Penman No. 268: What This Prize Should Mean to You (2)

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Penman for Monday, September 11, 2017

 

ONE OF the strangest moments of my life happened in 1993, when my first novel, “Killing Time in a Warm Place,” shared the grand prize with the late, great Tony Enriquez’s “Subanons.” The guest of honor then was none other than President Fidel V. Ramos, among whose speechwriters was none other than me.

There were four or five of us doing his speeches then, and the assignments were farmed out at random, and I can’t remember now if I accepted that Palanca Awards night job with delight or dismay. I suppose I could have swapped assignments with somebody else, but I had to think deeply about the situation. I was one of the awardees, so the young novelist in me wanted to sit back and hear my President’s sincerest thoughts about literature.

But the speechwriter in me also knew that those sincerest thoughts were just going to be written by somebody else in the room, so I figured, it might as well be me, to make sure that he would say nothing terribly wrong, and that he would say something very nice. And of course he did.

Incredibly enough, the same situation happened a year later, when I received a TOYM Award for Literature at Malacañang Palace, again from FVR. In both instances—because we ghostwriters preferred to remain spectral and worked far out of his sight—he had no idea that the hand he was shaking had also crafted his speech. In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I interviewed him for another book, that I finally introduced myself as the writer of 500 of his speeches, which remain on my hard drive. We had a good laugh.

I’ve written speeches for five Presidents and innumerable senators and CEOs, as well as the biographies of such diverse figures as Communist guerrillas, capitalist icons, and Marcos cronies. At any given time, I’m working on three or four book projects. I teach, write a weekly column, and peck away at stories, essays, poems, my third novel, and my unfinished oral history of the First Quarter Storm. And, oh, I also get to dress up and play the part of an academic bureaucrat.

I say this neither as a boast nor a lament, but simply to show that it’s all in a writing life. I’m happy and fortunate to have all of these writing jobs—although I must confess to being happier with some than others—because, despite all the challenges and compromises I have to face, this was what I signed up for.

Many other writers in this room have done the same thing, in varying degrees, both out of necessity and desire. Quite a few have approached me and said, “I want to do what you do,” but I wonder if they realize what they are asking for. I remember, early on, typing away at a commercial film script I had to complete, with tears streaming down my face, because what I really wanted to do was to join the Palancas, and I was out of time. That’s my greatest anxiety—to run out of time.

There will always be those who will scoff at what I do and who will insist that every word you write should be God’s own truth, as if that were humanly possible. God might as well smite all lawyers, copywriters, and PR professionals—and let’s throw in all politicians—with his righteous hand.

In a course I designed called Professional Writing, which I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years in UP, I begin every semester with this admonition: “There’s writing that you do for yourself, and writing that you do for others. And don’t ever get those two mixed up, or you’ll come to grief.” I also remind them that they can always say no, as I’ve done many times without regret.

If you embrace writing as a lifelong and life-sustaining profession rather than a weekend hobby, then you will not be writing every piece as if it were destined for the Palancas, although, as a professional, I do every job I accept as if it were my first, last, and only job, no matter how big or small.

But that again is exactly why we should value the Palancas. Too often, we lend our words to others. With these prizewinning pieces, we reclaim our words to ourselves, for ourselves, for whatever it was that first impelled us to write.

You remind me of that 21-year-old who, even as he had to write speeches, scripts, and stories for others, burned with the desire to write for himself and for his people at large—as this 63-year-old still does, awaiting blessed retirement 16 months hence so I can write the best of what remains in me to write.

Writing for the truth, writing for honor and glory, writing for the love of language—these are what your being here is all about, what the Palancas have existed for these past 67 years. While the generous cash awards are nothing to sneeze at—as the Foundation’s accountants will certainly attest to—the Palancas have always been about more than money. Your certificate tells you, this is how good you are; you look around you and you realize, that is how much better you can be.

This is our real reward, our hope, and our redemption. Whatever else you may have had to write or had to do, what you submit to these awards is your finest self, your truest words, your ineradicable proof of citizenship in the community of letters.

