Penman No. 90: The Monkey Wrench

Penman for Monday, March 24, 2014

ANOTHER INTERESTING work came into my Creative Nonfiction class last week (yes, folks, there is such a large and lumbering creature as CNF for me, and if there are people who think otherwise, then that’s their problem, not mine nor my students’): a piece of reportage on the natural beauty of Los Baños and Mt. Makiling. It opened with an introduction to the jade vine, a beautiful plant that’s apparently not that easy to find.

My student, the author, came across one on the mountain after several hours’ hiking. He noted that “The showiest parts of the plant, which it is especially prized for throughout the world by horticulturists and exotic plants collectors alike, are its inflorescences which comprise translucent jade or blue-green flowers. Collectively, these rare colored flowers would hang like a bunch of jade pendants or a chandelier, effortlessly decorating the forest canopy during flowering season which comes around April.”

The work then moves on to a discussion of and an argument for biodiversity, citing an expert’s opinion that “although there have been successes as in the case of the Tubbataha Reef in Palawan and the Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park in Mindoro Occidental which has been the home of the endangered tamaraw, there is enormous room for improvement in the conservation and protection of other key places such as the Peñablanca protected area in Cagayan, the Agusan Marsh in Agusan del Sur, and even Mt. Makiling, which is one of the few places in the country where the jade vine naturally flourishes.” The piece concludes with a look into new propagation techniques being explored for the jade vine, and into its market potential.

All told, the piece was very capably done, save for the usual edits and the suggestion of a better choice of words here and there. In this and in a previous submission, its young author showed skill and sensitivity, as well as an abiding love of nature, having studied in UP Los Baños and having lived there for many years.

Now here’s the thing: in my class, “good” can’t ever be good enough. My students have my mantras coming out of their ears: “Raise the stakes!” and “Push the envelope!” Critics of writing programs who keep carping that all these programs and workshops ever do is promote safe, boring, homogenized pieces should take a seat in my class. I’m far from the world’s best writing teacher, but I certainly don’t give my students an easy time, any more than I give myself an easy time. I try to give every piece, no matter how poorly conceived or executed, the attention it deserves, assuming that it’s all the student could do up to that point; if I could help him or her turn into something that at least makes sense and hangs together, something he or she could share proudly and happily with others, then I would have done my job.

But I tend to be hardest on my best students—some of whom will come to class wth an attitude, and some of whom don’t even realize just how good they are—because the hardest and yet also the most worthwhile transition to make is that between being merely good and being possibly great.

This is why I keep urging them to raise the stakes and to push the envelope, because great writing—by which I mean something substantial and memorable, in both substance and form—is far more than a matter of perfect grammar or witty language. I’d much rather have a rough-hewn but editable story heavy with human drama than a clean but tepid script with every detail correctly rendered but showing me little more than what I’ve already seen before or what I could have predicted myself. I want a kink in the character, a twist in the plot that the author’s understanding of human action will not only make plausible but even dramatically inevitable.

In the case of our “jade vine” piece, we took one big step backward and tried to assess its possibilities. What was its real or best potential subject? What was the author capable of? Sure, it was interesting to know all those details about the jade vine, and of course we all agreed that protecting our biodiversity was a good and necessary thing—but these were all safe points to make, a plea for the preservation of natural beauty that no one in his or her right mind could contest.

This was where I trotted out another of my writing mantras: “Let’s throw a monkey wrench into the works!” By “monkey wrench,” I meant an incongruous element, something that might even go against the grain of the piece, but also something that would give it more complexity and traction. I’ve sometimes found myself doing this with my own stories, usually as a check against sentimentality and predictability. In a story titled “Some Families, Very Large,” a Christmas story about a boy and his errant father, I took the story to a funeral parlor toward the end, just because it was the most un-Christmasy thing I could think of.

