Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #3

A final batch of reminders to make sure that complacency won’t be assured of a handy victory.

Be prepared to revise constantly.

After over four decades of writing, mostly intensively, the danger I’m most wary of is starting off without worrying about how I come across. It’s a variation on an earlier anxiety, when I was a practicing journalist for a few years: as a resident film critic, I knew that readers would always pay some attention to what I had to say, so as long as I met my deadlines, no one complained. Imagine my dismay when I started compiling my pieces for book publication for the first time, and realized how extensively I had to revise almost half of them. (For what it’s worth, at least polishing my pieces has always been a fun activity for me.)

11011The worst moment for what in journalism is called lead-writing (“lead” as in lead instrument, not lead battery) came when I had to start drafting my doctoral dissertation. Days of formulating a sentence that sounded both succinct and witty ended with my decision to rethink what I had (sometimes a few pages’ worth already) and start from scratch. It had to acknowledge a non-Filipino readership and draw in political relations between the country that (re)introduced film to its first and only formal colony. Finally, possibly because I’d been confronting the problem for over two weeks, it came instantaneously and unexpectedly: “If the field of American cultural studies were to be reconfigured as topographic terrain, then postcolonial studies would constitute its jungle and the Philippines its heart of darkness.”

11011I wish to avoid marvelous claims for the already-difficult act of writing, but once I had set the sentence down, the rest of the opening chapter virtually wrote itself. Maybe this only applies to me (because it happened earlier in the past, and continued to happen afterward). But certain factors had to be in place before I could make it work: I had to be prepared with a sufficient measure of confidence, with as much of my research material as I can assemble on hand, and have the right balance of pressure to attend to writing with minimal worrying over mundane matters like bills, tax deadlines, house repairs, etc. Unfortunately for the peculiarities of my writing habits, I associate quotidian settings with mental anxiety and physical rest – which means I could only work in newsroom-like places, of which coffeehouses may be the closest contemporary equivalent.[1]

11011You may find that this exact combination of elements would not apply to you. But if you write long enough, you will find certain places and conditions more conducive to your productivity. Once you do, try to find a convenient and affordable version of the locale and make sure you have access to it whenever crunch time nears. Fluidity is the benchmark: a work you sweated over while writing will (more often than not) cause the reader to slog through the output in turn; something you felt like you lightly tossed off could also induce the reader to relax while going through it. As long as you made sure that you put in effort where it mattered – in preparing for the writing process – you should have less to worry about, and maybe even enjoy writing your piece.[2]

11011The earlier pointers I brought up would have told you how you could develop a welcome argument. If it’s too new or involved, provide the equivalent of a road map in the beginning, after announcing the crisis you want to tackle (yup, I used crisis, a word from narrative writing – just in case we forget again: any difference in these writing modes is artificial; the crisis of a plot would be, in academic terms, its problematique).

11011What I could present as good news to you would be: if you feel you’ve already completed a complex and thorough presentation, you can opt to end there and then. A “cold” ending is better than an unnecessary summary, as anyone who’s ever had to read theses or dissertations published as books, whose editors failed to call for revisions, might recall. On the other hand, if you want to leave a longer-lasting impression, go for a kicker. Insightful humor would be best, or even an unexpected downer if you feel you’ve been too light-hearted throughout already.

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Submit or upload your text, then attempt further revisions.

You may think I’m merely fastidious, but you’re wrong: I’m hyperfastidious. Unless you can afford an excellent editor, self-editing (including the soul-crushing act of close self-copyediting) will be the way to go whenever and wherever you decide to publish something you’ve written. When the publication has its own editor and she realizes that you can do as well or even better, you’ll enable her to focus on matters specific to the publication. A good editor will be able to create (pardon the buzzword) synergy out of your writing and the publication’s agenda, but if you’ve already maintained that consideration in your writing, you can hope for the even better type of editor – one who’ll leave your submitted text alone.

11011Before you reach this point where you can continually critique and revise (let’s call this process C&R) your material after you submit it, you need to guarantee yourself that you already C&R’d it at least once, preferably a few times, beforehand. (I know, I started with the bad news, then announced the worse one afterward – a bit of sadism I enjoy inflicting occasionally.) If you find yourself C&Ring as you write, you don’t have to hold yourself back; just be aware that you’re slowing yourself down, and try the alternative – drafting everything first before conducting C&R – to see which strategy works better for you. In my case, I can tolerate a mild attempt at C&R during writing, since lead writing (see the previous entry) already involves an intensive C&R process.

11011Once you’ve finished drafting and revising, if you have the luxury of time, tear yourself away from what you wrote. Sleep if you haven’t, have a meal and/or a pleasant intoxicant, hang with friends, lose yourself in music or fiction, exercise, indulge in some mild consensual pleasure – whatever you need to forget the trauma of writing. I did go into psychoanalytic matters, because guess what, you have to go back to it yourself in an even more neurotic state. Once you’ve forgotten what you wrote, prepare yourself anew, this time by imagining that you’ll be reading something that someone else wrote. Then reread, and C&R. If you’ll be uploading to a blog, then you ought to know that you can make changes on your own post, no matter how long ago you placed it there.

11011I’ll provide a practical method that works for people who started writing when most typewriters were manual because only rich offices could afford electric contraptions. It proceeds from the insight that your text on a printed page looks different. A printout of your manuscript would be a step closer to its published form, even if it will come out digitally, if only because it will not have the same appearance as when you drafted it. I realized once more how invaluable this step was for me, when I retyped, copyedited, and uploaded my out-of-print books on my blog, and occasionally read through articles at random in order to further correct any errors I overlooked. Some time later, I had to print out everything I placed there. That printout turned out to have at least one error per page, sometimes far more than I could ever allow myself. So if you’ve never printed out anything you drafted, try it once and see if it better helps you assume the readerly function when you C&R yourself.

