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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

entry arrow11:59 PM | Literary Blogging

I wrote this piece for the Philippine Center of International PEN's 50th Anniversary last weekend at the National Museum where I was part of the panel discussing "Literature Without Frontiers," together with Butch Dalisay, Jose Wendell Capili, and four other writers. I wrote this in three feverish hours late at night, with only a few hours to spare before our session had to start on the morning of the second day of the convention. I thought we would be given free rein with our time, the way the last two panels before us did -- but we were suddenly given a time limit of ten minutes each. I had to edit out a lot of what I intended to talk about, and even resorted to on-the-spot editing as our chair reminded me of the remaining time, by way of large cards with the minutes on countdown written on them. So here is the full talk...

The first thing that came into my head the moment I was told that I was to speak, briefly, on the matter of literature without frontiers, was an idea of a literary terrain without borders, without demarcations, enjoying a democracy of space and many possibilities. Because I am of the Google Generation, I was quick to marry this germinating notion with a medium of writing that has come to the forefront of ordinary living only in the past few years. We call this medium “blogging,” and for the uninitiated, a “blog” is simply a shortening of the combination of two words: web and log, a “weblog.” The web, of course, is the imaginative name given cyberspace or the Internet. A log, on the other hand, simply means what we know of the word: dated entries, like in a diary, or a journal.

It goes without saying that the spirit or the writerly mechanism that drives blogs is, for the most part, nothing new. Ever since man learned language and learned how to write, there has always been someone who has made it a habit to chronicle the intricacies of day-to-day living. We called it keeping a diary then, some would call it journaling. Blogging takes that act into the Internet Age, and bloggers today can be defined using the following parameters:

1. The blog writer or the blogger posts entries on a regular basis, with each entry coming in with a title and a date.

2. These entries are chronologically arranged on the webpage, with the latest one appearing first. All other entries are also archived in a weekly or monthly basis.

3. Each entry can be equipped with a mechanism for feedback in the form of comments.

4. And lastly, the blog is a public space, with all entries published with the blogger’s knowledge that all he has written can be read by the rest of the world.

Those last two parameters provide us with the main difference between blogging and diary-keeping. A diary can be kept under lock and key, and it often is primarily a form of writing meant for personal consumption, a diarist’s way of purging personal experience into the hallowed pages of a journal without the danger of the world coming in with scrutinizing curiosity. Blogging is different: while there are types of blogs that allow one to “lock” specific entries, and allow only a select few—mostly close friends—to read some others, for most bloggers privacy over what one has written often takes a backseat. Most of us blog knowing full well that we are writing for the world, that is, if the world can be bothered to take a look at our space in the Internet among millions of others.

I first ventured into blogging more than five years ago with something I called “The Secret Tango Dancer,” which I soon dropped after a year or so because somebody had broken my heart and I wanted to start anew with something I called “How to Live,” a blog title which betrayed my pathetic and too-dramatic attempt to console a broken heart. This blog soon became “Eating the Sun,” which also became “The Spy in the Sandwich.” You will take note that I had randomly abandoned one blog and then created another in the course of half a decade until I finally settled into this last one. Blogging then can be taken in as an evolution of an online personality—we evolve with it until the skin feels just right.

My reasons for starting blogging were, for the most part, entirely haphazard. I began my first blog because I hated to email, especially email that contains practically the same information we copy-and-paste for a variety of recipients. Blogging seemed to me like the perfect recourse to that tedious process of correspondence in the age of instant communication: with just one click of the “publish” button, we communicate with a network of friends and family almost instantly, and get feedback almost as instantly as well.

