The Technology of Writing

My first paper for my Eng 10 class under Ms. Kat Macapagal. First Uno! 🙂

The insightful and verbose manner by which Butch Dalisay gives an interview tells you right away that interviews are nothing alien to him, and rightly so. When you’ve won as many Palanca awards as he has (sixteen, as of the latest tally), you’re bound to get interview requests by the dozen. I first met Professor Dalisay on the Fountain Pen Network forums, and have been in awe of his majestic collection of writing instruments and his passion for writing ever since. I’d been wanting to get to talk to him privately for quite some time now, so I was fortunate enough to have been granted a request for an interview in his house, a modest, discreet bungalow tucked away in the corners of the UP Diliman Campus. However, I didn’t want to ask him the questions that reporters have been pestering him with for decades. Instead, I decided to focus on a term he coined in one of his columns—writing technology.

Dr. Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr, PhD. is the Director of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, of which there are probably few better men available for the position. Ask anybody who Butch Dalisay is, and they’ll tell you he’s a writer. They’re not wrong, of course. But if you take the time out to scour through and dissect the online archives of his Penman column, you’d learn that he is actually, as I’d like to call it, a writing

No, he didn’t construct the Great Automatic Grammatizator, a machine that writes prize-winning novels in fifteen minutes (not that he needs one), that Roald Dahl fictitiously invented in a story of the same name. Actually, Prof. Dalisay collects pieces of writing technology from both ends of the spectrum. Writing technology, in his words, are the writer’s “tools of the trade”. His fascination with writing gadgets spans four decades, his collections including fountain pens and Macintosh computers. (He also collects vintage cameras, watches, and books about the Philippines, but that’s a different story altogether.)

On the analog end of the spectrum, Prof. Dalisay collects hundreds of vintage fountain pens, the same iconic ones, like the Montblanc 149, that grace the front covers of coffee table books. His specialty, however, are Vacumatics, which he considers “beautiful works of art…[that are] emblematic of a certain time”, the top-of-the-line pen series of American fountain pen magistrate Parker from 1932-1948. He has over 80 Vacs, accumulated over the past four decades or so from hole-in-the-wall office and stationery shops along Rizal Ave. and Ongpin, department stores in the nearby outskirt provinces of Metro Manila, and, lately, through “the world’s marketplace”, eBay. His “daily users”, or the pens he rotates on a day-to-day basis, include a Vac Senior Maxima, a Montblanc 149 and 146, a Pelikan M800, a Visconti Wall Street, and, the newest addition, a TWSBI, a more modern pen. Most of these are filled with his personal mix of Pelikan Brilliant Brown with a dash of black ink.

Although the 57-year old Dalisay may be old enough to have experienced using his fountain pens and typewriters in grade school, when they were still the norm, he’s as up-to-date as the youth when it comes to the digital end of the spectrum. He’s a “frustrated engineer” (he initially took up Industrial Engineering in UP before ending up as an English major) so it’s no surprise that technology is close to his heart. His fountain pen fetish is backed up by daily visits to the Fountain Pen Network and Fountain Pen Board forums, where he exchanges personal opinions and insights on his writing instruments. He served as Chairman of the Philippine Macintosh Users Group (PhilMUG), and is a moderator of the boards until today. He’s got about fifteen old Macs stored in the “warehouse that passes for the master’s bedroom”, dating from the 90s when they were first made. As a self-proclaimed “Mac freak”, you won’t see him leave the house without his MacBook Air, iPhone 4, and, on occasion, his iPad. He confesses to having preferred messaging and emailing with his Blackberry, and carried around both phones for a while, but eventually gave up the Blackberry in favor of the iPhone’s Facetime which he uses to communicate with his mother, sister, and daughter in the USA, and better web browsing capabilities. Ironically, he’s not very comfortable with people calling him on his cellphone and would much rather they drop him an email instead.

Despite his sizable fountain pen collection, the man behind the weekly Penman column in the Philippine Star doesn’t use these to write the works that have won him the accolades he has under his belt. “It’s just not efficient,” he says. He uses his pens for the more personal stuff, like writing letters, dedicating greeting cards, and signing papers. However, when it comes to work, it’s digital all the way, for two main reasons. For one, it’s a lot easier to revise his works, a crucial part of the writing process, and, it’s easier to go online to search for references, a must for non-fiction works. He works in the mornings and stays up late at night in a small office behind his house, where he lives with his wife, Beng. He’ll tap away on the keys of his MacBook Air, occasionally switching to his huge iMac desktop to Google for some references, as the television blares out CNN or Discovery in the background “because I need a distraction”. This goes on until about two in the morning night after night as he works on materials he’s been commissioned to write or some of his personal works of fiction.

Curiously, Dalisay will take no part in what is probably the biggest technological revolution of the 21st Century—Facebook. He calls it a “time-suck” since users are invariably bound to return to the site to interact with and reply to comments by friends. He does, however, have a Twitter account, which he updates “about three times a year, whenever I remember.”

Although Butch Dalisay is best known for his stage plays, he’s got two novels (with a third in the making) to his name as well. There’s a good eighteen-year gap in between the publication of the two, which is colossal if you’re talking about technological advancements. Killing Time in a Warm Place, published in 1992, was “semi-autobiographical”, since he based it on the seven months he spent in prison as a prisoner of Martial Law. Interestingly enough, it only took him four years to finish it, while his second novel, Soledad’s Sister, took twice as long. Killing Time was started on a typewriter in 1987 but made the transition to a computer where it was finished in 1991. Soledad’s Sister, on the other hand, went through a number of laptops from 1999 until 2007. Particularly sharp readers will be able to note that it’s stuck in a “technological time warp” of sorts, since there’s mention of the Nokia 5210, a phone that was in use in the early 2000s, but had been phased out by the time the book was published in 2008!

Interestingly enough, Dalisay admits he’s not much of a novelist, as are most Filipino writers. Few Filipino novels, probably with the exception of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, have made it big because, according to him, “We [Filipinos] don’t read novels. There’s no market here.” It seems as though Filipinos would much rather read short stories and novellas. He’s also got a few of those with his name on the byline. One of them, Voyager, has a particularly interesting story behind its creation, at least technology-wise. Having been written from 1983-1994, Voyager began on a typewriter, its first drafts vandalized with revisions by ballpoints and its penultimate drafts transcribed on a computer, where it was finished in Scotland in 1994. “It saw everything,” he says.

As much as he loves writing technology, both analog and digital, The Pinoy Penman is quick to quip, however, that the tools and the tech do not make the writer. There’s still no replacement for the brain and the imagination, which he considers the best pieces of writing technology available. “The technology of writing can only get better, but, as I always tell my students, if you want to write well, you have to read well. There’s no way out.”

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