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Remembering Tita Letty: She said I’m a writer, not a singer

/ 12:22 AM January 05, 2016
LIFE-CHANGING MOMENTS INQUIRER editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc with now Chicago-based Lani Montreal  PHOTO FROM LANI MONTREAL’S FACEBOOK ACCOUNT

LIFE-CHANGING MOMENTS INQUIRER editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc with now Chicago-based Lani Montreal PHOTO FROM LANI MONTREAL’S FACEBOOK ACCOUNT

I WAS 22 when LJM took me under her wing to be her editorial assistant for Sunday Inquirer Magazine.

I thought I could write, but on my first attempt, my typed copy was bleeding from Tita Letty’s merciless but intuitive green pen. When the smoke cleared and I spliced the pieces together, I thought, “Wow. That’s exactly what I thought I was writing.”

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No doubt her method of honing writers defied peer-reviewed scholarly articles on composition theory, which strongly suggest that the best way to guide student writing is to leave it be, stay the marking pen and communicate on the margins with details. It wasn’t to slash and burn the copy like kaingin, hoping the ash from the embers would renew the soil.

I could hear Tita Letty’s raspy laughter and her Taglish tongue-in-cheek commentary in the background. “Really?” This was how my voice emerged, after all, by pushing through the rubble and surveying the devastation.

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As months and years went by, the slash marks and arrow heads became less and less frequent, until one day, I thought, “Wow, maybe I CAN write!”

One thing she and these theorists agreed upon is that writing is a process. LJM was just as ruthless to her own copy as she was to ours, crossing out chunks of texts and writing in the spaces between, physically reorganizing paragraphs by tearing up the paper (pre- and post-Microsoft Word) and then haphazardly stapling them together. Quite a nightmare really for regular typesetters, but not for her favorite, Nita or Nitz, as she fondly called her.

First assignment

For my first assignments, she sent me on missions to track down the show biz flavor of the month for a cover story. Say what you will but this was no small feat, even for someone with show biz connections.

She would send me to her sister, (my uncle’s beloved partner) talk show host Inday Badiday, to get phone numbers or have her make the calls so I could “get an audience” with the luminaries.

It wasn’t much fun to be honest; At times, like pulling teeth, but I learned to be patient and persistent. More importantly, she taught me that there was a story lurking in the most innocuous of places, even in a starlet’s seemingly vacuous smile.

Famous pretty faces hook readers, compel them to open pages, where the harder, more relevant news or feature stories lie. In time, I got to write those, too, but the crazy, annoying stake-outs, the noticing and observing the subtlest body language, the careful listening, the gentle surgical probes I had to do to extract a nugget of a story prepared me well.

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Aside from leaving most of my writing be, toward the end of my journalistic career, the best compliment Tita Letty gave me happened years earlier at her birthday party at Tita Luds and Uncle Gene’s home. Francoise Joaquin-Drogin said it best in her tribute: “She could make each of her reporters feel exceptional without resorting to flattery.”

‘Sing naman for me’

Tita Letty knew I could sing and so she prodded me like she always did, “Sige na, Lans. Sing naman for me.” I obliged, flattered at being asked but wondered if this was my idol’s subtle hint for a career change.

At the party, one of Tita Luds’ show biz affiliates came up to me after I sang and, sizing me up, suggested that “with the right packaging,” I could be the next Kuh or Zsa Zsa. I can’t forget how Tita Letty vehemently protested and said over and over, “Ay, no, ha. She’s a writer.”

I wish I had told her how that moment changed my life.

(Editor’s Note: Lani T. Montreal is a Filipino writer, educator, and performer who lives and loves in Chicago with her multicultural, multispecies family. Her writings have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines [both Web and print], and her plays have been produced in Canada, the United States and the Philippines. She is a two-time 3Arts Residency Fellowship awardee—2008 and 2015—and was a finalist for a JVO Award in 1995 for her Sunday Inquirer Magazine exposé, “Poison in the River.” She currently teaches composition and literature at Malcolm X College.)

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