Expectations from the Workshop
The 58th UP National Writers Workshop had its first three sessions on July 8, 2019. Each workshop session focuses on one Fellow and is mediated by one of the Panelists. The Fellows had to submit their works, along with a Poetics Essay detailing their sensibilities as a writer.
Before the workshop proper began, the Fellows and Panelists weighed in on their expectations from the workshop, as well as from each other.
“Kailangan may tindig [ang mga akda]. Habang tumatanda, hindi na pwedeng writing for the self. Hindi nalang ito within a comfort zone na kayo lang,” Institute of Creative Writing director Rolando Tolentino began the discussion. In this regard, Bomen Gullermo remarked that there must be a certain intensity, radicality, and perhaps even craziness, to a piece of literature.
But good writing does not simply stem from what a piece is trying to say. It comes with mastering the language, too: to Dr. Gémino Abad, “Language is essentially translation. You translate your thoughts and feelings into words. Your only guide: Imaginaton.”
“It’s so easy to be witty with language,” said Butch Dalisay. “But I want something beyond clever. I want something moving and memorable. Write with ambition. Write beyond yourselves.”
This was echoed by Anna Sanchez, director of this year’s UP National Writers Workshop. “I’m looking for ambition in both form and theme. Naghahanap ako ng talagang nagpupumiglas sa form at ng tuma-tackle sa iba’t ibang bahagi ng lipunan.”
For Charlson Ong, the writer must always think of a work’s social relevance. It must contribute in making sense of our nation’s identity, Jun Cruz Reyes added. “Ano ang silbi ng binabasa ko?” Reyes asked. “May ambag ba ito sa pagyayaman ng dangal ng bansa o sa pagsulong sa nawawalang identidad ng bansa?”
These questions should, but may not always, readily cross the writers’ mind. The UP National Writers Workshop has always aimed to provide a space for writers to confront such concerns. It’s also an avenue to meet fellow writers as they further hone their craft–perhaps not just for the Fellows, but also for the Panelists. For the previous director of the workshop, Vlad Gonzales: “Dayalogo ang palihang ito. Ito rin ay pagkilala sa sarili bilang manunulat, maaaring may makuha rin kaming mga Panelists mula sa gawa ng mga Fellows.”
“Yung nakikita ko kasi sa mga dialogue na ito, ini-impose ng ibang mga manunulat na ‘ito ang tama.’ Pero minsan, we come to the sobering fact na baka hindi tayo tama,” shared Luna Sicat-Cleto. “I expect that to happen, and I’m not afraid of it. Maganda rin na nasasampal-sampal ka rin ng ganoong realizations.”
As a dialogue among a community of writers, the workshop is a space for such realizations to be recognized and explored. “I will not hold you to your Poetics,” J. Neil Garcia told the Fellows. “Instead, I will give you the benefit of the doubt–that you will be able to exceed your own expectations of yourselves.”
Workshop Session 1: Ronnie Baticulon
The first workshop session for this year’s UP National Writers Workshop was moderated by Garcia. Neurosurgeon-Writer Ronnie Baticulon submitted interesting essays about his life as a writer, neurosurgeon, and a son.
His essay, No More White Coats, gives the readers a glimpse into his insecurities as a writer aiming to win his first Palanca. His second piece, Mama’s Boy, delves into a more personal experience: His mother’s failing health.
Due to the essay’s subject, Mama’s Boy was met with some interesting points from the Panelists. Gonzales questioned the ending, pointing out that the persona is seemingly refusing to confront the possibility of death. Baticulon admitted his reluctance to talk about is mother’s death: “I’m not ready yet.”
Because of this, the limits of creative non-fiction as a form were brought into the discussion. Tolentino suggested for Baticulon to explore short stories, which would give him more room to tell the story. Likewise, Guillermo noted that poetry may also be a good way to explore the subject.
But Abad argued that Baticulon is strongly positioned in the creative non-fiction genre. “The doctor deals with human suffering. The subject of literary work or imaginative creative work is human experience.”
Gerry Los Banos, also a Fellow to the workshop, said that maybe the problem isn’t with the form or the ending; but simply in the characterization of the persona and what he is going through.
His other essay, No More White Coats, led to a discussion about the collection as a whole. A clear demarcation between his persona as a writer and a doctor was observed, so the Panelists and some of the other Fellows suggested for him to meld them together instead.
Workshop Session 2: R. B. Abiva
Rene Boy Abiva is a former political detainee–and interestingly enough, it was then that he discovered writing. The sessions centered around one of his poems, Oplan Tambay. Moderated by Reyes, the workshop began with X Vallez reading Abiva’s piece.
His fellow poets commended his use of language and sound, but commented on the lack of clarity. Jerome Hipolito mentioned that the piece may benefit from adding more subtlety, though Castillo argued that the subtlety might not be needed due to the performative nature of the piece.
Still, the visual aspect of the poem might have to be addressed, noted Francis Quina. The piece will be published in print, and shall thus be arranged to suit the medium.
Baquiran also brought up that the piece seems to be lacking in proper characterization, making it more difficult to grasp the piece as a whole.
The poem, which tackles a difficult subject paired with rather unpleasant characters, poses a challenge to Abiva as the writer. Abad said that Abiva must find a way of presenting the subjects where the humanity must show through somehow. This will give readers room to believe that though the characters may not be admirable, they do not deserve to live such tragic lives.
The narrative, says Tolentino, further victimizes the victims. Guillermo expresses similar sentiments, saying that the characters must fight back somehow. “Maaaring pinapatay sila na parang mga daga, pero sa totoo lang, lumalaban sila. Hindi nila tanggap ang kanilang pagiging mga daga.”
After bringing up points of improvement on the pieces Abiva submitted to the workshop, Nadera commended the writer on his poem “Gawat.” Likewise, Sicat-Cleto praised the same poem and declared it was her favorite among the ones he submitted to the workshop.
Workshop Session 3: Francis Paolo Quina
Moderated by Butch Dalisay, the third workshop of the day focused on an excerpt from Francis Paolo Quina’s short story, “Window on the Earth.” The story follows Janine and Maya, sisters who lost their mother to the 9/11 bombing, both of whom are now seemingly trapped in their own ways.
His use of the 9/11 incident was put into question, right off the bat. What is the importance of the mother’s death at that particular global tragedy? Ong prompted Quina to explore the premise more.
The ending was another point of discussion that interested other Panelists. Even though the work is not yet finished and is, in fact, just the first half of a longer story, the events of the manuscript submitted to the workshop warranted a discussion, especially with the seemingly arbitrary choice of Korea as Janine and Maya’s destination.
But the bulk of the session revolved mostly around the story’s themes. Class and sexuality come into play as both characters move through the story. Their middle-class aspirations heavily affect both the characters and their goals. The dichotomy between the male and female characters is also evident due to the seemingly problematic romance portrayed in the characters’ relationships.
In his Poetics Essay, Quina talks about his frequent use of strong female characters, and yet, Hidalgo points out, his story did not seem to explore the protagonists’ strengths much. The characters of the story were looked into by both Panelists and Fellows alike. Guillermo and Sarah Lumba remarked that his male characters, in particular, needed to be fleshed out further.
“Ang sarili kong approach dito, wag mo iisipin what a character will represent [in the story]. Make them move like living, breathing characters,” Dalisay helpfully offered.
Quina admitted that the story is perhaps the most problematic from his current book project. Despite this, it was not met without praises. Abad, for one, commended Quina’s “narrative skill.”
“I read the first five paragraphs, and I [was] already impressed,” said Abad.