Almost two decades ago, writer Doreen Fernandez, a noted critic herself, pleaded that this country should have more critics. They do an important work in telling the readers which stories are good and which are not, which plays are worth watching and which are not, which books are worth buying and which are not.
Yet to us Filipinos whose sensibilities are not like the Americans’ it is hard to have critics around. We cannot withstand criticism nor have our work—the mere completion of which took us a long time to achieve—subjected to it. We take criticism, however constructive it may be, personally. We mistake criticism as an assault on our very being.
It is in writing workshops where much criticism takes place. Although criticizing books or stories or plays is somewhat different from the criticism at writing workshops, it is criticism nonetheless. I have never attended a writing workshop—until recently. But I’ve had a fair idea of what goes on at a writing workshop, thanks to Stephen King.
In his book On Writing: Memoir of a Craft, King recounted his own experience at a writing workshop he once attended. Despite his harrowing experience at a writing workshop, King would become an established writer himself. And although he’s “doubtful” if a writer can benefit from writing classes and seminars, he’s not entirely against them. “I knew that if I attend a workshop,” he said, “I’d receive no sweet words, unless my works are truly exceptional, and they are not. I knew that my works would be criticized. What are critics for if they don’t criticize?”
Like King, I knew that if I attend a workshop I would subject myself and my works to criticisms. I knew that I would receive “no sweet words, unless my works are truly exceptional, and they are not.” Nevertheless, on May 3-7, 2010, I attended the Davao Writers Summer Workshop, which was sponsored by the Davao Writers Guild, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and UP Mindanao.
What I was in for I really didn’t know, until I threw myself into the sometimes shattering and sometimes enriching—depending on one’s own experience—world of the writing workshop.
In the early morning of May 3, the first day of the workshop, I arrived in the conference room of Lispher Inn where the Davao Writers Workshop was to be held. There was only one person present yet. By my estimate, he’s somewhere between seventy and eighty. He was wearing floral long sleeves and his attache case was on the table.
The old man turned around, and when he saw me, he greeted me and offered me a seat near him. When he began to talk, I thought maybe this old man is a writer because writers are generally talkative.
It’s not my habit to ask people’s name lest they get offended, but the old man saved me the burden of having to ask his name because he introduced himself.
“I am Satur,” he said in Bisaya. “Satur Apoyon.”
I just sat there with amazement. I couldn’t believe that I was seating beside a real writer. All these years, I have not met a real writer—or someone who makes a living from writing. But now there was something in me that told me not to let this opportunity slip by me, and so I tried as hard as I could to get the conversation between us going.
Satur and I talked about many things—the difference between Cebuano and Mindanao Bisaya, his seven-year ordeal while completing his fantasy novel “Ang Karibal ni Pilemon,” his difficulties when reading today’s writings in Bisaya, and the dearth of writers in Bisaya.
Not long afterward, people started to crowd the conference room, and then the workshop started (without a prayer), and Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, the Workshop Director, welcomed everyone. Then Rick de Ungria, being the president of Davao Writers Guild, gave a message. And so did Dr. Gilda Rivero, UP Mindanao’s Chancellor. Then Dominique Cimafranca introduced the fellows and the panelists.
Four men and a woman served as panelists: Dr. Anthony Tan, who has the loudest voice of them all and was asked by Tita Lacambra-Ayala, “Are you going to die?” when he told us, as a preface to his lecture, that he’s going to retire after this workshop from sitting as a workshop panelist; Mac Tiu, who, if not mean, was mild; Ric de Ungria, who was either the fellows’ tormentor or defender; Genevieve Quintero, whose curly hair is as memorable as her positive comments; and Tim Montes, who was at one time very serious and at another naughty—he once said that poems must sometimes have the comic punch of this Bisaya verse: “Ay kakapoy/ Naay bata gatutoy/ Naay o**n gataroy/ Ay kakapoy.”
There were also those who served as guests panelists: Satur Apoyon, who received the “Ug-Og” Palangga award, a parody of the Palanca award, for his emphasis on the difference between the words “ug” and “og”; Arnel Mardoquio, director of Hunghong sa Yuta, who just went to the workshop to critique the plays of Hiyasmin Espejo, the lone fellow for play; and Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, a Palanca awardee for playwriting and nonfiction.
