Penman No. 116: The Phabletized Future

FullSizeRenderPenman for Monday, Sept. 29, 2014


HAVING WRITTEN with dead seriousness about writing for six straight columns, I hope my readers will indulge me this digression—a periodic, practically biennial, one—having to do with utter frivolity.

Okay, I’ll fess up: I have the new iPhone 6. Naturally. I’ve been an incorrigible Apple fanboy since the mid-1980s—practically since Apple was born—and so no one should be surprised by my prompt (I’ll say “timely”) acquisition of this new bauble, among 10 million other lunatics who snapped up the 6 and its bigger sibling, the 6+, in the gadget’s first three days of being on sale in the global market.

Like an arthritic hippie or a superannuated rebel, I should have no business, as a card-carrying senior, salivating over shiny new toys better seen on 30-somethings dashing off to work or to a dinner date. Well, maybe a little. US demographic studies from 2012 suggest that nearly one-fourth of all iPhone users are 55 and older (and a bit lower for Android and BlackBerry users), so older guys (men use it more than women, 60-40 percent) still make up a good chunk of the iPhone market. That makes sense, because these things don’t come cheap.

Along with literally millions of other people in the US and around the world, I stayed up until dawn on September 12 on the US East Coast to get my order in, and after an interminably long week during which I could only distract myself by doing honest and humorless work on my book project, a brown UPS van arrived to deliver the gadget du jour, a pristine iPhone 6 in smoke gray, 64GB, contract-free under T-Mobile. (Let’s get this out of the way: if you can’t wait for the local telcos to release the IP6 /6+ and want your US-based tita to send you one for an early Christmas, ask for a contract-free T-Mobile unit from the Apple Store—don’t get one from T-Mobile itself, or it will be network-locked.) I took my Globe nanoSIM out of the 5s and popped it into the newcomer, and voila—it was alive!

Never mind the rest of that digital drama, which can only be unremitting silliness to anyone but the most besotted geek. (And it’s only fair to say that millions of other geeks—the Android and Samsung crowd—slept soundly that night.) You can get the full specs and features of the IP6/6+ on dozens of sites online. I’ll cut to the chase with my quickie personal review, because I can just see a bunch of people asking me, “Is it worth it?”

If you’re moving from an older iPhone, the first thing you’ll notice is how thin and light it is—and yet how large. The 6 is larger than the 5/5s, and the 6+ is larger than the 6. I held and tried to like the 6+ in an Apple Store, but came away convinced that it was a cool thing to have if you’re 25, but definitely not for me. I got the 6 because, like many old guys, I prefer smaller, more discreet phones; the IP4 was perfect, but now it won’t run the newest software.

If you need an excuse to upgrade, recite this mantra: better battery, faster processor, bigger screen, thinner profile, better camera, more storage. Add them all up and you might convince yourself that it’s worth a good chunk of change. At 60, I don’t need an excuse; I’m just hopelessly curious, and the older I get, the more curious I am about what the future is going to be like, so every new gadget lets me cheat time.

After a week of playing with the new iPhone, I can say that I can best appreciate the brilliant screen, the excellent camera (I’ve done almost all of my photography with the iPhone for the past few years), and the longer battery life. I still have to get used to the slimness and the lightness of the thing; I’m using a plastic skin on it, but I keep tapping my pocket to make sure it’s still there. I’ve ordered a thick leather wallet case to lend it some heft, and then I’m sure it’ll be just fine.

I know that the so-called “bendgate” issue has come up online alleging that the big IP6+ will bend if you try hard enough (which makes me ask, who would, and why would you?). These “bend” tests are mildly interesting, but if you’re going to base your buying decisions on these, then go buy a tank, not an iPhone. I mean, how many people buy their cars based on crash tests?

What intrigues me more about the future is the new word I picked up this week: “phablet,” which the IP6+ is—a cross between phone and tablet. Frankly, all this talk of a phabletized future—where people walk around with 7- or 8-inch phones stuck to their ears—scares me. If this is the way we’re going, we might as well stick a phone into an iPad mini and call it the iPhone 9. I’ll probably hang around long enough to catch the iPhone 13, which will include telepathic commands among its features. By then, Apple and the iPhone will have gone one of two ways—the way of Godzilla, or the way of Yoda. Godzilla will have a battery life of 20 days and will be strangely reminiscent of the iPad mini; Yoda will have half the battery life but will remind some really old people of the iPhone 1.

