Saturday, August 31, 2013

How to catch a writer

THANK the deity for email.

Nicholette Jeanne Legaspi is a senior Linguistics and Literature major at the University of San Carlos (USC) in Cebu City.

I am on my third semester of graduate course work at the state university at Quezon City.

Our stars may not have been destined to meet except that Nicholette has an assignment to finish by tonight. And she knows how to email.

When I first read the subject of Nicholette’s Aug. 27 email, I wondered if I was about to be scammed.

“Hello Mrs. Tabada! I’m a friend of Carlos” put a serious brake in my inbox checking. Will the writer ask me to send dollars to bail out my older son, stuck in the depths of the Iguazu Rainforest after losing his wallet and mobile phone while researching on the digital literacy of the Tapuya tribe?

Fortunately, I remembered my son and his best friend were most likely cramming for a long exam on law and finance at their library, and my possession of dollars was as tenuous as connectivity in the rainforest.

The still unknown but far from colorless Nicholette had my attention, though. In the digital black hole that is a Gmail inbox, the subject of an email must be worded for impact.

The challenge of the email writer then shifts to sustaining the suspense after the double-click that opens the email. Nicholette used 10 paragraphs before popping the request to conduct an interview by email for a feature she was writing for her journalism class.

Now, 10 paragraphs is tricky. For the preoccupied, 10 paragraphs is a love letter or a death sentence or both.

Yet, unusual for a young writer, Nicholette wrote 10 short paragraphs.

I am more used to writers of her generation composing for the digital screen, not the printed page: a smokescreen of unedited text, generous misspelling, endangered punctuation, prolific emoticons. And the nefarious infiltrating LOL.

To come upon a writer who respects the period and restores balance of thought and space through the order of paragraphs is, I confess, my weakness.

And that was how I conceded and Nicholette of the 10-paragraph preamble sent me a second email of the promised 15 questions.

Except that each question had a set of two or three follow-up questions. Preceded by a coy hyphen, each follow-up inquiry was as heart-tugging as baby piranhas trailing after their mother appetites.

While interviewing by email substitutes very well for sources beyond the traditional face-to-face contact, an email is easy to ignore. So free the piranhas one at a time in order not to scare away the prey, er, interviewee.

Or, like Nicholette, tame the piranhas. First, set a reasonable deadline. Questions require one to reflect and answer. Heck, some questions take a lifetime to answer.

Second, take an interest in your questions and the answers these will draw. An interview succeeds when it becomes more than a Q-and-A and turns into a conversation between persons.

Simply repeating the questions jotted on the board when the assignment was handed out invites answers as dry as chalkdust.

Nicholette posed questions that did not just show she researched on the subject. She wanted gaps filled, puzzles pieced together:

“Do you ever feel pressured about keeping up a certain reputation of your writing self?”

“How does your life in Manila affect your Cebuano writing identity?”

When USC professor Frances Serenio set Nicholette and her classmates on a task to interview local journalists, she may have expected the professionals to give a tip or two to those still aspiring to dedicate their pens.

Thanks to email and a Nicholette way of asking questions, the nub’s on me.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 1, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

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