Penman No. 71: Writers on Retreat

Penman for Monday, November 4, 2013

BY WHICH I don’t mean writers pulling back or running scared (for which, to be persnickety about it, the prepositional phrase should be “in retreat”), but rather writers doing something they need to do every now and then, if they are to produce more noteworthy novels, poems, and plays—recharge, rewind, recover, then write and rewrite, preferably in some form of isolation or seclusion.

As I reported last week, I went with a small group of writers and friends down to Palawan on the first Adverbum Retreat for Writers organized by the Chicago-based Almira Astudillo-Gilles. We stayed at Ambrosia, The Amazing Villa (which, as it turned out, is just past Puerto Princesa in Sitio Bubusawin in Barangay Apurawan, in the municipality of Aborlan), run by Herwig Gielen and his wife Theresa. The idea was to give writers some R&R while they worked on their current projects, and in this case it was in a place remote enough that we were out of text, email, and Internet contact for a week (except for literally a few moments, twice, when we drove out to another barangay and sailed out to a point about 30 minutes offshore to catch a weak cellular signal and a few messages).

Writers’ retreats—some private and personal, some institutional—have had a long and colorful history. The Huffington Post’s UK edition has a list of 19 of the more unique ones, including a rotating hut that George Bernard Shaw built in the bottom of his garden near Hertfordshire; Dylan Thomas had a boat house in Wales, Virginia Woolf a hut in Sussex, J. K. Rowling her Edinburgh café, and George Orwell a house on a remote Scottish island. And Henry David Thoreau, of course, had Walden Pond.

Rowling’s caffeinated sequestration aside, modern retreats have evolved into much more sociable residencies, where not just one but several writers inhabit a home together for some time, each with his or her own space to work on an individual project. This setup acknowledges the fact that, in most cases, writers need not only to write but also to talk, preferably with fellow writers who understand what the whole fuss over words and ideas is all about, if only for an hour or two each day before each one slinks back into his or her own burrow.

While they may engage groups of writers, a writers’ retreat or residency isn’t like a workshop, where the focus is on helping younger and newer writers with matters of craft and other professional concerns. A residency is a gathering of peers, and while socialization is encouraged, privacy is respected, and no detailed reports or submission of outputs is expected, on the understanding that mature artists will proceed and produce at their own pace, without need of overbearing guidance or monitoring.

I’ve been privileged to attend a few of these residencies—which, until we had Adverbum in Palawan, were all overseas. One of the most popular ones (at least among writers) was the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers in Lasswade, Midlothian, Scotland, about 45 minutes by bus out of Edinburgh. More than a dozen Filipino writers have now gone to Hawthornden over the past 20 years, including the likes of Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Danton Remoto, Marj Evasco, Rofel Brion, and Eric Gamalinda, and, among the younger ones, Sarge Lacuesta, Mia Gonzalez, and Chingbee Cruz.

I went to Hawthornden in 1994, thanks to a British Council grant (you have to apply directly to Hawthornden for a fellowship, which covers board and lodging in the 15th-century castle, but it used to be, in pre-recessionary days, that the British Council provided funds for the round-trip fare). The castle has several rooms for residents, each named after a famous writer (I stayed, I think, in “Boswell”), and you get your name inscribed on that room’s door once you submit the published proof of your work after your residency. The fellowship lasts for about four weeks, and you share the castle over that period with three or four other writers from around the world. There may be more staff than fellows at any given time, and the only time you meet the others is at 6 pm, when you “foregather” for sherry before dinner. Breakfast is at your own time and pace, and lunch (usually a generous sandwich and lentil soup) is served on a tray at your door, as if you were in some exclusive prison. (There is, in fact, a dungeon-like prison beneath the tower, but thankfully no writers have had to stay there; another of Hawthornden’s features is its proximity to Rosslyn Chapel, recently made famous by The Da Vinci Code, which had yet to be written when we were visiting it.)

Rather more opulent were two other residencies I later attended in Italy: the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in northern Italy, near Como and Milan, in 2002, and Civitella Ranieri in 2011. Bellagio was a medieval palace turned into a villa and a haven for artists and scholars by the Rockefeller Foundation, and today it offers residencies to a broad range of academics, artists, and professionals. When I went there to work on Soledad’s Sister, my fellow fellows comprised an American architect, a Russian pianist, a British Bible scholar, a South African novelist, and a South African arms expert, among others. The batches in Bellagio were much bigger, at about ten to a dozen per month-long batch. Like Hawthornden, what it took was an application consisting largely of a proposal for a work-in-progress, and samples of one’s past work. (I should add that I failed on my first application, but made it on my second try, so nothing is ever guaranteed with these things.) Many Filipinos have also gone to Bellagio—among them F. Sionil Jose, and many in the Hawthornden group, the usual suspects—including non-artists such as lawyer Raul Pangalangan; next year, fictionist Menchu Sarmiento will be going there to work on a new book of stories.

