FEAR paralyzes me as soon as I grip my pen. I am not sure if I will make sense out of the written word, especially after attending my first formal workshop.

It has been two months since I went to Baguio and had my poems critiqued by some of the country’s established and respected writers. Still, their words ring clear in my mind, causing my worst case of writer’s block to date. Now I freeze even only at the thought of writing.

It all started when one of my editors encouraged me to try my luck in joining the 3rd UST National Writers’ Workshop. I submitted what I thought were my most decent poems and nervously waited for the results. When I learned that I was accepted, I was delirious with joy. But I was also uneasy because I knew that I needed to be a masochist in order to survive and learn from the weeklong workshop. That was the reason why I joined the workshop in the first place—to learn.

I slept fitfully the night before our departure, agonizing about what would happen in the following days. When the alarm clock rang at four in the morning, I dragged myself to the kitchen and fixed a bowl of hot soup for my queasy stomach. I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown, with excitement and dread coursing through my body at the same time. Though I mentally kept remembering my friends’ reassurances, I simply couldn’t calm down. I would have given everything for me to change into an ant and scurry away unnoticed when the time came for my poems to be chopped into tiny, irretrievable pieces.

We were oriented immediately when we arrived at Hotel Veneracion and Restaurant later that afternoon. They told us that our work—whether poems or short stories—were accepted because they had potential. In short, they could still be “salvaged,” both literally and figuratively. The panelists from the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies—Dr. Ophelia Dimalanta, Dr. Cirilo Bautista, Jose Victor Torres, Eric Melendez, Ramil Gulle, Lourd de Veyra, Michael Coroza and Rebecca Anonuevo—all looked like they were just holding back the fire for the next day’s session.

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True enough, the next day, the tension was so thick that it seemed to swallow us all as early as the first session. All I could hear was the sound of spoons in porcelain cups and the soft rustle of papers. I glanced at my roommate, who looked understandably subdued as her poem was the first to be critiqued that day. Earlier she had practiced her poker face. But how could you keep a straight face as the panelists criticize your work right then and there?

I had a hard time keeping a poker face myself when it was my turn. My panelists were Ma’am Ophie, Sirs Cirilo, Ramil and Lourd. “Absence of clarity…you should not repeat words…don’t leave questions unanswered,” were just a few of their comments on my poem. For some reason, I managed to stay put on my seat until they revealed the authorship of my poems and I was given the chance to speak. My voice shook as I thanked them for their comments.

By the end of the day, I was so stressed and on the edge of melodrama. I decided that upon returning to Manila, I would purge myself. Maybe I ought to burn all my useless poems, I thought. They are all crap, anyway.

As I sat brooding in the sala of the hotel, the other fellows invited me to go shopping. I went along with them to look for good secondhand books. Although I did not buy anything, I went back to the hotel more cheerful. Talking to my companions, who share my passion for writing, helped a lot in reducing my angst.

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The rest of the week passed slowly. As they critiqued the poems and short stories, the panelists also revealed a lot. “Remember poetic tension…the balance between the discursive and metaphorical elements in the poem…In your works, always say something that nobody else has said…” Each of the panelists had some helpful insight, experience or tip to offer. One could see their passion for their craft, and generosity in sharing their expertise.

It was heartening and amusing too, that they can show their comic, less formal sides. How Ma’am Ophie and Sir Cirilo often engaged in debates that had everyone in the room laughing. Sometimes they ascribed other literal meanings to our poems that we had never meant to put into our work. Inevitably, we had to laugh at our own mistakes, like in one of my poems where I presented the persona as an insomniac who stares at the ceilings every night for lack of something to do. Hence the lines, “…ceilings crashing at the bridge of my nose like cold water…” I couldn’t help but laugh along with others when Sir Ramil asked if the persona in my poem had a very large, protruding nose because it was the very first part of my face reached by the “crashing ceilings.” This while Sir Cirilo pantomimed a ceiling falling on a big nose using his outstretched fingers.

Of course, it hurt my ego because I thought hard to come up with that line. But in the end, I had to see their criticism and banter as something that will help me. I had to set aside my pride for want of learning and growing. I just had to move on, comforting myself with the thought that I could still improve, that I’m not a hopeless case.

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The unwinding at the end of the day helped keep me sane. Evenings were spent lounging in the garden of the hotel. A few sat on the swing gazing quietly at the pinpoints of lights on the nearby hills. At another table, Sir Mike sang “Ang Huling El Bimbo” by the Eraserheads. At our own table, I tried to drink tapuey or rice wine while I watched my co-fellow play chess with Sir Mike’s seven-year-old son. Others traded stories and dreams, their earnest faces pressed stubbornly against the cold breeze.

After the farewell dinner, we held an impromptu reading session, where each fellow read his/her work. As I listened to my co-fellows reveal themselves in front of the microphone, I realized once more that writing is not just an art. It is life itself—an act of reaching out, of being brave enough to make ourselves seen, heard and understood by the rest of the world. We have all come to the workshop because we love the life writing can give us, however hard it is.

I went back to Manila, more resolved than ever to write the best way I can. Of course, it will never be the same again. As of now, I’m still fighting off the urge to set all my poems on fire. Every time I try to begin a poem, an annoying voice rings near my ears, “No, erase that, it doesn’t have enough poetic tension!”

I spend almost a day in front of computer, trying to come up with this three-page essay, getting up only to eat or go to the bathroom. I seem to be tired and lost. But I know that tomorrow, I will get up again, have my coffee, and try to improve what I have written now.

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