Philippine Literary Workshops and Contests
by Cirilo F. Bautista
As a communal text, any literary discourse is a contrived utterance that addresses several levels of reality, but to communicate through this text, writer and reader must put into operation certain sociological processes that will make it intelligible. “I write, therefore, I am,” might as well provide the structural foundation of this sociology. To write a poem or a story involves the deliberate reworking of social elements to achieve the writer’s intention. But it is, first of all, a linguistic construction, fixed in a situs of specific explication, demanding of the writer and the reader a vast expertise in language, in the first, to configurate the human condition according to a planned aesthetics, in the second, to be able to embrace it.
Grammatical and compositional knowledge – the first level of reality – clears away impediments to the comprehension of the work’s literalness, that is, the human condition as articulated through concrete and physical verbality. Matters of diction, idioms, and phraseology when clarified and refracted in relation to the writer’s sociological perspective will ultimately lead to the formula that encodes the work’s thought or idea. At the same time, when linkages between the cultural milieu and the linguistic character of the work are established, semiotics produces the metaphoric significance. In this second level, figurative language processes literalness to make it yield additional facets. Meaning becomes more than literal and offers itself to cultural interpolation. Consequently, the work encourages the reader to draw from the wellspring of his societal consciousness those materials that will complete and validate his interpretation.
In this sense (the poem or the story) must be properly situated in relation to the subtext (the social or human conditions) before a signification is gained. Their context (relationship) often produces in the reader a particular perception of the textual idea. A creative discourse, then, is ultimately culturally determined. It cannot be understood without reference to the human factors that provide its framework. Also, it emerges as a rational conjoining of individual and national experiences, the raw materials really of any creative product. Shelley meant this when he wrote that the “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” because, through their meditations on human affairs, their texts become the uncredited almanac of the human development. The power of such works as Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and Hernandez’s “Isang Dipang Langit” resides in the ability to pragmatize in artistic terms the crisis and exigencies of the human condition.
The world of literature itself, it must be apparent now, comprises another level of reality. All existing literary discourses exert a tremendous pressure on the human mind and heart, compelling them to examine things in a new and, sometimes, perilous manner. This “intertextuality,” occurring on the cultural level and intervening in the operation of the other levels, improves our comprehension of the text, and the same time, provides a rigorous criticism of any aspect of personal and social existence. The writer labors in isolation, and he is not even sure that the poem or story will turn out the way he intends it to. He only has himself to rely on in his attempt to explicate the mysterious meanderings of his soul. It is a painful and demanding commitment. Consequently, he inclines to the invention of devices that will postpone it, even if momentarily only. Such ritual evasions – smoking cigarettes, taking a shot of whiskey or a bottle of beer, fussing over pages of notes, cleaning the computer, making that last-minute phonecall to someone suddenly remembered — are ostensibly intended to oil the machinery of his imagination but in reality are diversionary tactics to justify the delay. For man is a social animal, and writing frustrates his contact with his species. Dylan Thomas called it a “sullen art” because it effects a melancholia in the writer. “The most terrible thing for a poet is to be confronted by a blank sheet of paper.”
To write is to wrestle with that horrible blankness, to squeeze it and to bleed it and to maul it until it surrenders to fruitfulness. The struggle debouches into a war whose rules are unclear but whose pain is all too real. Only after his war with words can the writer be at war with other men, Thomas adds. That is why it is imperative that the writer be adequately equipped for this job. It is not enough that he knows the principles of grammar, diction and composition — the basics of linguistic usage – but he must know their aesthetic ramifications as well. The role of metaphor, the forms of versification, the reason for rhymes, and the balancing of illusion and reality, for instance, once comprehensible to him, will confer on his work an unmistakable direction and a convincing excellence.
The Third World environment, in general, does not offer the writer sufficient equipment to accomplish his task. In fact, there is a certain amount of hostility with which the writers are viewed in the Philippines, truncating their efforts to make creative writing a profession. It is almost impossible for a writer to survive through writing alone in the milieu. Why this is so is another subject, but it is relevant to mention in passing that we are a “seeing” society, not a “reading” society. The trimedia of radio, television and newspapers are the dominant purveyors of what is called “literature in a hurry,” which reflects the primacy of simple survival in a society that is not yet prepared for the refinement of its national intellect. The trimedia productions overwhelm the social mind, influence the social taste, and determine cultural direction.
In such an environment, creative writing workshops, literary contests and such literature-related activities as seminars and conferences perform significant roles in influencing the writer’s artistic growth, his creative potential and, ultimately, his literary productivity.
