Penman No. 152: Writing the Stories of Your Life

Studio5

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2015

TWICE OVER the past three months, I’ve been giving workshops to medium-sized groups of people in my general age range (let’s put that at 50 to 70), people who came together because they had stories to tell, but needed some guidance on how to tell them. These workshops were arranged by the publisher and writer Marily Orosa, who had come up with very engaging book ideas to which these potential writers could contribute, and who thought that it would be a good idea to have a practicing writer give them a bit of coaching before they plunged into the actual task of writing.

I was glad that Marily put these workshops together, first because I’ve always believed that every person has at least one good story in him or her, and that it’s my job as a writing teacher to get that story out of the person. Second, being a senior myself, I’m happy when older people get an opportunity to express themselves in this obsessively youth-centered world.

Many if not most members of my audience were retirees or approaching retirement after many decades of productive work in their professions. One was a former Cabinet secretary and another a university president, among other luminaries, but in the end, it wasn’t one’s position that mattered as much as one’s experiences, which seniors have in spades.

I couldn’t cram a semester’s worth of lessons into a Saturday afternoon, but I did what I could to give them a framework, an approach, and some tools with which to get their stories out of their memories and onto the digital page. First, we talked about the basic difference between life (their life experience, the raw material) and art (the finished product they were expected to come up with).

What do artists—writers, painters, musicians, and so on—do to and with their materials to make works of art? What do artists see in the things around them that most other people don’t? In this way, we try to get people to see their own lives and experiences as matter to be structured and shaped—not to distort the truth (the object, I think, of all honest art) but precisely to get at it and to bring it out, even if it may not always be pleasant—and indeed much art out there is meant to disturb.

We talk about selection, and how the writer or artist chooses material to use directly in the artwork (the text) and leaves other things out (the context), given that you can’t possibly use everything out there. We talk about how artists work with concrete images and objects to suggest ideas, rather than the grand abstractions that, say, editorial writers and philosophers use.

When we consider life experiences, we then talk about distances in space and time, and about physical and emotional distance. Many participants at these workshops, for example, want to talk about travels they undertook to interesting places, and what I try to do is to get them to write something beyond the verbal equivalent of a posed snapshot in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate. A trip to Paris isn’t just ever about Paris, but also, implicitly, about Tagbilaran or Bayombong, wherever it was the narrator or protagonist came from, and it’s that perspective that makes this particular experience of Paris unique.

Writing about the past really involves two protagonists (taking a page from Thomas Larson): the remembered self and the remembering self. Writing about a journey involves not just traversing physical territory, but also that internal space within which the character grows—so the physical journey is always paralleled by an internal, often spiritual, one.

After clarifying these fundamental concepts, I then introduce them to some basic tools of the trade—the elements of fiction which, when carried over to nonfiction, liven up the narrative and make both writing and reading a more engaging experience. We talk about plot, character, theme, point of view, dialogue, description, and setting—how to employ time, how to bring scenes to life, what to say and what to leave out.

I remind them what a lonely and (for most people) unremunerative occupation writing is, but going beyond the money or the lack of it, how important it is to write one’s stories down before the memory deserts or defeats us. It’s especially important for the young to know about how their elders lived and thought. It might take them another 20 years to become receptive readers, but the record will be there, and they’ll be surprised to find, as we ourselves did, how the past anticipated the future in so many ways.

I feel drained at the end of these three-hour workshops, faced with a flood of eager questions, but I also feel elated by all the creative energy I seem to have unleashed among my fellow seniors, and I can only begin to imagine what a touch of art can do to that rich lode of memories lying deep in their many-chambered brains.

Treasures

AND NOW’s as good a time as any to draw attention to the good work done by Marily Orosa’s Studio 5 Designs, which has been in the business of producing not just books but prizewinning ones, lauded both for their design and their substance. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Marily on a couple of coffeetable book projects, most notably De La Salle University’s centennial volume, The Future Begins Here, which I edited and wrote for, and which won a Quill and an Anvil Award (the Quill, Anvil, and National Book Awards are the local publishing and PR industry’s measures of excellence).