Let me quote President Ramos—well, in fact, let me quote myself: “It is both literature’s virtue and responsibility to reaffirm our fundamental humanity, and the unity of our interests and aspirations as a people. Every act of writing rehumanizes us, both writer and reader.” This is especially important in these darkening times, when megalomaniacal and murderous despotism threatens societies across the ocean, debases the truth, and cheapens human life. The best antidote to fake news is true fiction.

You and I have much to write about. You will not even need to wait until the next Palanca deadline to do what only you can do, and to say what only you can say. If you write for truth, freedom, and justice, and for the beauty and value of life itself, you will always be a first-prize winner in my book.

Penman No. 267: What This Prize Should Mean to You (Part 1)

 

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Penman for Monday, September 4, 2017

 

I WAS much honored to be the guest speaker last Friday at the 67th annual Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, so I’ll share my talk with my Penman readers this week and next:

First of all, I’d like to thank the Palanca Foundation and family for this tremendous honor, which I honestly never expected to receive. For about forty years, I have been watching and listening to many very distinguished people at this podium explicating on literature and society—and you will forgive my bias if I say that the writers were usually more memorable than the politicians—but I never imagined myself to be in their exalted position.

Indeed I have been fortunate enough to join the Palanca Hall of Fame, but I am no literary genius or philosophizer. I have always introduced myself as a Swiss Army Knife of writing, a practitioner and professional who has made a living of his words. I was already working as a newspaper reporter at 18, before I won my first Palanca; I was a journalist beholden to the facts before I was liberated by fiction.

Tonight I will address myself mainly to the first-time winners in this audience, to those who entered the Rigodon Ballroom with an extra spring in their step and a sparkle in their eyes, with their parents or partners in tow.

I can tell you now that you will never forget this evening, as I have never forgotten my own introduction to this very special society of peers and comrades. It was on this day in 1975 that I won my first Palanca, a share of second prize for a short story in English. The awarding was held on the top floor of the company building in what used to be Echague—now, of course, Carlos Palanca Street—in Manila.

It was a little less opulent than this ballroom, but to that 21-year-old winning a prize the first time he joined, it might as well have been heaven, nirvana, and Camelot all rolled into one. I knew no one, and no one knew me, and I could only watch from afar as celebrated writers like Krip Yuson—who shared first prize in my category with Leo Deriada—regaled each other, likely with stories of their latest exploits in Ermita.

I still have my certificate from that ceremony: an elaborately hand-lettered work of art larger than a college diploma. Since I had dropped out in my freshman year and was working in a government office under martial law, I treasured that certificate as if it were my diploma, and had it framed. I’m told that the calligrapher who crafted those certificates has passed away, but his strokes remain indelible in my memory.

With my prize money of a couple of thousand pesos, plus some savings, I bought my first car—which tells you what kind of car it was: a canary-yellow 1963 Datsun Bluebird, battered but bright, into rehabilitating which I would throw many more years of good money after bad and not get even one day’s worth of driving, before my mechanic finally ran away with it. Years later I would get a call from the Quezon City police to inform me that they had impounded a yellow Bluebird registered in my name, and I could have it back if I paid the fee. I went over to take a look—the car’s tires were all flat, and it was riddled with bullet holes. I muttered an oath and a prayer and left it there.

So that’s what happened with my first Palanca prize, and one of these days if I turn that into a short story I might get some of my money back. But the most grievous consequence of that first victory was the fact that, for the next four years, I lost. I turned in entry after entry, and kept losing and losing. Considering who was winning—the likes of Gregorio Brillantes and F. Sionil Jose—I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I had to fight back the growing fear that my first Palanca was a joke.

In 1980 I won again, and soon hit my stride. It took 20 more years to enter the Hall of Fame, by which time I had published ten books, gone back to college, and begun another career as a teacher. I never joined the Palancas again, except to be an occasional judge, but I have come to these awarding ceremonies as often as I could, eager to witness the annual emergence of new literary talent.

