Impact of Creative Writing Workshops
Author:Cirilo F. Bautista
Date Published: March 01, 2004
The creative writing season in the country begins in March and ends in May. It has nothing to do with the weather but with the state of mind of young, aspiring writers who, having been accepted, go through the process of discovering their skills and disabilities. They are the so-called “fellows” to the annual writing workshops conducted by the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Baguio City, by the Iligan Institute of Technology (IIT) in Iligan City, by the De La Salle University (DLSU) in Baguio City, by the University of the Philippines (UP) in its various campuses, and by Edith Tiempo in Dumaguete City.
No formal studies have been made as to the effects of these workshops on the style and character of the participants. Have their abilities improved? Have their artistic consciousness been significantly affected by exposure to criticism and discussion of their works? Do workshops help advance the national programs for cultural growth and literary excellence?
Literary Discourse and Social Environment
Workshops, ultimately, deal with language more than with ideas. As a communal text, any literary discourse is a contrived utterance that addresses several levels of reality, but to communicate through this text, writer and reader must put into operation certain sociological process that will make it intelligible. “I write, therefore, I am,” might as well provide the structural foundation of this sociology. To write a poem or a story involves the deliberate reworking of social elements to achieve the writer’s intentions, one of them being to ventilate his social and personal perspectives. But it is, first of all, a linguistic construction, fixed in a situs of specific explication, demanding of the writer and the reader a vast expertise in language; in the first, to configure the human condition according to a planned aesthetics, in the second, to be able to embrace it.
Grammatical and compositional knowledge—the first level of reality—clears away impediments to the comprehension of the work’s literalness, that is, the human condition as articulated through concrete and physical verbality. Fundamental matters of diction, idioms, and phraseology, when clarified and refracted in relation of the writer’s sociological perspective, will ultimately lead to the formula that encodes the work’s thought or idea. At the same time, when linkages between the cultural milieu and the linguistic character of the work are established, semiotic signals enrich the understanding of it. The enlargement of this semiotics produces, among other things, the metaphoric significance of the composition. On this second level, figurative language processes literalness to make it yield additional facets. Meaning becomes more than literal and offers itself to cultural interpolation and intervention. Consequently, the work encourages the reader to draw from the wellspring of his societal consciousness those materials that will complete and validate his interpretation of its impact and significance.
In this sense, the text (the poem or the story) must be properly situated in relation to the subtext (the social or human conditions) before a signification is gained. Their context (relationship) produces in the reader a particular perception of the textual idea. A creative discourse, then, is ultimately culturally determined. It cannot be understood without reference to the extra-linguistic realities that surround it—the human factors that provide its framework. Also, it emerges as a rational conjoining of individual and national experiences, the raw materials really of any creative product. This was what Shelley meant when he wrote that the “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Through their meditations on human affairs, their texts become the uncredited almanac of human development. The power of such works as Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and Hernandez’s “Isang Dipang Langit” resides in their ability to pragmatize in artistic terms the crises and exigencies of the human condition without erasing its artistic character.
The world of literature itself, it must be apparent now, comprises another level of reality. All existing literary discourses exert a tremendous pressure on the human mind and heart, compelling them to examine things in a new and, sometimes, perilous manner. This “intertextuality,” which occurs on the cultural level and intervenes in the operation of the other levels, improves our comprehensive of the text and, at the same time, provides a rigorous criticism of any aspect of personal and social existence. The writer, consequently, occupies a delicate and crucial position vis-à-vis the progress of human consciousness.
All of that, however, is easier said than done. Creative writing is the loneliest art. The writer labors in isolation, and he is not even sure that the poem or story will turn out the way he intends it to. He only has himself to rely on in his attempt to explicate the mysterious meanderings of his soul and of his people. It is a painful and demanding commitment the avoidance of which will gratify him. But it cannot be avoided; consequently, he inclines to the invention of devices that will postpone it, even if only momentarily. Such ritual evasions—smoking cigarettes, taking a shot of whiskey or a bottle of beer, fussing over pages of notes, cleaning the computer, making that needless last-minute phone call—are ostensibly intended to oil the machinery of his imagination but in reality are merely diversionary tactics to try to justify the delay. For man is a social animal, and writing frustrates his contact with his species. Dylan Thomas called it a “sullen art” because it effects melancholia in the writer. “The most terrible thing for a poet,” Paul Engle once told me, “is to be confronted by a blank sheet of paper.”
To write is to wrestle with that horrible blankness, to squeeze it and to bleed it and to maul it until it surrenders to fruitfulness. The struggle debouches into a war whose rules are unclear but whose pain is all too real. Only after his war with words can the writer be at war with other men, Thomas added. That is why it is imperative that the writer be adequately equipped for this job. It is not enough that he knows the principles of grammar, diction and composition—the basics of linguistic usage—but he must know their aesthetic ramifications as well. The role of metaphor, the forms of versification, the reason for rhymes, and the balancing of illusion and reality, for instance, once comprehensible to him, will confer on his work unmistakable direction and a convincing excellence.