Studio 5 has also won NBAs for In Excelsis (The Martyrdom of Jose Rizal) by Felice P. Sta. Maria and The Tragedy of the Revolution (The Life of Andres Bonifacio) by Adrian Cristobal. Malacañan Palace (The Official Illustrated History) by Manuel Quezon III and Jeremy Barns also won a host of local and international awards, as did the magnificent Treasures of the Philippine Wild. Freundschaft/Pagkakaibigan (celebrating 60 years of friendship between Germany and the Philippines) will be included in the prestigious international design annual, Graphis.

Beyond being visual treats, these are all significant books, and their creators and publisher deserve high praise and encouragement.

Penman No. 151: A Workshop in Biography


IMG_7561

Penman for Monday, June 1, 2015

BECAUSE OF my trip to Canada, I was able to attend only one day of this year’s UP National Writers Workshop, which took place from May 10 to 17 in Baguio. I immediately went to work that morning leading a discussion of a biographical project submitted by one of the twelve fellows.

It was a topic I was keenly interested in, because of my own work in biographical writing. (Two of my biographies—A Man Called Tet: The Story of Enrique T. Garcia, Jr. and Edgardo J. Angara: In the Grand Manner—were published and launched recently by Anvil Publishing and the University of the Philippines Press, respectively.) I’m at work on a few more, and if it becomes my lot to be known primarily for my accounts of other people’s lives than for my own fiction, then I can’t complain, having assumed a rather unique responsibility and occupation, among a few others in our writing community.

As a grade-schooler, I devoured biographies in the library, finding that the lives of successful or significant people—whether here or in faraway lands—inspired me to try harder and do more in my own difficult existence. I especially enjoyed the life stories of scientists, explorers, soldiers, artists, and heroes. Of course, these elementary editions were highly simplified, and very likely glossed over the human imperfections—sometimes gross—that these characters possessed, which more mature biographies would reveal if not revel in. No matter; at that time, the overarching greatness of their deeds lent a luminous aura to these characters’ profiles, and I have to believe that I emerged all the richer for reading those books.

The idealization of a life was one issue we discussed at the workshop. There are many kinds of biographies, and I took the occasion to go over a simple classification of these kinds.

On one extreme would be hagiography—literally, writing about saints, and therefore the sunny sanctification of the subject as though everything that he or she did were beyond reproach. On the dark end would be the hostile or malicious biography, written for no other reason than to malign its subject as indelibly as possible, even at the expense of the truth. To its left would be the critical biography—a sober, perhaps scholarly, and more even-handed study of a life, sparing nothing and no one (least of all the subject) in pursuit of the presumptive truth, although these works could also carry their own agenda.

Farther on would come the kind of work that I and some others do on commission, for which I’ve coined the term “sympathetic biography,” a largely positive presentation of a subject’s life—without skirting, however, the major controversies and issues publicly known to involve the subject. Is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Realistically, I would expect not, and not because I think my subjects deliberately lie to me, but because it’s in human nature to present the best side of oneself. (I think Dolphy set the bar for searing candor and self-awareness in his autobiography, Hindi Ko Ito Narating Mag-Isa; I can’t imagine politicians or business figures being so open about their private lives.)

A sympathetic biography may be a half-filled glass to many, but it puts something on the table to be seen and seen through. I expect—I would hope—that whatever I write about my subject will be interrogated by more knowledgeable critics and scholars. This is why I urge my clients to be as forthright as possible and to deal with whatever issues they may have been embroiled in, because we live in a highly skeptical environment where questions never cease, especially online.

But to get back to the workshop, we were glad to succeed in our continuing quest for the discovery and encouragement of bright new writing talent across the archipelago. The UP Writers Workshop is different from most others in that it engages mid-career writers—people of proven ability with at least one published book, or major stage or film production to their name. We deal with them less as students than as younger brothers and sisters in the profession.

The critics of writing programs and workshops who think that all they produce are clones and sound-alikes of those teaching these courses should take a look at our roster of fellows and their work. These young writers sound nothing like us, and even after the workshop, they’ll continue working with their own material in their own styles, because we instructors do our best to recognize and preserve the originality of their voices.

The best help we can give them is to provide a response—whether it be a gut reaction or a learned reading that draws on a certain context—from our side of the generational divide, although they get responses as well from their peers, which might just be more useful and valuable to them, coming from people who share their vibe.