By this time, to be fair, size will not be a problem for many people, because fashion designers (starting with Project Runway season XX) have made big pockets trendy; already, one Mafia boss (yes, the Mafia outlived Pope Francis) attributes his surviving an assassination attempt to the big iPhone he carries in his suit pocket, like a shield (it still bends, but it can stop bullets); boardrooms and Mafiosi meetings are soon full of men with bulging fronts. An ad with a digitally recycled Mae West says, “Is that an iPhone, or are you just happy to see me?”

Heck, I’m just happy to see this iPhone now.

Penman No. 115: The Clarity of Prose

Penman for Monday, Sept. 22, 2014


“THE CLARITY of Things” is the title of the new short story I finished a few weeks ago, which will soon be coming out in the Australian literary journal Westerly. The phrase has been ringing in my ears and suggested this piece about the value of clarity in prose—an element whose importance seems so obvious but which still escapes many writers, especially those who remain unsure of what it is exactly they want to produce.

I was thinking of this the other day as I was reading, with much delight, an old essay by the New York-based Luis Francia on Jose Garcia Villa, which begins thus: “Loved New Yorker cartoons. Hated its poetry. ‘Prose,’ he’d sniff.” The essay (in which I happily discovered that I shared with Villa not just a first name but an aversion to French food and cheese) went on to describe Villa’s fabled workshops, where he decried, Luis recalls, “the prose or narrative mentality. Anathema to the poet’s creed. He urged us not to read fiction, to purify ourselves, our poems, and have that lyric spirit fly unfettered.” There was, Villa and Francia agreed, too much bad prose going around, passing itself off as poetry.

It’s an admirable and entirely understandable stance, coming from a consummate aesthete like Villa. I don’t think there’s a real writer alive who won’t concede that, in the hierarchy of letters, poetry sits at the topmost tier; I often remind students too eager to proclaim themselves poets that there’s nothing harder to do well and easier to do badly than poetry. I’ve published a book of what I offer to be poems and I’ve won a couple of prizes for poetry, but I wouldn’t for one minute describe myself as a poet; I am not worthy.

That said, the writing of good and great prose—whether fiction or nonfiction—poses its own challenges, heedless of poetry’s demands for complexity, compactness, and layered meanings. For me, the charm of prose is precisely in its accessibility—or at least, in its seeming accessibility—and then, like stepping into a roomful of riches, in its delivery of even more than the view from the doorway may have suggested.

At its most basic, and also at its best, prose should be unflinchingly clear, which means it should be written with certainty and precision, if not efficiency, from physical description to philosophical musing. (I keep hearing the imaginary voice—ironically, he was a chronic stammerer—of W. Somerset Maugham, one of my early models, intoning in one of his treatises on writing: “Clarity, clarity, clarity!”) A blue sky should come off as blue, or shade into its proper variant; a crowded room should suffocate the reader. Clarity does not imply a singularity or inevitability of meaning, especially in fiction, which thrives on ambiguity; I don’t have to understand what I’m seeing, not right away, but I should know what I’m looking at—a wet street, an orange jacket, an old man’s face. Witness the prudish Miss Mijares in Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin”: “Secret, short-lived thoughts flitted through her mind in the jeepneys she took to work when a man pressed down beside her and through her dress she felt the curve of his thigh”; she wished she were “in the movies, to sink into a seat as into an embrace, in the darkness with a hundred shadowy figures about her and high on the screen, a man kissing a woman’s mouth while her own fingers stole unconsciously to her unbruised lips.”

Some works, like popular songs, are best understood right away to be fully enjoyed.

On our flight to the US earlier this month, I gorged on the onboard entertainment, and dwelt in particular on an HBO documentary on the life and work of the lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim, who reminded his audience that the difference between the poem and the song lyric is that the listener has to get the song on the spot, whereas the poem’s meaning can be teased out at leisure. (And sometimes meaning doesn’t matter as much as the music: try figuring out “Send in the Clowns.”)

Clarity often comes with concrete objects, but can be even more valuable when dealing with abstractions—ideas, feelings, complex notions often more surely grasped by the many-fingered poem. I’ve found that the most complex notions are best served by the simplest language. Clarity and simplicity are not always the same thing, but can’t be too far apart. There’s a much-quoted passage from C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves that illustrates how simple words—with a few exceptions like “irredeemable”—can reach at the most complex of meanings:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.”

This also reminds us that good, clear writing begins with good, sharp thinking, which is perhaps the hardest task of all.





Penman No. 114: Still Nothing Better than Good Writing

Penman for Monday, Sept. 15, 2014


FIRST OF all, my belated thanks to those readers who sent in their responses to the editing exercises I put out in this column a few weeks ago. In no particular order, they included Ed Maranan, Adrian Laserna, Vince Mendoza, Ver del Valle, Crisma Mina, Fely Claviolo, Renz Felipe, Ronita Dacula, Louie Recillo, Jenny Llaguno, Lydia Chan, Razielle Esguerra, and Lawrence Bernabe.

