[OPINION] ‘There’s just things I wanna do’

Von Katindoy
[OPINION] ‘There’s just things I wanna do’

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'There’s something missing, however, with the writers’ portraits housed at the American Writers Museum.... They are silent about the often uphill climb that most great writers endure when they were starting.'

I think I now know why the K-pop group BTS continues to command such a huge following. Apart from coming up with infectious dance tunes with matching choreography, they are one pop group that deeply cares about their fans.

No, I did not come to this conclusion by becoming an ARMY, but by observing how my friends and relatives who are into BTS speak of the many ways that its members show empathy for their fans. The latest evidence of this is the free bottled water and snacks given to fans queueing at their LA concerts.

Surprisingly, I remembered this observation after watching My Salinger Year, which is available for streaming under the auspices of the 2021 QCinema International Film Festival. Based on the 2014 memoir of the novelist Joanna Rakoff, the film traces her challenging journey as a writer. What I think sets it apart from other films about writers is the fascinating ways it shows how a classic novel like Catcher in the Rye could move readers to write highly personal letters to its author. Alas, unlike BTS, JD Salinger did not want to have anything to do with his fans. This was why his literary agency used Salinger’s template to tactfully parry fan mails. After landing the job as assistant to the reclusive novelist’s literary agent in 1995, Rakoff was tasked with doing just that.  

This placed her in a very enviable position. Since Rakoff’s task was also meant to help her agency flag any would-be Mark David Chapman (i.e., John Lennon’s murderer who was obsessed with Catcher in the Rye), she had to read every single fan letter. In the process, she experienced first-hand the power of the written word to fire up human beings. At the same time, since she also received incoming calls when her boss was out, she got to occasionally chat with Salinger. It is here that we realize that Salinger was not an absolute recluse. He also had the makings of a well-meaning writing mentor. At least to Rakoff.  On one occasion he even reminded her to make time to write daily even for just 15 minutes.

We do see Rakoff writing daily in the movie, albeit mostly to finish fan mail responses using – gasp! – a typewriter! Thanks to her boss Margaret who prefers typewriters over computers, which she says only tend to add more work. Rakoff’s initial struggle to master the use of the typewriter effectively becomes the perfect metaphor for pursuing her writing dreams despite the odds.

Which is just as well. After all, for the longest time, typewriters and writers were synonymous. In fact, at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, there is a corner called “Mind of the Writer.” There, visitors can type away like Ernest Hemingway using a typewriter of their choice, from the Underwood to the Smith-Corona. I still have the picture that my wife took as I tried to reacquaint myself with the mechanical ancestor of today’s laptop. Of course, that picture is nowhere near the carefully curated portraits of writing greats like Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison.

There’s something missing, however, with the writers’ portraits housed at the American Writers Museum and those that graced Rakoff’s New York office, which included Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, in addition to Salinger’s. They are silent about the often uphill climb that most great writers endure when they were starting. Case in point, Stephen King relates in his book On Writing that he took a job as a high school teacher to follow his mother’s advice to have something to fall back on. In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury shares that his wife had to take a vow of poverty when she agreed to marry him. It’s even worse in our country. As one best-selling book author warned, “Dito kahit na best-seller yung libro mo, naka G.Liner ka pa rin.”  

To the credit of My Salinger Year, the film does capture the precarity of pursuing a writing career as we see Rakoff surviving on Tupperware meals and splitting the rent with her boyfriend for an apartment with no sink. Happily, Rakoff later arrives at the existential decision to turn down a higher-paying position in the agency to prioritize her writing aspirations because, “There’s just things I wanna do. I’m afraid that if I don’t do them now, I never will.” Fighting words that call to mind the BTS song that goes: “Even if I’m slow, I will walk with my own feet because I know that this path is mine to take.” –

Von Katindoy is a teacher and a student based in the metro.