This year, we welcomed the following: Jack A. Alvarez (Creative Nonfiction); Armida Mabitad Azada (Poetry); Kristoffer Brugada (Nobela); Resty Cena (Nobela);

Gutierrez M. Mangansakan II (Creative Nonfiction); Isidro T. Marinay (Biography);

Segundo D. Matias Jr. (Kuwentong Pambata); Rhoderick V. Nuncio (Nobela); Will P. Ortiz (Nobela); Benedict Bautista Parfan (Poetry); Charlie Samuya Veric (Poetry); and Eliza Victoria (Fiction). Watch these names, because if you haven’t read or heard about them already, you will soon.

What many don’t realize is what a precious resource we have in these programs and workshops here in our part of the world. Our friends from the region have begun to notice what a liberal and nourishing environment we have for young writers. There’s still patronage and paternalism in the system to be sure—this is Asia, after all—but it’s much less pronounced and potentially stifling than elsewhere. Our tradition is for the younger ones to tell their elders “Up yours!”—until they start putting on the poundage and the gray hairs themselves.

Speaking of writing programs, it was with great alarm and dismay that I received news of the planned closure of one of Asia’s most unique and successful graduate writing programs—the low-residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at the City University of Hong Kong.

The low-residency formula allows students from Hong Kong and around the region to enroll for an MFA and work online with mentors from all over the world, flying in to HK just once or twice a year for intensive workshops and face-to-face interaction. Some Filipinos have gone through the program, and I’ve had the privilege to lecture and to read at a couple of sessions over the years.

The City University administration says that the program costs too much to maintain, but ironically the program turned the corner this year financially, so it can’t be just the money. We wonder if someone up there sees creative writing as a threat to socialism with Chinese characteristics. City U ‘s mandarins should know that Hong Kong’s and China’s prestige and goodwill derive from programs like this—and not from building lighthouses and airstrips in the South China Sea.

Penman No. 49: To the Writer at 25 (Part 2)

John and ChristinePenman for Monday, June 3, 2013

TO CONTINUE from last week, here’s what I told my young audience at the 20th Iligan National Writers Workshop (that’s them in the picture above, with panelists John Iremil Teodoro and Christine Godinez-Ortega in the foreground) at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology:

Writing in The Atlantic a few years ago, Max Fisher addressed the question of age and artistic productivity. “When in life are we most creative?” he asked. “Do we peak when we are young and energetic, or old and experienced?” Fisher brought up three answers, each with its own champion.

First, he suggested, “We peak young.” He quoted Kazuo Ishiguro—who incidentally is my exact age, born 1954—who said: “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them budding or promising, when in fact they’re peaking.” According to Ishiguro, he had been “haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40.”

Second, “We peak in middle age.” Fisher cites a psychologist from UC-Davis who established that while “poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s… geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age…. Unlike poets, who peak early and fade quick, fiction writers tend to ripen and mature with age.”

Finally, says Fisher, “We peak old (sometimes).” Here he falls back on Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame, who points out that “Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.”

I myself suspect that, with enough research, we can come up with all kinds of numbers to support any one of these propositions. There will always be the prodigious Marlowes and Poes and Rizals and Plaths who will streak like a comet across the night sky in their 20s and 30s—and perhaps not incidentally die soon after. Some writers, even if they live long, will produce a burst of brilliant work in their early years, and then drop the pen, or be little heard from again.

Paz Marquez Benitez published the classic “Dead Stars” when she was 31, and Angela Manalang Gloria came out with her book of poems, which she would be known for, at 33—but they would forever be those 30-somethings and no older in our literary appreciation. Nick Joaquin published his first poem, “The Innocence of Solomon,” at 20, “May Day Eve” when he was 30, and “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino when he was 34, but The Woman with Two Navels wouldn’t come until he was 44, and of course he continued writing and publishing practically until his death at 86 in 2004. NVM Gonzalez was 26 when he published The Winds of April in 1941; he was 43 by the time he wrote “Bread of Salt” in 1958, and 46 when he published The Bamboo Dancers in 1960. And like Joaquin, Gonzalez demonstrated longevity, working well into his last years. Speaking of longevity and sustained production, we have Leo Deriada and Tony Enriquez, plugging away, I’m sure, at another prizewinning novel or story, as they’ve been doing all these decades.