Civitella Ranieri is another medieval castle in Umbria, just outside Perugia, but here admission is by invitation only, and it’s limited to artists (writers, painters, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and so on). Among other Filipinos, poet Mark Cayanan and novelist Miguel Syjuco were Civitella fellows this year, preceded by artist Lan Tuazon (2012), writer Gina Apostol (2009), and musicians Chino Toledo (2004) and Ramon Santos (1999).

How productive can one get in these places? I suppose it depends on your own work habits and, in a sense, on the setup of the place and the fellowship itself. I hate to admit this as a digital junkie, but I produced the most work—four new stories and a short novel in a month—when I was offline in Hawthornden, having gone there in pre-digital times; I did write “Penmanship” on a 286-SX laptop and a floppy disk, but otherwise had no cellphone or wifi to distract me. Bellagio was good for a few chapters, but the villa’s intensely social schedule (and the overpowering beauty of the scenery) proved surprisingly less than ideal for sustained work. Civitella Ranieri resulted in 30,000 words of new fiction and final revisions on a book of poetry. And Palawan? I did final revisions on a biography, and edited several chapters for a friend’s book of travel essays.

Could I have gotten all this new work done at home, in the boonies of Diliman? Maybe. But distance strangely provides more clarity and urgency to things we take for granted in too-familiar surroundings, and a lake or an ocean to view outside one’s window can only help the imagination and refresh both body and spirit.

LET ME take this opportunity to acknowledge and to thank another of our Palawan sponsors, aside from Cebu Pacific—the Hotel Centro in downtown Puerto Princesa, where we stayed for the final night of our getaway. I’ve been to Puerto often, and can say that this new 111-room hotel is one of the city’s finest, located close to its most important locations. The rooms are clean and well-furnished, with free wifi (a godsend after a week’s digital dieting), and a very attentive staff who can also arrange special package tours around the city and Honda Bay and to the Underground River for you. The Sicily Bar on the fifth floor is set up for meetings and conferences. We had a sumptuous poolside dinner under a tent, a perfect point of re-entry to urban living after a week of sylvan solitude. Check them out at for more details and reservations.

Penman No. 46: Writers in Progress in Dumaguete, Iligan—and Umbertide


Penman for Monday, May 13, 2013

IT’S BEEN a very busy traveling month for me, and it’ll get even busier these next few weeks, with paneling duties in two of our country’s premier writers’ workshops—in Dumaguete from May 12 to 17, and Iligan from May 20 to 24. The UP National Writers Workshop usually begins right after Holy Week, with Dumaguete and Iligan following in May. The University of St. La Salle in Bacolod, the Ateneo de Manila University, and the University of Sto. Tomas also hold their writers’ workshops sometime over the summer.

This means that Filipino writers both young and old don’t get much of a vacation from the writing life, which is probably as things should be, as those who profess to writing as a lifetime profession should consider themselves pledged to a kind of priesthood bound by certain vows—among them, to be able to think and to function as writers under any circumstance, and to see everything, including whatever tragedies may befall one’s life, as material for the imagination to convert and elevate to meaning. I remember having a good chat about this with my workshop students in Hong Kong last month—that, even when sitting idly at the airport waiting for a flight, a writer should be able to look around the pre-departure area and construct stories about that old man with a cough and that boy with a yellow Tonka truck and that flight attendant rubbing the back of one leg with the other, unshod foot.

But it isn’t as if a writers’ workshop means a week of drudgery and hard labor—there’ll be much mental labor, for sure, but it’ll be the labor of birthing, of seeing a project through to its best possible completion, with joy and delight attending the pain and anxiety. Of course there’ll be a few stillbirths as well, a logical and ultimately merciful form of natural selection; apprentice writers who just can’t make the cut should be told early on that they might make better lawyers or engineers, and perhaps they will. We discuss works in progress at the workshops, but the real subjects, in a sense, are the writers themselves—the writers in progress—and their talents, problems, and prospects. As I’ve noted before, a writers’ workshop is half boot camp and half support group, and it could feel one or the other on different days.

I’ll be on the panel this year in both Dumaguete and Iligan, with barely a day separating the two workshops for me, and it’ll be grueling, but I’m looking forward to engaging with our best young writers, especially those from outside of UP and outside of Metro Manila. This is the service that region-based (but no less national) workshops like Dumaguete (which is run by Silliman University) and Iligan (run by the Iligan Institute of Technology of Mindanao State University) perform for the larger literary community: they locate and develop the best entry-level writers, particularly from the outlying area or region, even as they both accept entries from as far away as Luzon. (The UP workshop targets generally older, mid-career writers with at least one published book.)

