There are three things I’m pretty sure writers will want at one point or another in their lives: to travel, to better themselves in their craft, and to create something worthwhile. The three are interconnected, if you really think about it. In the short time we spend on this world, it is with great skill (or with great luck) that we acquire the opportunity to gain all three at once. As for me, being accepted into this year’s Davao Writers Workshop was one of those opportunities.
I had learned of my acceptance into the workshop on the eve of September 27th, exactly a month before the workshop would begin. It seemed so near and so far at the time. A lot can happen in a month. Specifically for me, it was finishing final grades for the first semester and organizing Poetry Night, a poetry reading program that our group NAGMAC (Nagkahiusang Mambabalak sa Cagayan de Oro) held every other month. The latter happened just two nights before I and co-fellow Vel Marie “Mai” Santillan, were to get on an all-night bus ride to Davao for the workshop.
Being from Cagayan de Oro, the prospect of traveling all the way to Davao excited me fiercely. Staying in one place for so long often makes you think of faraway cities as if they were different countries in themselves, and Davao City is no stranger to being national news. It would be the first time I and Mai would be visiting the city. As travelers, we were enthusiastic bus riders, but as soon-to-be fellows of our first workshop, half-terrified, half euphoric may be more appropriate. We had caught the last bus to Davao the night before the workshop and arrived heavy lidded at Lispher Inn in Matina on October 27, just two hours before the opening ceremony.
We arrived at the conference room where the other fellows were already chatting and drinking coffee. Mai and I decided to sit a bit away from them in the meantime, not really feeling up to socializing just yet. I whispered to her about how young everyone looked. In my mind I regretted only applying for a writers’ workshop so “late” in my life. Then I had to remind myself that I was only 21. Just before the program started, we were given copies of the workshop manual that contained all of our works. My heart nearly skipped a beat. They were all printed in clear Arial font and bound together thesis style with a blue cover. It was a whole new experience for me to see my works actually in print and not just on a screen. The manual contained no names.
he workshop officially started as we got to know the other fellows and the panelists. Although I was not entirely familiar with all of them, I knew they were there for a reason, and so was I. I had to keep reminding myself that I was there because it was meant for me. I still wonder if other writers have this feeling at each workshop, or perhaps I’m still adjusting to the thought of my writing actually being read with purpose. The anticipation was nearly preventing me from breathing, but I knew it would still be a few more days before my work was to be (as to my expectations) torn to shreds. In that moment, however, teetering on the edge before a jump was to be made, I forced myself to soak up everything.
And there was a lot, to say the least.
The workshop was not just reading and critiquing. I can say it was one of the biggest and most significant learning experiences I’ve ever had. It affected me as an English major and teacher, as an aspiring graduate student, but most of all, it affected me as a would-be writer. I enthusiastically took down as many notes as possible on each piece, hoping to use the advice in my own writing. Each panelist gave lectures and critiques that were incredibly interesting and useful to any writer.
More Than Just Winners
Daryll Delgado (our guest panelist) graced us with excerpts from her thesis which got me dreaming of what I might come up with when I started mine. She expressed her goal of instilling critical consciousness in the fellows, giving foreshadowing to what we would be doing for the rest of the workshop. Her comments on the different works were encouraging and inspiring. I quickly became a fan of hers.
Dr. Macario Tiu gave input on effect in a story, making all the prose writers ask themselves “what do I want the audience to feel once they finish reading?” It was also here that we (re)learned the structure of a story. I will always remember Sir Mac for his recurring reminder of following a “framework” and how cute he is when giving critiques, with his ever famous line “ilabay sa Bangkerohan river”. It made you want to laugh and cry at the same time, imagining your precious pages floating in the murky river.
John Bengan impressed everyone with excerpts from his Palanca-award-winning piece, “Armor,” and how he was able to convert certain elements that were distinctly Filipino for foreign, English speaking audiences. He was quite the serious panelist, and we admired the way he was able to say “nyelatch” with a straight face. (It’s gayspeak for “talent”). He would sometimes play the devil’s advocate in critiques but to me he seemed mysterious. Perhaps he was wearing an armor of his own?