I had no time to critique each response individually, so what I’ll do is to publish, below, what I thought were the best responses, and everyone can then match their answers against this list. Just take note that, as with anything having to do with language, these answers aren’t graven in stone and could accept another word here and there.

Exercise I (Wordiness)

1.  I managed to traverse the thoroughfare without jeopardizing my safety.

I crossed the road safely.

2. The people of the Philippines have a great liking for festive occasions.

Filipinos love fiestas.

3. Society as a whole, as well as the individual persons in it, should practice the virtue of honesty.

Let’s be honest.

4. In my personal opinion, it is my idea that a prohibition on pistols, revolvers and rifles should be implemented.

Ban guns.

5. His actuations produced a profound surprise in the very depths of me.

 He shocked me.

6. We have insufficient information with regard to this state of events.

We need to know more about this.

7. Let us satisfy the requirements of our bodies for nourishment.

 Let’s eat.

8. The outbreak of hostilities was within the realm of possibility.

War was imminent.

9. I give you my permission to continue doing whatever it was you were doing.

 Carry on.

10. He was a uniformed enforcer of the law.

He was a cop.

Exercise II (Modulation)

1a. (nice) Filipinos are a hardworking people who can rise above their poverty through resourcefulness and strength of spirit.

1b. (nasty) The Philippines is a nation of beggars.

2a. (neutral) The Philippine economy depends greatly on the remittances of overseas workers.

2b. (nasty) The Philippine economy would collapse without the remittances of millions of Filipinos forced to work overseas by the lack of good-paying jobs at home.

3a. (neutral) Your proposal needs improvement.

3b. (nice) Your proposal shows promise and, with some changes here and there, can rise to its full potential.

Strictly speaking, the second exercise really no longer belongs to the realm of editing, which most often involves rendering a piece of text in its simplest, clearest, and most accurate form possible, but rather to editorializing, which is the art (some would say the nefarious art) of introducing an emotional or political slant into a statement to influence the reader’s opinion. PR specialists and propagandists (including editorial writers) do this all the time. I worked years ago as an editorial writer for a now-defunct newspaper, and one of these days I’ll do a separate piece on that experience.

I was also pleased to receive a message from a reader we’ll call Mike, who works as a content editor for the Cebu-based self-publishing arm of Penguin Random House, and who started his editing career as a copywriter for the marketing department of a Japanese vehicle-exporting firm, also in Cebu. Mike shared his experience with me, and I got his permission to quote a bit from it:

“I foolishly believed back then that, since I already had significant copywriting experience, editing would be a cinch for me. Instead, I learned the hard way that writing and editing involved two completely different kinds of skill sets and mindsets; junior copy editors in the company undergo rigorous training in the Chicago Manual of Style, and I struggled at first. I’m glad that I eventually got the hang of it, but the experience was a huge eye-opener for me. I worked as a copy editor for a couple of years (editing and indexing manuscripts submitted to us by authors looking to self-publish their work), then eventually got pulled back into the Marketing Department again, but this time as a content editor in charge of our in-house copywriters. I now edit marketing and promotional copy: website content; mailer and newsletter copy; and copy for brochures, flyers, PR kits, and other marketing and promotional materials.”

I’m taking note of Mike’s message not just because it was a pleasant surprise to me to learn that Penguin Random House had a back-office in Cebu, offering jobs to editors, but also because Mike sent me a link to a provocative article on gawker.con by Hamilton Nolan, titled “Against Editors,” which reminds us that while good editing can save a badly written draft, there’s still nothing better than good writing to begin with. Nolan says:

“This is not to say that editing is not a legitimate job. It is. It is also a necessary step in the writing process. But it is not the most important role in the writing process. That would be writing, which any honest editor will tell you is much harder than editing. (An editor who will not admit this is not worth listening to.) Reporting is a difficult chore. Writing is a psychologically agonizing struggle. Editing is not easy, but not as onerous as either of the two tasks that precede it. You would never know that, though, by looking at the relative salaries of the people who do the work.

“Good editors are valuable. They are also rare. If we simply kept the good ones and dismissed the bad ones, the ranks of editors would immediately shrink to saner levels. Editors are an important part of writing—a subordinate part. Their role in the industry should be equally subordinate…. To hire a new editor instead of a new writer is to give up actual stories in favor of… some marginal improvements, somewhere, or perhaps nothing at all.”