I give you this overview of my long relationship with these awards to bring us to the subject proper of my brief talk this evening, “What This Prize Should Mean to You.” The quick and correct response, of course, is to say that a Palanca award will bring you honor, some fame—certainly bragging rights for your proud mama and papa—and even some money, if not for a car then for a weekend in Boracay or a new phone or laptop to replace the old one.

You will be walking on air for a couple of weeks, until the novelty wears off, the money is spent, and you return to the humdrum of teaching, call-centering, Uber-driving, or whatever it is keeps you and your family alive. You will discover that, to most people, your literary genius makes no difference and no sense. You will begin to wonder, as I did, if it was all a fleeting illusion.

Some of you will fall by the wayside, but most of you will press on, like we did, wanting this Cinderella moment to repeat itself year after year. It will not always happen, and you will learn to take your losses as well as your triumphs—those years I kept joining and losing became my real education—but if you keep at it, you will reach the point when the winning will matter less than the writing. That, I think, will be your greatest victory, the realization that these awards are but an enabler, a handmaiden of books that will be validated no longer by a panel of three judges but by a readership of thousands.

(To be continued)

 

Penman No. 144: Postscript to the Palancas

Penman for Monday, April 13, 2015

FIRST OF all, let me express my belated thanks to Mrs. Sylvia Palanca Quirino and the Palanca Foundation for responding promptly to our recent appeal for them to reconsider and rescind what many writers thought were rather onerous rules for this year’s Palanca Awards competition. That has happened—we’re basically back to the old rules, which prospective entrants can read on the Palanca website. I do have to remind people to mind the check box on the entry form, where you need to indicate whether you’re giving your express permission for the Foundation to publish your work in full, in case it wins.

We can understand the Foundation’s desire not just to give away monetary prizes for literature as it’s done for over 60 years now, but also to develop a readership for good writing. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance between the authors’ rights to their work and the sponsor’s need to share some of that work with the public for whom it’s presumably being written. As someone who’s come to be associated, and happily so, with the Palanca community, I’m relieved that this little tempest was dealt with expeditiously and reasonably by the Palancas and their lawyers—with the personal and gracious intercession, of course, of Mrs. Quirino.

I should note that both sides came away with the clear understanding that the rules are a work in progress—as are the Palanca awards themselves—as the literary and publishing environment itself continues to evolve in ways no one could have predicted, say, 20 years ago. They will be reviewed and modified as the times require, but meanwhile, it’s back to the old rules (minus the retroactivity provision, which turns out to have been there before with hardly anyone noticing; at least the recent discussion surfaced that). Thanks, too, to other stalwarts in the literary community such as Krip Yuson, Karina Bolasco, and Andrea Pasion-Flores who also worked behind the scenes to help clarify and resolve issues.

On the sidelines, this brouhaha raised some old, perennial questions, mainly from younger writers. For example, I received another message on my blog asking if it’s absolutely important to join the Palancas and win a prize or two to gain literary recognition. My answer has always been, of course not—not absolutely. I’m sure that many accomplished authors never joined the Palancas nor won one of its many prizes; quite a few, both old and young, disdain the idea of joining for their own reasons, chiefly the distastefulness of seeming to curry favor with the literary Establishment.

From a practical standpoint—and I’ve always been a practical man—I have no doubt that a Palanca award or two, or better yet a dozen, can help perk up the CV and gain some attention from editors, publishers, and grant-givers (if that sort of thing is important to you at all, because it may not be and doesn’t have to be, if you’re independent-minded and/or have independent means).

That may sound a bit crass to the idealist, but it’s never really been just about the money—which is appreciable but not all that much in the grand scheme of things. It’s about the inner lift you get from a bit of validation from one’s peers and seniors (and again, if you don’t need or want that validation, feel free to look elsewhere).