The Third World environment, in general, does not offer the writer sufficient equipment to accomplish his task. In fact there is a certain amount of hostility with which writers are viewed in the Philippines, truncating their efforts to make creative writing a profession. It is almost impossible for a writer to survive through writing alone in our milieu. Why this is so is the subject of another paper, but it is relevant to mention in passing that we are a “seeing” society, not a “reading” society. The tri-media of radio, television and newspapers are the dominant purveyors of what is called “literature in a hurry,” which reflects the primacy of simple survival in a society that is not yet prepared for the refinement of its national intellect. The tri-media productions overwhelm the social mind, influence the social taste, and determine cultural priorities.
In such an environment, creative writing workshops perform significant roles in influencing the writer’s artistic growth, creative potential and, ultimately, literary productivity.
Creative Writing Workshops in the Country
The importance of creative writing workshops started to be felt in the 1970’s. Before then, writers had to learn the craft largely on their own, mainly through trial and error and emulation of their favorite authors. On the side, they relied on their friends’ critical evaluation of their works. Their language teachers, if any good, taught them the skills with which they understood the first level of reality; their literature teachers, if any good, encouraged them to read the classical and contemporary masters. But the matter of stylistic refinements, of philosophical and cultural groundings needed to situate their compositions in aesthetic excellence—these they had to gain through personal application and consistent studies.
But the advent of workshops helped clarify mystifying areas of creativity and craftsmanship. Teachers with sufficient training in the creative art fashioned pedagogical models that served as guidelines to beginning writers. Lectures during the sessions delineated linguistic and artistic concepts that helped the writers focus on specific problems and their solutions. Discussions of various critical theories and their influences on writing techniques provided a variety of options for literary approaches. Finally, and this was the heart of the workshop, a communal critique of the submitted works brought out the author’s strengths and weaknesses. The analysis involved a close reading of the text to discover how it internalized the elements of coherence, harmony, and counterpoint, etc.; to justify or reject prosodic or narrative tactics in the context of the work’s aesthetic direction; and to evaluate the clarity of its meaning within the boundaries of its functions.
The machinery of today’s writing workshops are no different, except perhaps in the sense that it is more organized, more monetarily sustained, and more attractive to aspiring writers. The National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City was the first to be formally set up in the country in the 1950’s. Directed by Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, it is patterned after the famous Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, USA, which they themselves had attended. It has since become the model for all institutionalized creative writing workshops in the Philippines.
The creative writing workshop in Iowa, it must be remembered, has three levels—the undergraduate, where students majoring in creative writing are accommodated; the graduate, where students taking up the degree Master of Fine Arts major in creative writing are guided in their areas of genre concentration; and the international, which is really a separate and independent workshop for writers from various parts of the world. Participation in the international workshop is by invitation only, and participants are acknowledged major writers from their specific countries. It is not really a workshop any more for, as its former Director, the late Paul Engle, averred, the participants are already master of their crafts, and the workshop was really meant to give them “a vacation, to do whatever they want to do.” The Tiempos shaped their Silliman Writers Workshop after the first two levels of the Iowa workshops.
Practically all Filipino writers of any importance have joined the Silliman Writers Workshop at one time or another, either as fellows, lecturers, or panelists. Now in its thirty-ninth year, it is held for four weeks every summer amidst the pleasant and quiet surroundings of the seaside city of Dumaguete. It is an understatement to say that it has a significant influence on the growth of our literature. The number of applicants increases each year, and the works of writers who have passed through it continue to enrich our arts and letters. The amount of learning these writers got from this workshop is incalculable, approximated only in the way they have contributed to the qualitative and quantitative growth of our literature. Being a pioneer, the Silliman Writers Workshop occupies a premier position in the history of creative writing in the Philippines.
The UP Creative Writing Workshop is also held in the summer, and it is held in the university’s campuses located in various parts of the country. Understandably, it has the widest coverage in terms of participants, for it can draw from thousands of potential writers among the university’s vast student population. Yearly, it holds workshops in Baguio, Davao, Leyte, and Diliman. Its staff includes Gemino H. Abad, Jose Dalisay, Jr., Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Ricardo M. de Ungria, and Amelia Lapena-Bonifacio.
The Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center of DLSU, established in 1991 in honor of the noted fictionist, holds a workshop every December. Following Santos’s expressed wish, the workshop gives priority to new writers from our mass-based universities—University of the East, Far Eastern University, Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, Polytechnic University of the Philippines—and from the La Salle campuses. The Board of Directors of the Center includes Isagani Cruz, Marjorie Evasco, Buenaventura Medina, Jr., Efren Reyes Abueg, Connie Maraan, Cirilo F. Bautista, and Estrellita Gruenberg.
