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Writing: A Blog Abecedary

(A blog is a peculiar thing: touchstone of memory, receptacle of reportage, collection of essays, bully pulpit, article of agenda, venting space, writer’s exercise book, and many other things besides.)

a is for appetite

We exist in the mundane and simultaneously experience life and love and madness in other times and places, some safe and predictable, some secret and hidden because of shame
and the refusal to submit
to judgment...

Writers are creatures of appetite, needing to imbibe things in order to spew them out as words, transformed by imagination and covered in the spit of personal experience.

We drink and smoke and eat, sometimes to excess, often not enough times, to fill the vacuum within. It is not limited to oral gratification. Our eyes consume visual feasts of cinema, television, photography, drama and dance, following the varied paths of words the books we read reveal, escaping into the brilliant world of comic books and other lurid black-and-white dimensions. Our ears devour conversations, the sound of tears and triumph, quiet etudes and rock music played at dizzying volumes. Our fingers explore nooks and crannies when we make love, trace history when we touch someone's face, and translate texts from texture.

We are denizens of many worlds. We exist in the mundane and simultaneously experience life and love and madness in other times and places, some safe and predictable, some secret and hidden because of shame and the refusal to submit to judgment, or because of the innate selfishness of keeping a wellspring of inspiration to one's self.

We are gluttons of experience, vicarious or otherwise, and we constantly hunger. Not necessarily for the new, not always for the familiar, but rather for everything, slaves of the constant need to assuage our appetites.

We live secret lives in our words, creating fiction from the raw materials we cannot help but seek and savor.

And then we need to expose ourselves.

b is for blog

I began my first weblog or blog when I lived in Hong Kong, working as the General Manager for a regional design company. I remember reading about blogs in some magazine and decided that it sounded like a good creative exercise. Besides, during that time most of my internet time was devoted to searching for free music as well as items of a decidedly more prurient nature.

It didn’t last long. The stunning news of my wife’s first pregnancy, followed by the death of a close cousin shattered all of my creative impulses.

...how he died that morning—the cousin I loved more than my brothers, felled neither by bullet nor by dramatic consequences of love gone awry as he imagined (“I’ll go out with a bang,” he told me once, in all earnestness), but by his own shocked and weakened body.

At 5AM, the day after we found out that we were going to have a baby, my cell phone woke me up. On the other end was my mother’s voice, barely coherent because of tears. My head was groggy and my temper short, my natural impatience roused by the fact that I could not understand what she was trying to say, only that something terrible had happened. I still feel guilty, years later, shouting at her to get to the point.

“BJ’s dead,” she finally managed to say.

My first reaction was angry disbelief. It was impossible. Impossible, impossible, impossible. Then my heart broke as I pieced together her incoherent words. I was crying as I repeated the details numbly: how BJ was suffering from some gastrointestinal problem; how his body was reduced to a faucet, spewing out everything he ate or drank; how, in his macho way, he refused to take medicine and drank only water to rehydrate himself, insisting that he would be okay; how his body finally gave in, rocked by spasms as his pregnant wife tried to get him to the hospital; how he died that morning—the cousin I loved more than my brothers, felled neither by bullet nor by dramatic consequences of love gone awry as he imagined (“I’ll go out with a bang,” he told me once, in all earnestness), but by his own shocked and weakened body.

He was twenty seven years old. He left behind two little girls, one of them still in the womb of his wife. Caught between death and life, I ceased to write and focused on getting our finances together.

It wasn’t until after my daughter Sage was born that I began to blog in earnest. I named it “Notes from the Peanut Gallery”, thinking it would be an outlet for expression, a way of commenting on my life and the world around me.

c is for company

Growing up as a writer, I found myself writing in solitude. Don't get me wrong; of course all writing is done in solitude (yes, even a collaboration because you need to write your part yourself before you compare notes with your co-writer and go through the bloody process of integration). But having access to other writers, your peer group, well, this was just not the case for me.