The importance of creative writing workshops started being felt in the 1970s. Writers before then had to learn the craft largely on their own, mainly through trial and error and emulation of their favorite authors. On the side, they relied in their friends’ critical evaluation of their works. Their language teachers, if any good, taught them skills with which they understood the first level of reality; their literature teachers, if any good, encouraged them to read the classical and contemporary masters. But the matter of stylistic refinements, of philosophical and cultural groundings needed to situate their discourses in aesthetic excellence – these they had to learn on their own.
But the coming of workshops helped clarify misty areas of creativity and craftsmanship. Teachers with sufficient training in the creative art fashioned pedagogical models that served as guidelines to the beginning writers. Lectures during sessions delineated linguistic and artistic concepts that helped the writers focus on specific problems and their solutions. Discussions of various critical theories and their influences on writing techniques provided a variety of options for literary approaches. Finally, and this was the heart of the workshop, a communal critique of works submitted brought out the strength and weakness of the authors. The analysis involved a close reading of the poem or story to discover how it internalized the elements of coherence, harmony, counterpoint, etc.; to justify or reject prosodic or narrative tactics in the context of the work’s aesthetic direction, and to evaluate the clarity of its meaning within the boundaries of its function.
The machinery of today’s writing workshops are no different, except perhaps in the sense that it is more organized, more momentarily sustained, and more attractive to aspiring writers. The National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City was the first to be set up in the country. Directed by Edilberto Tiempo, it is patterned after the famous Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, U.S.A., which they themselves had attended.
The creative writing workshops in Iowa, it must be remembered, has three levels –the undergraduate, where students majoring creative writing are accommodated; the graduate, where students majoring in creative writing are accommodated; the graduate, where students taking up the degree Master of Fine Arts major in creative writing are guided in their areas of genre concentration; and the international, which is really a separate and independent workshop for writers from various parts of the world. Participation in the international workshop is by invitation only, and participants are acknowledged major writers from their specific countries. It is not really any more a workshop for, as its Director, the late Paul Engle, averred, participants were already masters of their craft, and the workshop was really meant to give them a “vacation, to do whatever they want to do.” It was after the first two levels of the Iowa workshops that the Tiempos shaped their Silliman writers workshops .
Practically all Filipino writers off any importance have joined this workshop at one time or another, either as fellows, lecturers, or panelists. It is held for four weeks every summer amidst the pleasant and quiet surroundings of the seaside city,. It will be an understatement to say that it has a significant influence on the growth of our literature. The applicants wanting to join it increase in number each year, and the works and the works of writers who have passed through it continue to enrich our arts and letters. The amount of learning these writers got from this workshop is incalculable, and is measurable only in the way they have contributed to the qualitative and quantitative growth of our literature. Being a pioneer, the Silliman Writers Workshop occupies a premier position in the history of creative writing in the Philippines.
The U.P. Creative Writing Workshop is held also in summer, with the venue being any of the university’s campuses all over the country. Understandably, it has the widest coverage in terms of participants, for it can draw from thousands of potential writers among the university’s vast student population.
The Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center of De La Salle University, established in 1991 in honor of the noted fictionist, holds a workshop every December. Following Santos’s expressed wish, the workshop gives priority to new writers, from our mass-based universities — U.E., F.E.U., Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, P.U.P. – and from La Salle campuses.
The Iligan National Writers Workshop, in the short three years that it has been operating, has already established a firm reputation as an excellent training ground for aspiring poets, fictionists and dramatists. Conceived and managed by Jaime An Lim, Cirilo F. Bautista, Tony Tan, Christine Godinez-Ortega, and supported by funds from the MSU-IIT Office of the Chancellor for Research and Extension, NCCA, and private corporations, it brings together some fifteen writers from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao for a weeklong intensive literary interaction. It is the only workshop that publishes in book form the fellows’ works taken up in the discussion and the transcripts of the panel discussions.
The U.S.T. Creative Writing Workshop, directed by Ophelia A. Dimalanta, holds sessions for two weeks in April.
The aforementioned are the “institutionalized” workshops. There are other, smaller and irregular ones sponsored by the offices and agencies. Writers in English and in Filipino get training from workshops sponsored by Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Filipinas (UMPIL), Galian sa Arte at Tula (GAT), the Rio Alma Poetry Clinic, The Cirilo F. Bautista Poetry Repair Shop, Palihang Amado Hernandez, Writers Academy of the Philippines, Carlos Palanca Foundation, and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, to mention a few.