The Iligan National Writers Workshop, in the nine years that it has been operating, has already established a firm reputation as an excellent training ground for aspiring poets, fictionists and dramatists. Established by the encouragement of Cirilo F. Bautista, managed by Jaime An Lim, Tony Tan, and Christine Godinez-Ortega, and supported by funds from the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology Office of the Chancellor for Research and Extension, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and private corporations, it brings together some fifteen writers from Luzon, Visayas and Mindano for a week-long intensive literary interaction. It is the only workshop that publishes in book form the fellows’ works taken up in the workshop and the transcripts of the panel discussions. Emphasis is given to writing in Cebuano.
The UST Creative Workshop, directed by Ophelia A. Dimalanta, holds sessions in April. Its fellows in 2002 included writers from Samar, Bacolod, Bicol, Cavite, and Metro Manila. Panelists in the workshop have included National Artist F. Sionil Jose, Dimalanta, Cirilo F. Bautista, Joselito Zulueta, Lourd de Veyra, Ramil Digal Gulle, Rebecca Añonuevo, Michael Coroza, and Jose Victor Torres. Aside from this national workshop, small local workshops are also conducted as needs arise.
The aforementioned are the “institutionalized” workshops. There are other, smaller and struggling ones sponsored by other offices and agencies. Writers in English and in Filipino get training from workshops sponsored by Unyon ng Mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL), Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika at Anyo (LIRA), the Rio Alma Poetry Clinic, the Cirilo F. Bautista Poetry Repair Shop, Palihang Amado Hernandez, Writers Academy of the Philippines, Carlos Palanca Foundation, and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, to mention a few.
The Carlos Palanca Foundation, before being caught in the economic crunch, held its own national writing workshops for a few years started from 1995. Through its Executive Director, A.B. Battung, it started a series of workshops designed for emerging writers in the provinces. “In this way,” Battung said, “we would bring the benefits of formal literary know-how to those who are not able, by reason of time or distance, to join workshops in Metro Manila.” He put together a team—composed of fictionist Jose Dalisay, Jr., poet Cirilo F. Bautista, and dramatist Rene Villanueva—which managed three-genre workshops for pre-enrolled participants. The team held workshops in Bicol at the Ateneo de Naga University, in Cebu at the San Carlos University, in Laoag at the Divine World College, and in Pampanga at the Holy Angel University, among others. “In holding these workshops,” Battung added, “the Palanca Foundation is signaling its recognition of the important role that our writers play, not only in advancing our literary development but also in shaping our national cultural taste.” Several outstanding writers from the provinces have been discovered through the Palanca workshops.
Impact of Workshops
What impact do these workshops have in the production of Philippine literature in English? A very significant impact, it can be said. From the ‘70s to the present, “literary workshoppers,” to coin a convenient term, have formed the first order of literary artists who have, to a large extent, determined the configuration and philosophy of Philippine literature. Most of them are college graduates or have had college experiences. Because workshops are inextricably linked to the academe, they have a sustained faculty of mentors and well-managed programs. We must not forget that Philippine literature in English was born in the campus as an initial adjunct to obligation of Filipino students to learn the English language. Because the American teachers in our school used literature to teach the language, the students acquired linguistic and literary skills at the same time. Those with literary ambitions were encouraged by their teachers and, if they went on to the teaching profession themselves, in turn encouraged their own students. Before the ‘70’s, therefore, the linkage was tenuous and temporary, depending on the presence of teachers with literary inclinations; afterwards, with the workshops being set up and managed by English departments in the universities, student writers’ training became more systematic and directed.
This training eventually developed into two branches: the criticism of creative writing and the teaching of creative writing.
The first is really the focal interest of most of our writers workshops where participants do not actually do any writing but where their submitted works—the workshop materials—are subjected to rigid and meticulous critical scrutiny. In effect, literary analysis serves the purpose of showing the writers the different philosophies and techniques of writing. Depending on the persuasion of the panelists, therefore, the writers, in the end, may be convinced to adopt this or that school of thought in his craft. The Tiempos, for instance, are very strong exponents of New Criticism; the UP Writing Center inclines heavily toward all forms of Marxism; the DLSU Writing Center encourages various kinds of engagement; and UST, to a large extent, remains Thomasian.