Penman No. 113: The Discipline of Words

Penman for Monday, September 8, 2014


LET ME acknowledge, first of all, the readers who responded to last week’s column, “Exercises for the editorially minded,” where I shared some exercises that I give my class in Professional Writing to help rid my students of their wordiness and show them how to say the same thing in different ways. It was gratifying to see so many people coming out of the woodwork and professing an interest in the discipline of words. (For lack of space and to give that topic its due, I’ll save the responses to the exercises for next week.)

That’s what this business is all about, ultimately—discipline and practice, more than just loose talk, especially talking about writing. Some folks keep talking about writing all the time—about their plans for their novel or their epic poem—but they never get around to doing it. Sometimes writers—especially when they’ve had one too many drinks—have a tendency to run off at the mouth, or to pontificate endlessly on matters they know next to nothing about. I myself will gladly admit to these occasional displays of verbal excess, which are as inevitable as an old car coughing up a foulness of black smoke.

But when all the bluster is done and we retire to our fortresses of solitude, armed with a steaming cup of coffee (and, for incorrigible holdouts like my friends Krip Yuson and Jimmy Abad, a lighted cigarette), it all comes down to a date and a duel with the blinking cursor, and to the rules of engagement of writing, a code defined far more by discipline than by license, more by routine than romance. (See what I mean about running off at the mouth?) And what are those rules? To me, they all boil down to this: shut up and write.

Just recently, a friend asked how it was possible for me to be working on seven book projects all at once—a company history, the biographies of two political leaders and two business families, an oral history of the First Quarter Storm, and my third novel; these aside from my weekly column and the occasional short story and magazine article and blog entry.

I told him that I’m no genius or superman, but I do work as hard as I can, acutely aware of time passing, and of the need to tell stories (and to make a decent living from the telling) while I can. Some years ago I realized that life was too short to wait to finish one book before starting the next one. I felt inspired by something I had read about Isaac Asimov, who reputedly had a row of typewriters in one room, on each one of which a different project was afoot. Thankfully computers now make it possible to squeeze those typewriters into an iPhone (on which, not incidentally, I’m writing this column using the Notes app, while playing in a poker tournament). I also look up to the example and the work ethic of the late Nick Joaquin, whose prodigious beer drinking was matched by his copious writing. Not only was he superbly versatile, producing stories, novels, essays, poems, journalistic pieces, and commissioned biographies. He was also thoroughly professional, and no matter how much drinking or partying he did, he was known to submit his manuscript on the dot, on the appointed deadline.

We writers like to bitch about how little time we have to write what we really want to write—which for me is that novel or that story that keeps whining like some neglected waif in a corner of my mind. It’s true; real life has a way of crushing the good fiction out of you, and there are days I get up from my desk dazed after completing a book draft or grading my students’ papers and commenting on their work, dispirited by fatigue, and wishing I was working on one of my own stories instead. (I don’t forget for one minute that we gents have it easier than the ladies, who give up so much more of their life and liberty so we can pursue our happiness.) So what do I do? I stop kvetching about how unfair it is that some other guy can earn zillions more while I’m slaving away at a piece few will read and much less care about, consider myself lucky that I can work with my fingertips instead of my arms, think about my parents, and then I shut up and write.

Last week, in the midst of frantic preparations for a three-month stay in the US (where I’ll be by the time you read this), I put everything aside for a day and focused on finishing a short story I had promised to contribute to an Australian literary journal. This was a sad love story that I had begun in 1998 (I have unfinished stories in computer files going back to 1990, in a folder optimistically labeled “Ongoing”); like my characters, I lost my way in the plot, and recovered my bearings only when the Australians asked for a story and gave me a deadline.

My deadline was a Sunday; that Saturday morning I took a six-kilometer walk around the UP Oval and thought the story through; I was halfway in it, and approaching a critical turn in the plot. A line kept insinuating itself in my head: “the clarity of things,” begging to become the title. When I felt my characters beginning to speak on their own behalf without much prodding from their puppetmaster, I knew it was time to sit down and write. That afternoon until early the next morning, I wrote in a white heat, laying down over 2,500 words in what eventually became a 6,000-word story. (At this point in the tournament, I’ve just lost to someone’s pocket aces, but strangely I feel relieved, wanting instead to tell this story of a story.)

“The Clarity of Things” is the first long story I’ve finished in years, and whether or not the Australians take it, I’m happy to remind myself that I can still play with raw emotions and describe places I’ve never seen on the digital page. I enjoy the cool and calm precision of nonfiction, the seeming unimpeachability of fact; but it’s the terrific and also terrifying ambiguity of fiction that makes me want to be a writer all over again, to feel like one, and to work like one.