Jhoanna Lynn Cruz talked about the basics of drama. I was extremely impressed to know her first play had won a Palanca award, although she regrets that it took ten years before anyone actually staged it. She expressed her opinion that Filipino plays should not be written in English anymore, because it was not realistic. As a panelist she was jovial, but could really hit home with her comments.
Nino de Veyra gave the last craft lecture, entitled “Texture in Poetry.” In the lecture, he added a bit of controversy to make it interesting, criticizing a certain “poet” who was capitalizing on social media as a means of making her writing popular. He described how these days, young people were such fans of “instant poetry,” likening this style to instant coffee. I enjoyed his amicable nature. All of his comments were refreshing and thoughtful.
The last panelist, Nikki Gomez, did not give a craft lecture. And although being the type of panelist that some of the fellows feared for his serious demeanor, he still gave important insights. Being a journalist, he encouraged essayists to stick to the facts and “Report, report, report.” At first I thought of him as very intimidating, and even if that still stands, I appreciated his remarks on each work. He could strip away the fancies and get to the meat of them, which can be difficult.
All of the panelists quickly became my idols of writing. I joked that they made it seem like winning a Palanca was easy. But it was also evident that awards weren’t everything. What was important was that you put your heart into your work and think very carefully, writing and rewriting until everything falls into place. My fellows and I took in their words and started to make informed opinions of our own.
From Strangers to Friends
I realized we were all learning very quickly. At first it was terrifying to know that strangers were to read and critique my works. That is, until they stopped being strangers. When the workshop started, I was introduced to the rest of the fellows, knowing them by their given names – Arjay, Reil, Jun, Jecia, Ria, Hannah, Resty, Mark, MJ, Jun, Neil, Clariza, and Vel (though I already knew her as Mai). But after the five days of being together, examining each of their works, receiving critiques on my own, and bonding over the anticipation mixed with exhilaration and dread, I began to know them deeper than their writing.
Reil, who was the youngest amongst us, with the interesting perspective on life and a mind full of fascinating stories; Hannah, who worked in a call center, fashioning poems that were like riddles; Jun, the only playwright among the fellows, designing a play that had previously helped drug dealers and users stay away while they were practicing and winning a prize for the performance; MJ who was from GenSan and spoke only Filipino and wrote imaginative poems for children which I could barely understand; Mark who worked nights, with his stories reflecting the young person’s predicament; Jecia, who wrote an essay each for her mother and father as the bubbly lesbiana whom I was surprised to see cry; Clariza, the quiet girl from Butuan who shared a room with Mai and me, and wrote in the abstract; Neil, who wrote poems that were meant to be songs for protests but was one of the chillest guys I had ever met; Ria, who called me Camille Prats, and wrote poems disguising themselves as stories; Resty, who had good humor and whose stories were distinctly Davaoeño; Arjay, deep voiced and musical, with a firm grasp of the Filipino language being from Cavite, giving each of the fellows a souvenir book the night the workshop ended; and Mai, my partner and travel buddy throughout the whole week whose poems I loved because they reminded me of CDO.
And it was not just the fellows that became close. I will never forget talking about tattoos with the workshop director Julian de la Cerna, having our room raided by the documenter Karen Dicdican, and being bewildered at coincidences pointed out by Deputy Director Dom Cimafranca. In just the short time we were all together, we were able to discover each other’s true-to-life stories as well.
In the weeks before the workshop, I had asked some of my colleagues who had gone through workshops on what to expect from the experience. Some said there was a possibility it might tear you apart, some said it would be fun, but I found that the closest to what I had actually felt was that “you will never be the same again.” The workshop has changed me in so many ways. I don’t think I will ever be able to look at a piece of writing the same way again, including my own.
And have I gained the three things that most writers want? Truthfully, I have yet to rewrite the works that were critiqued in the workshop and have not started on a new piece either. There will always be a fear – we were taught how to write well; the pressure to do so can make any person’s hand shake too much to carve out a single word. But that does not mean it will never happen. Instead of looking back on the workshop with insecurity, I look back with inspiration. I have traveled, I have bettered myself, now all that is left is to create, and I know that will follow soon.
It was during one of his critiques that Sir John remarked, “The human heart has no measure.” It became very significant to me as a writer. To make a piece compelling, you must write from the heart, and the capacities of the heart are limitless.
Abigail James graduated from and is now teaching Iiterature at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan.