American sf Reading List

This semester, I’ve been given the privilege of teaching a class on American Science Fiction, ENG 146. I spent a good part of the summer writing and revising my syllabus and trying to create a reading list that is a good balance and mix of different kinds of texts, that show the range and major movements of sf.

Here’s my reading/viewing list:

Short Stories

“The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke

“The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

“It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Leguin

Novels

I, Robot

The Martian Chronicles

Ender’s Game

Neuromancer

Ready Player One 

Novellas

Flowers for Algernon

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Comics

Action Comics #1

Captain America #1

Fantastic Four #1

Amazing Fantasy #15

The Incredible Hulk #1

Ex Machina Issues #1-5

The Manhattan Projects #1-5

Films

Alien

Back to the Future

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Matrix

Looper

TV Series Episodes

“The Shelter” from The Twilight Zone

“The City on the Edge of Forever” from Star Trek

 
That is what I plan to teach this semester. My worry now is how willing my students will be to engage what I believe is a fantastic set of texts. I have some apprehensions as a good number of students have displayed indifference to the material. I know that if I were a student, my brain would explode with the awesomeness of this reading list. But that’s me and I’m a nerd. I just hope that the students do come around, and start seeing how much fun these texts can be, rather than trying to deconstruct them and strip them of their merits just to point out whatever it is that contemporary has taught them to see.
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Shooting First: A New Year’s Resolution

When I used to play basketball regularly, I was a terrible shooter. I could make maybe 5% of 3s, if I ever tried to shoot any. My medium range shot was iffy. Though I did have an okay inside game and was pretty spot on for lay-ups. But this limited shooting ability had me develop my passing game. I was never going to be a spot up shooter, nor was I going to blaze past people with crossovers. I could handle the ball and dish to the right players, set picks, and maybe find myself spots on the floor.

I enjoyed the thrill of the assist, of zipping a bounce pass between defenders, of hitting a cutter in stride for a lay-up, of drawing defenders and then kicking to the man spotting up in the corner. Ball movement, unselfish play, getting everyone involved, that’s what I played for.

And as a pass first player, defenders were a lot looser on me. They were not expecting me to take shots. Since they knew I preferred to flip the ball to a teammate, or to pass up a shot, they thought they did not need to defend me. Which meant that once I saw them slacking off, then I would drive into the lane, surprising them with an open lay-up they were not expecting. Or finding a spot I could make a shot from while they were off double teaming a better shooter. It’s always easier to sink a shot when you’re all by your lonesome.

I get to thinking about this kind of mentality now that I am thinking about how I plan to spend the coming year. I realize that I have largely tried to adopt this pass first mentality with a lot of work that I’ve done. As an editor, I’ve always chosen to assign big stories to my writers, rather than taking them myself. I’ve always been reluctant to step up and take responsibility for things. Rather than do something myself, I will pull a team together and distribute tasks. Only when I’ve got no other choice, only when no one else is open and I am, do I like to take the shot.

Which is well and good I guess in certain situations. But the thing is, this year looks like I will be doing some things which do not allow for me to pass off. Which will necessitate my stepping up and taking the shot. To use an easily recognizable basketball reference (and not to compare my talent level in any way to these two, because really, that would be insane), I have to shift from being a playmaking Lebron, and turn into a take-over-the-game Kobe. I have reached a point in my career where I have to elevate, have to escalate what I do. It’s time for me to step up.

You can’t pass off in the classroom. You can distribute the discussion, you can involve the whole class in activities and that whole thing. But when it comes time for lectures, for presentations, there’s no passing off. You are the teacher, no matter what you do, you have to control the classroom and the activity therein. That sounds like mostly playmaker work, but when the moment comes to step up and take over, I cannot be reluctant to launch into lectures when they are needed.

And in writing, well, there is no one to pass off to. I have been struggling with this. I keep wondering if the lack in one’s writing is indicative of the lack of one’s moral fortitude. I think of whether it displays the wanting qualities of one’s character. Or if one can write through those things, in the same way that, when the fourth quarter’s winding down and the other team’s in the lead, you can push everything out of your mind, can push out all of the messes that you’ve made in your life, all the bad decisions and wrong turns, and you can just focus on that moment, take over, and at least in that one aspect, overcome and win the game.