I started to write seriously in college, and over at the University of the Philippines, the existence of cliques and the "in crowd" proved detrimental to a new writer like me, who did not want to engage in the politics of mutual admiration.

One of the biggest reasons we connected was our love for plays, and, somehow, in the enclosed literary caste system of the time, playwriting was considered less "serious" than fiction.

So I wrote on my own, ignoring and ignored by the "established" writers who were based in the University. I didn't know who was who because it really didn't matter. Until I met my first mentor, another writer who was somehow considered outcast because of several reasons—his advanced age, the nature of things he wrote about, his eccentricities. Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero and I hit it off. He found in me a young playwright with a thousand questions, and I found in him a willing teacher who was happy to share his experience. One of the biggest reasons we connected was our love for plays, and, somehow, in the enclosed literary caste system of the time, playwriting was considered less "serious" than fiction.

It was Guerrero who encouraged me to write like I had never written before, to be unafraid and uncompromising in my developing style, to seek my voice and shout loud. He wanted both of us to compete in the Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature—because in all his years, he had never been recognized by that august body.

So we wrote a play each and I was astounded when we both were the only playwrights that won that year. Even more shocking to me was the fact that my play placed higher than his.

He died soon afterwards and I felt the loss of my friend like the heaviest thing in the world.

I picked myself up and continued to write, winning awards, getting my fiction published in magazines, and slowly slowly slowly learning about writing.

But apart from him, I had no one. No one to talk to about writing outside of the few classes I took in writing. Until I was invited by Ed and Edith Tiempo to the Silliman Writers' Workshop in Dumaguete.

The set of epiphanies I experienced there under their guidance, kindness and tutelage was the equivalent to several cerebral and spiritual coronaries.

Invigorated, I wrote some more, won some more, then stopped writing. Ostensibly, to concentrate on my life: marriage, career, the real world.

That was 1995, when I turned my back on plays and fiction and all my writer friends.

It was to be several years later, after my daughter’s arrival, that I started writing again. I put together a comic book, "The Lost", which owes a tip of the hat to metatextual claptrap and Pirandello. Then I started writing speculative fiction, particularly a sequence of stories for Hinirang, a re-imagined Colonial-era Philippines with the fantastic thrown in.

...complete strangers to me in all but name, made contact with me from across the ocean and digital divide and shared their stories, giving encouragement and giving me a sense of belonging to a greater whole.

In the following madcap years, I made my first international professional fiction sale to Strange Horizons with "L'Aquilone du Estrellas". The same story later found a home in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror Seventeenth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin Grantrubbing elbows with stories from Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King.

“Siglo: Freedom”, a comic book anthology I put together and wrote for, won a National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle. It had ten stories by ten creators spanning ten centuries, all tackling the experience of freedom in the context of Filipino life.

Three more Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature came my way, bringing the total to seven: two for my One-Act Plays (“The Onan Circle” and “The Kite of Stars”) and one for futuristic fiction (“Hollow Girl: A Romance”).

Several more of my stories have appeared or are slated to appear in US and local anthologies.

It's really hard to believe. It was like waking from a long sleep.

Other writers, complete strangers to me in all but name, made contact with me from across the ocean and digital divide and shared their stories, giving encouragement and giving me a sense of belonging to a greater whole.

And these are people I've never met, persons with whom I've had no previous correspondence. Writers whom I knew only by their writing. And yet they took it upon themselves to give a kind word.

And to share their stuff.

It may seem like a small thing, but to someone like me for whom encouragement was in short supply early in my writing life, it takes on a great significance.

Because part of me is always challenged to reach the high standards set forth by writers I respect. And their kindness makes it an even more worthwhile endeavor. Which is why I try to make it a point to encourage other writers who seek me out, or those whose paths intersect mine for an instant or even a lifetime.

Though by necessity I continue to write in solitude, it's good to know that the ivory tower's walls are porous.

