Writers workshops on my mind

Writers workshops on my mind
Participants in the UST National Writers Workshop held in Baguio City in 2018. —FACEBOOK PHOTO

I belong to the generation of writers who were largely self-taught. There were no academic courses in creative writing that we could enroll in, no creative writing workshops that we could apply for, no writing classes even. In college, I was a campus journalist, as I had been in high school. 

After college, my classmates and I became reporters or copywriters or literature teachers, and labored over our short stories and poems and essays whenever we could find the time for it. When we got up the nerve, we submitted our works to the Philippines Free Press or the Graphic, both weekly magazines. If we never saw them again, we assumed they had been dumped in the editorial trash bin. Or—hallelujah!—one glorious day, we found our story or our poem in the literary section. 

There were hardly any locally published literary titles. I recall only Regal Publishing and Alberto Florentino’s Peso Books. And they only published the big-name writers. New Day came a bit later. I have no memories of book launchings, save for the launching of “The Woman Who Had Two Navels” by Nick Joaquin and “The Hand of the Enemy” by Kerima Polotan, which had both been awarded the Stonehill Prize.

The first Silliman Writers’ Workshop was held when Edith and Ed Tiempo returned from Iowa in the 1960s. I was a senior in college. Only a handful of young writers were invited, among them my best friend. I wasn’t invited, and it broke my heart. A few years later, the University of the Philippines held the first of its writers’ workshops, but I didn’t have the guts to apply. Eventually, my stories did get published, and I got to meet Nick Joaquin and Kerima Polotan. My best friend became editorial assistant for Solidarity, and introduced us to her boss, Frankie Sionil Jose, and we would sometimes hang out, after work, in the Solidaridad Bookshop. My young husband had studied under Francisco Arcellana and NVM Gonzalez in UP, so I got to know them, too. These senior writers were unfailingly kind, encouraging, and generous with us younger writers, something we have always been grateful for.

After 15 years

Shortly after martial law was declared in the country in 1972, my husband accepted a job offer from Unicef. We lived in different countries for 15 years. When we returned in 1990, it was to find that the literary scene had changed enormously. Creative Writing was now an academic discipline. The major universities were holding writers’ workshops. Literary publishing was booming; it seemed like every month, there was a book launching or a poetry reading.

I went back to my old job at UP’s English Department, and, having published a number of books by then, was invited to become an associate of UP’s Creative Writing Center, then led by Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio. So, from the early ‘90s to this day, I have been a member of the teaching panel of UP’s National Writers’ Workshop, and, since 2011, a member of the teaching panel of the National Writers’ Workshop of the University of Santo Tomas’ Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, which I was asked to revive.

Since the mid-‘90s to before the pandemic, these workshops were held in modest hotels in Baguio. The workshop sessions were hard—sometimes grueling—work. But there was no lack of time for relaxation and bonding, over meals in the hotel, or after-dinner drinks or coffee, either in the hotel or elsewhere in a city vibrant with the life of its own artistic community. The writing fellows would take part in poetry slams with the Baguio poets in Mt. Cloud Bookstore or in a cafe or a bar. The Baguio writers would turn up for one of the workshop dinners. And the fellows would visit with Bencab in his mountain-top museum, or with Kidlat Tahimik in the café Oh My Gulay. 

Where they’re coming from

The author speaks during the 54th UP National Writers Workshop held in Baguio City in 2015. —FACEBOOK PHOTO

Anyone who has attended either of these workshops in the last two decades knows that they kick off with the panelists’ introduction of themselves, their literary biases and political advocacies. This ensures that the writing fellows will know where the panelists are coming from when each work is critiqued, and so they will see the wide variety of literary preferences and political inclinations represented in the panel. After which the fellows, in turn, describe what their own expectations of the workshop are. Before each session the fellow presents his own poetics. And, before graduation, the fellows are invited to comment on their experiences of the workshop. (This was omitted in the recently concluded UP Workshop, because everyone had been invited to Krip Yuson’s book launching at UP’s University Hotel, a rare event during this prolonged pandemic, which we thought would be a good way of welcoming the writing fellows into the community.)

