Essay: Reclaiming the Vanished by Catherine Quesada
With the quarantine in full force, I constantly found myself buzzing with the undercurrent of my anxieties and amped up by this misplaced energy. It’s funny because it’s not like I have much time on my hands. My workload has been more or less the same amid the ongoing pandemic. But there are pockets of break times so, one day, I found myself decluttering my stacks of papers and notebooks from college.
They were my old essays, reading materials and various notes. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I read through them, especially considering that I haven’t written anything remotely personal lately. With my work as a writer for someone else, my job is just to be my boss’ foot soldier—to produce content for him, for his business, for his name.
I looked through the old texts, most especially my own writings, since I kept all of my printed papers—essays that are (or tried to be) academic in nature, and stories and poems for my creative writing classes. The words in these yellowing pages held past notions, theories and frameworks that, somehow, I forgot about. Then my notebooks, which were a chaotic mix of planners and journals, held past activities that I don’t even remember doing and concealed past thoughts, streams of consciousness, records of anger and frustrations that I had no memory of overcoming.
These words reflected a version of myself that I left behind in the classrooms, in the hallways, in the campus grounds, with the people that I used to exchange beliefs and passions with. The thing is, I didn’t even know that I left that self behind. Until now.
In an attempt to reconcile with that lost version of myself, I began salvaging the words that were rusting away in these bond papers and notebooks. I began with my poems. Now that I’m no longer chasing a good grade and positive feedback during workshops, I could see that my poems are mediocre at best and atrocious at worst. But they may not be completely hopeless. Perhaps there are some lines here and there that are worth salvaging.
I tried to sew together these two passages from two different poems: “Rely on my pulse as it keeps time” and “To die but be much closer to you by being your shadow.” Maybe I could say something profound about life and death, but I couldn’t figure out what because these things are subjects of tales as old as time. Yet, still, I tried and tried, only to realize later that my problem was not the subject matter, but the persona herself. I couldn’t pinpoint who the persona of the poem was—her wants and struggles.
So I kept failing, and I was then confronted by the truth of this inability to write. But I argued with myself and insisted that I’m still a writer. I didn’t graduate with a degree in creative writing for nothing. I mean, my job literally says “writer” in the title.
But another truth nagged my mind: I am, in essence, a ghostwriter now. I write in books that don’t bear my name, but another’s, on the covers, tackling topics ranging from Philippine history to various biographies—topics I usually have no interest in. Sure, I could still write something on demand. Only, bearing in mind that the words I write would have to seem like they come from someone else. In the beginning, I even struggled to capture my boss’ supposed voice and style until, before I knew it, I had it down to a science. The truth was, I stopped recognizing my voice, resolving to just put words in people’s mouths and leave nothing behind for myself.
These truths augmented the paralysis of my own ideas and opinions and passions. As a result, I found myself cowering away from them and reading more voraciously than ever. I guess it helped that the quarantine restrictions meant no more going out, no new movies to see, no restaurants or bars to go to. I stayed at home, sought refuge in the minds of others, soaked in other writers’ ability to hold their own, told myself that this was how I could keep myself sane. During this dire time, I found Joan Didion and her memoirs, which held the sense of agency in writing that I was desperately missing.
What I didn’t see coming, however, was Didion’s ability to challenge my own anxieties long after her words had set on the page. In her essay, “On Keeping Notebooks,” she said, “Our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’”
My heart sank after reading this passage because where was this fearless “I” in my writing? I was hit again by the realization that my writing was no longer my own. That, in my pursuit of professional progress and financial stability, I became a ghostwriter. That my words were on borrowed time all along. That, by the time I graduated from college, the lease was up.
Surprisingly, I didn’t give up though. I still wanted to write something—anything. For quite some time, I had such a craving for science fiction so I thought that I should write something in that genre. Since the pandemic continued to damage the world, I looked for a way to escape the horrors of the present. Harking back to one of the topics I’ve always been passionate about, which was the relationship between literature, culture, and the environment, I envisioned a future in which we fully embrace the interdependence of nature and culture; in which we fully overcome the struggle of the environment and this struggle’s intrinsic connection to the plight of the minorities—people of color, women, children and the LGBT+.
It’s a beautiful future to write about, but the problem was that this vision of the future was too abstract. Void of details. Untethered. The solution here was to build the imagined world that would make this future possible. But that’s when I started hitting roadblocks.
To overcome that, I did the most sensible thing: research. I read up on solarpunk (a sci-fi subgenre that asserts a sustainable future), biomimicry (a concept that embraces nature as a mentor for designing technology, infrastructure, and systems—social and otherwise) and risk society (a sociological theory that acknowledges the anxieties of the present and affirms their effects on the future).
I devoured books, research articles and stories, embracing the ideas of others. In this act, I found Ulrich Beck, who pioneered the theory of risk society. In his work, he said,
“To risk society, the future is the home of all potential catastrophes and disasters.”
This is an outlook borne out of anxiety over the possible consequences of our technological innovations. To understand this, think of the rise of nuclear power and the subsequent Chernobyl disaster.
Because of this, I began second-guessing the value of looking forward to the future and kept putting off the writing part. I read and read and convinced myself that my research was not yet enough. Then, I realized that I kept delaying the writing part because I stopped having faith in my ability to imagine a world that unfolds in a story. I stopped embracing my instincts.
Unsurprisingly, the story never came to be.
What was with this hesitation?
Eventually, I understood that it goes back to my work. For a long time, I wrote nothing outside of it. This fear of inauthenticity built up without my knowledge. My own beliefs and principles have been so removed from my writing that, at some point, I stopped trusting myself to write about things that are actually valuable to me.
After this, I let these thoughts eat away in my brain and all the fears and frustrations that were only amplified by the pandemic and quarantine. Mourning the loss of mobility in the streets made me stay put and think about a lot of things—and realize my loss of agency as well with my own writing. I ended up with the conclusion that I just needed to confront this paralysis, this fear. To stop hiding from my experiences. To make sense of the chaos. To share my own ideas again.
I turned back to Didion’s words—only this time, seeking guidance instead of escapism:
“The scene that you see in your mind finds its own structure; the structure dictates the arrangement of the words…all the writer has to do is to find the words.”
So I willed myself to sit down with my notebook, let this bedlam of thoughts work itself out, recovered the missing “I” and fought for control of my own words again.
This time, it turned out to be easier than I feared.
Catherine Quesada’s work has been published in Anak Sastra Literary Journal, Latag: Essays on Philippine Literature, Culture and the Environment and Novice Magazine.
Armed with a Creative Writing degree from the University of the Philippines Diliman, she’s been slowly climbing up from the bottom of the food chain by writing for and about women, children and the environment.
Find out more about her work at catquesada.journoportfolio.com.