I hope that, for all the mistakes and failures and limitations that I observe so acutely in myself, and which help to inform and enrich my writing, that I can similarly get through all that and finish the work and get it out there.

I plan to work on more films this year. I am dreaming of directing my first feature. I am deathly scared that it will be shit. I want to pass off. I do not want to be responsible, for I would be responsible for a failure if I mess it up. If it’s crap, then I will have wasted the time and efforts of everyone who will work on it. But I have already passed off. I’ve already allowed other people to attempt to execute my vision. It’s time that I did this, time that I stepped up and took the shot.

I have been teaching myself that failure is important. I have launched into a lot of bad writing, some of it I was able to stop, some of it got out into the world. But each failure teaches us something.

Similarly, I have to get used to the idea that we have to take shots. We have to miss shots. We have to work our way out of shooting slumps. Again I use Kobe Bryant as a model here. Sometimes he has terrible shooting nights. But he keeps shooting even when the shots aren’t going down. He shoots until he finds his rhythm. It’s a simple thing to understand, you can’t find your rhythm if you aren’t taking the shot.

I will say it again for my own benefit, so that I can take heart and hold onto the idea: You can’t find your  rhythm if you aren’t taking shots.

I have to accept that once I do this, once I adopt the shoot first policy, then I will be expecting other people to feed me the ball, to pass it to me. It’s on me to make it. I have to accept that there will be off nights, nights when shots don’t go down. But unlike the depressive person that I have been, the one that wallows in shit and flays himself for each aspect of failure, I have to accept that there will be missed shots, that there will be off nights. I have to move on from the last shot, move on from the last night, move on from the last failure, and be ready to take the shot the next time that I get a pass. And not only that, but I have to learn how to create my shot. I have to learn to understand my skills and abilities better so that I can execute, create, move, score.

Allowing for off nights, this means that there will be big nights too that offset it. Those nights when it feels like everything is going down, it’s all flowing, and I can do no wrong. When this happens, I have to ride that crest and keep shooting. It won’t happen every night, but once I start shooting first, there is a chance that I might have that magical 81 point game, or those consistent 40 point performances. The only way to get better is to step up, to take risks.

2013 gimme the ball. It’s on me.

 

reaching a point where i have to take a shot. and i have to keep shooting

2012 in Review: Teaching/Academic Life

I quit yet another job this year. I served as the Deputy Director for Marketing and Operations of the UP Press until October 31st, but I feel that my heart had gone out of it sometime mid-year. It was a number of factors, but among them was the realization that I am pretty good at teaching, and I am more of an asset in the classroom than as an administrator. Put the demanding nature of admin work against the drive to write and do research, and it was clear that I would be much happier as a straight up academic than an academic and administrator.

This might sound pretentious, or as if I am speaking from some ivory tower; any talk of the academic life is precariously perched and always ready to fall into such pretentiousness. But then as I chronicle 2012, as I count the hours down to 2013, I have to really admit that this was the year when I sat down and thought, hell dude, you can probably teach for the rest of your life. I had been resistant to the idea of deciding on a career for any prolonged period of time.

I remember when I was in high school my English teacher said, “You know, Javier, you would make a good teacher.”

And what I said, under my breath, though I don’t know if she was able to hear it, was, “God, why would I ever want to be like one of you people?”

I obviously did not think much of the teaching profession. I remember most of my elementary and junior high teachers fondly. But my high school in Cubao, well, it was a mixed bag, if I’m being kind. There were some terrible teachers, and some with a terrible meanness to them. You could see they were frustrated, tired, only going through the motions. There were some that were inspired, and those I gravitated towards. But hell, I was in high school, I had issues with authority, I thought I was smarter than everyone else. And thus I looked at the teaching profession with disdain.

The first time I tried teaching, fresh out of undergrad, I didn’t make the cut. A few years later, I find myself teaching at Miriam. Then I jump to UP. Terrible things happen in my first year, petty admin BS and things that I felt were grounds for me to leave. I vow never to teach again. Ondoy hits and all my books and other teaching materials are wiped out, and I take that as a sign that I should not be a teacher. It’s the universe literally washing out all vestiges of my teaching career.

I bounce around a few years, and here I am, back in the university. But much more experienced, with a better sense of things (at least I like to think), and I feel a sense of confidence and control. It’s like I was able to overcome a lot of my personal shit, a lot of the things that hampered me from improving as a teacher.