As I grew to adulthood, I realized that I was superb handling other people, falling into easy dialogue exchanges. But with my mother, I was always at the edge of losing it.

The company of writers and readers is always welcome.

d is for deanie

My mother claims that I wrote my first play in second grade. Since she is my mother, I must hold her words with suspicion, always asking if what she says is true or if, like all mothers, what she says is motivated by a surplus of love and pride. People tend to exaggerate when offspring is involved, and truth becomes malleable. Parents look to their children as extensions of their own lives, like annexes and wings added to an old house. There is no other home, that’s the lesson repeatedly but gently inculcated into your soul, as ubiquitous as the smells of childhood.

When I try to think back to second grade, to see if my memory holds any recollection of actually writing a play, these are what I remember: a little boy in his grade school uniform, polo short and khaki shorts; a wheeled stroller for his schoolbag; an electric pair of scissors in the form of Snoopy, that beagle with the most fertile imagination; the library with its low, low shelves; and the chapel of St. Benilde at De La Salle University along Taft Avenue in Manila, simultaneously dark and colorful, its stained glass straining the bright sunlight into subdued hues. I don’t remember any names or faces, any teachers or classmates or bus drivers. And certainly no act of writing a play.

“Are you calling me a liar?” my mother asks, firing the first salvo in a question-and-answer that held the usual potential of swiftly escalating into full-blown combat. She’s tall and ageless, still in command of her beauty queen looks, despite all the illnesses that plague her. “I can remember better than you. You were just a kid.”

“I don’t remember anything,” I say, trying to keep my composure, though, as usual, I feel my control slipping. As I grew to adulthood, I realized that I was superb handling other people, falling into easy dialogue exchanges. But with my mother, I was always at the edge of losing it. Already I felt my temper rising. “Besides, it’s my life.”

“Your life?” my mother asks, slowly standing up with pained dignity. “Your life?”

“Well,” I begin. “That’s not how I meant it.”

“And just who paid for your education? Who sacrificed to send you to the best, the most expensive school? Who paid for your books, your uniform, your meal tickets, your school supplies? Who worked night and day to raise funds for your newspaper drives, your yearbook, all those terrible little papers you’d bring home requesting for money, donations, fundingas if we had it all to spare? Who worried about you? Who looked after you? Who fed you, clothed you, bought you books and toys

Written in my curly childish penmanship was a scene, brief but chockfull of dialogue, featuring Captain Deanie, a spaceship captain returning from his sojourn in deep space.

“Okay, okay,” I interrupt her litany, raising my hands in the air, signaling my surrender. It is a war that I cannot possibly win, unless I use the same tactics with my own daughter when I’m feeling old, unappreciated and feisty.

“I did,” she sniffs, tearful and imperious. “It was my life that made your life. Do not forget that.”

“Ma! All I’m saying is that I don’t remember writing a play when I was in Grade Two.”

“Well, I do,” she says, turning away from me. “And I can prove it. Imagine! Calling his own mother a liar.”

She returns moments later, holding an old photograph the size of a large index card. Before she shows it to me, I sense her checking to see if I’m contrite. Amused by the never-ending parent-child game we play, I feign abasement and humbly ask for her evidence.

“It’s your class picture when you were second grade, at De La Salle,” she says, and flips the picture over before I register more than a blur of small smiling faces. “Look at the back. That’s your handwriting.”

It was. Written in my curly childish penmanship was a scene, brief but chockfull of dialogue, featuring Captain Deanie, a spaceship captain returning from his sojourn in deep space. It was simple and garish and trite and wonderful beyond words.

And of course my mother cannot resist a final jab towards her flawless victory. “See, I was right. You should listen to your mother more often. I know what I’m talking about.”

I look up towards her, torn between my rediscovered sense of wonder and exasperation, searching frantically for a comeback, a witty retort to the woman who always manages to subdue me in conversation. But she’s not quite finished.

