In writing the subject matter(s)

In writing the subject matter(s)

Before I went to sleep last night, I heard the terrible news of a shooting in a tram in Utrecht, a popular student city in the heart of the Netherlands. Three people died and five were wounded, some seriously. The attacker has been apprehended, but police is still speculating about the motive. It’s yet another senseless attack on humanity, yet another bitter pill to swallow. And although this one hits closer to home, my immediate response was not inspired by an internal emotional appeal to national identity. My gut feeling upon learning about the incident was that, sadly and startlingly, violence is part of life, whether you live in a conflict area or in one of the world’s wealthiest and safest countries.

As the events of the shooting were unfolding in the Netherlands, tropical depression “Chedeng” was moving slowly but surely towards Mindanao—in hindsight a fitting backdrop to the tragic incident in Utrecht. As I’m writing this, rain is pouring down heavy in Davao and other parts of the island, the side-effect of a low pressure area which Chedeng turned into when it made landfall earlier this morning. It’s been very dry in the past few months, so the water is welcome, but lots of rain after a long dry spell can also mean landslides.

More profound differences

Waiting out the rainfall, I find myself once again preparing for a visit to friends and family in the Netherlands. I always feel a bit anxious the days before the trip. The anticipation of being back home, at the same time the realization it’s temporary—it all creates a feeling of mild uneasiness.

But of course Sophie and I are thrilled to again be with the people we care about most. And, let’s be honest, to ‘escape’ for a while the minor inconveniences of living abroad. To be clear, getting to experience these differences is enriching. Not because it shows you how much better life is in the ‘West.’ No, it’s other, more profound stuff. Like how life is what you make it. How happiness means different things to different people. How the state of (in)equality alters the fabric of a society. It’s these lessons I will carry with me when we leave the Philippines.

interview-camp-northern-Mindanao-van-wersch-writes
Me interviewing residents in an evacuation camp in northern Mindanao. In 2018 they fled Marawi after the city was seized by armed fighters.

The past few months have been fulfilling, particularly from a professional standpoint. My core objective is to redirect my career from corporate writing to writing for non-profit organizations. To that end, I’ve been doing a series of profile stories with human rights defenders. With Kiruba, for instance, a human rights lawyer from India, and with Yamen, a field worker from the Gaza Strip. End of 2018 I visited evacuation camps in northern Mindanao to interview internally displaced persons from Marawi and members of local NGOs who are working with them. Currently, I’m writing a book about the Mindanao Peace Games and the life of the person—Coach Noli Ayo—who co-founded this movement back in 2004.

Writing with meaning

It took time for me to understand that a big part of the joy of writing is to care about the subject (matter). In my journalism classes at university this was never really a topic. I guess they prepared us for a career as hard-hitting news journalists who prefer to keep their distance from the story and its sources. When I applied for my first real job as a corporate writer, my team head told me we didn’t need to be subject matter experts to write and communicate about the company. Good corporate communication experts can sell any story from as broad a range of topics as credit loan documentation to female hygienic products. Writing is a trick that, with minor adjustments, works on whatever it is you are drumming up PR—or readers—for.

To the extent that writing is a skill, I agree with that assertion. But I want to capture the personal as well as the factual layers. And I need to insert something of myself to find the experience meaningful. Writing the stories of people who are making a positive impact in their community, in whatever way, shape, or form, allows for that kind of layering and self-expression, and it’s because of that I enjoy it so much.

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