans since I used to devour Emilio Salgari’s adventure stories and Rafael Sabatini's tales of pirates, buccaneers, swashbucklers, scoundrels, and corrupt officials.

I was but a mere lad of five or six years of age when for the first time I saw the sea. Such an eyeful left me startled, paralyzed, catatonic-like. Words, books, magazines, and films were no substitute for the majesty of the sea with its lapping white foam darkening the sandy beach. Now that I am in my golden years, I can still recall and replay in my mind that magic moment, a moment of revelation that Rudolf Otto (German Philosopher) calls a mysterium tremendum, where the holly meets the human. Without entering in philosophical speculations, and with the simplicity of a writer that uses simple words, I will just say that such experience was but a moment of epiphany.

Writers —says James Joyce in his Ulysses— must grasp and grab those evanescent moments of spiritual revelation—moments of epiphany. These moments if not clearly discerned and stowed away will blend and disappear into the ordinary. Sometimes, these moments reach us as what may seem visual and auditory hallucinations. On his way to Damascus, Saint Paul found himself surrounded by a mysterious light from which a voice asked him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" That moment of epiphany changed Paul’s life. Likewise, Saint Augustine in his Confessions tells us of God’s command to him to “Take up and read; Take up and read,” and realize his sinful ways and change.

One day I ran into something that Norman Mailer said in an interview: “But I never enjoyed a novel more than Captain Blood … Some years ago I was asked by a magazine what were the ten most important books in my development. The book I listed first was Captain Blood.”

How extraordinary! I wasn’t the only child who had been formed by that fabulous writer of my childhood: Rafael Sabatini! Gratified and happy that a famous writer like Norman Mailer would pay homage to Sabatini's Captain Blood, I ran to my local bookstore and purchased a copy of the mentioned novel. “I wonder if the magic is gone,” I thought, bracing myself to inglorious disappointment: “Now that I am reading the novel with eyes fraught with a lifetime of reading, learning, and experience.” In one sitting I re-read the entire novel. Not a single page, paragraph, phrase, clause, or sentence disappointed me.

With time on my hands, a few days later I once again picked up the novel. I wanted to see what, where, and how a master writer could hold a reader by the hand and not let him go until the last page is read. My conclusion was another moment of epiphany: It isn’t what a writer writes about —in Captain Blood about pirates and fights— but how the writer tells the story.

How did then Rafael Sabatini enchant his readers? He did it by his masterful use of the English language. He knew his grammar, syntax, and rhetoric. Grammar supplied him with an infinite variety of sentence openers. Syntax equipped him with a vision to see when to wisely alter the order of sentences. Rhetoric filled his mind with hundreds of figures of thought and speech.

Over the years I have developed a special fondness for Rafael Sabatini, Joseph Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov; three masters of the English language who wrote not in their native language but in their acquired one: English. Speaking a second language well is no easy enterprise by any means; writing a second language well is is not only difficult, but often an impossible task for many. So, encouraged and inspired by these three writers, I continue to defy the impossible: to write English well. By paying attention to their techniques and style, I challenge myself to become a serious writer of English prose.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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