We’ll see, however, that most of our best writers, especially those who lived past their 70s, produced their most memorable work between their 20s and 40s. Rarely have we found a Dostoyevsky, who published The Brothers Karamazov four months before he died at 59 (my present age). Jose Garcia Villa’s writing might as well have ended with the comma poems of Volume Two in 1949, although he lived for nearly half a century more. Franz Arcellana’s literary legacy really lies in Selected Stories, published in 1962 when he was 46; I know of no more stories that he wrote until his death 40 years later in 2002.

You can draw your own conclusions and prescriptions, but this is mine: write what you can when you can, the sooner the better. The best time to write that story or that poem in your head is today, not tomorrow, and never mind if it turns out to be bad, because that’s what tomorrow is for, for the insightful and merciless and inspired revision that separates the mediocre writer from the truly talented and committed.

Of course I should also say that to writers of my generation, with a slight difference: write what you can while you can, because tomorrow may not come around. Today we live in an intensely youth-oriented culture, and some days it may seem like only the young get all the attention—which they deserve—but we are not in competition with them. Rather we are competing with ourselves, with time itself, and with the ages.

Now, what would I do—or what would I advise a writer to do—if I were 25 today?

1. Focus on your first book. If you write only one book in your life, then this will be the most important thing you will leave behind, not counting your children—or maybe even counting them. Your first book will be even more important than an MFA or your MFA thesis, which, truth to tell, no one but your defense panel will read. Some students I know dithered for years in a vain attempt to perfect their MFA or PhD thesis projects. For me, much of that was wasted time. Do a thesis worthy of passing—and then spend time cleaning up the text and shaping it into a reader-worthy book, a book with your name on the spine. And of course there are good books and bad books, and some days you wish an awful author had desisted from publishing and spared a few trees. But you’ll have to take your chances and get that bad first book out of the way, or you’ll never get to your good second one.

2. Focus on your second book. Your first book will likely have expended everything you’d always wanted to say. So now, what? Once you’ve mined your own young and unavoidably angsty life for material, what’s left for you to write about? Why, the world of course, although that world may seem awfully small at 25, especially if you haven’t been looking too closely at anyone but yourself and your friends. The real challenge of writing for me isn’t writing about oneself—which is, admittedly, an inexhaustible subject, a continuing mystery—but about strangers, whom the writer then makes as familiar as oneself. That’s what the best writers have done—perform great acts of invention, of transport, of sheer imagination. You have to believe to believe that there is more than one book—indeed, more than one life to plumb—in you.

3. Attend a workshop or two, but learn to hunker down and to work on your own. Young writers today seem enamored of workshops, and that’s understandable to a point, as writing is among the loneliest of labors anyone can assume, and the young writer will need the affirmation and the comfort of the company that workshops provide. But workshops can’t be a crutch; life isn’t an eternal summer where you can keep tinkering with a draft in the hope that someone out there in some workshop will finally like it. Past your second or third workshop, keep the workshop in your head, and begin to write, in productive solitude, in the silent company of your presumptive fellows—Chekhov, Rilke, Salinger, Joaquin, Alfon, Gordimer, Lahiri, or whoever moves you to do as they did.

4. Stop arguing, and leave the polemics and the criticism to others. You don’t have time for that, and it can distract you from what you should be doing, which is writing more of your own work. While criticism can help clarify our own aims and means, these debates can sap too much of a writer’s psychic energy, energy one needs for his or her own poetry.

5. Lastly, listen to old fogeys like me, and listen closely—but make up your own minds, make your own mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make them, or you’ll never get anything right. Not everything you write will be a work of genius; indeed, much of it will very likely be immemorable. But if you endeavor to write well and to write enough, sooner or later, that masterpiece you might be remembered by will come. Desperate to earn a living from his writing, Chekhov wrote more than 200 stories in his lifetime; except for the most devoted fan, no more than a dozen of these stories will be familiar to us as classics. But he would not have come up with that glittering dozen if he hadn’t written 190 other less worthy pieces. So nothing is ever wasted in writing. Your misfires and your false starts are part of your investment in the enterprise of a lifetime.

