I’m pleased to welcome W.H. Johnson today, author of A Virgin in the Philippines, along with several other titles! W.H. Johnson has kindly shared the story of how he came to write this intriguing travel book.
A Virgin in the Philippines – W.H. Johnson
Funny how things turn out.
Four years ago I’d never have given a thought to visiting the Philippines. It wouldn’t have appeared in even my top hundred places to visit. Come to that, I’d never thought of re-marrying.
But I did end up going to the Philippines a couple of times and I married a Filipina though not necessarily in that order.
When I first arrived in the Philippines I certainly had no thought of doing any serious writing. Emails to my friends. That’d be enough. It was certainly not my intention to sit day after day at the computer, creating, editing, deleting, all that business that after a day’s slogging away leaves you with something that looks serviceable but not yet right. I was holidaying. No need for hassle.
So how, against all expectation, did I come to write A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES? What is it that drives us to writing? I mean why do we pick up a particular theme and run with it? What’s the starting point? And don’t call it inspiration.
In my writing life I recall only one occasion when I was perhaps inspired. The trouble was I wasn’t at my desk. I was out of house when this marvellous paragraph came to me quite out of the blue. I had to get home as fast as I could before it all faded. The words came quite naturally in order, preordained you might say. They almost fell onto the page and I got every word down. I didn’t forget one syllable of this paragraph. It was to be the opening of a novel and whilst not wishing to sound immodest, that paragraph was good. It was a super piece of writing. I felt so proud of it and I still do because I have it on disk and before writing this blog I looked it up again just to reassure myself that it was as splendid a piece as I thought.
It was one of those opening paragraphs that people would have quoted down the years. It was powerful, vivid and elegant.
Trouble was that I couldn’t sustain it. The story that followed was workmanlike at best and never made a ripple in any publisher’s pond.
Inspiration? Don’t wait for it. When it comes it disappears very quickly. All right for poets maybe but for the longer stuff it doesn’t seem to carry you far. Just start writing and hope something develops. That’s how I look at it.
Anyway, while I was staying in the Philippines last winter, I came across Steven Lewis’s Hot Silver: Riding the Indian Pacific, a wry account of a four-day rail journey across Australia. Only 16000 words or thereabouts. It was good. Not riveting stuff but highly entertaining.
Couldn’t I do something like that?
But had I done a travel book before? No. Had I ever kept a diary? No? Did I like writing descriptive pieces about places which would immediately capture the readers’ interest? Well, not in so many words. In fact, not at all. Describing places isn’t what I enjoy.
So was I qualified as a writer even to consider following such a line? They always say, write about what you know. They tell you to think hard before you start on something that you aren’t really at home with. Seems sensible, sound advice. And the Philippines is such a vast country and I know only a small area and even that not very well.
What could I say that would be in the remotest sense useful or convincing? Truth to tell not very much.
And at my age I have learnt not to go bull-headed into unknown territories. But clearly I haven’t quite absorbed what I’ve learnt.
I weighed the matter up for all of fifteen minutes and then said to myself, I’ll do this. I’ll write a travel book.
Now don’t tell me that this had anything to do with inspiration.
I suppose that I was confident because I already had two advantages. My wife is a Filipina and I was already on my second extended trip to the Philippines, right in the middle of things in rural Luzon.
More to the point, during both trips I had been writing lengthy emails to friends because the place and the people entranced me. Much of the stuff was there already on the computer. Needed a bit of tarting up, of course, a tweak here, a twist there. Some bits to cut. A few pieces to be developed. Just the need here and there to add a shade of licence to worthy fact. You can’t let the truth spoil a good story. I’m not talking about the wholesale distortion of facts of course. I’m talking about wording, about emphasis, and well, yes, a little invention.
But was it a travel book that I ended up with? I think not. It’s something slightly different. It makes no claims to be a systematic, detailed guide book. It doesn’t recommend where to stay or when to go or what to wear or how to get about the country. It’s a travelogue, a diary of impressions and incidents. It’s an account of my Filipina wife and her family and the people round about. It’s a book of personal experiences.
When all came to all, nudged by Steven Lewis’s book, I realised that I wanted to write such a book. There was I so far away from home but right in the middle of things, feeling I had a part to play just like everyone else. I’d thought that I didn’t want to write but I was already doing it through my emails. They gave me my material which hadn’t been self-consciously produced, hadn’t been honed for strangers. The words were for my friends.
And there was never the slightest breath of inspiration in any of this. But I loved making it into a book.