True, there have been occasional tears, a couple of bruised egos, misunderstandings among the fellows (I vividly recall “the night of the burning of the wooden phallus”), heated arguments between panelists. Nothing that couldn’t be remedied by a friendly hug, a walk under the pines, a round of beer. 

And there have been mishaps. Once, a fellow complained of acute breathing difficulty, and had to be rushed to the Baguio General Hospital by Butch Dalisay in his Volkswagen Beetle, for treatment of what turned out to be allergy to fish. Another time, a fellow started behaving strangely, claiming that he could see Emilio Aguinaldo sitting in the hotel dining room (or roaming the hotel corridors), and preventing his roommates from sleeping by reciting poetry out loud all night long. We asked then UP Baguio Chancellor Precy Macansantos if she could recommend a psychiatrist. She sent one over in the middle of the night; he examined the fellow, diagnosed his condition as a nervous breakdown, sedated him, and recommended that he be sent home. Vim Nadera accompanied him to Manila. 

The worst experience that I recall happened in 1998 or 1999, early in my term as director of what was then still called the UP Creative Writing Center. After the workshop, we were coming down Mariano Marcos Avenue when our bus met a man riding on a bicycle. He was driving in the wrong lane, and suddenly fell from his bike, right in front of our bus. There was no way our bus driver could have swerved to avoid him. Our driver stepped on the brakes, but it was too late. The poor man died where he fell.

The final workshop session is usually an assessment. The writing fellows are invited to give their comments and suggestions for improvements in the workshop. The atmosphere during this session is upbeat and cordial. The fellows usually express their gratitude to the panel and to each other for new lessons learned and new friendships made. The most common suggestions for improvement have to do with allotting more time for one-on-one consultations with individual panelists. Some fellows ask for lectures on specific issues; others want publishers included in the teaching panel; still others want the inclusion of fellows who write in other languages besides English and Filipino; and very often there are requests for the lengthening of the workshop to two weeks, instead of one. 

All of these suggestions have been tested at some time or other. In fact, the format of today’s workshops is partly the result of accommodating the most viable of these suggestions. I have no doubt, though, that they could be further tweaked to meet the realities of the changing times.

Friendly, fruitful, festive

In all these years of being part of the UP and UST workshops, and sometimes of the Silliman workshops, I have never yet encountered accusations by the fellows of bullying, unfairness, abuse, or cruelty on the part of the panel. There was one fellow who said that she hoped we would find better accommodations. We explained that we were limited in our choices by our university-approved budget. Another fellow told me—privately—that she found some remarks of a male panelist offensive. The panelist concerned had left the workshop. But I immediately apologized on his behalf, and on behalf of the workshop, and assured her that we would take steps to ensure that this would never happen again. And we did. No one ever accused us of deliberately accepting badly written work so we could tear it apart. Whatever would be the point of such an exercise?

On the whole, my memory of these annual events is that they are friendly and fruitful, even festive, affairs; and the camaraderie—not to mention the romances—built during that summer week, sometimes lasts a lifetime.

Which is why I am astonished, these days, to read on social media references to writing workshops conducted by “imperialist academic gatekeepers” for their own “fascistic ego-satisfaction”. We have always considered these workshops a form of public service. No one is coerced to attend them. Those who apply, and qualify, receive fellowships. Few places are as free and as safe for the independent exchange of ideas. Moreover, we devote a day to public lectures for the larger community. Holding the workshop via Zoom is admittedly not ideal, but we try to approximate the spirit and traditions that have always guided our workshops. 

Everyone knows about trolls and why they do the things they do. But this is the question on my mind: Who gains from maligning writing workshops held by universities? Who benefits from spreading false information about what happens in them?

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