Would Rizal be Rizal without the Noli and the Fili and Mi Ultimo Adios? Perhaps, but he would be a diminished Rizal, whose martyrdom would have lost much of its resonance. Will it be sacrilege to suggest that we admire Rizal less for his actions than for his writings? Were his writings not, in fact, largely his deeds? In any event, they are what live on—what he wrote at 25 and in the few years left to him after that.

As Hippocrates put it so well, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” often transposed into “Life is short, but art lives long.” May we all write something worthy of surviving us—the sooner the better.

Penman No. 48: To the Writer at 25 (Part 1)

INWWPenman for Monday, May 27, 2013

LAST WEEK, it was Iligan’s turn to host me, among other writers, for the 20th National Writers Workshop under the auspices of the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and I was honored to deliver the keynote, which I’m excerpting this week and next. Here’s what I said:

It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of friends and comrades in the profession, including many luminaries of our national literature who happen to be based in the Visayas and Mindanao. I’m especially glad to be addressing our young fellows, for whom I wrote this talk, for special reasons that will be shortly clear. In fact, I’ve decided to title this talk “To The Writer at 25,” aimed at writers of that age, give or take a couple of years.

Why 25? Let me cite a statistic that, depending on how you take it, could either be empowering or overpowering. It’s a figure that’s been there all along but which no one seems to have thought about too much, probably because no one really knew what to make of it or recognized its potential significance.

And here’s that fact: Jose Rizal finished writing Noli Me Tangere in December 1886 and published it by March 1887. At that point, he was still no more than 25 years old.

Rizal had less than ten years to live after that. But by the time he was executed by the Spaniards in 1896, he had written two novels and parts or fragments of five more, as well as dozens of important essays and poems.

Think of that for a minute—the Noli by age 25, the Fili by age 30, and a lifetime’s work by 35. If only for these, then—at least in my book—Jose Rizal does deserve to be a national hero, and not incidentally a National Artist.

Those of us who are now far north of 25 might recall what we were doing at that age. We may have been already writing by then—I know I was—but I doubt that we were laboring at or even thinking about a Noli, or even a novel, at that time.

At 25 I was married and a father, and I’d won a few literary prizes, certainly not enough to convince me or anyone else that I would go on to any kind of greatness, but enough to suggest to me that the rest of my life would be inscribed by literature, that I would do well to take it seriously, for better or for worse. I was out of school, and I had not even gone to my first writers’ workshop, but I knew, in my blood and bones, that I would go on to write more and more things, as inchoate as those things were to me then.

Indeed, for most of us not named “Jose Rizal,” 25 seems to be a good landing on the steps, a firm pre-departure point for a future in writing. Interestingly enough, in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published when he was 31, T. S. Eliot specified 25 as the age by which one should have made some crucial commitments—among them, an embrace of tradition or “the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year.”

It wasn’t even at 25 but a few months after turning 24 that Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his first novel titled Poor Folk, now nearly forgotten in the wake of his greater and more mature work but a critical and commercial success in its time. In fact, so intent was Dostoyevsky on pursuing a literary career that he published his second novel, The Double, a month after Poor Folk.

Edgar Allan Poe was even more precocious, publishing his first book of poetry at 18; he had three collections of poetry by his 22nd year, and turned to prose at 24, winning a prize for his story “MS. Found in a Bottle.”

Eighteen was also the age when Sylvia Plath published her first story in Seventeen magazine, in 1950; that year, she wrote in her journal: “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.”

I could go on and on, about this and that writer having written this and that work at this and that young age, but you catch my drift. While there may be no real prodigies in writing, there have been, on the other hand, many precocious people who began producing significant work around their 25th year.

I bring this up because, as I prepare to embrace seniorhood in a few months, I find myself often asking if I have written enough, if I were to keel over tomorrow. But enough for what? Perhaps the more accurate question would be, did I write enough of what I could, when I could? What does age have to do with output and insight?