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Own your errors.

The unreflective film critic, after years and years on the job, will finally sigh and go, There’s no such thing as a perfect film after all. Aren’t we lucky to work in writing, a medium where perfection is possible? “Unreflective” was the word I used: there can be no such thing as a perfect anything. Fortunately, as an atheist, I preclude myself from answering, well what about god? Because, as supreme being, I never believed in deluding myself about my own perfection. So there.

11011We are at the historical stage where Eastern philosophical principles, though still formally unacknowledged in the West, have finally managed to prevail over the old-time tendencies to abhor contradictions and seek so-called stable conditions. The more ambitious a system is, the likelier it is to contain weaknesses or flaws. So it would be no reflection on your hard work and integrity for anyone to definitively argue, sooner or later, that something you wrote can be subjected to a process of deconstruction.

11011“Own your errors” means being a good sport when someone points them out – or better yet, pointing them out yourself, to yourself, and revising your work if you still can. But if all that involves is self-flagellation, then signing up for a rural Holy Week ritual would be more efficient. Once more, take the longer look. We should not be after the avoidance of mistakes, since the act of learning from errors, especially published ones, commits us to doing better or else. Ask yourself now, if you haven’t done so earlier, what your larger project is. You should always have one, and much as I hate using the modifier, it would be appropriate in this context: your long-term goal should be a worthy one.

11011Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the social-network game of amassing as much positive feedback for your pieces as you can wangle. Determine the worthy purpose first, so that what you write is actually building up toward it. If you’ve been in graduate school and getting world-class advice, you’ll recognize what I’m saying. You don’t start your program like a bachelor’s degree aspirant, hoping to be guided toward a topic and shown how to successfully pull it off. On the other hand, if you’re in a graduate program where your final research project has remained amorphous for the most part, never interrogated during the application stage, note well what I’ll say right now: you’re being conned; while claiming to be compassionate, the faculty are taking advantage of your presence to finagle the higher honoraria they’ll be getting from grad-level classes and exams and defenses, so the longer you stay the happier they’ll be, and they can always dump you later if you don’t meet whatever standards they claim to be upholding.

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Careful with claims you make.

Not a vital piece of advice, since this should be obvious to anyone who presumes to write and publish anything. I claimed to have ten entries and ended with eleven, possibly even twelve (which is something I always do when providing lists of anything). I never claimed to be an expert in math, so when this sort of thing happens to you, you can forgive yourself. I never claimed to be an expert film critic either, but that possibly comes from superstitious observation: over the decades, the few people I managed to observe asserting themselves in the practice tended to crash and burn, for a variety of reasons. For that reason, I never regarded hubris as a friend, except for comic or camp purposes.

11011A few other things I make no apologies for: aspiring to figure out the popularity of current releases without recourse to the official critics’ high-handed call to “enlighten” the local audience via reviews and awards; supplementing my insights with what little anthropological information I can uncover via casual and anonymized conversations with actual mass-audience members; catching myself from declaring that a project should never have been released, with the ethical reminder that most of the people who worked on it were working-class wage earners; championing practitioners who’ve been handed a raw deal by the country’s tastemongers, whose self-serving antics I’ve seen up close and for which my turn to gossip writing might prove useful eventually.

11011When you set yourself against a prevalent trend or two, people whose interests feel threatened will find ways to mount hate campaigns. I’ve seen acquaintances crumple or fight back, but as a media practitioner, I also recognize that such hostility can be helpful. If you’re certain of your own assessment and have the confidence of sound analysis, then any opponent will have to begin with the foundations you’ve laid out (which means, if they’re right, you’ll be able to correct yourself). When they proceed from a position of hysterical anger, that’s a sign that they have nothing substantial to present, and that some covert corruption may be at play. It would be great to command respect across a wide spectrum of the public – great, but boring; better to have negative reactions from people who’re saddled with issues that your output provokes to antagonism. The contrast between mercy and meanness would be instructive for an observant public.

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Notes

[1] An even weirder twist for me is the way that self-rewards function: completing (a draft of) a project is its own reward, so anything extra I promised myself afterward will feel anticlimactic; besides, a sufficiently ambitious project is never really ever finished, so a certain amount of anxiety will always impinge on my enjoyment. On the other hand, I discovered that rewards acquired prematurely, timed during periods when I know I’ll be facing writer’s blocks, will induce me to buckle down and work even harder, out of sheer guilt. Hey if it works for you, then it works with (maybe only) you so don’t let anyone else convince you otherwise.

[2] See the end of the very first entry in this list of pointers (titled “There is no such thing as too much preparation”), for a point made by US film performer Meryl Streep. Several other successful pop performers make the same assertion in their interviews.

What about my actual motives?

No shame in admitting you’re really into film activity to meet media celebrities. It doesn’t give me any thrill, but I don’t see anything wrong with yielding to fandom, so long as you admit as much whenever it becomes necessary, and either steer clear of public-relations work or drop commentary writing altogether if PR proves too lucrative to ignore. Then again you’re reading this to pick up any useful tip from me, so here it is: find out if your colleagues are still spellbound by the rejection of authorial intent, as stipulated by (old) New Criticism. This means that an author’s purpose is never supposed to be the ultimate measure of correct textual analysis. There’s a difference of course between determining the author’s motive and uncovering the exigencies of creative work, which to me is indispensable to critical practice. My solution is simply to never announce that I consulted any practitioner in a project I’m working on. The guiding principle here, as you may have guessed by now, is that when you find your peers are ideologically … slow, leave them behind. This is one rare instance where not divulging the complete truth will work in favor of enhancing your critical output.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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