Perhaps that decision to first blog also sprang from a need to jump into the bandwagon since many of the writers I considered my contemporaries—Dean Francis Alfar, Nikki Alfar, Francezca Kwe, Isolde Amante, Carljoe Javier, May Tobias, Paolo Manalo, Luis Joaquin Katigbak, and Angelo Suarez among them—were getting accounts from various blogging services, including Blogger and LiveJournal. I only knew that I had things inside of me I wanted to talk about, and I wanted to share them with the rest of the world, whether the world wanted them or not. These things would range from mad rants to earnest cultural criticism, from poetic attempts to space fillers the blogging world calls memes—which are basically short and often silly questionnaires that are supposed to reveal the quirks and the depth of our cultivated blogging personas. It was the Internet Age’s equivalent of doing writerly kaingin. We just had to claim a space for ourselves in this new medium, and see where it would lead us.

A blog is, in a sense, a mirror of how we want the world to see us. It is also a virtual message in a bottle: you create one and you let it go adrift in the ocean of the Internet, complete with a kind of romantic self-mockery that surely nobody would ever stumble on what we have written. Often we are surprised when ultimately we meet someone who tells you, “I read what you wrote in your blog...”

But I don’t mean to make this short talk be about the intricate mechanism of what blogging is or is not. Some writers have already given better and more detailed discussions of blogging as a new communications medium, among them Dean Francis Alfar who has written a wonderful piece on the subject in the online magazine Our Own Voices a few months back.

What I hope to do today is open the topic on blogging in terms of exploding frontiers in the craft of writing. The question I hope to tango with today is this: Can blogging be rightfully considered an effective tool in creative writing? If so, how or why?

I ask this question because a prominent writer, an icon in local literary circles who will remain nameless, once suggested to me that I should not waste my time blogging, because blogging he says only takes away from the few hours we have for ourselves for what he calls “real” writing. I suppose he has good reasons to be concerned about blogging becoming a literary vampire of sort—but it soon occurred to me that the suggestion he posed smacked of one accusation: blogging as a worthless exercise in literary considerations, a “waste of time” basically, something that cannot be considered real writing at all.

And so I threw the question into the air, by text-messaging some of the writers I knew who kept blogs, hoping that they had a sense of knowing why they blog in the first place, and how it keeps them in tune with the fact of being active writers. Here are some of the replies:

John Bengan, a fictionist based in Davao, said: “Blogging helps. It keeps me writing and writing. Sometimes good ideas for a story or a poem come from blog entries.”

Artist and writer Andrew Drilon said: “It helps me practice typing, lightly exercising my ability with words, keeps me in touch with fellow writers, and gives me a small online stage to be creative with.”

Poet and essayist Mia Tijam [can't link her secret blog] said: “Blogging is daily practice for writing. It allows me to explore form and content in creative nonfiction, short fiction, and poetry. It helps my style and voice evolve, and keeps both dynamic and at the same time constant in its growth. It gives me encouragement in writing creative nonfiction, and allows me to know what should be written about given the comment/feedback mechanism. It allows me to demonstrate literary theory and criticism. It helps in adding inventory to my writing. And as a bonus, blogging helps share the creative and good writing vibes, and gets people to participate in a symbiosis of creativity.”

Poet Joel Toledo said: “Blogging has helped me a lot, especially in rediscovering creative nonfiction, and in more or less eliciting comments for new poems and points of views on poetry from friends and writers I respect.”

Playwright Glenn Sevilla Mas said: “Blogging made me write regularly knowing that there were people who were waiting for me to post entries. Ang galling nga, eh. Immediate kasi ang response. And I was in the U.S. then when I blogged actively, so it helped me cope with loneliness and homesickness.”

Fictionist Luis Joaquin Katigbak said: “Blogging breaks through certain barriers to writing: as an informal, off-the-cuff, intended-for-friends outlet, it enables one to write more often, and about one’s immediate interests and concerns. As such, it’s good practice, and later on, some blog posts can be retooled for one’s other writing.”

Children’s author and librarian Zarah Gagatiga said: “Blogging has helped me become natural and spontaneous with my writing. Then again, blogging is challenging because I just don’t write about what I want. I think about what to write, and I make it as interesting as possible—something that readers would find worth their time. My blogs are also my workbooks. It’s where I post future articles, poetry, and stories. A pre-writing journal of sorts.”