This is what I’d like to talk about a bit this morning, this relationship between age and productivity in creative writing. I would have liked to say not only in creative writing but in the other arts as well, but this is where writing perhaps differs the most from music, painting, and so on. As I’ve often pointed out before, true prodigies don’t exist in literature, unlike in music or mathematics—no Mozarts who can write full symphonies or Ramanujams who can solve complex equations at a preciously tender age.

We don’t find full-blown adult novels written by eight-year-olds, which was Mozart’s age when he composed his Symphony No. 1 in E Flat Major. Prodigies also abound in painting—The Huffington Post lists at least ten of them, one of whom, nine-year-old Kieron Williamson, recently sold 24 paintings worth almost $400,000 in one month and was reported to be preparing for a retrospective—yes, a retrospective.

Why don’t we have a Brothers Karamazov or even a Gone With the Wind written by a third-grader? The reason is obvious: writing involves more than vocabulary; it requires social experience, which can only come with growing up.

Even so, Rizal did an awful lot of growing up very quickly to be able to dish out the Noli and Fili by his 30th year.

It was in my 30th year, in 1984, that I came out with my first book, Oldtimer and Other Stories. Throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, my officemate and I, the late playwright Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr., then both in our early 20s, had carried on a fierce but friendly competition in the arena of playwriting. I drew first blood, with a first-prize win over Boy’s second place in the 1976 CCP Playwriting Competition—our mutual teacher in playwriting, Prof. Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, came in third—but that was the first and last time I won over Boy, over many CCP and Palanca competitions that followed. As a result, I shifted from playwriting in Filipino to the short story in English, where I felt I was safe from Boy. But in the meanwhile, we made another friendly dare—to come out with our first books by our 30th year. As it happened, we both made it—barely: he published Bayanan-Bayanan at Iba Pang Mga Dula in 1982, after turning 30; I published Oldtimer in 1984, a month before turning 31.

I recall these things because I also recall the intense awareness of age and time that accompanied our writing then. We felt under the constant pressure of a deadline—and I don’t mean just the Palanca deadline, although that was mightily important to us then, at a time when there was very little publishing going on, and competitions were literally the only game in town. Ours, after all, was the generation of the First Quarter Storm, of a brave but bloody activism that saw many of its acolytes fall at the steps of the altar in their teens and early 20s. If there was anything important we wanted to do—like write a book, or get married, or father a child—we had to do it sooner than later, because life was very likely going to be short, if not nasty and brutish.

Of course we will never really know how long we will live or when we will die—that remains life’s greatest mystery, and it’s still with some astonishment that I realize I’ll be turning 60 in January—so we really can’t tell when our most productive years will be, or when we’ll write the piece that we will hope to be remembered by. (Conclusion next week.)

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

Silliman2013

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.

Civitella

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.

Penman No. 41: Writing Historical Fiction

Deed of SalePenman for Monday, April 8, 2013

AS I write this, we’re up in Baguio with this year’s crop of 12 fellows attending the 52nd UP National Writers Workshop, and we’re discussing the works-in-progress presented by the fellows, who are all practicing and accomplished creative writers with at least one published book to their name. We’re calling them mid-career writers, but their ages range widely from the mid-20s to seniorhood.

In our youth-oriented culture, we often forget how maturity can have its advantages, and how the literary imagination can improve with age. I was reminded of this when we took up the works of two of this year’s older fellows, Thomas David Chavez and Anna Marie Harper, both of whom happened to be working on historical novels.

Writing the novel is difficult enough, but the writing of historical fiction poses some special challenges, which probably explains why not too many writers essay the medium.

History deals with the past, but whenever we present it today—whether as fact or fiction—it inevitably also deals with the present, and by projection, with the future. In other words, the past is truly important to us—beyond its curiosity value—insofar as it informs the present, and provides clues as to what the future might be.

The “historical” part of the term “historical fiction” apparently requires close attention to factual detail, which means exhaustive research of an almost academic nature, to make certain that one is taking off from solid ground. Just how solid that ground is will of course be debatable and may even be the subject of the fiction itself—“What really happened?”—but no matter what departures from fact are taken, a certain familiarity with the past (perhaps a fictive or imagined familiarity) is assumed.

Indeed the basic proposition of historical fiction can be summed up thus: “We think we know the past, but we don’t.” A more severe formulation might be: “We don’t know the past at all.”

