M. Evelina Galang: How I Write

“The art comes in revision.”

Photo by Hydee Ursolino Abrahan
Photo by Hydee Ursolino Abrahan

These are the opening lines of M. Evelina Galang’s novel Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery: “The day my father, Ernesto de la Luna, disappeared he gave me one thousand pesos. ‘I’ll be home in three days,’ Papang said, counting the money. ‘But just in case. Take care of your ináy, Angel.’ As Galang might say: You know just about everything you need to know in those first lines. Character. Dialogue. Conflict. Rhythm. It’s all there. Galang, who teaches at the creative writing program at the University of Miami, began her career in TV as a script and continuity person. The work served her well as a writer. For her novel, she functions as a live camera, taking the reader to Manila, Chicago and through times zones and family life. We caught up with her at the Miami Book Fair International last year to talk about the elements of writing.

Setting: In creating the space of Manila, I was there when I was 2 or 3, and never went back until I was 33. When I went back, there were all kinds of very visceral, sensory things that came back to me: taste, color, the feel of the air, smells. All those things play into the creating of setting.

Tapping memory: I do a looping exercise with my students. I read a line from a book or a title. I love Edna O’Brien’s August Is a Wicked Month. I tell students to use that as a first line and write for 10 or 15 minutes. I’ll stop them in the middle and tell them to find the most beautiful line. They find the most beautiful line, and then start looping again. We’ll do that four or five times, and it doesn’t seem like you’re looping into memory, but you are. It helps you forget the monitoring of mind and memory and gets you to go to what I call the scary place, the place we don’t normally go to.

Rhythm: As a student, I attended readings and listened to work that I didn’t always consider my kind of thing. For example, spoken word poetry was never my kind of thing because I was a fiction writer. But in graduate school, I would hear spoken word artists onstage, and it was incredibly rhythmic. Those voices have stayed with me, and they sing to me when I write. The other thing is: I love words and playing with words. Each line I write, I like to play around with where the words go. And I read out loud. There’s a part of me that sings the work when I’m working.

The zone: The zone happens when I can sit down, and it doesn’t matter what’s around me and it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed or if I have places to go. I forget about time and my own needs, and I am in the work and committed to that work and seeing it through. Hours and hours, days and days, and sometimes years go by, and it’s just about that work and making the best work. It’s about being with the work and being with the characters, and helping them figure out what their struggle is in the story.

Storytelling: The first draft is expression. That is you trying to figure out what you’re going to say. The art comes in revision. That’s what’s exciting: having to solve all the things happening in a story – setting, character, language, how to structure a book. Storytelling is in the problem solving and the commitment. I’ll do it until it’s done – 14 drafts later, seven years later.

Trusting the audience: I like to believe that my readers are as smart as the writers I hang out with, and they will rise to the challenge. We teach our readers how to read our books in the first paragraph, in the first word. We set up a contract with them.

Listening: I am quite the eavesdropper. And I think it’s also important to be a good listener in your own relationships. If you’re not hearing one another then something is awry. I put myself in situations that allow me to listen and not always be the talker. Sometimes you’re so interested in being the talker, you don’t hear. To get dialogue down, you have to listen.

Why write? I’ve been writing since sixth grade. It’s a good place to go and to be quiet and have your big thoughts and try to figure out why things have happened and why the world is the way it is. Even if you can’t change it, you can write about it.