Essayist Martin Villanueva said: “I suppose it has helped, in a way. I guess adhering to whatever persona you have—whether a version of you or not—is a creative writing exercise in tone and maintaining a character.”

Poet Jose Wendell Capili said: “Blogging enabled me to capture spontaneous combustions of my everyday life without having to worry about length. It also allowed me to develop target audiences worldwide, and receive immediate reactions for my writing.”

Novelist and speculative fictionist Dean Francis Alfar said, in telegraphese: “Outlet for guerilla writing—vignettes. New publishing medium. Feedback mechanism. Point of contact with other writers.”

Fictionist Sharmaine Galve said: “It helped me make my writing voice stronger and more comfortable to work with. It has become my form of discipline. Because although it could just be a mental exercise, you’re conscious that somebody is reading.”

Poet Sid Gomez Hildawa said: “Blogging places my poems Out There, where friends and strangers can stumble upon them. Gives me a new way of regarding texts: as being landmines. Because they should explode when encountered, make an impact. Otherwise it becomes merely part of the data sludge that makes up most of the Internet.”

Fictionist Carljoe Javier said: “I blog as a means of purging. I think the majority of what we write isn’t great, yung mga bad feelings for the day, outlet yung blog. My example is the poso negro. When you start pumping, really filthy stuff will come out. That’s what goes into the blog. Also, the blog serves as the place where I flesh out ideas. And I get instant feedback.”

Overall, a positive take on the possibilities of blogging as a writing tool. The only response I got that seemed to indicate the otherwise, was from my good friend, the fictionist Kit Kwe, who guiltily admitted in her text message: “It has eaten up my writing time, actually.” This is understandable, given the addictive nature of many things in the online world. Blogging, one must know this, can become an addictive enterprise, if one allows it to take over most of our waking lives: the knowledge of having an audience who keeps coming back to read what you have to say day to day curiously pushes many bloggers to post entries simply to please and sate a perceived need. Often, when you succumb to much to it, blogging does take away from time better spent on crafting new stories, new poems, new essays, or finishing that novel. But to simply dwell on that particular dark side of blogging takes away from its possibilities as a medium to hone one’s writing craft. We can sum up the aforementioned writers’ take on blogging as a creative writing tool with these generalizations:

1. Blogging is a tool for practice and writing discipline. The act of having to post a daily or weekly missive oils our writing muscles. The knowledge that you have an audience that is possibly critical of what or how you write, spurs you to perfect your language. Blogging is a public arena with public consequences after all.

2. Blogging is a germ for future writing pieces. This is true. Some of my stories began as short fictional pieces and real-life observations that I post. Sometimes, I see the narrative potential of a post, and can that lead to a short story or an essay or a poem.

3. Blogging forges a community of writers. No one can say anymore that writing is largely an act one does alone. Blogging gives us an instant community of kindred spirits, and it allows one another to keep abreast with recent writing developments, including one’s personal efforts to write something, anything.

4. Blogging’s feedback mechanism enhances the development of a literary piece in progress. I know of an American author who maintains a blog where he posts recent developments in his research for a nonfiction book. His readers would comment and leave suggestions, which the author then uses in the completion of the book, to spectacular results. (His book became a bestseller, having forged a loyal following via the blog.)

5. Blogging can be a performance space, the “Out There” of Sid Hildawa’s comment. It affords the writer a ready space to be heard and the audience to hear what he has to say.

6. Blogging can be a psychological buffer and an emotional outlet. You can rant in your blog, and the world can rant with you. According to Carljoe Javier, “it purges you.” And sometimes the purging can become quite literary.