“I always knew you were a writer.”

e is for egg

Sometimes, a story or a play or a poem comes to my mind like an egg, almost fully-formed—from the beginning to the end, with practically all the bells and whistles. All I have to do is break the shell and hatch it.

Then the inspiration flees and I am left to my own devices. During those circumstances, eking out every word is like painful bleeding, and it feels like I'm pounding my head against unyielding stone in a vain attempt to dislodge wonder.

When this happens, it is simply a matter of typing fast enough before the vision flees, piling words upon scenes upon verses as my fingers struggle to catch up with the dictation from my brain. Then it becomes a matter of editing, judicious addition or subtraction of a little of this or that, a general spit-and-polish, and I’m done. A small percentage of my writing can be attributed to these circumstances, when inspiration arrives full-force and delivers a complete work.

Most of the time though, I begin (or endbecause sometimes I write the endings first) something while in the rapture of a wonderful idea. I am excited, I am empowered, I am driven. Then the inspiration flees and I am left to my own devices. During those circumstances, eking out every word is like painful bleeding, and it feels like I'm pounding my head against unyielding stone in a vain attempt to dislodge wonder. I resort to techniques and tricks I’ve learned from reading authors I admire or developed on my own. Ways of selecting a more evocative word or phrasing a sentence in a sexier manner or constructing an elegant paragraph with no trace of the struts and boards that balance it; deliberately counting the meter of a poem or setting up an invisible sequence of metatextual references; writing dialogue that reads great and sounds even better spoken or adjudicating the traffic of characters in all the scenes of a play.

During these times, writing becomes less inspiration and more hard work. It becomes a matter of craft to be able to scale the white monitor wall imposed by fading inspiration, and filling up the black spaces with words that make sense, ring true and are aesthetically pleasing.

When I finish a piece of that sort, I am prouder of myself compared to how I feel when I put the finishing touches on something almost purely inspired—because I bled and trembled for every word on a work I had to build from scratch, rather than coasted on the inconsistent gifts on brilliance.

f is for fantasy

I am a fantasist at heart.

But in the past decade or so, I ended up questioning the value of the kind of stories I likenot their intrinsic value, because the value of the fantastic is beyond question, but rather why a greater audience has yet to be found.

I love the literature of the extraordinary, tales of wonder and stories that break the all-too tangible walls of reality. I love myths and legends, travelogues through uncharted territory, explorations into imagination and sorties beyond the known unknown. I like magic in all its forms, the possibility of the interference of gods, the intimation of things beyond stars, and denizens of trees and earth, wind and rain and fire. I enjoy best those stories that take me elsewhere, that speak in the language of dreams, that employ imagery both supernal and supernatural, that play etheric music or hint at cacophonous bazaar mutterings, that show me the possibilities in an empty wooden bowl or a dying mother's wish.

These are the kinds of stories I love to write most. And to a great extent, these are the stories I do write. But in the past decade or so, I ended up questioning the value of the kind of stories I likenot their intrinsic value, because the value of the fantastic is beyond question, but rather why a greater audience has yet to be found.

Let us skip the usual argument of taste and concede the fact that certain people will always like certain things (this is spurious and leads nowhere). Exposure to new forms of literature always carries the opportunity for someone new to fall through the magical trapdoor anyway.

If you look for the literature of the fantastic here in the Philippines, you will be dismayed. Wonder tales and speculative fiction are in very small numbers and still looked down upon as inferior (as if the strides of the past years in international publishing washed over the Philippines and left it untouched, the country snug under its invisible reflective/self-reflexive force field). The only genre that permits or encourages the fantastic is Children's Fiction. This is wonderful, of course, but even this published mode enforces very short stories whose first priority seems to be the deliverance of an Aesopian moral (certainly not all, exceptions do exist).

In the non-Children's section (I hesitate to use the term "adult" because, well, why?), the pickings are even slimmer. In the past few years, Lucero's magic realist stories have livened up the dreary Filipino word-community, harkening back to Yuson's "Philippine Jungle Energy Cafe" of 1988. There are few other examples, and none of them are truly literature of the fantastic as I define the term—unashamedly magical, beyond lyricism and tenor and style.

