WHEN I found out that my works were accepted to the 8th UST National Writers Workshop, I braced myself for a put-down. I had attended several peer-critique sessions and a couple of university-wide literary workshops before, so I was somewhat familiar with the feeling of standing in the middle of the battle-ground of letters, vulnerable to all sorts of bashing. But this was a national workshop, surely a bloodier battlefield that I would be entering. My works were my only armor, my only shield that would have to endure the assaults of the panelists and the fellows.

And so I went to the six-day workshop knowing that I had to tolerate all the scrutiny of my work without me hitting back. The first three days were held at the Center for Creative Writing and Studies (CCWS) at the St. Raymund’s Building. The remaining days were at the Casa San Pablo in Laguna. Most of the fellows were already professionals, from university professors to medical doctors, but all of us were considered amateurs when it came to creative writing. I was surprised that our names were already revealed even before the workshop started, which allowed some reservation in our otherwise harsh and straightforward comments. But as the workshop went on, not one piece was spared from the “slaughtering” that the panelists and fellows did, although in the gentlest way possible to avoid traumatizing the writer on spotlight.

With these candid critiquing sessions came the learning process, for we did not only learn from our own works but also from our co-fellows’ pieces. Small tips and tricks on writing could be gleaned even during the brief exchange of ideas among the panelists, as on the issue of the superiority of form over content, once which Ophelia Dimalanta, director of CCWS, and Isagani Cruz, a prolific literary critic, both agree.

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Each moment in those six workshop days was a fruitful and enjoyable learning experience, from Jun Balde’s stomach-churning mealtime stories about “dog noodles” and “miswa” to Michael Coroza’s poolside “rengga” session over countless bottles of alcohol.

There were a lot of lessons that I learned in the workshop that could be summarized to three things that I consider my “epiphanies.” First was the technical aspect of writing, whether it be creative nonfiction, fiction, or poetry. Writing is a tough job, not as simple as connecting words to form sentences or verses, but it requires mastery of the language, among other things. As Dimalanta put it, mastering the language is half the battle won. A misplaced word or mixed metaphor can destroy a piece of writing. Creative writers should write in such a way that they can creatively work on the language while at the same time bringing out its literariness.

Second, it is not yet too late to explore other genres. The workshop exposed me to the beauty of other literary forms and styles that I had not dared to survey before. From the very beginning, I have always written fiction and other prose because I found it difficult to understand, let alone write, poetry. So when it was my turn to be critiqued, I was surprised by the fact that some of the panelists and fellows remarked that I should try my hand in poetry with my fondness for using central metaphors in my fiction, a literary device better utilized in poetry. Later on, during the discussion on Filipino poetry, I realized that I was somehow attracted to the beauty of the Filipino language and the discipline needed in poetry, so I told myself that there was no harm trying poetry in Filipino. It will be a big and frightening step, but it is not impossible. It can be learned through reading lots of poems, and then writing my own versions of them. As Dimalanta said, “Reading can be abused,” so writing should follow reading. All genres are open to me; all I need to do is explore them through reading and writing.

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The last, but definitely the most important of all, is the value of humility. Being part of the workshop given by Philippine literary gods is something to be thankful for in the first place, so I must learn how to bow down and accept all the constructive criticisms thrown my way. If I could not accept them with humility, I have no business in the workshop. It is only through the harsh but beneficial comments of the panelists that we grow as writers. The workshop was a great humbling experience.

After the workshop, we emerged from the arena as humbled warriors, with a nagging fear that the next time we return to the field, we would come out in an even bloodier state. There is a fear that our future works might not reflect the lessons that we have learned, thus disappointing our workshop teachers. But the only way to conquer this fear is to write once again, this time armed with the teachings of our mentors. Now, we are ready to face the literary front lines, with words as our weapons.


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