And that, too, has practical effects, as the encouraged writer produces more (and, over time, hopefully better) work. Writing is a lonely job; there’s very little popular but credible criticism in this country that deals with contemporary literature, especially of work written by writers 40 and below. With very few readers and critics about, the only quick check you might get on your work could be that prize (ie, from your readership of three judges)—or its absence. It’s a sad thing to note, in a way, but that’s how it is.

Are the Palancas an infallible gauge of literary merit? Of course not. Any juried award involves people, and anything involving people is bound to be subject to human error and bias. You’ll hear ugly stories from some joiners about how they were cheated out of their well-deserved award by narrow-minded judges promoting their own favorites, but absent any direct proof, I’ll have to put this down to the natural quirks of the process. (I do respect the possibility that these plaints aren’t just griping by sore losers, but a reasoned critique of what some see as the ossification of an institution.)

I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’ll just say what it was like for me. When I began joining the Palancas in the mid-1970s, I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me. I was a college dropout, and hadn’t even gone to a writers’ workshop then. I took my chances, and lost more times than I won. I won a share of second prize the first time I joined, in 1975 when I was 21 (after which I naturally felt like God’s own child), but this was followed by a straight and miserable four-year losing streak.

Whenever I lost, I felt sick to the stomach and couldn’t wait for another year to roll over as quickly as possible. But I didn’t curse the heavens or the judges. After sulking for a week, I went back to my desk—reading writers I could learn from—and wrote more stories and plays (many of them lousy ones for sure, but even bad work strengthens some muscles) and joined and lost and joined again.

At some point, I began winning more often than I lost—yes, that felt good and it got addictive—but when I had won enough, I stopped joining and focused on more important things, like teaching. (Everyone’s free to join and seniorhood shouldn’t prevent anyone from duking it out with the youngsters—hey, we semi-retirees can still write about steamy sex!—but my personal sense is, there’s a time to look for other thrills.)

It comes down to this: one or two or even a whole raft of Palancas won’t make you a writer, or make you as a writer. They’ll give you a helpful leg up and make you feel like a king or a queen for a week—you’ll certainly be the most famous writer in your barangay—but ultimately, the awards will only be as good as you make them, as you parlay them into good, sustained writing and publishing.

Forget those three-person boards of judges and their foibles; worry about the faceless thousands of readers out there you’ll never see, but who will all have something to say about your work (or worse, prove indifferent). At some point, stop worrying about prizes; worry about your next book. That’s what people should best remember you by.

(This year’s competition will close on April 30. Check out www.palancaawards.com.ph for more information.)

[Image from gmanews.tv] 

Penman No. 139: Memo to the Palancas

Penman for Monday, March 9, 2015

[THIS JUST IN: Mrs. Sylvia Palanca-Quirino, director-general of the Palanca Awards, called me to announce that the implementation of the copyright rule discussed below will be suspended pending a review to be conducted by the foundation.]

THE PALANCA Awards—the country’s best known and, especially for young writers, still the worthiest literary award to go for—are entering their 65th year this year. I was happy to be reminded of this milestone by an email I recently received from a representative of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature Foundation, which administers the awards. The rules and entry forms, I was told, were now available at http://palancaawards.com.ph/newPalanca/entries.php.

I took a peek at that page—not because I was thinking of joining, something I haven’t done in 15 years since I was inducted into the Hall of Fame—but because I was curious to see what was going on with the Palancas, to which I and hundreds of other Filipino writers owe so much of whatever we’ve made of ourselves and of our work.

For the members of my generation—those of us who began our writing careers under martial law, when there were hardly any publishing venues and free speech was under the gravest threat—the Palancas were a lifeline, engendering the production of good new work, even though much of this would come to light only after 1986.

The Palanca Awards have also been vital to the encouragement and promotion of new writing from the regions and from young writers, for whom special categories have been added. Its biennial prize for the novel—which is up for grabs again this year—is key to the production of new work in this flagship genre, which I’ve argued is really our only way to get our writing known to publishers and audiences overseas.