We must write powerful literature that unabashedly revels in wonder, infused with the culture of our imagination—which means being Filipino and, at the same time, surrendering that very same limiting notion—being more than Filipino...

Fantasy is the kiss of death. Mainstream Filipino publishers prefer almost anything else (something that will definitely sell or has the potential to sell). There is almost no market. And if ever there is interest from a publisher or a producer, it must morph to comply with the perceived saccharine taste of the masses, becoming so divorced from its original truth and beauty in order to accommodate trite and tired sensibilities.

One of the few places to find the fantastic is graphic literature, but even there, the specter of another nation threatens our four-color patrimony (and besides, grafiction needs to fight its own set of battles). Japanese manga has all but succeeded in eradicating the tradition of homegrown heroes.

To find the fantastic, we must create the fantastic. We must write it ourselves, develop it brick by enchanted brick. We must write powerful literature that unabashedly revels in wonder, infused with the culture of our imagination—which means being Filipino and, at the same time, surrendering that very same limiting notion—being more than Filipino, unleashing the Filipino of our imagination, divorcing and embracing the ideas of identity, nationhood and universality. We need to do magic.

Here in the Philippines, the ghetto for the fantastic still exists, its bleak walls lined with sad little candles fueled by hope, its courtyard populated with birds of fire whose plumage burns less brightly, and with duende that bitterly complain about the relentless rain, huddled under silent stranded ships whose sails were once kissed by the breath of gods.

g is for guerilla

A topic I touched on during my recent speech at the iBlog Summit was one of my personal techniques for writing. I’ve been requested to post a bit more about it, but before I do that, my little caveat: I do not believe that there is any surefire methodology towards writing effectively. What we writers have is a toolbox which we fill up with tools that prove helpful to our craft. Not every tool is useful to every writer, so it is a matter of determining if something works for you, on a case-per-case basis.

...when work takes precedence over my desire to write, I engage in guerilla tactics. And since I maintain a blog, I use it as my empty page instead of writing it longhand—if I am at my desk.

This tool works for me.

Every writer needs to write. However, the need to pay rent and provide for the welfare of my family demands time from me—I need to run my businesses. I solved this dilemma by fabricating two kinds of time for writing.

The first is the disciplined writing in the evenings. I allocate anywhere from thirty minutes or more, depending on my mood and the heat, to writing. I work on my plays or my fiction or just mess around with words.

During the daytime, when work takes precedence over my desire to write, I engage in guerilla tactics. And since I maintain a blog, I use it as my empty page instead of writing it longhand—if I am at my desk. If I am not, then I write in the pages of the notebook I carry around.

If you want to try it out, these will help you think like a guerilla (with the given assumption that you want to create good content):

Write when you can. You are not working or studying or are otherwise impossibly busy all the time. Once in a while, there is a lull during the day. Take advantage of it. It could be 10 minutes or your lunch hour, but take it. Instead of surfing aimlessly, start up your word processor and get down to business. You need to learn to shut out distractions for this brief duration and focus on the task at hand.

Have small goals. You do not have the time to whip up a short story or a novel or a deep scathing multi-page essay indicting the government. Choose something small, something that you can reasonably complete before your sequestered time runs out. Focus on a single idea and write a blog entry. Challenge yourself with an exercise in point-of-view and write a vignette. Toying around with dialogue? Write a short scene or a sketch with two voices. Read an interesting book last night? Take one of the points that interested you and talk about just that. If you like Flash Fiction, use the writing parameters of 55 words and build a mood. Do not try to shoot the moon. Time is against you and it’s running out fast.

