ArchivesMay 2011Excuses for the Workshop

Excuses for the Workshop


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This month, the Silliman University National Writers Workshop reaches its golden chapter. The oldest creative writing workshop in Asia, it has a colorful oft-told history it now closely resembles myth. But, indeed, it has built many gilded pillars that now support the pantheon of Philippine literature.

In its fiftieth year, the birthing process of these pillars continues. Fifteen writing fellows are presently housed in the Silliman Rose Lamb-Sobrepeña Writers Village in Valencia until May 20, to test the waters and see if their words–wrought in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction–either float or sink. But they are in good hands, with Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas, daughter of workshop founders Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo and Dr. Edith L. Tiempo, as director-in-residence.

The setup is beautiful irony: writers come up near Mount Talinis, close to the skies and mystic fog, elated with the spirit of nature, to remain grounded with their respective techniques.

By the third week of May, the unavoidable arrives. The last critique would be shared. Whether insight is gained or not, it would be up to the individuals to either pursue literature, or venture on to other kinds of distractions. Like the fellows before them, they would be their own puppeteers of their destinies from then on.

For those who fall into the former pursuit, the discipline does not stop with a work finished, anthologized, or awarded. The rationale, at least for now, is divided in two.

First, the Writers Village may be closed in the following months after the workshop’s close, and then starts clocking in for the next summertime to welcome new and indifferent (in the beginning, at least) fellows who would soon become drinking buddies–but as fictionist Susan Lara says in her essay Dwelling in Possibilities, “the workshop never ends.”

Of course, the seed has just been sown in tilled earth. It still has to grow, mature, branch wide, and bear fruits. Writing is called a discipline after all, and an arduous one at that.

For someone who already willed to keep it a habit of leisurely exercise the moment Mom Edith autographed a book with the dedication: “How proud I am to have a writer who is Biblically approved,” it is all but necessary.

Writing is a perpetual act of practice.

It seems this is the reason why writing does not require a licensure exam, unlike accountancy or engineering or dentistry. Nothing is definite for what the craft demands. It is a constant struggle with letters, a coming of terms with one’s duende, a Mí¶bius strip of starting in the beginning and ending at the beginning all over again.

Second, it is more than semantics, syntax, and sensibility. Like all art forms, it holds a greater scale of concern. When, thousands of years ago, cave paintings recorded significant accomplishments, wood carvings retained forgotten stories, and songs healed wounds and broken spirits, today’s literature also provides the same archival, informative, and curative purposes that every man needs. One just has to look for it in the right places.

To realize this, to make literary writing more visible and accessible, it is without question that the workshop is one of the many solutions to this aspiration. As a communal form of art, with more writers honed year after year, literature’s function becomes more potent. Practice, yes, but it does not have to be a lonely commitment. This particular field can have its interesting moments while working on it.

In no particular order, here are some proofs: the acceptance letter after having received none whatsoever in the previous year’s application, the breakdown upon the dissection of an autobiographical piece, the mandatory but genuine intent of a pat on the back, the exchanges of encouragement and disapproval on sundry things with Myrna Peña-Reyes and Lito Zulueta, the unforgettable remarks of Bobby Flores Villasis and the late Ernesto Superal Yee upon holding a literary folio dedicated to Mom Edith, the spontaneous delivery of direct quotations from classic poems care of César Ruí¬z Aquino and Miguel Ybañez, the drinking revelry with Angelo “Sarge” Lacuesta and Alfred “Krip” Yuson…

The encyclopedic pronouncements of DM Reyes and J. Neil Garcia; the recollection of Jose “Butch” Dalisay’s past workshop sessions and Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta’s own experience; the morning when Rosario Cruz Lucero innocently read three stories from three different authors as one epic narrative and critiqued it as organic and accomplished; the afternoon when Gémino Abad hugged an acacia tree near Katipunan Hall and shared that it relieved you of bad energy; the evening of enjoying a bottle of red wine in the perplexing footbridge along Hibbard Avenue, the other long night of videoke at the once-feared Country Gents…

The last minute rescue from near-drowning due to the attempt of swimming across Lake Balinsasayao, the indecisive jump off a cliff into the waters of Siquijor, the white war-bus, the top-load ride on a speeding jeepney, the midnight trips to Steds Silliman, the seemingly haunted Davao Cottage, the bestowment of the “Yaya of the Year” award/apron for a month-long stint of steering the writing fellows from one food hub to another, the first light of dawn that blossomed on the horizon at Escaño after culmination night, the farewell walk in Rizal Boulevard…

See, these are just fragments of the bigger picture, composed of anecdotes both trivial and edifying. In and out of the workshop, there’s this kind of bond you cannot ignore.

And this is what the workshop reminds those who continue to seek the pulse in the written language. That is why this author is coming back to the City of Gentle People this summer. He feels the need to be reacquainted with those dear to him, to talk about things other than urgent deliverables and the daily rush hour, and to wonder again on what the pen is capable of.

To put it more bluntly, he is glad the Workshop still exists for these excuses.

(The author, 23, was a fellow for fiction in 2008. He is a senior communications specialist in a food company, and works on his prose and poetry from time to time.)

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