You don’t really plan these things from the beginning (which would make them, in a way, predictable); instead, just when everything seems to be going right, you pause and ask yourself—almost with narrative mischief in mind—“Now, what if….” What if an ambulance takes a wrong turn on its way to a pick up a patient? What if, on a trip celebrating their reconciliation, an estranged couple is waylaid by bandits and forced to reveal secrets better left untouched? What if, in a nonfiction piece making an eloquent case for biodiversity and beauty, we throw in an element of violence?

That’s right, violence—which, to be totally unromantic and untouristy about Los Baños and Mt. Makiling—has sadly scarred that otherwise edenic landscape. I reminded the author—who probably knew the circumstances better than I did—of the recent spate of horrifying crimes and incidents that had shaken up that area and UP’s campus there: the rape and killing of a coed, the drowning of two UPLB students in a stream, the fatal stabbing of a woman by her husband, a security officer who then committed suicide. These were morbid facts that, in my former life as the UP System’s top PR man, I might have de-emphasized or treated in another way; but the nonfictionist’s eye has to be bare, wide open, and utterly dry, and I asked my student to maintain that stance as well.

What did murder and mayhem have to do with jade vines and biodiversity? There’s the real challenge to the creative nonfictionist—not just the good, competent one, but the potentally great one. I suspect that writers the likes of Nick Joaquin, Greg Brillantes, Kerima Polotan, and Pete Lacaba would instinctively have known how to mesh these disparate elements together into a gripping, compelling narrative that would have seamlessly paralleled violence of one kind with another. Rather than being perfectly smooth, their pieces would have, here and there, retained a rough edge—and showed off the glint that comes with rough edges.

And that, not incidentally, is the advantage of creative nonfiction over everyday journalistic reportage or the conventional essay: it can marshall different and even discordant notes and voices together, and, unlike essays which demand clarity of thought and meaning, employ and even thrive on ambiguity. One of the CNF models I use in class is a New Yorker piece titled “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard, which begins with an image of the Milky Way in the night sky, a sick dog, squirrels, and an absent husband—before veering off into the 1991 shooting of four people by a Chinese graduate student at the University of Iowa, ending with “Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.” Messy and marvelous.

The next time you’re feeling safe, smug, or soft about your work in progress, toss that monkey wrench into the middle of the piece, and see what happens. If you didn’t see it coming, then it isn’t likely that others would have, either, and in the very least, you’d have a fresher and more provocative work in hand.

(Picture of the jade vine from

Penman No. 89: Camels and Scribes

d4966305xPenman for Monday, March 17, 2014

A FEW months ago, I wrote about the fountain pens that famous people like T. S. Eliot, Winston Churchill, and Neil Gaiman used, and especially about how Eliot’s pen had been donated by his widow Valerie to the Royal Society of Literature for members to sign themselves with into the society’s logbook. The more practical-minded will and should, of course, dismiss any such discussions of celebrity memorabilia as mere fetishism, an adoration of idle and otherwise meaningless objects.

Happily, that’s a charge I can live with, as an incorrigible collector of lovable old junk, particularly pens to which I’m drawn by some deep Freudian current I won’t even try to palpate. I never even excuse the fact that I collect pens not so much to write as to doodle with—I enjoy laying wet bright lines on a crisp sheet of paper and watching the ink spread and shade. Whatever words I may be forming really mean little; it’s the sheer pleasure of forming the words that matters for the moment, the joy of the first pictographer tracing the outline of a bull on a cave wall, of the medieval scribe illuminating the Book of Genesis.

Eliot and Co. weren’t collecting Watermans and Conway Stewarts, of course; they were putting them to work. In their time, everyone wielded a pen, from insurance executives like Wallace Stevens to ambulance drivers like Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney. Soldiers carried pens with them to the trenches, using ink pellets they could dilute in water; today these wartime pens and their embedded pellets are highly prized.

