Saturday, May 01, 2010

Why I Tell Stories

“Beauty will save the world.”

-F. Doestoevsky, The Idiot

We are all called to create. We are all called to love.

I fell in love with the word in high school. We were all forced to write poetry for our Filipino class as part of the unique Filipino curriculum of the Southridge Night School. There was something that attracted me to poetry. Even before I understood what the profound words meant—words that I often had to look up the dictionary—I was drawn to it just by the mere sounds they produce when they are being read aloud. It was then that I discovered that music is intrinsic to poetry. In all forms, may it be the classical which has rhyme and meter, or the modern and post-modern which has cadence and internal rhythm and rhyme. Its musicality drew me to it and begged my senses to hear beyond the beauty of the sound.

And so I started writing poetry. I enjoyed the fact that I too am capable of summoning these phonemes to form a rhythmic pattern that attracts an audience. Furthermore, I fell in love with words and their meanings—how they reveal to an audience one’s inner life by weaving images from the universe. It was the beginning of my love affair with metaphor. It was only later in college when I appreciated the sublimity of metaphor—how it makes one’s hidden life accessible to other people. I started to mass-produce poetry. I started writing even if it was not required. I filled up notebooks and notebooks of verses, of rhymes, of metaphors. I felt the thrill of creation. I was addicted to it.

I entered a university which did not appreciate Filipino poetry. In fact, Filipino was alien to them. How much more poetry written in the vernacular? But this did not stop me from writing. I continued to write. I continued to create. But it was also in this university where I met Paul Dumol, a renowned playwright. He adopted me and taught me how to write plays. In as much as Filipino poetry is unknown to this university, I found out that it had a love affair with a different art form—drama. And so, I found my home, the theater.

There was something about stage plays that is very akin to poetry. Although the form is more liberated in terms of the word, the structure of the drama drew me in the same manner that music drew me to poetry. In my writing and directing of several plays for the different theater groups in the university, I discovered the craft of enamoring the audience. First, one must captivate them, grab them by the balls, so to speak, with a strong beginning. The play must make the audience want to stay for more. Next, one must keep the audience at the edge of their seats and make them want to listen to the story and to the thesis while events unfold. There must be an engaging middle that is caused by the beginning that is necessary and probable. Lastly, one must make the audience never forget by giving them a memorable ending and resolution. All threads must come together and be woven into one seamless narrative.

But beyond this structure and unity of plot, what enamored me to theater is character and dialogue. The character is the core of the drama and the dialogue is the revelation of the character’s inner life. It is through well-written dialogues that audiences relate and share in the inner lives of these fictional characters. The play, in the end, will raise the question to the minds of the audience—is man worth it?

There is something in these two art forms that is very superficial but very profound. I was not attracted to poetry because of metaphor. But metaphor made me fall in love with it. I was not attracted to drama because of unity of plot. But character and dialogue made me fall in love with it.

What is it then? What is at the surface of these art forms that drew me to wander in its very depths? Likewise, what is at its surface that draws audiences to transcend what is perceived—to dig deeper into the meaning of the art?


Beauty is the symmetry of the human face. Beauty is also the imperfection in the human face. Beauty is the sunrise. But it is also the sunset. Beauty is the complementation of vivid colors. But it is also the contrast of values in black and white photographs. Beauty is the harmony of classical music. But it is also the dissonance in 21st century music. Beauty is the triumph of the human spirit in drama. But it is also the struggle of man in tragedies.

Beauty is the splendor of being. And as John Paul II in his letter to the artists defines it, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. Beauty is the revelation of a being’s fullness. It is by which we see the unity, the truth, and the good of a being. Therefore it is through beauty that our intellects and wills are moved. Since the object of the intellect is the truth and the object of the will is the good, beauty draws both our powers so that it finds the truth and good in the being.

This drawing power of beauty is a force to be reckoned with. Beauty is the cause of the Trojan war in Iliad. Beauty is Dante’s guide in his journey in the Divina Comedia. Beauty was the doom of anyone who heard the songs of the sirens in Odyssey. Beauty moved people to do great things as well as tragic things. But it is evident that beauty moves us in a way that no other force can. It stirs in us a feeling of excitement and enthusiasm. It leaves us in a state of awe once it is beheld. It disposes us to the sublime, mysterious and mystic state of wonder. It draws us to marvel at the universe. It calls us to stare at being and love it at the same time. Beauty predisposes us to contemplation.