The fictionist’s conceit lies in his or her suggestion that fiction, rather than even more thorough or more scholarly research, can remedy this lack of understanding. It’s the same conceit we carry over to contemporary fiction, which is our response, our proposed alternative, to CNN, to the White House or the Malacañang Press Secretary, to the Departments of History and Political Science. The fictionist’s reason for being draws from one of my favorite quotations, this one from Mark Twain, a man who knew how to spin a fanciful yarn while being engaged in the most significant political debates of his time. In so many words, Twain said: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

The sense-making of fiction relies, in turn, on dramatic plausibility—or, to put it in Aristotelian terms, on probability and necessity, in the logic of the human heart and mind. (To Aristotle, tragedy—which you can take to be literature itself—was superior to history, because history merely dealt with what happened, while tragedy concerned itself with what could happen). What makes fiction interesting is that this logic of the human heart and mind can often be bewilderingly illogical, although it will, at some point, acquire a frightening inevitability.  I’ve often told my students that characters become truly interesting if and when they go out of character, and these turning points are what we wait for, both in history and fiction.

It is, therefore, the burden of the historical fictionist to offer more than both ordinary historians and ordinary fictionists can offer. The past has to be more than setting or décor, the pitfall of bad historical fiction; and the fiction will require more than an embellishment of known fact. Historical fiction is not fictionalized history; it is not creative nonfiction. It is a fictionist’s creative use of the past as material with which to make sense of the present, of how we came to be what we are, of how we will likely be tomorrow.

Dave Chavez’s novel is set in the American Occupation, told from the point of view of the Filipino butler and cook of an American officer who heads the health service in a time of war and cholera. It goes a bit farther back to 1874, when a boatload of Japanese lepers arrives in Manila Bay from Nagsaki under the command of a Captain Kurosawa:

“Only in the last minute was Kurosawa informed of the nature of his gruesome mission, although two weeks before setting sail, he was told to recruit an able-bodied crew of 14 ocean-tested men, then to stock up on supplies treble that number, and finally, to organize a guild of petty merchants who could assemble on such short notice a credible cargo for trade in Manila. Given the time constraint, the captain orchestrated a passable, if rough and ready nine tons of merchandise. Kurosawa inspected and oversaw for himself the weighing of the bales of Kyushu silk, wax-sealed jars of Shikoku soy sauce and crates of Western-style gleaming steel cutlery from the foundries of Fukuoka.

“Of course, there were special items that were not for sale or barter, but were primed spotless and sheening just the same under orders of the Overlord. In there were intricately- packaged gifts of dolls, fans of gilt brocade paper, ukiyo-e scrolls, pictures of the fleeting world depicting the pillow tales of cloistered Genroku noblewomen, some fancy paper from the presses of Nagoya, and finely-wrought cotton yukatas from the prefecture of Nara. These were presents for Manila’s notables, including Governor-General José Malacampo Monje, the Spanish and mestizo nobles of Intramuros and Ermita, the regidor of the port, and finally the Archbishop of Manila, Gregorio Melitón Martinez Santa Cruz.”

Bambi Harper’s second novel will be a prequel to her first one, Agueda, published last year. While Agueda charted a woman’s and her society’s progress from the late 19th to the early 20th century, The Shadow on the Sundials starts with the British Occupation of 1762, and introduces a colorful cast of characters that includes a visionary beata, a dashing Spanish rake, a native servant girl, and a dwarf. Harper draws the curtains on our bygone days thus:

“The entire upper floor of the house that overlooked the narrow provincial road formed a giant screen with its window panes of capiz shells, while below the sills were ventanillas where as a child Tita dangled her chubby legs through the spaces between the carved balusters. The house stood on the corner beside an old stone bridge and massive doors opened into a saguan where granite steps led to the caida, an anti-sala overlooking a garden of fruit trees. The lower classes waited here to be summoned into the august presence of the owner—even poor relations of Doña Titik unless they were in the kitchen eating with the help. The lucky visitor who was invited into the inner sanctum of the sala meant you were either a friar, a foreigner, rich, or all of the above. No expense had been spared in the décor of the living room that revealed ceilings painted with garlands held up by rose-cheeked cherubs. Trompe l’oeil of receding colonnades on the walls created an illusion of expanding space. No carpets hid the glory of the wide narra floor planks that were rubbed daily with a coconut husk and banana leaves to a mirror finish.”

