Former National Historical Institute chair Ambeth R. Ocampo shares to us how he deals with writer’s block, his pet peeves, his favorite hangout, being a stand-up comic, and things that only a few people know about the most popular and accessible Filipino historian of our generation.
Traveler on Foot: Is Ambeth a nickname?
Ambeth: AMBETH is a nickname that I have used all my life and the name I have used professionally thus I am better known under this than my baptismal name. I am seriously considering a change of name so my passport will carry Ambeth Ocampo.
Traveler on Foot: Your followers admire you for your writings. We all know that you were influenced by great Filipino historians (Teodoro Agoncillo, Carmen Guererro-Nakpil and Nick Joaquin) and were taught by equally great teachers like Prof. Doreen Fernandez. However, what we do not know is how your interest in history all started. Can you please tell us about your childhood? What were your favorite toys?
Ambeth: I don’t remember much of my childhood toys but I grew up in a house with books. My father was a reader and the deal was that I would never be refused a book I wanted. If I asked for a toy he could say no. I was always interested in history and that became stronger when I had BAD teachers, maybe I became a historian because I didn’t like the way I was taught. Or maybe I became a historian because of the Folger Shakespeare we used in high school that had the play on the left side of the book and all the most obscure notes on the right.
Traveler on Foot: Why did you decide to enter the Benedictine Abbey in Mendiola? Can you describe your life as Dom Ignacio Ma. Ocampo, OSB? Why did you leave the Abbey?
Ambeth: Benedictine life was the bedrock of my life, I’d think it was to balance my Jesuit upbringing (hence the name Ignacio Ma. for Ignatius Loyola). Monastic life appealed to me because of the history of the order that was a light in the dark ages, monks copying out and annotating manuscripts was a very strong image, but most importantly it was a READING order, we read all the time and when you were too lazy to read they read to us during meals and during the Divine Office. (for a glimpse into my life there see Mabini’s Ghost) it was the happiest and most productive time of my life and I often entertain thoughts of returning but I do have to finish all the work I have to do outside the cloister.
Traveler on Foot: We know that balimblings (Gallery of Traitors), insensitive people asking if you’ve read all the books in your personal library are some of things that annoy you. Can you please share what else your pet peeves are?
Ambeth: Pet peeves? I met most of those during my stint in government. Scheming corrupt jerks. Also those who want to believe the worst of me. You cannot please everyone, I tried to do my job to the best of my abilities and my opportunities if that is not enough for my critics let them try and do better before they criticize. I don’t mind well meaning or constructive criticism because I learn from that but criticism from people of lesser intelligence or from a lower form of life really gets my goat.
Traveler on Foot: In your FB fan page, you have an album called Near Famous where you are seen with national artists, ambassadors, politicians, and mostly famous people. As a public figure you rub elbows with both famous and ordinary people. Who do you consider are your closest friends? Who are the special women in your in life?
Ambeth: I appear to have a very public life but Im actually introverted–thats why I entered a cloistered religious order–but as a public servant it was my job to be outgoing. I had to create a public face for historians (that many don’t agree with), I had to be the public face for culture and acted as Philippine Culture Minister abroad. I have very few friends, some writers but am most at home with family also with common souls in the Ateneo. I guess this answers your question “who are special women in your life?” (smiles)
Traveler on Foot: As a researcher and writer, do you experience writer’s block? What do you do when you don’t feel like writing even if you have all the materials you’ve researched in front of you?
Ambeth: I’m just recovering from Writer’s Block. Last time I had this was 20 years ago and was cured by the touch of the Dalai Lama (that’s another story). In my profession we cannot have writers block, we don’t need a blue moon or love to write. Our only inspiration is the deadline!
Traveler on Foot: If you’re not Ambeth the historian now, you are Ambeth the ….?
Ambeth: If I’m not Ambeth Ocampo the historian, I’m Ambeth Ocampo the teacher, the writer, stand-up comic (smiles)
Traveler on Foot: We all know that you are a busy person even you are no longer with NHI, but you still teach, travel, and accept speaking engagements. Can you describe how you start your day? What are the things you like doing that is not related to historical research? How do you unwind?
Ambeth: My home is my refuge. Surrounded by my books and a modest collection of art and antiques it is a wonderful place where ideas percolate in my head, writing is easy, research and composition is the hard part. Research I enjoy more than writing because I explore many avenues, writing is only one topic.
Traveler on Foot: You are undoubtedly the most popular Filipino historian of this generation. You have numerous followers, influenced and inspired a lot of Filipinos to appreciate our culture, art, and history. Can you now say that this is the life that you want? What else do you want to achieve in life?
Ambeth: As the country’s former National Historian, as allegedly the most popular historian of my generation I’d like to think I took history from the ivory towers of academe and brought it down and returned it to people where it also belongs. I wanted to share my interest and enthusiasm for history by making it relevant to people. I am an accidental historian, I didn’t plan it. Many things in my life fell on my lap and I made the most of them. Skill is nothing without opportunity and I was blessed with both. I’m lucky that I like what I’m doing such that my “work” doesn’t seem like work at all because I enjoy it–and this shows.
Related link: Ambeth Ocampo and Nick Joaquin