The second emerged with the offering of creative writing courses in the universities. By the ‘80’s, the academic community realized the growing need to organize and systematize the teaching of the writing craft. The quality and quantity of literary production could only be improved through a deliberate and planned program to uplift the literary producers. In DLSU and UP, for instance, there are Bachelor of Arts Major in Creative Writing degrees, as well as Master of Fine Arts Major in Creative Writing degrees in the graduate schools. In other universities, creative works are accepted as thesis requirements for graduation in the undergraduate levels. With creative writing getting degree units in formal educational curricula, students with literary ambitions acquire competent and sufficient instructions from teachers with adequate preparation and experience in literary craftsmanship. Many of them are writers themselves who pass on to their students invaluable knowledge not found in textbooks. It is also worth noting that there has been a significant increase in the number of students pursuing creating writing degrees. In DLSU, the idea of offering creative writing courses in the undergraduate and graduate levels was unthinkable ten years ago. This semester, they have the fifth batch of graduate creative writing students.
Thus, these two branches provide the serious beginning writers with sufficient support and encouragement to fulfill their potentials. At the same time, they have attracted more and more new writers. The mergence of the classroom and the workshop, as it were, has brought together all the forces necessary of make creative writing a profession, with the underlying assumption that literary production, like any human discipline, can be taught and learned in a controlled environment. In addition, the quality of writing continues to show marked improvement. The new writers, possessed of the advantages of expert teachers and technological facilities, are more familiar with recent developments in literary theories, techniques and philosophy. Consequently, their immersion in the world of letters hastens their expertise and mastery of their craft. Also, with more writers joining the field, national literary production has shown a significant increase, as evidenced by new literary titles exhibited in the various book fairs held more frequently now.
There are those, of course, who belittle the effectiveness of writing workshops. They argue that workshops do not make writers; they even unmake them. What can be learned in workshops can be learned somewhere else. A sane enough attitude, on the surface, especially when we hear of the insanity of some workshop panelists, like the one who would tear a poem to pieces to register his displeasure with it, or the one who would insist that young fictionists would do the country a lot of good by giving up writing and planting kamote instead. We remember Sinclair Lewis telling participants in a workshop on how to write fiction, “You want to know how to write a novel? Well, go home and write a novel.”
But that is not as easy as it seems. One does not simply go home and write a poem if he does not know what a poem is or how to go about creating it. True, he can read poems, and books about poems, but he would have the benefit of another consciousness explicating to him the phenomenology and problems of writing. He would not, in short, have appropriate direction suited to his potential and limitation. Only live teachers can do that. True, there are teachers who abuse their position, but they are really the exception rather than the rule. Alone, it will take the beginning writer some time to master his craft. With the help of workshops and literary courses, this period can be significantly reduced. With his sensitivity and imagination unhampered by misconceptions, he can apply himself more productively to the acquisition of those qualities that will maximize his writing potential.
Taken historically and psychologically, then, the effectiveness of these workshops is beyond doubt. The Tiempos of Dumaguete believed that workshops confer on the participants an amount of critical skill by which they will able to examine a text rationally and dispassionately though they may belong to different philosophies and personalities. “Communal textual investigation,” as we call it, exposes writers to crucial and even nebulous aspects of creativity which will have profound repercussions on their own craftsmanship.
Knowledgeable in the way of New Criticism, the Tiempos emphasized poetic integrity and resonance, formal excellence and veracious autonomy—qualities a work must possess by necessity and not by endowment of external agencies. “Many Palanca awardees come to us to find out if they really can be a writer, “ Ed Tiempo once averred. He implied a suspicion for awards, for they are, at best, palliatives. Workshops, Edith Tiempo said, “ teaches a writer to be his own severest critic.” If he learns anything at all, it is how to exercise the ability to tell when the parts of a work succeed, and how to functionalize these parts through judicious selection, paring, repairing, and harmonizing. In due time, his expertise may lead him to introduce innovations in the structure and concepts of the literary genres. Indeed, as a literary editor and critic, we have come across such innovations in the works of Filipino poets and fictionists.
Summary and Conclusion
Its is evident that there is no need for statistical figures to confirm the factuality of creative writing workshops’ effectiveness. Indeed, there is no need for statistics. After all, the effects of workshops are cumulative, rather than periodic. But the encouraging energy evident in writing scene denotes a reinvigoration of the creative spirit, and this alone is a positive sign. Big or small, these workshops answer the need for a rational and sustained effort to build up the country’s literary resources by attending to the requisites of its primary component, the writers. The number of books published by literary workshoppers increases annually, thus fattening the literary treasury. Creative writing workshops attract more and more new writers who realize the beneficence of the workshops’ intention to develop persons extremely sensitive to the human condition, to the alterations and flow of the cultural milieu, and to the determination of the national consciousness. Writers contribute to the sharpening of the people’s desire for the finer things in life, for the improvement of the national intellect. Through their literary productions, they propose ways of upgrading the quality of national life. Their works, when judiciously inputed by the state authorities into their national policies, may provide the government with ideas for social amelioration. The writers’ honest and profound critique of social realities is their ultimate contribution to the formation of an uplifted national intelligence. But the sensitivity, the imagination, and the craftsmanship they need to accomplish this critique are inaugurated to a great extent in the environment of writing workshops.