For all these, the Palanca Foundation and family deserve every Filipino writer’s deep gratitude.

I should note, however, something I spotted in the rules that might be cause for concern. Pardon the long quote, but you’ll see why this should raise eyebrows:

“21. In submitting the Work(s) the contestant and parent/guardian (if applicable) (the “Contestant”) accepts and agrees to the rules of the contest (the “Rules”). In the case of a winning Work or Works, the Contestant further grants and assigns to the Sponsor the concurrent and non-exclusive right to exercise the full copyright and all other intellectual property rights over such Work(s), as well as all intellectual property rights over the Contestant’s previous Palanca Award prize–winning work(s) if any, (collectively, the “Work(s)”), and waives all moral rights over all his or her Palanca Award prize-winning Work(s) in favor of the Sponsor.

“This grant, assignment, and waiver of rights (the “Sponsor’s Rights”), may be exercised by the Sponsor to the extent permitted under existing laws applicable at the time of exercise. The Sponsor’s Rights shall extend to all forms of storage, transmission, dissemination, and communication, presently existing or subsequently created. To the extent permitted by law, the Sponsor’s Rights shall be worldwide, continuous, and may be exercised by the Sponsor for the maximum time allowed by applicable law. In furtherance of education the Sponsor reserves the right to donate copies of individual winning Works or compilations of Winning Work(s) to public and private educational institutions and public libraries.

“To promote Philippine Literature in the modern world of information technology, the Sponsor intends to make the winning entries accessible through the Internet or other electronic media, to serve as a literary archive of the contest. The website or other media to be established for this purpose are intended to be a repository of the award-winning Works, recording the history of the development of Philippine literature over the years through the Palanca Awards. In making the Work(s) thus available to the public, the Sponsor intends purely to promote literary appreciation for and public awareness of such Work(s), and not to commercially exploit the same. Contestants must indicate on the Official Entry Form whether they agree to have their Work(s) posted on the CPMA website and made available for downloading by the public for free in the event that a prize is awarded for the entry; in the absence of any indication in the entry form, it is presumed that the author has agreed to such inclusion of the Work. To encourage use for educational purposes, winning Work(s) shall be posted on the website in their entirety. Should any winning author subsequently instruct the Sponsor in writing to include or remove the Work(s) from the Internet archive, such instruction will be honored and the Work shall be included or removed from the Internet archive within a reasonable time from Sponsor’s receipt of the author’s written instruction. The exclusion of any winning Work or Works from the website shall not constitute a waiver of any of the Sponsor’s Rights.

“The prize money which may be awarded to the Contestant for the Work(s) shall constitute full payment for the Sponsor’s Rights, and shall be in lieu of any royalties or other compensation to the Contestant.”

Please correct me if I’m wrong (and I hope I am), but this this reads to me—and I wonder who else will read the rules so carefully—practically like a blanket waiver or surrender of one’s rights to the present work, including those to one’s previous winning works, as well as e-book rights—to the foundation. Unless you explicitly say no, your winning work could also be published in its entirety online and downloaded.

In this age when Filipino writers have just begun to understand the value of their work as intellectual property and to exercise those rights, this rule could be a deal-breaker for many established authors wanting to join the competition, and a rather onerous imposition on new writers dying to get a break.

Some other Palanca oldtimers like fellow Hall of Famer Krip Yuson and I have had the occasional pleasure of a private lunch with Palanca Awards director-general Sylvia Palanca-Quirino to informally review the rules and update them if necessary. Since Sylvia’s not been too well lately, we haven’t had this privilege, else I would have told her personally what I’m saying now, thinking that this over-claiming of intellectual property rights could have been a well-intentioned oversight meant to facilitate the promotion of Philippine literature.

But since the rules are out there and the competition is now officially open to all, I feel obliged—on behalf of my fellow writers—to go public with this appeal to review and moderate those rules, to make for a competition that’s freer, fairer, and more fun.

(Image from palancaawards.com)