IT WAS exactly like my first day in the University.

The air teemed with that familiar awkwardness as I entered the room, yet the fellows seemed to know what they were there for – their heads high despite the imminent critiques they would have to endure for the next few days.

For the past ten years, UST held an annual National Writers Workshop, where only two to three fellows were Thomasians, the rest coming from other schools.

But this time, the workshop was exclusively for members of the Thomasian community—students, alumni, faculty members, and non-teaching staff – and I was one of them.

Spearheaded by Writer-in-Residence Dr. Ophelia Dimalanta, the first Thomasian Writers Workshop is one of the University’s activities in celebration of its 400th year.

Twenty slots were open to be filled, but only 17 attended the six-day workshop from May 17-22, which delved into poetry and prose in English and Filipino.

The workshop was facilitated by Al Dimalanta, a professor of the Faculty of Arts and Letters. Joining the Dimalantas in the roster of panelists were renowned writers Cirilo Bautista, Carlomar Daoana, Lourd de Veyra, Nerisa Guevara, Eros Atalia, Joey delos Reyes and Jerry Gracio.

On Imagery

On the first day, Filipino poetry was discussed by Atalia, Gracio and delos Reyes.

The first work to be criticized was “Pasyon,” a poem by Joyce Ann Macatuno-Tolentino, a Journalism alumna and Ustetika winner now taking up her master’s at De La Salle University.

Both members of the panel had a problem with+ Tolentino’s use of imagery, where the color left on the mouth by eating the fruit discussed in the poem was compared to the Almighty’s sacrifice.

Gracio, a member of Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo (LIRA), said that the imagery was “made worse by the title and capitalization of Mo and Ka,” which prompted Atalia to ask “Are we talking about God here?”

The discussion concluded that everyone has to agree on the literal level first to be able to understand a poem metaphorically.

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“In order to be able to talk about what is unsaid, we first have to agree on what is being said,” Atalia said. But both panelists recognized the author’s “elegance in use of language” and the promise of the poem.

In “Sa Kabila ng Lahat,” of Paul Castillo, an AB-BSE alumnus and former Ustetika Makata ng Taon who now works for the University’s Literacy Training Service (LTS) program while taking up his master’s at the UST Graduate School, Atalia was adamant in pointing out that “art should no longer be made artful.”

“Why make it hard for your reader when he doesn’t even have to waste time on your work?” he said.

Delos Reyes, also a member of LIRA, countered his statement, saying that what is not easily understood can be a challenge.

He added that the poem had good intentions, but it was not clear as to what war it was pertaining to, since it used clearly used war imagery.

But all three panelists were pleased with most of the fellows’ works.

“The collection of poems presented are among the best I’ve seen in this workshop,” said Atalia.

Minding grammar

The discussion on poetry was carried over to day two, now focusing in English. Dr. Dimalanta, Bautista, de Veyra and Daoana served as panelists.

Dimalanta taught the basic formula of poetry—objectifying the subject (“Poetic imagery is a very important tool of poetry.”) and subjectifying the object (“You cannot just describe without a point.”)—and also joined the rest of the panel in stressing the importance of language.

In the discussion of “Infidelity on Wires” by Literature major Kristinne Nigel Santos, Dr. Bautista, a Palanca winner and Parangal Hagbong awardee said he expected “words to be used properly because it is the first thing I notice.”

“If you make a mistake at language, it lessens the value of your poem,” he added.

Dr. Dimalanta, meanwhile, pointed out that writers have to be responsible on the denotative and connotative aspects, where many find difficulties in.

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“Youngsters think codes show linguistic audacity, but it often turns out ridiculous,” she said.

Defying conventions

Days three and four were spent on prose in Filipino and English, respectively. Problems from poetry still persisted, particularly in language and details, where some of us struggled against.

In “Kaliwete” by James Luigi Tana, a piece on masturbating for the first time, the panelists noticed the “awkward restraint” contained in the text.

“Use vulgar words and make no apologies for it,” said Gracio.

Atalia commended the author’s courage in writing the essay, but said that the writing could’ve been “wild all through out,” doing away with the social commentary that sprung up at the end.

“You should’ve zeroed in on the first time and the sensations,” he added.

For “Pamamaalam sa mga Pader,” by incoming Journalism junior Dennesse Vsmyn Victoria, the panelists pointed out that the essay, which talks about how the author intends to contribute for the country’s good, could’ve worked if it was rooted on a particular experience.

“For starters, don’t write about things too broad,” said Gracio.

“Creative non-fiction is more personal and has a broader scope, which will not be readily understood unless the text is based on something specific,” added delos Reyes.

Brevity and length

For English Fiction and Non-Fiction, the definition of flash fiction arose, given that most of the entries did not exceed three to four pages.

Dimalanta said that the main determinant of a flash fiction is its length and it may contain at least one (or all of) the elements of a modern short story.

He and Dr. Dimalanta argued a few times about whether flash fiction was easier to write than a modern short story. He pointed out that “young writers fail because they think it’s easier.”

He, however, agreed with Dr. Dimalanta that one should first know the craft of modern short story before writing flash fiction.

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During the discussion of “The Mystery That Was Her” by Literature major Den Owen Cacho, Dimalanta disclosed that flash fiction does not allow much space for building characterization, so everything that is placed in a story matters.

Daoana, however, saw the details in the story as a “set-up.”

And there was mine

When it was my work’s turn to be “butchered,” the group embarked on a lengthy discussion on whether it was flash fiction or not, because it did qualify for length.

The other panelists, however, pointed out that since my story was not properly established, I had put in the ingredients of a full-blown short story.

Ms. Guevara pointed out the clichés, something that I could’ve prevented by using fresh description.

Dr. Dimalanta recognized that my “command of language is good,” but again emphasized that in order to write flash fiction, I should be adept with writing modern short stories.

Daoana stressed that my focus on “capturing an episode narrative-wise” weakened the story. He also felt that the story was “more like a finger exercise” because I wrote about something I knew well which failed to take me out of my comfort zone.

Clearing misconceptions

The panelists repeatedly suggested works that could help improve the fellows’ writing skills, emphasizing the phrase “Read, read, and read so that someday, you will be read.”

As the days went by, I also came to realize that I was wrong in thinking that the other 16 fellows who were with me in that week-long journey knew what they were in for. During the workshop, I saw fear hidden behind smiles and thank-yous, with our emotions tucked under our sleeves as we kept all the lessons in mind.

“Behind your smiles, I know you’re breaking,” teased Daoana, who himself was a product of workshops.

Surprisingly, the workshop did not douse our literary fire at all, but rather fueled it – until we finally meet our muses again. Rose-An Jessica Dioquino

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