I was thinking of just this scene last week when I came across a thread in a pen forum talking about the pen or pens that T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia, immortalized by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 film epic—used in his desert campaigns. Lawrence was an indefatigable writer, and his Seven Pillars of Wisdom remains as interesting today as when he published it in 1922.

The forum discussion wasn’t really even about Lawrence’s pen but the ink he used; apparently, he preferred a special French-made ink, one that his pen could safely ingest and expel. India or carbon ink is fine for drawing but is usually too thick for use with conventional fountain pens, whose feeds or ink channels it will clog. A forum member (many thanks to “carlos.q” from Puerto Rico) had dug up a typewritten letter from Lawrence, who was back in Southampton, dated May 3, 1934 and addressed to a friend initialed “FV”. In it, he complains (note his curious abuse of the colon) that “I apologize for the ink. The only carbon ink that will run in a fountain pen is Bourgeois: and that is sold only by Reeve in the bottom of Charing Cross Road. I have emptied my bottle of all but the too-thick dregs: I cannot demand more by post: but as soon as the R.A.F. will pay my expenses to London for a working day I shall go to the shop and buy some, and again charge the excellent pen. Only carbon ink is ink—that I wholly agree. I badly want to reach London again, but cannot afford a private visit.” (It’s sad enough to see this proud man in such dire straits, but sadder still to know that he would be dead in a year, from a motorcycle spill.)

Lawrence’s pen—two of them, actually, a Swan and a Conway Stewart—would turn up in a Christie’s auction in 2007, realizing over $5,000. The pens were accompanied by a 1969 letter from a Lawrence associate establishing their provenance, which noted that they had both been “trodden on by a camel & broken,” although this likely applied only to the Swan, as the Conway Stewart pictured had been made much later than Lawrence’s camel-riding days. The letter does end, presciently: “They may be worth something one day.”

That’s something we all wish we could say for our possessions, hopefully without requiring the chunky foot of a roving dromedary to enhance their narrative value. Having just stepped into the gray zone of seniorhood, I often wonder what will become of my trove of mostly vintage Parkers, Sheaffers, Montblancs, Pelikans and what-not once I sign my last signature. They’ll be worth something, for sure, but all of them put together might not even be enough to trade up for a Rolex, so it isn’t their bankable value I’m thinking about, but the stories they carry, especially the dozen or so in my daily rotation: “This one I got from the Thistle Pen Shop in Edinburgh, and it led to a story that became a book; this one I found in the Greenhills tiangge, selling for a tiny fraction of its actual worth; this one was being sold by a shop in Auckland, but it was missing a tiny part, a tassie which I later found online at the Berliner shop in New York; this one I found in an antique shop on Morato, inscribed to a ‘Consuelo,’ who would have worn it as a pendant on a chain….” And so on.

Last year I told myself that I would try to unload about a third of the collection, thinking to keep just the best dozen or so by the time I turn 70, but turning 60 gave me an excuse to acquire even more ink-spitting baubles. How to say no to a half-priced Montblanc Oscar Wilde, the flamboyant companion to my black-and-formal Agatha Christie? Or the Onoto Magna Classic in mottled tortoiseshell, its golden tongue spinning tales in a summery green-gold (known to ink connoisseurs as Rohrer & Klingner Alt-Goldgrun)? Let me declare this here and now: camels are strictly forbidden from entering my barangay in UP Diliman; any large humpbacked mammal coming within a hundred meters of my house will be shot on sight (with liberal squirts of india ink).


Now, if all this talk of bygone pen-mongering strikes a responsive chord in you—evoking the inner Lawrence or the inner Agatha (Christie tracked Lawrence’s footsteps in Syria, intrigued by his spying)—you might want to pay a visit to the newest pen palace in town, a veritable emporium of pens, papers, inks, and even wax seals.