Penman No. 112: Exercises for the Editorially Minded

Penman for Monday, September 1, 2014


TO MY pleasant surprise, last week’s piece on what editors do drew a stream of positive responses—I never imagined that so many readers would find the thankless and dimly illuminated job of editing so fascinating—but my biggest surprise after the column came out was to realize that I’d already written not just one but two columns on editing, back in 2010. Thankfully, I didn’t repeat myself too much, and since I’ve already written dozens of pieces on, say, fiction and nonfiction, I don’t see why I can’t do a fourth one on editing, focusing this time on how an editor thinks or should think.

But before I go one step further into the trenches, let me just point out another important fact about the editor’s job. Particularly in a journalistic context, where some element of public interest is presumably involved (as opposed to literary publishing, which comes down to very personal tastes), “editing” involves much more than dotting I’s or finding better substitutes for problem words. Editing in journalism inevitably involves matters of policy—the publication’s policy in respect of the treatment of, say, political and social issues. What newspaper and magazine editors worry or should worry about are spelled out in a textbook titled Creative Editing by Bowles and Border (Wadsworth, 2000), which says, in a chapter on Situational Ethics:

“Copy editors are likely to be concerned with decisions involving the writing, editing and production processes: Is the use of profane language or obscene photographs ever justified? When? Are the implicit biases of the editor or the newspaper as a cultural institution evident in the selection of 
stories and photos? Should they be? Do certain people groups or institutions receive more play than others? Conversely, are some people groups or institutions ignored? Are headlines and captions fair and accurate? Are stories edited to eliminate bias and opinion? Are subjective words or words suggesting a viewpoint 
given thoughtful consideration?

“Managing editors and other senior editors are likely to be concerned with questions of policy: Should victims of crimes be identified? If so, when? In stories about rape? About incest? About battering? In stories involving juveniles? Should suspects in crimes be identified? If so, when? At their arrest? When they are charged? At the time
of trial? Should the cause of death be listed in obituaries involving victims of suicide or AIDS? Who in the newsroom should know the identity of confidential sources? Just the reporter? The supervising editor? The managing editor? The publisher? If a reporter pledges confidentiality to a source, are editors
bound by the same promise? How involved should newsroom employees be in writing and editing special sections that promote 
consumer products? How should corrections and clarifications be handled?”

Frankly, when I contemplate questions like these, I’m glad to be in the classroom rather than the newsroom, knowing how tricky these situations can get. It would seem that they should have clear and easy answers, but they rarely do, especially given the realities of Philippine publishing and politics—but that’s a story for another day.

Today, let’s do something more elementary—elementary enough to be among the very first exercises I give my students in CW198, Professional Writing. (I don’t care if my future students see this here, because they’ll still be hard put to cough up the answers. As all my students know, I always give open-book exams.) You might know if you have an editor lurking inside you if you can do these exercises reasonably well. Just for fun, I’ll respond to the first 10 responses emailed to me—if you don’t hear back from me, that means you were No. 11.

The first exercise has to do with the bane of Filipinos who love English too much, to the point of using 30 words where three will do, and of using a P1,000 word where a five-peso one will do. Cut. Simplify. Ruthlessly.

The second exercise is rather more advanced, and involves matters of judgment, nuance, and vocabulary—in other words, style. This is something that an editorial or opinion writer (which I was, way back when) would specialize in. I tell my students that they can express the same idea in three ways—nice, neutral, and nasty—depending on their specific purpose. I don’t mean for anyone to be nasty, of course, but just like learning karate or shooting, you never know when you might need it. Let’s have some fun!

I. Wordiness: Simplify and shorten the following sentences without changing their meaning.

  1. I managed to traverse the thoroughfare without jeopardizing my safety.
  2. The people of the Philippines have a great liking for festive occasions.
  3. Society as a whole, as well as the individual persons in it, should practice the virtue of honesty.
  4. In my personal opinion, it is my idea that a prohibition on pistols, revolvers and rifles should be implemented.
  5. His actuations produced a profound surprise in the very depths of me.
  6. We have insufficient information with regard to this state of events.
  7. Let us satisfy the requirements of our bodies for nourishment.
  8. The outbreak of hostilities was within the realm of possibility.
  9. I give you my permission to continue doing whatever it was you were doing.
  10. He was a uniformed enforcer of the law.

II. Modulation: Rewrite the following statements in the “nice-normal-nasty” modes, as required:

  1. (neutral) The Philippines is a country whose people are predominantly poor. (turn into nice and nasty)
  1. (nice) Heroic overseas workers contribute greatly to the health of the Philippine economy. (turn into neutral and nasty)
  1. (nasty) Your proposal is almost totally bereft of intelligence and originality, and is unacceptable in its present form. (turn into neutral and nice)