What impact do these workshops have in the production of Philippine literature in English? A very significant impact, I would say. From the ’70s to the present, “literary workshoppers,” to coin a convenient term, have formed the first order of literary artists who have, to a large extent, determined the configuration and philosophy of Philippine literature. Most of them are college graduates or have had college experiences. Because are inextricably linked to the academe, they have a sustained faculty of mentors and well-managed programs. We must not forget that Philippine literature in English was born in the campus as an initial adjunct to Filipino students’ obligation to learn the English language. Because the American teachers in our schools used literature to teach the language, linguistic and literary skills were acquired by the students at the same time. Those with literary ambition were encouraged by their teachers and, if they went on to the teaching profession themselves, they in turn encouraged their own students. Before the ’70s, therefore, the linkage was tenuous and temporary, depending on the presence of teachers with the literary inclinations; afterwards, with the workshops being set up and managed by the English departments in the universities, student writers’ training became more systematic and directional.
This training eventually developed into two branches: the criticism of creative writing and the teaching of creative writing.
The first is really the focal interest of most of our writers’ workshops where the participants do not actually do any writing but where their submitted works- the workshop materials – are subjected to rigid and varied critical scrutiny. In effect, literary analysis serves the purpose of showing the writers the different philosophies and techniques of writing. Depending on the persuasion of the panelists, therefore, the writers, in the end, may be convinced to adopt this or that school of thought in his craft. The Tiempos, for instance, are very strong exponents of New Criticism; the U.P. Writing Center inclines heavily towards all forms of Marxism; the De La Salle Writing Center encourages various kinds of engagement, and U.S.T., to a large extent, remains Thomistic.
The second emerged with the offering of creative writing courses in the universities. By the ’80s, the academic community realized the growing needs to organize and systematize the teaching of the writing craft. Literary production, they admitted, could only be improved in quality and quantity by a conscious program to uplift the literary producers. In De La Salle and U.P., for instance, there are bachelors if arts degrees major in creative writing as well as MFA degrees in the graduate schools. In other universities, creative works are accepted as theses requirements for graduation in undergraduate levels. With creative writing degree units in formal educational curricula, students with literary ambitions get competent and sufficient instructions from teachers with adequate preparation and experience in literary craftmanship. Many of them are writers themselves who pass on to their students invaluable knowledge not found in textbooks. It is also worth noting that there has been a significant increase in the number of students pursuing creative writing degrees. In DLSU, where I teach, the idea of offering creative writing courses in the undergraduate and graduate levels was unthinkable five years ago. This semester, we have our fifth batch of graduate creative writing students.
Thus, these two branches provide the serious beginning writers with sufficient support and encouragement to fulfill their potentials. At the same time, they have attracted more and more new writers. The mergence of the classroom and the workshop, as it were, has brought together all the forces necessary to make creative writing a profession, with the underlying assumption that literary production, like any human discipline, can be taught and learned in a controlled environment. In addition, the quality of writing continues to show marked improvement. In addition, the quality of writing continues to show marked improvement. The new writers, possessed of the advantages of the expert teachers and technological facilities, are more familiar with recent developments in literary theories, techniques and philosophy. Consequently, their immersion in the world of letters hastens their expertise and mastery of their craft. Also, with more writers joining the field, national literary titles exhibited in the various book fairs held more frequently now.
There are those of course, who belittle the effectiveness of writing workshops. They argue that workshops do not make writers; they even unmake them. What can be learned in workshops can be learned somewhere else. A sane enough attitude, on the surface, especially when we hear of the insanity of some workshop panelists, like the one who would tear a poem to pieces to register his displeasure with it, or the one who would insist that young fictionists would do the country a lot of good by giving up writing and planting camotes instead. We remember Sinclair Lewis telling participants in workshop on how to write fiction, “You want to know how to write a novel? Well, go home and write a novel.”
But that is not as easy as it seems. One does not simply go home and write a poem if he does not know what a poem is or how to go about creating it. True, he can read poems, and books about poems, but he would not have the benefit of another consciousness explicating to him the phenomenology and problems of writing. He would not, in short, have the appropriate direction suited to his potential and limitation. Only teachers can do that. True, there are teachers who abuse their position, but they really the exception rather than the rule. Alone, it will take the beginning writer some time to master his craft, with the help of workshops and literary courses, the time span can be significantly reduced. With his sensitiveness and imaginativeness unhampered by misconceptions, he can apply himself more productively to the acquisition of those qualities that will maximize his writing potential.