7. Blogging is an intimate way of understanding the writer’s personality.

8. Blogging can be a form of literary criticism. There is a perception in local literary circles that honest literary criticism may never take root in our country, because most writers know each other. Increasingly candid blogger reviews—helped by the anonymity of the writers—may change that. Recently, in the local blogging world, local writers and readers have taken to such issues as the Filipino-ness in our literature, the development and rise of local genre fiction, and the possibilities of a Filipino Nobel Prize winner for literature. One recent blogger going by the name of Kilawing Uwak last week wrote an impassioned piece about the “death of Pinoy lit,” and took Dr. Butch Dalisay to task. Sir Butch did the gentlemanly thing, and replied in the comments section—and soon both have extracted from each other a beer-drinking session.

What the writers don’t say, however, is that blogging can give one a significant monetary compensation via such online tools as Google Adsense. I know of two bloggers who have bought cars from the earnings they get from maintaining a blog. Popularity, of course, and a relentless drive to write several posts a day must be taken into consideration. But it is good to know that something like this can happen.

Blogging, too, has become a vibrant medium for marketing. Local theater groups such as the Writers Bloc and Tanghalang Pilipino stumbled on this recently when they started giving out free theater tickets to local bloggers after extracting the promise that they will write reviews—positive or not—of current productions. Bloggers get the word out there fast, the way they did with the Malu Fernandez issue. This type of marketing through blogs has proven to be cheap and effective, and also creates new audiences for theatrical productions, since many of the bloggers are first-time theater-goers. I wonder if the same technique can be used by our writers and publishers.

Of course, there is a negative side to all these. Lakambini Sitoy tells me she nurses a mistrust of the medium, because it makes it so easy for other people to plagiarize what you write by quick copy-pasting. And some magazines and publishers consider Internet publication of any kind as legitimate publication, and will not accept manuscripts for consideration on that basis.

You may take note that most of my respondents are young writers, which begs the question—is blogging a generational enterprise? The answer is: not at all. The sample is merely the easiest one to contact through the wonders of cellphone technology. Blogging knows no boundaries, even age, and cuts through many generations of writers.

It may interest you to know that National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera has a blog—but has not posted any new entries for quite some time. You may ask him later on why that is so. Butch Dalisay compiles his columns in his blog. The poet Mila Aguilar uses her blog to aid and monitor the progress of her English classes. The late Rene O. Villanueva had a blog, mostly of commentary nature, his last entry being a nuanced take on Senator Trillanes’ siege of the Manila Pen. Marne Kilates and Luisa Igloria have poetry blogs. Manuel Quezon III’s politics blog is very popular, and generates thousands of unique traffic every week. Gibbs Cadiz has a wonderful theater blog—and through him, the theater world has discovered an effective marketing tool through bloggers. Danton Remoto has a blog that tackles gayness and politics, as well as the politics of gayness, and Jessica Zafra continues her ironic humor and her mission for world domination in her new blog. Jun Lana writes utterly affecting humor pieces in Filipino in his blog, and Apol Lejano-Massebieu explores her expatriate life in rural France in hers. Frank Cimatu’s blog is a virtual feast of strange trivia and wacky knowledge, and Wilfredo Pascual’s blog beautifully marries his nonfiction with his wonderful photography. Aside from those I mentioned earlier, many of our younger writers have maintained blogs, including Larry Lacambra Ypil, Adam David, Baryon Tensor Posadas, the late Ana Escalante Neri, Patricia Evangelista, Tara Sering, Yvette Natalie Tan, Alfonso Dacanay, Naya Valdellon, Janet Villa, Felisa Batacan, Jean Claire Dy, Gutierrez Mangansakan III, Nino de Veyra, Ken Ishikawa, U Eliserio, Gabriela Dans Lee, Rolando Tolentino, Eugene Evasco, Lito Zulueta, Vin Simbulan, Ned Parfan, Niccolo Vitug, and Vince Groyon. Anvil Publishing even has a blog.

Blogging, in the long run, seems to work in one or more ways for many of these writers. Blogging has somehow contributed then to the development of Philippine literature as it exists today, showing us there are no barriers indeed in how we choose to write.

[UPDATE: Butch Dalisay's latest column extends our talk on blogging and literary frontiers.]

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