You may not find Ricky Lee’s latest book over at National Book Store’s self-help sections but those who’ve read it would agree: “Ricky Lee: Kulang na Silya at Iba Pang Kuwentong Buhay” is inspirational and packed with damn good advice.
In order to thrive in an industry with too many big egos, yours included: “Move gracefully like a small banca navigating its way in an ocean of ships,” Ricky writes. What to do with set limitations? Accept them, he says. “Lahat ng kahon ay oportunidad para mapilitan kang gumawa ng butas upang makalabas.” How do you deal with a wound that never heals, or as Ricky refers to it, “bubog”? Acknowledge it. “It’s not the bubog that forms who you are. It’s how you react to it.”
The book is a 140-page collection of essays—there are eight in all—on life and writing that will please writers and non-writers alike. It will please you even more if you’re a Ricky Lee fan. Not only does “Kulang na Silya” bring us back to the wonderful pleasure of reading his non-fiction work, the sparkle of his endlessly entertaining prose, which we first fell in love with in his landmark anthology “Si Tatang at Mga Himala ng Ating Panahon”—it brings us back to Ricky, the writer whose life seems far more interesting than those of the actors who deliver his words (except maybe Nora Aunor). He takes us, his admirers, inside his rarefied universe where Mother Lily makes a cameo, and Lino Brocka chimes in to teach a lesson. It may be a slim volume—the book is envisioned as a first in a series—but it’s packed with the author’s small town recollections, industry anecdotes, and yes, an arsenal of sometimes painful, always sensible nuggets you expect to hear from a life coach.
Could it be that the scriptwriter behind “Himala,” “Moral,” “Salome,” “Karnal,” and many other Filipino movies now considered classics, gives good advice because he’s been doing it for so long? He even won a prize for it: ten pesos and the second place honor in the Liwayway Magazine send-in-your-advice contest in the 1960s, which he joined as a teenager in Daet. The dilemma: marital incompatibility. Ricky’s solution: a decent separation. “Wala nang katuturang magsama pa,” he wrote, “kung wala nang pag-ibig sa isa’t isa.”
In the book’s introduction, he says “Kulang na Silya” is an exploration, the essays his attempts to understand things, or “mga bagay-bagay”—and that’s exactly how the early part of the book reads. It opens in the year 2020 and we enter his thought process as he tries to steady his stance in a world that’s turned upside down.
It’s encouraging to know that someone who is famously prolific like Ricky also gets in a state of panic. And we almost see him fumbling along through the strangeness of a world in lockdown, his prose wobbly at first in the early pages until it finds stable ground. In order to rediscover his value, or the value of what he does, he knows he needs to write again, tell stories, even at an impossible time when anxiety has taken over inspiration. So he fakes it, waking up before dawn, tricking himself into thinking there’s nothing in the world he enjoys more than filling up a blank page. And he starts believing the illusion, and finally the words arrive.
Ricky Lee is a problem solver, as the reader will realize in the course of this book. If the guy finds himself in an unpleasant situation, he looks for a way out of it no matter what.
He was a sickly orphan who wanted out of his small town, and so he read books and went to the movies. A small library at the provincial capitol in Daet and an old theater near it were his refuge. “It was not an escape,” he writes. “It was going into another world where I could be anybody except my sickly orphan self.”
He had terrible inferiority complex even as a child, so he worked hard to build his confidence. “Nag-aral akong mabuti para maging First honor ako mula Grade 1 hanggang Fourth Year,” he says. “Sa UP rin university scholar ako maski di ako nakatapos.”
He couldn’t find a producer for “Himala” but he kept pitching it to different people—for six years—until it finally got made after being selected as one of the winning scripts in the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines contest.
For so long, he was aching to teach but he didn’t have a degree so he started giving scriptwriting workshops from the comforts of his home.
So maybe that’s why he gives such good advice and maybe that’s why they strike a chord. He’s dealt with problems. He knows whereof he speaks. He’s been rejected many times and his work has been criticized not only unfairly but cruelly. Someone once collated excerpts of negative reviews for his movie “Narito ang Puso Ko” and published it, filling an entire newspaper spread.
He’s lived everywhere and slept everywhere. “Naranasan ko matulog sa Luneta, sa bench sa tapat ng CCP, sa kuwarto sa faculty center sa UP.” He’s been a working student, a salesman, an accounting clerk, tutor, student assistant, proofreader and many more. He’s been close friends with geniuses and superstars. He’s written about faith healers, macho dancers, toreros, and it’s likely he’s broken bread with them, too.
In the 70s, he joined the underground movement, assumed a different name, and got incarcerated. He’s been through a lot and seen a lot, walked through glass walls (literally) and opened the wrong doors (again, literally). “If you want to be a good writer, dapat hindi ka sigurista,” he advises. “Dapat ay willing ka to open that door, maski na monster o bangin o dilim ang nasa loob.”
Why is the book called “Kulang sa Silya”? Well, it is explained in his funny, smart, moving graduation speech which caps the book—delivered when PUP awarded him a Doctorate in Humanities Honoris Causa in 2019. Long true story short, it’s about how young Ricky found himself and four other friends from Daet in big bad Manila, with very little money and a ton of dreams, in an apartment with only four chairs. That missing chair has never left Ricky. “Hindi nakaabang ang mundo para ibigay sa’yo lahat ng kailangan mo,” he writes, “You have to be resourceful. You have to work hard. Kailangan mong pagtrabahuhan ang kulang na silya.”
Which takes us to the one last thing this book brings us back to: the idea of the writer as active participant, not only in his work but in the world outside it. In Ricky Lee’s universe, everyone is a writer because we all have the power to reverse fortunes, change the course of history, by touching other people’s lives in ways big or small.
Engage with life, he’s saying. “Makisangkot ka. Ang buhay na hindi inilaan sa kapakanan ng iba ay parang lantang gulay o bilasang isda na walang nakinabang,” he advises. “Huwag kang kuripot. Ibigay mo ang buhay mo sa iba, maski na paminsan-minsan lang.”
Other self-help books will teach you the subtle art of not giving a f@#k. Ricky Lee advises against it.