I have had to rebuild my teaching library. It’s still an ongoing process. I have been lucky enough to have received a lot of help from colleagues who generously help me with books.

But more than books, I can say that my colleagues in the department, especially the junior faculty, help to inspire me to go into the classroom every day. It’s wonderful in that there’s not so much a sense of competition as it is a sense of esprit de corps, of everyone pitching in to help everyone else out. It’s not just in teaching or syllabus design either, it’s when someone just needs a drink, needs to hang back and let loose. This is, perhaps, one of the most productive times in my life, and I attribute a good deal of that to the way that the people around me make me better.

When I was teaching in Miriam I carried around a hip flask. For all that the students were wonderful, so many other things hindered teaching and development, and I found myself having to take swigs just to get through the days. Now, that is a bad memory, and I don’t think I will ever find myself doing that again.

Rather, even when the days get tough, even when the kids are working as hard as I would wish, and the classroom isn’t clicking, I feel like I can find ways to keep at it.

Further, I got to attend my first international conference as a scholar. Last year I attended the Fil-American bookfest in San Francisco, but that was as a writer and independent publisher. This year, along with MIc Chua and Emil Flores, I got to deliver a paper in Oxford. that’s insane. Sometimes I say it and I have trouble believing it. And it was thanks to, well, pretty much every friend I’ve had. Some helped out in big ways, donating artwork, money, time, or whatever in our fundraising efforts. We pulled together an incredibly fun gig that helped us raise money for the trip. Just thinking back on it now I feel my chest swell, it was this wonderful time when I could not deny that the people I have been lucky to be around and to know not only make me better, but allow me to do things that I could never have imagined.

Towards the end of the year I got published in the Philippine Journal for American Studies. I got to write about the Punisher storyline in Civil War. At the time of writing and submission, I didn’t think much of what I was doing, but once it came out, I got a true sense of fulfillment.

It’s odd to think that I now have a sense of what I want to do. I have avoided committing to things for so long. Now, well, here it is. I am hoping that this career and this decision takes. I am hoping that the coming years will prove productive and that I can make contributions as both teacher and scholar.

You Need to Read

The semester begins and with it I meet a new crop of creative writing students. The ongoing debate over whether creative writing can be taught is far from being resolved. I approach it in the same way that I think of sports talent. There will be people who will just never be able to grasp it, no matter how much work they put in. And then there are the Jameses, Bryants, and Durants whose skills seem innate, who would have been great through sheer talent and then took the time to hone their abilities. Both sets of people fall on the edges of the bell curve. The middle of the curve allows for people of varying skill and talent abilities, and within that middle, there is always room for improvement and development. And in the same way that one’s development in basketball relies on being on the court, so too does an aspiring writer’s development rely on spending time with the written word.  Read more of this post

Writing Tips!

I compiled these from notes made in the second semester of last school year. I would be reading student works and then writing notes like these, then presenting my notes to class for future improvement. But I thought that maybe this sem’s students would benefit from hearing these off the bad. And maybe other people online might get something out of it too. Anyways, here you go, a few tips on how to write better.

 