Taken historically and psychologically, then, the effectiveness of these workshops is beyond doubt. The Tiempos of Dumaguete believe that workshops confer on the participants an amount critical skill by which they are able to examine a text rationally and dispassionately though they may belong to different philosophies and personalities. “Communal text investigation,” as I call it, exposes writers to crucial and even nebulous aspects of creativity which will have profound repercussions on their own craftsmanship. Knowledgeable in the ways of the New Criticism, the Tiempos emphasize poetic integrity and resonance, formal excellence and veracious autonomy – qualities a work must possess by necessity and not endowment of external agencies. “Many Palanca-awardees come to us to find out if they can really write,” Ed Tiempo once averred. He implied a suspicion for awards, for they are, at best, palliatives. Workshops, Edith Tiempo said, “teach a writer to be his own severest critic.” If he learns anything at all, it is to exercise the ability to tell when the parts of a work succeed, and how to functionalize these parts through judicious selection, paring, repairing, and harmonizing. In due time, his expertise may lead him to introduce innovations in the structure and concepts of the literary genres. Indeed, as a literary editor and critic, I have come across such innovations in the works of Filipino poets and fictionists.
The Carlos Palanca Foundation has of late realized the value of creative writing workshops. Through A.B. Battung, executive director, it started last year as a series of workshops designed for emerging writers in the provinces. “In this way,” Battung said, “we would bring the benefits of literary know-how to those who are not able, by reason of time or distance, to join workshops in Metro Manila.” He has put together a team – composed of fictionist Jose Dalisay, Jr., poet Cirilo Bautista, and dramatist Rene Villanueva – which manages three-genre workshops for pre-enrolled participants. The team has held workshops in Bicol at the Ateneo de Naga University, in Cebu at the San Carlos University, and in Ilocos Norte at the Divine Word College. “In holding these workshops,” Battung added, “the Palanca Foundation is signaling its recognition of the important role that our writers carry, not only in advancing our literary development but also in shaping our national cultural taste.” Several outstanding writers from the provinces have been discovered through the Palanca workshops.
Also, the usefulness of writing workshops is evidenced in the patronage that our cultural institutions have been giving them. For years, the Cultural Center of the Philippines extended funding assistance to creative writing workshops. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts, understandably, has been very supportive of writing workshops.
In summary, it is evident that there is no need for statistical figures to confirm the factuality of creative writing workshops’ effectiveness. Indeed, there is no need for statistics. After all, the effects of workshops are cumulative, rather than periodic. But the effervescence evident in the writing scene denotes a reinvigoration of the creative spirit, and this alone, is an encouraging sign. Big or small, these workshops answer the need for a rational and sustained effort to build up the country’s literary resources by attending to the requisites of its primary component: the writers. The number of books published by literary workshoppers increase annually, thus fattening the literary treasury. Creative writing workshops attract more and more new writers who realize the beneficence of the workshops’ intention to develop persons extremely sensitive to the human condition, to the alterations and flow of the cultural milieu, and to the determination of the national consciousness. Writer’s contribute to the sharpening of the people’s desire for the finer things in life, for the improvement of the national intellect. Through their literary productions, they propose ways of upgrading the quality of national life. Their works, when judiciously inputed by the state of authorities in their national policies, may provide them with ideas for social amelioration. The writers’ honest and profound critique of social realities is their ultimate contribution to the formation of an uplifted national intelligence. But the sensitivity, the imagination, and the craftsmanship they need to accomplish this critique is inaugurated to a great extent in the environment of writing workshops.
The effect of literary competitions in the production of literature in English, on the other hand, is quite a different thing. At best, the matter is speculative, for these contests are arbitrary, limited, and often short-lived, making it difficult for us to make conclusive statements vis-a-vis literary production. From the Commonwealth Literary Awards of the 1940s to the Palanca Literary Awards of the 1990s, certain currents of creative energy can be stipulated, and this can be the basis of some tentative findings. It stands to reason, however, that the popularity of these contests definitely exerts certain influences on individual writers’ attitude toward literary and social realities, and these can be understood only if we ask the writers themselves.