The members of our local (and still growing on its sixth year!) pen club, the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, were a captive crowd at the recent launch of Scribe’s new flagship store at the East Wing of Shangri-La Plaza Mall. Scribe’s owner, the lovely and gracious Marian Yu-Ong, recalled how the business began in 2002 as an importer of writing and reading products, before opening its first store in Eastwood Mall in 2009. Also featured at the launch were the works of three master calligraphers whom Scribe has designated its ambassadors: hand-lettering maven Fozzy Dayrit, advertising executive Leigh Reyes, and architect-conservator Mico Manalo.

Today, if you want to feast your eyes on the largest and most sumptuous range of quality pens, papers, and inks in Metro Manila, there’s really no other place to go but Scribe Writing Essentials—make that “places,” because aside from Shang and Eastwood, Scribe can also be found at Glorietta 5, SM Aura Premier, and SM Megamall Fashion Hall.

I paid a visit to Scribe’s new flagship store after the launch, and was impressed to find an assortment of quality pens that we used to have to order online or fly to Hong Kong, KL, or Singapore for, and at very competitive prices, brands like Pelikan, Sailor, Platinum, Kaweco, and TWSBI, as well as the more familiar Cross and Lamy.

Here’s my standing advice to fountain-pen newbies, faced with these choices: if you want one good, classic pen you can expect to use for the next ten years, invest in a Pelikan; if you want a good, well-designed pen with a great nib for a price that won’t break the bank, try the Taiwan-made TWSBI (twis-bee), a huge hit among pen aficionados. Then treat yourself to a bottle of J. Herbin ink and a Midori notebook, and before long you’ll be scanning the horizon for wayward camels.

(Upper photo from

Penman No. 88: Whatever Happened to the New NAs?

Penman for Monday, March 3, 2014

I GOT a series of messages from a fellow member of the Philippine Macintosh Users Group a few weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with Macs or computers; of all things, it had to do with the actress Nora Aunor and the National Artist Award. I thought it was interesting and compelling enough to take up in this corner, since I’d been wondering about some of the same things myself.

Before I go one line further, let me say that I was a member of a fairly large lower-level committee that was part of the recent selection process for the National Artist Awards. I signed a non-disclosure agreement when I joined that committee, so nothing I say here will be emanating from our discussions in that committee, which will remain confidential.

What’s no longer a secret, since it’s emerged from other sources online, is that a number of people, including Nora Villamayor (aka Nora Aunor), have been recommended for recognition as National Artists. The recommendations of our committee went up to yet another committee or council for final evaluation, before being forwarded to the Office of the President for proclamation, prior to the conferment of the awards themselves.

So far, so good. The prescribed process was rigorously respected and followed by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, which oversees it (the board of the Cultural Center of the Philippines weighs in, I believe, at the last stage prior to sending the final list off to Malacañang). This was of keen interest to many Filipino artists and the cultural community—not just the names of the prospective NAs, but even more importantly, the process itself—given how the Palace, in the past and most recently in 2009, had cavalierly disregarded the rules and common decency to hand out the award to its favorites.

It’s been half a year, however, since that final list reached the OP—and so far, that’s where it’s been, gathering dust and gathering rumor. The loudest of these rumors has it that Nora’s run-ins with the law—presumably a question of morals—have held up her proclamation, as well as that of the others in her batch, and those before them. (Let’s not forget that, as a result of the infamous dagdag-bawas that happened under GMA, the proclamation of legitimately nominated National Artists such as the late Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and Lazaro Francisco—not to mention that of the eminent musician Ramon Santos, who was unceremoniously dropped to make way for others far less qualified—was indefinitely postponed.) Another bit of speculation has it that the Palace was betting on the late Dolphy, rather than Nora, to make it through the selection process, and that if Dolphy’s not getting it, then neither will Nora.

That will be a very sad and silly thing to do, if there’s any truth to the scuttlebutt. I respect and admire the work of both Nora Aunor and Dolphy, and myself would like to see them both recognized as NAs. I’ve even had the pleasure and the privilege of writing a couple of filmscripts for Nora (among them, “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo”) and of writing a back-cover blurb for Dolphy’s searingly excellent autobiography, released shortly before his death.