WRITING TIPS

  1. Show Don’t Tell.
  2. Why are you writing? What are you trying to say?
  3. Writing is an act of hubris. Live up to your hubris.
  4. Make the reading worth the reader’s time. With the ubiquity of content, attention is a scarce resource. Don’t waste it. Make things matter, make the reader care about what’s going on. Reward their attention.
  5. When you write about something, it probably matters to you. The challenge is to make it matter to the reader.
  6. Know how much of yourself to put into the piece.
  7. Set the table.
  8. Let your ideas develop. If you hit on something, take it as far as it can go. If it doesn’t work you can always edit it. But if it could have been good and you didn’t pursue it, there’s no going back to it.
  9. Try to have amazing story openings and endings. It’s like a plane ride, once you’re cruising it’s fine, but you have to make sure you’re really doing well when you take off and when you land because those are what people remember most.
  10. Don’t go for twist endings. Set things up right. It’s not surprise, but resonance we want when we walk away from a story.
  11. Stories are made of scenes.
  12. Make things happen! Events! Confrontations!
  13. Don’t avoid confrontations. Build them into your work.
  14. How do you build drama? How do you make something engaging? Technique. You start with ideas and inspiration, but it’s technique that makes the writing work.
  15. Hold back. Restraint makes things more painful. Don’t give in to the cheese.
  16. Have an awareness of other stories similar to the ones you are writing so that you can avoid cliches and put your own touch on your work.
  17. Establish transitional devices, physical and literal markers, items, etc, which enable flashback, jumping through time, and dream sequences.
  18. There has to be a reason for a character recollecting the past. Something must be at stake in the present.
  19. Character deaths must be earned. If you kill characters we don’t care about, then their deaths hold no meaning.
  20. The God argument invalidates everything in your story. Make your characters the agents of their destinies
  21. How many of you have ever told a complex lie? You have to build in truth, build in details, so that the lie is believable. It’s the same with fiction.
  22. Write with clarity. Writing is communication.
  23. Don’t waste words. Say only what needs to be said, no more, no less.
  24. Be precise in your word choice.
  25. You don’t have to use big or complicated words. This is creative writing, not academic writing. If you can say it with one syllable, why bother with a longer word?
  26. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Use nouns and verbs.
  27. Don’t rely on punctuation and typographical gimmicks, especially ellipses. Use the right words and the right emotions will be conveyed.
  28. If you say of your character, “You would never notice him/her…” or “He’s the typical…” then that doesn’t create interest. It’s not where the character is like everyone else, but how they are different that makes them intriguing.
  29. Why refer to your characters as normal, typical, or the usual (or geek or nerd)? These don’t create or unlock meaning. Choose details, work at illustration, and describe. If an artist doesn’t draw something, we can see that it’s missing. It’s the same thing with words.
  30. Dialogue should function first and foremost as dialogue. It shouldn’t be there for exposition, so that characters can explain things they already know to each other. It should sound realistic, sound like people actually talking. Good dialogue characterizes, pushes the plot, and provides information all at once.
  31. Have you ever watched dancers or actors who look bored while performing? No, because they know they have an audience, and they have to be at performance level. Writing is a performative act too. You readers can tell when you’re bored, lazy, or not into it.

Reading List for Creative Writing 10 (Creative Writing for Beginners)

Last year at the Manila International Literary Festival I presented a teaching plan that was styled differently from the usual syllabi. Other syllabi usually when chronologically or by genre or theme. My plan took from those ideas (and it could be seen arguably as both chronological and genre-based still) but it focused on the output that the students would be expected to submit. As such, I went for different ideas, effects, and genres, all coming together. Students would be expected to deliver pieces in each category which would be workshopped by their classmates. That way, even though we are working in only two genres, they will still be producing a variety of stories.

I recently revised my syllabus for the start of the semester, and here’s my reading list:

Make It Fun (We start with the basics of writing, and how it all stars with a sense of fun in both the writing and the reading.)

“Let it Snow” by David Sedaris

Excerpt of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Make It Interesting (I ask students to write about their field of study or their hobby, in such a way that would make others interested.)

“Why Businesses Don’t Experiment” by Dan Ariely

“Food is Good” by Anthony Bourdain

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know (Pretty self-explanatory)

“How David Beats Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell

“Secret Skin” by Michael Chabon

Make Me Cry (Tugging at the heartstrings)

“A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver

“Firefly” by Haruki Murakami

Make It Fantastic (Fantasy writing, set specifically in the Philippines)

“The Impossible Life and Loves of Doc Duwende” by Angelo R. Lacuesta

“The Gyutou” by F.H. Batacan

Make Me Hypothesize (Sci-Fi!)

“They Toynbee Convector” by Ray Bradbury

“A Retrospective on Diseases for Sale” by Charles Tan

Make Me Scared (Horror!)

“Man Overboard” by Winston Churchill

“To Serve Man” by Damon Knight

Make Me Laugh (Comedy!)

“A Princess and a Guy Like Me” by Simon Pegg

“Possible Contacts with Alien Life”  by John Hodgman

They Come in Bunches

The title is in reference to freshmen, UP freshmen in particular. It is an observable phenomenon after all. The first few days and weeks of class they move in bunches and sometimes in big groups. Sooner or later, they start to break off into smaller unit. Finally, they will become confident to walk the campus and take the ikot jeeps on their own. Also, after initial weeks eating in CASAA they will start finding other places to eat. This can’t help but spark some reminiscence when I was just like those kids, although I was probably more ill-mannered, pompous, and douchey than most of them.  Read more of this post