This state of awe, of marvel, and of wonder leaves us humble as we behold the beauty in front of us. It drives us to empty ourselves and to reach out to that beauty as if we want to be part of it and to participate in it. It is only natural, for we too are beings, having in us that visible form and splendor of the good. This enthusiasm and thrill we feel whenever we behold something beautiful is our natural tendency to want to share in this beauty. We are driven, therefore, to love it—to give ourselves to it unconditionally. The paradox of this is that this beauty fills us up again. Beauty reciprocates. Because man knows, he knows that he knows this beauty and so he regains himself, the I, in his assimilation of the beautiful to which he is beholden. In his wonder, he knows of his own beauty.

The thrill coming from this communion with beauty drives us, enthuses us, to create beautiful things. It is within our powers to do so. Not ex nihilo but out of something else—out of other beautiful things. It is through this contemplation of beauty that we transcend—see beyond the being—and understand its inner structure, and its transcendental properties. Through beauty, we see the truth, the good, the whole. And because we know and understand what beauty does to us (i.e. make us more human because it drives us to desire to know more), it will drive us to keep on creating, and mimicking our Maker. This is the addiction I was referring to when I fell in love with poetry. One cannot help but create. Beauty commands us so.

So does that make artists slaves of beauty?

In a sense, yes. But in fact artists are liberated by beauty. And this is the reason why I tell stories.

After I graduated from college, I continued to write and direct plays. However, I met a new mentor who introduced to me a new art form—film. Marilou Diaz-Abaya, an acclaimed filmmaker, also adopted me and taught me how to make films. Films attracted me because of cinematography and the larger-than-life experience in the theater. But delving deeper into my training, I fell in love with filmmaking when I learned of the power of visual story telling. It was like learning to write poetry and plays in a new language. From metaphors and dialogue, I had a new love affair with the visual narrative—the motion picture language.

It is in my studies as a filmmaker where I realized my true vocation. I was to be a storyteller. I realized that all my love affairs, from poetry, to drama, to film all converged into a single love affair with stories. All three forms are only manifestations of one art, and probably the oldest of all—story telling.

Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling probably is the oldest art of man. We had it from the very beginning. When man created language to express his inner life, man could not help share stories to other men. This is only natural for we are social beings. And as social beings, there is that natural urge to bring out what is inside you so that you can be understood. And so we told each other stories. In the old times, when cave men went out to hunt for an entire day, they spend their dinners exchanging stories of the hunt. The Bible, both the old and the new testament, is a compilation of stories. At the end of our day, we just cannot help but look for someone to talk to, to tell your story, to share your troubles for the day. When we go home, we turn on our TV’s and watch the news—stories of current events, of politics, of showbiz, of anything. We crave for stories.

It is said that we tell stories for three reasons. The first reason is for affirmation. In sharing ourselves through our stories, our audiences affirm us as human beings by listening to us. Through their reactions in the twists and turns in our daily adventures, we find someone else relating to us and reminding us that we share common experiences with other people. The same is true for the audiences. It is through our stories that they are affirmed as human beings. They see themselves in our stories. They are reminded, through our struggles and pains in the stories that we tell, of their own struggles. And so story telling is in a way a sort of communion, a building of a community through the exchange of inner lives. Humanity is affirmed in story telling. In story telling, we are reminded that we are not alone.