But if Dolphy—the comic genius, but also easily the popular and sentimental choice—was indeed excluded for whatever reason from the final list of recommendees this time, penalizing Nora with a similar rejection isn’t going to make things right. Instead, I’d be the first to sign on to a new campaign to endorse Dolphy in the next round of selections. Employing a moral argument is just going to make things worse, by introducing a spurious element into the issue. The religious conservatives won’t like it, but the plain fact is that artistic excellence and personal morality have never made a necessary if a happy marriage; let’s not ask of our finest artists what we don’t and can’t demand of our national heroes.

Early last month, my PhilMUG friend Don Rapadas wrote NCCA Chairman Felipe de Leon, Jr. a letter to inquire about the case, and he gave me his permission to quote from that letter:

“I am Zandro G. Rapadas of the Nora Aunor for National Artist Movement, and it is my privilege to write to you and thank you for the honor you bestowed on Ms. Nora C. Villamayor at the 6th Ani ng Dangal Awards held last Sunday, February 2. It was a well-appreciated and regarded state recognition for the international honors that Ms. Villamayor brought to the country in 2013, particularly for her Best Actress wins at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, and at the 3rd Sakhalin International Film Festival in Russia.

“With all her achievements to date locally and abroad, there is no doubt that Nora C. Villamayor’s time has come to be officially recognized and honored as a National Artist, hence our official nomination of her to the Order of National Artists in November 2012….

“The media and the public have known of the six artists endorsed for confirmation, proclamation, and conferment by Malacañang since early October last year, and we welcomed it with much rejoicing, because a new set of National Artists means the restoration of trust and respect for this state honor, which was unfortunately tarnished with the 2009 controversy involving artists added by Malacañang for proclamation and conferment.

“We believe it was fair enough to make this information known to the public because the decision by the Joint Boards of the CCP and NCCA has already been made and submitted to Malacañang, and what follows should be transparency in the final stage of the process and, on the part of the public, vigilance to help ensure that the transgressions of 2009 will remain a thing of the past. After all, this is a state honor, and the institutions involved operate on public funds, hence the public interest. Moreover, the deciding officials are public officials, and a ‘public office is a public trust.’ Certainly, no one can take us to task for being watchful this time.

“And watchful we have been. We know that after the Honors Committee convened to discuss the endorsement, they went back to your office and requested you to comment on issues raised about morality and past legal cases against Ms. Villamayor, your candidate for National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts. And we understand that the NCCA has informed Malacañang that it does not take issue with the points raised, and that the Office of the Executive Secretary, who chairs the Honors Committee, has acknowledged receiving this reply early in January this year, and was passed on to the Malacañang Protocol Office for the information of other members of the Honors Committee. Since then and up until last Tuesday, February 4, the latest tracking of its status notes that it’s still with the Protocol Office.

“Why it’s taken this long, we do not know and we do not understand. But what we do know is that out there in the print and social media recently, many are already wondering what’s keeping the Palace from officially proclaiming the new set of National Artists. And included in this anxious waiting are some questions on why the NCCA and CCP have kept mum on the matter. I have attached in this email correspondence a few of these expressions of concern against the long wait.

“On a final note, I wish to underscore that this is not just about our anxious waiting for Nora C. Villamayor’s own cause, but more importantly our desire to see that the original dignity of the National Artist honor is restored with full respect and regard for its original intent and purpose, despite it being subject to political prerogative.”

Don Rapadas’ last point is an important one to note—this is as much about the process as the person. February, our National Arts Month, would have been the perfect time to honor our new National Artists—including the rightful ones from the previous batch; let’s not wait another year to make these long-overdue amends to Philippine culture’s overlooked heroes, and let’s hope Don gets his answer soon. 

(Photo from