I’ve long been associated with Dumaguete since I myself became a fellow in 1981 (and thereafter pledged myself to a life of writing), but this will be the first time I’ll be sitting at the Iligan workshop—I’ll be delivering the keynote there as well—so let me talk a bit more about Iligan. This will be the Iligan National Writers Workshop’s 20th year, and it will be hosting five workshop alumni and 13 new fellows chosen from 65 applicants. The inclusion of the five alumni is a special feature for this anniversary, and is a sign of the workshop itself maturing through time under the guidance of MSU-IIT’s leading literary lights, Drs. Christine Godinez-Ortega and Steven Patrick Fernandez.

This year’s writing fellows will be the following:

LUZON: Fiction (English): Ma. Vida Cruz, Ateneo de Manila University/Quezon City; Laurence F. Roxas, UP Diliman/Pasig City; Poetry: Louise Vincent B. Amante (Filipino) UP Diliman/Quezon City. VISAYAS: Fiction: Nikos H. Primavera (English), UP Visayas/Iloilo City; Poetry: Ma. Carmie Flor I. Ortego (Waray), Leyte Normal University/Calbayog City. Ortego is the 3rd Boy Abunda Writing Fellow. MINDANAO: Play: Dominique Beatrice T. La Victoria (Sebuano), Ateneo de Manila University/Cagayan de Oro City;  Fiction: Edgar R. Eslit (Sebuano), St. Michael’s College/Iligan City; Rolly Jude M. Ortega (English), Notre Dame of Marbel University/Isulan, Sultan Kudarat; Poetry: Amelia Catarata Bojo (Sebuano), Central Mindanao University/Musuan, Bukidnon; Marc Josiah Pranza (English), UP Mindanao/Surigao City; Shem S. Linohon (Higaunon), Central Mindanao University/ Valencia City. He is likewise the 5th Manuel E. Buenafe Writing Fellow; and Vera Mae F. Cabatana (English), MSU-IIT/Iligan City. Cabatana is the 5th Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen Writing Fellow.

The INWW alumni will be:

LUZON: Fiction: Susan Claire Agbayani (Filipino), Maryknoll College/Manila. VSIAYAS: Fiction:  Hope Sabanpan Yu (Sebuano), University of San Carlos/Cebu City; Norman T. Darap (Kinaray-a), University of San Agustin/Iloilo City; Poetry: Cindy A. Velasquez (Sebuano), University of San Carlos/Cebu City. MINDANAO: Poetry: Ralph Semino Galan (English), MSU-IIT/Iligan City.

This year’s panelists include Leoncio P. Deriada, John Iremil Teodoro, Merlie M. Alunan, Victorio N. Sugbo, Macario D. Tiu, Steven Patrick C. Fernandez, German V. Gervacio, Antonio R. Enriquez, Christine Godinez-Ortega (INWW Director) and the keynote speaker, yours truly.

The Iligan workshop is unique among the five national writers’ workshops in that it publishes every year’s proceedings, so last year’s output, edited by Dr. Godinez-Ortega, will be launched this month. The workshop will also feature the Jimmy Y. Balacuit Memorial Literary Awards and a Seminar on Literature, Translation & Pedagogy on May 20 for tertiary language and literature teachers organized by the Department of English of the College of Arts & Social Sciences. Teachers interested in joining the seminar should call Honeylet Dumoran of the MSU-IIT Department of English at (063) 2233806.


ON A related note, I’m very happy to report that two Filipino writers are among this year’s Civitella Ranieri Fellows: the Canada-based novelist Miguel “Chuck” Syjuco and the poet Mark Anthony Cayanan, who’s now working on his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Chuck zoomed to rightful prominence five years ago when his novel Ilustrado won the Man Asian Literary Prize, and he’s since been at work on another novel, which is very likely what he’ll be doing on this fellowship. Mark taught at AdMU and was one of the editors of the internationally-recognized Kritika Kultura as well as the author of a poetry collection titled Narcissus (AdMU Press, 2011).

The Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, which I was privileged to enjoy two years ago, is one of the writing world’s great luxuries, a prize in itself. Fellows spend a month in a medieval castle in Umbertide in central Italy, not too far from Perugia, to work on some significant personal project; I was able to put down 30,000 words of my third novel in that time, and while it’s still a long way from completion—a novel can take me five to ten years to finish—it wouldn’t have found that surge without some help from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, which runs the Italian program from New York. Civitella attracts more than writers—musicians, painters, and performance artists make up the rest of each batch of 12 to 14 fellows from all over the world. You don’t apply for a Civitella fellowship, at least not directly; you get nominated anonymously by some authority in your field, and then you propose a project that a jury will review and approve.

Many of my fellow fellows at Umbertide were as old as or even older than I was, in their fifties and sixties, and it’s wonderful that Chuck and Mark are receiving this honor in the prime of their youth, with their best years and works still ahead of them. Chuck was a fellow in the 1998 Dumaguete Writers Workshop, and Mark was a fellow in the 2001 UP Writers Workshop in Baguio. Some days it may seem a very long way from Dumaguete or Baguio to Umbertide, but Chuck and Mark show that you can build that path and all the bridges you need to cross the water, word by patient word, word by luminous word.