The major and minor literary competitions that we have — the Palanca, the CCP, the Free Press, The Graphic, The Panorama, the Procyon, and the Home Life — confer a psychological, and not an artistic, beneficence on the writers. Winning them has a palliative effect — for a while the writer is a few thousand pesos above the poverty line and enjoys some degree of admiration –but cannot be equated with the winner’s ascendancy over other writers. It would be erroneous, if not pretentious, to assume that a contest winner is a better artist than a non-winner. I have known many naive writers who think winning the Palanca is the highest achievement for a Filipino writer; there are even those who think it is the equivalent of literary apotheosis. They ignore the fact that it is just a contest, that is all, and a winner is just lucky that the judges, who have their own nebulous system of rating entries, were favorably disposed to his work. It is indisputable that there are many outstanding writers who have never won any literary prize.
Why then do writers join these contests? In an attempt to find some answers, I posed that question to some twenty (20) respondents in an informal, random survey. They were a mix of established and beginning writers, of winners and non-winners. The tally I had at the conclusion of the survey included all responses, even multiple ones from the same respondents.
Why do you join literary contests?
1. To find out if I can really write
2. For the money
3. To know if I’m good as others
4. To know if I have potentials
Insufficient as it is, the survey can give us some idea of the psychology of literary contests. Response #1 indicates the writers desire for the “confirmation” of his literary ability; that is winning will be a validation of his artistic capability. This is the most satisfying effect of contests, for it resolves for him questions that otherwise would remain unanswered. The Palanca Prize, in this regard, is perceived as the best validator; its prestige, history, and scope make it a reliable measuring instrument. Winning it provides entry into the exclusive group of outstanding writers whose excellence has passed a rigid test and who would, from now on, be forces to consider in our literary development.
Confirmation gives the writer the signal that the pursuit of letters is not, after all, a futile thing for him. “I want to find out if my estimation of myself as a poet is correct, ” a respondent said. “Am I getting anywhere with my writing – I want to know,” another said. In effect, confirmation is a highly personal search for the justification of a writing life. The writer, as it were, competes with himself, not with others. Winning finally settles for him questions about writing as a serious engagement.
Response #2 reflects the practical attractiveness of contests. Writers join them for the money — the bigger it is, the more their desire to win. Those who gave this response were either already multiple winners or financially hard-pressed. For the first, sure of their ability, the money, as it were, has already been earmarked for certain things — a TV, a vacation, to pay a debt. Winning has become not only a habit for them, but also a source of steady income. For the second, winning is a small refuge from the perils of insolvency. These are the struggling writers whose social circumstances make them look at contests as an agency for temporary salvation. All of them said that present contest prizes are unrealistic and should be raised to meet the demands of our actual cost of living.
Response #3 shows the writers’ interpretation of contests as a canonical agent. They compete to prove that they are as good as, if not better than, writers who have won already. Their competitiveness assumes a hierarchy of writers where winners occupy top ranking. To win is to be elevated to the pantheon of the literary greats. “When I won my first Palanca,” one of them said, ” I could not sleep for a week. I felt so high.” “I joined because I got sick and tired of the boastfulness of one winner. When I won, all of a sudden he became silent.” These respondents also think that the more contests one wins, the more excellent an artist he becomes.
Response #4 exhibits the naivete of some writers. The respondents thought of contests as an instrument to discover whether they had talents, and they ended by losing. The truth is, the Palanca and the CCP contests are not for those without talent, and if one is just trying to find out if he has, workshops are the appropriate venues for him. Amateurish entries in these contests are easily weeded out by the judges who have vast experience in this kind of thing.
Whether literary contests and other similar projects contribute to the production of literature, as I have said, is difficult to ascertain. It is not farfetched, however, to say that they improve the quality of writing in the country. The high level of competition, the increasing number of contestants, and the spread of knowledge about literary techniques and theories, force a contestant to upgrade his skill. By comparison and contrast, by absorption or opposition, he posits himself against others and undoubtedly learns from the experience. I know many writers who study the style and techniques of contest winners with the aim of understanding the finer elements of literary discourses.
The psychology of contests, particularly focused on the human desire for recognition, compels the beginning writers to prove to themselves and to others that they are worthy of membership in the society of letters. In the process, they struggle to grow artistically in order to meet the standards of the contests. Because they cannot win if they are no good, contests exert a subtle educative influence on the participants. In this manner, contests are invisible workshops, which hone the skills of the beginning writers desirous of literary notability. They are one way of learning and excelling in the craft, albeit a difficult one.
Creative writing workshops, literary contests, literary seminars and conferences, it must be clear now, have a definite role in the literary growth of our literature. Each in its own particular way has direct and indirect influences on the quality and quantity of literary production. Taken together, they are a dominant force in the formation and strengthening of our national soul and in the direction of our social life.
Reference: from the book Illumined Terrain: The Sites and Dimensions of Philippine Literature