Write without editing. You need to think fast and write quickly. Ignore the occasional misspellings. Block out the agonizing subject-verb disagreement. Dispense with the ten dollar words unless they come naturally to you. There will be time to edit later. Consider this your initial draft and keep in mind that if anyone tells you that they get everything right in their first draft they’re lying. The danger here is in being bogged down by glaring flaws. But let me tell you, as you grow proficient in this technique, your automatic self-editing skills will improve as well, and it becomes easier to just move on, to get the next word down, to complete the phrase, then the sentence, then the paragraph. There will be time for an editing pass later on.

Stop when you must. You may not have complete control over the time you allocated. Often, in fact, something will come up that demands your attention. At this point, save your work (as a draft if you’re typing directly into your blog) and terminate the exercise. Do not bargain for time. Do not attempt to finish things if they are unfinished. You can always come back later to complete or fix things up when you have time.

Spit and polish. When time permits, retrieve the fruits of your guerilla activities. This is when you let your inner editor take charge. Strip, correct, delete, rewrite—but do it quickly. This is a very short piece we are talking about, not your masterwork. Learn to do this phase fast. Then post it. Or otherwise save it.

You do not measure nationalism by the language you speak, write or think in. It is a matter of the heart, of belief, of intellect.

The benefits of this technique are manifold: you learn to make time to write, you indulge your need to write, you learn to focus, you learn to write quickly, and you learn to conduct quality assurance on your writing efficiently.

Note that these points apply to guerilla writing—things are different during the times you partition vast amounts of time for writing, like when you have an entire evening to write an essay or a short story.

h to z and significance

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a Filipino writer (and blogger) is the unspoken edict to be nationalistic. This is reflected in many ways—as a bias against writing in English (why use the language of the oppressor?), selection of setting (why set your story outside of the Philippines?), choice of subject matter (why write of anyone but Filipinos; why write of any place other than your country?), need for socio-political relevance (what is the value of writing that does not show injustice, inequality, suffering, poverty and the plight of the masses?), and significance (why waste time and energy on something that does not promote societal betterment?).

I'm just tired of it.

I write in English because I can express myself better. I do not buy into the argument that writing in a "foreign" language is somehow selling out. English is not foreign to me, is not foreign to millions of Filipinos. And Rizal wrote in Spanish. You do not measure nationalism by the language you speak, write or think in. It is a matter of the heart, of belief, of intellect.

I set some stories outside of the Philippines because the world and all its wonders interest me. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in setting a story in a castle in Denmark, a lagoon in India or a farm in Kansas. Choice of setting does not make an author love his country any less. Besides, there are worlds beyond the real world, created lands of make-believe that cartwheel in splendor and magic. I am a citizen of the Philippines, but my allegiance is to the World—words and worlds share porous boundaries.

I write about different people, not just Filipinos. What matters is character, the moods and modes of thought and action, the inner workings of their secret hearts. Nationality, like religion, gender or race, is not as important as the person underneath all the labels. To write only about Filipinos is as distasteful to me as a white writer writing only about whites. Let us write about people instead.

I write about love and loss, about hope and despair, about magic and reality. It is not my responsibility to write about social injustice, to cry for the political prisoners languishing in jails, to expose the horrors of the corrupt government, to generate sympathy for comfort women, to depict the marginalization of women—though in my early leftist college days, I did all that—publishing stories about all those things in a voice that wasn't my own, that left me with beautiful stories bristling with technique but bereft of authorial truth. There are many things to write about. Let me choose the stories I'd like to tell. Let me speak the truth I know, the truth that matters to me.

And as for significance, well, while words do have the potential to change the world, they do not do so with each and every outing. Some stories, the quiet, little ones, offer a moment of epiphany. Some proffer a smile of recognition. Others hold up a mirror and point out something so transparent as an observation of the human condition. Some entertain—through adventurous romps, battles and clever twists—while some make you cry. It is the reader and not the author who creates significance.

The nature of stories is this: change comes in infinite sizes. The success of a story is not measured in how it changes the world but in how, for the duration of the reading experience and perhaps beyond, it affects the reader.

That is what makes it significant.

© Dean Francis Alfar

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