The second reason is for healing. It is interesting to note that most storytelling, even in the olden times, occurs at the dinner table. We enjoy eating while exchanging stories. Meals are boring without stories. Show me a family who never talk at the dinner table and I’ll tell you they’re aliens. Even in prehistoric times, cave men share stories of the hunt around the fire while they are having their meal. This relationship between storytelling and eating has a very significant meaning for us. While we nourish our bodies when we eat, we nourish our souls when we exchange stories. Stories heal us when we imagine the heroes who are wounded in their struggles in the stories we hear. It’s not so much that we take pleasure in their misfortunes but we are healed because of their triumph. Even if the stories we listen to are tragedies, even if the protagonists do not win in the end, it is enough to realize that his struggles were worth it—that man is worth redeeming. Through stories we realize our woundedness in the universality of the narrative and we also come to realize that we too, though wounded, are worthy of redemption. Through human struggles in stories, also known as conflict, we come to heal our very own wounds with hope. If these heroes can struggle and triumph, if these heroes are worthy of redemption, then so are we. We find something akin from their inner lives to ours. Through stories, we commune with the characters.

There is a third form of communion in story telling which is explained by the third reason why we tell stories. The third reason why men tell stories is primarily to address man’s greatest fear—an unknown, which is death. Men tell stories to be immortal.

In the transmission of stories to our family members and audiences, we immortalize ourselves as story tellers. Knowing that we are temporal and that we will not live forever, we know that our stories can last to the last generation of men. We become immortal in our stories. But this immortality should not be looked at as a vain attempt to extend one’s life and fame. Man discovered immortality through story telling so he can commune with the generations to come. This is our attempt to be in communion with the future.

These are the reasons why men tell stories. Let me now tell you about mine.

Art has seduced men to be artists through beauty. I have fallen for this seduction as well. It is the story’s visible form of the good that I have beheld—the beauty of the art of story. But rather than becoming a slave to it, beauty has liberated me, as it has liberated all artists, into the fullness and splendor of being. The contemplation of the universe, which creates an infinite cycle between knowing and loving drives every artist to create something beautiful—to put into being the love that exists between man and the universe. This new being is called art. Because the artist, in his communion with being, has realized through knowing that beauty is the good’s visible form, he will utilize all of his creative powers and artistic inspiration to bring out the beauty in his creation so that it too can awe other men. In the same way that beauty has made the artist wonder and marvel at the universe, the artist wishes to share this wonder and marvel to his audiences by creating something beautiful—an artwork.

It is only through the creation of something beautiful that the three reasons for story telling can be fulfilled. This awe, this wonder and marvel, will move man, the perceiver of beauty to be enthusiastic about himself. Beauty will move his intellect and will because his attitude towards the artwork will stir in him a sense of recognition of the truth and the good. Beauty will move man to action. Therefore art will move man to action because of beauty.

Therefore it cannot just be any story. We cannot just tell any story. The story must be transformed into an art—into something beautiful. Through this, our stories will be the audiences’ mirror, reflecting their own beauty as beings, consequently affirming their humanity, healing them, and making them immortal. Through the beauty of the story, the audience will be awed and they will wonder and marvel at the beauty of the universe and even their very own beauty. Through the beauty of the story the audience will see themselves as beautiful and will be drawn to deeper reflection and desire to understand that beauty that lies within them. In the end, this beauty will put man in a state of perpetual enthusiasm and desire to know more about himself. And the more he knows about himself the more he will desire to go out of himself and share himself to the world, thus creating this cycle of knowing-loving. Through this, he perfects himself.

Nothing in this world is so beautiful to satisfy man however sensitive he is to the wonders of the universe, because no being in this life is ever complete and perfect. Man will realize this eventually in his contemplation. Eventually, he will come to the conclusion that his salvation lies in the beholding of the fullness of Being—that which is the fullness of Beauty. And he will not be able to help himself but surrender to that awesome, wonderful, and marvelous Being he is beholding.

This is the reason why I write stories. I write stories because I desire to create something beautiful. I desire to create beauty because I have realized that beauty draws one easier to contemplation. Beauty reveals to man the truth and the good. In this revelation, and internal reflection occurs and the self reveals itself to man. When his happens, man now has a self to give back to the universe. He is now disposed to love. And because he loves, he regains himself, and realizes that he too is beautiful. This is the beauty that liberates and not enslaves. Beholding beauty does not make one its slave. Beauty liberates us in the sense that it brings us back to ourselves—to our humanity.

This is why I tell stories. I want to affirm myself and other people. I want to heal myself and other people. I want to be immortal and immortalize humanity. And I will do this by telling beautiful stories.