Penman No. 36: Literary Networking

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Penman for Monday, March 4, 2013

AT THE recent Taboan Philippine Writers Festival held in Dumaguete last month, I sat on a panel devoted to the topic of “Literary Networking,” which deals with how writers come into contact with one another and with other people in the profession—publishers, editors, agents, and, of course, readers, teachers, and critics—to improve and to promote their writing.

In my column two weeks ago, I noted how writing can be one of the loneliest if not most thankless endeavors anyone can undertake, especially in a country where writing is considered to be little more than a hobby. Networking helps reduce that sense of isolation and creates communities of writers and other literary professionals who are all looking for that same one thing: the next great read. So today I’m going to list down some of the most effective ways of literary networking, hoping that our writers, especially the young ones, can avail themselves of these venues to extend their reach.

School. As every high school graduate knows, friendships forged in school tend to be stronger and last for life. The university is where most writers decide to become writers and find that they’re not alone in their love of words. The bonds that lead to what some critics would call “cliques” and “cabals” start naturally in school, and may even be formalized in groupings such as the famous pre-war Veronicans and post-war Ravens at the University of the Philippines. Today, literary organizations such as the UP Writers Club, the Thomasian Writers Guild, and the DLSU Writers Guild keep the flame alive on Philippine campuses. MFA programs, especially those abroad, can create larger networks, although the atmosphere in these programs tends to be more competitive.

Workshops. Related but not limited to school, workshops bring young and new writers together in what amounts to a combination of boot camp and support group. The idea behind a writers’ workshop is that collective wisdom can improve individual talent, and like most adages, this may be generally but not always true. For writers needing company and affirmation, workshops can feel like a refuge, if not a narcotic—and indeed some go workshop-hopping. For Filipino writers, entry-level and local or regional workshops and mid-career and national workshops exist—a strength unique within the region.

Conferences and festivals. They may run only a few days, but they can be intense and can connect a writer to the big stars and luminaries of literature. I’ve been able to meet Nobel laureates and Pulitzer and Booker prizewinners in these events, and while such contacts may be fleeting—I have no illusions about these worthies remembering me the day after—they can be tremendously inspiring to newer writers, and also demystify the literary gods and make one feel a fundamental commonality with others around the world. Conferences and festivals also have much more value beyond elbow-rubbing and camaraderie—they are a great source of new ideas, particularly in areas that are relatively new to us Filipinos—literary editing and literary agencies, for example.

Fellowships and residencies. Fellowships and residencies involve applying for and securing grants to places that allow writers the opportunity to work in productive seclusion for periods ranging from a few weeks to a year. For many years now, Filipino writers have successfully applied for some of the world’s most prestigious fellowships and residencies—in Iowa, Breadloaf, Macdowell, Stanford (the Wallace Stegner fellowship), and Yaddo in the United States, and Hawthornden, Bellagio, Norwich (the David TK Wong fellowship), Bogliasco, Chateau de Lavigny, and Civitella Ranieri in Europe. While isolation is part of the idea, one is never entirely alone in these places, and strong friendships and professional connections will inevitably arise between fellows.

Prizes and competitions. By their very nature, prizes and competitions tend to divide rather than unite people, but writers at their best will recognize and admire talent in the other, and so these venues also become fertile ground for networking. They also bring other important elements into the picture—agents, publishers, and critics, who take note of the winners and help them on with their careers. In this regard, I’m happy to acknowledge the fact that my being shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize some years ago was probably the most significant single boost for my literary career. I didn’t win the prize, but the publicity helped me find an agent (or, actually, he found me) who then secured Italian, French, American, and Spanish translations and editions for my two novels. I also developed very fruitful contacts around the region, particularly with my fellow short-listee, the Chinese-Indonesian-American writer Xu Xi, who now directs the low-residency MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong.

Social media. In this age of Facebook and Yahoogroups, can writers possibly resist the urge to network online? The Internet is chock full of writers’ groups and mailing lists (see writers-network.com, for example) that allow anyone with writing aspirations to sign up.

Of course—as I’ve often been reminded—networking of any kind has its downsides. It can become intrusive (which is why I’ve obstinately refused to get on Facebook), and just as in other spheres of our lives, not everyone you meet will be friendly and benign. Some writers can be the most obnoxiously difficult people to deal with, and quite a few are better read than met. That said, it’s almost always good to hear another human voice in the wilderness, and you can’t get more human than a writer using language to explore and to prove what it means to be human.

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on radio provoked this lively response from a faithful correspondent, the lawyer Rem Maclang:

“Pardon me, Butch, but we never ‘return’ to radio—every now and then, we turn to it.  Even with the advent of IT, which has engulfed our daily life with a variety of novel communication gadgets long after the radio became our can’t-be-without home companion, it has never left the scene. Radio’s exalted role in the annals of our country cannot be taken for granted. It was through radio that the grim and sad but inspiring Voice of Freedom broadcast about the Fall of Bataan was heard worldwide, and [radio that announced] the return of MacArthur. EDSA 1 could not have happened within the short span of four days had it not been for radio that broadcast the announcements of Cardinal Sin and June Keithley. Radio was responsible in making our growing-up years a whole lot more enjoyable while being informative. If TV is the idiot’s box, radio is the dreamer’s delight.”

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