Fifteen slots were allotted for this workshop, but there were only twelve fellows who attended: James Pascual of ADDU (fellow for poetry); Gino Dolorzo of Xavier Univerity (poetry); Reymond Pepito of ADDU (poetry); Hiyasmin Espejo of UP Mindanao (play); Fred Layno of UP Mindanao (poetry); Ella Ismael of UP Mindanao (essay); Erika Navaja of UP Mindanao (poetry); Jayson Parba of Capitol University of CDO (fiction); Freeda Ko, granddaughter of Tita Lacambra-Ayala (fiction); Iryne Kaamino of Mindanao Medical School Foundation (poetry); Seneca Pellano of UP Mindanao (essay); and I, who came from Holy Cross of Davao College and was damn fortunate to have been chosen as a fellow for fiction, though I should have applied for essay because I liked to style myself as an essayist.
Before the workshop, while looking at the roster of panelists and imagining the prospect of being inside a room full of writers of no mean achievement, I felt as though I were a speck whose presence would not make anyone budge, or whose absence would not be sorely missed by everyone.
And then Ms. Jhoanna introduced our keynote speaker, Dr. Anthony Tan, who would be giving a lecture on “Tension in Poetry.” Oddly, while he’s discussing tension in poetry, there was also a tension in me. That tension, I was sure, was due to the fact that my first piece, “The Young Sultan and the Plague,” was slated to be critiqued first in the afternoon of that day.
That moment came soon enough, and all I did was prepare myself for the worst of comments. I didn’t hold any illusions that it would come out unscathed. And true enough, it did come out strangled, stabbed, sliced, torn, lacerated, and hacked into pieces—all in a manner of speaking, of course. Sir Tim Montes called it “hilaw.” The plot, he said, was not clear. Neither were the characters. Rick de Ungria said it’s an “ambitious” piece, as though the writer wanted to cram so many things in so limited a form as short story.
It was hard to keep up with the pace of the panelists and take notes, but whatever they said led to one irreversible conclusion—my piece didn’t quite cut it.
My second piece, “Badge of Honor,” didn’t make the grade either. Sir Mac Tiu said it was “novelistic,” whose scenes “flit from one to another.” He said, too, that the point of view needed to be fixed. There was so much background information that should not be included. Ms. Gen Quintero prepared to like the story because it started with the history of an indigenous people, and the IP is her area of interest. But she was left with no choice but to dislike it, for while reading it she had more “Huh?” moments than “Aha!” moments. Sir Rick de Ungria said my story is a good example of a story that needed revision. There was, he said, a story, but no plot. The two, he reminded, should go together. He also said that I have this tendency to show information instead of sometimes simply telling it, and telling where I should instead be showing things and actions. Ms. Jhoanna was peeved by my use of triple asterisks to signal the reader of the new scene. It shows, she said, that the writer is immature. She suggested that I should read more, and even added that I ask a syllabus from Sir Tim Montes.
Their comments are enough to make you loathe them, and loathe them till you run out of cuss words. They can be so “brutal” that there was, in fact, one time last year when one fellow left the next day after his piece had been critiqued. They said the fellow wasn’t just feeling well at that time, but it could be that the fellow couldn’t stomach anymore the things the panelists were saying of his work.
To me, however, their comments were secondary; the experience itself primary. Not that I’m downplaying or belittling their comments, which were fair and well-thought-out in the first place. But the wonder of this all is that the utterly harsh comments were balanced and obliterated by the refreshingly congenial experience that the entire workshop provided for a novice writer.
Today, our society has little appreciation for writers, and the situation is such that it is discouraging if not downright hostile to writers. In school, students are mocked as “Emo” for turning their passions into prose. They are scoffed at if they keep a diary. At home, a son’s or daughter’s plan to be a writer is nipped right in the bud.
But at the writing workshop, there was not a slightest rebuke. Talks about writing were not discouraged; they were, in fact, encouraged. It was as if writing is just like any other things in the world. Like PBB, like Rubi, like FB.
It was during the writing workshop, too, where I felt that I could be Arvin The Writer. It was there that I found it not strange to talk about writing being my passion. It was there where I was not questioned why I wrote. It was there where I was not considered quirky just because I see myself as a writer.
The whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. The genius of a writing workshop does not lie in the panelists’ ability to issue an advice to young writers—sometimes such advice helps, and sometimes it thwarts, if not destroys, the writer’s development. Rather, it lies in its ability to gather like-minded individuals who are as passionate about writing as everybody else in the room could be.
It sometimes gets so frustrating when you find little support for the things you are most passionate about. But being in the company of such kindred spirits as the fellows and panelists—who think almost exactly the way you do, who feel just about exactly the way you feel, and who do just about exactly what you wanted to do—somehow buoys me up and keeps me wanting to write and write so the words never really stop.
Arvin Ortiz teaches at Stella Maris Academy of Davao.