I look forward to the completion of both projects—indeed, of more novels that draw on our tremendously rich history to examine the emergence of our nationhood.

I’D LIKE to acknowledge and express my appreciation for a message from reader Nikko Salvador, who wrote in to say—in response to my GenSan piece last week—that a museum can indeed be found at his school, the Notre Dame of Dadiangas University, and that a few steps away stands a thorny dadiangas plant. I’ll make sure to visit these spots the next time I fly down to GenSan.

Penman No. 7: Creative Writing in Hong Kong

Penman for Monday, August 6, 2012

I WAS honored a couple of weeks ago to be invited to visit the City University of Hong Kong to conduct a workshop for their graduate writing students and to give a reading before a gathering of some of Hong Kong’s brightest writing talents, students and teachers alike.

I’d been to CityU before—two years ago, I attended a literary conference there, then stayed on for the Hong Kong Literary Festival. Established only in 1984, CityU (I kept calling it CUHK, until I realized that these initials were already in use by the Chinese University of Hong Kong) has distinguished itself as one of Hong Kong’s most dynamic and modern campuses, oriented toward the world and the future. Aside from the more traditional disciplines, for example, it has a School of Creative Media which teaches everything from Animation to Computational Art and a newly opened School of Energy and Environment where students can specialize in Climate Science and Energy Technology, among others.

The focus on business and technology is hardly surprising in a place like Hong Kong. What struck me was its apparent bid to become a cultural leader in the region as well—and not just in things Chinese, but in areas dominated and nearly monopolized by Western centers of learning.

A case in point was the CityU program that brought me over—Asia’s first and, so far, only low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) program. Only in its third year, the program has already attracted many first-rate students and teachers from around Asia and much farther beyond.

At the program’s helm is Xu Xi, a gifted fictionist and essayist who’s the living example of hybridity—she’s Indonesian Chinese, was raised in Hong Kong, and took her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She teaches at Vermont College, but has taken time out to direct the writing program at CityU. Though she’s now an American citizen, Hong Kong is in Xu Xi’s blood and imagination, permeating her fiction. She’s become one of the prime movers of creative writing in the region; we were fellow finalists for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and she came over as a panelist at the Dumaguete Writers Workshop two years ago.

In setting up their program, Xu Xi and CityU were deftly capitalizing on Hong Kong’s strategic position as an entrepot attracting people from all over the world, with its large expat community and a new generation of Chinese students writing in English. CityU’s English department was built up and strengthened by the likes of language and literature expert Kingsley Bolton (who gave a wonderful lecture on how the Chinese learned and used English, when I was there) who, a few years ago, co-edited a book with Ma. Lourdes Bautista on Philippine English.

The MFA, of course, remains the global standard for advanced studies in creative writing. (In a radio interview, my fellow Distinguished Visiting Writer, the English novelist Jill Dawson, and I were asked the perennial question: “If Charles Dickens didn’t need an MFA to write his novels, why should anyone?” We answered just as predictably: “You don’t need the MFA to write a novel, but it helps you to focus on writing your novel in an age full of distractions, which Dickens didn’t have to deal with. Besides, if painting and music can be taught and learned, so can writing.”)

There are hundreds of MFA and MA Creative Writing programs around the world today—the MFA tends to be longer and more intensive, and is considered a terminal degree—causing us teachers of writing to ask in wonder and consternation: “Why do so many people want to be writers?” The MFA’s low-residency version has been a recent innovation, with Xu Xi’s Vermont College among the pioneers; there are now around 50 such programs in the US, but only CityU offers one with a distinctly Asian orientation.

Under such programs, students sign up for one-on-one distance mentoring with the program’s international teaching staff, recruited from among the world’s best writers (including our very own New York-based poet Luis Francia). Once a year, for about ten days during the Hong Kong summer, everyone gets together on the CityU campus in Kowloon Tong for a series of intensive day-long workshops with the majority of the faculty in attendance. Students are required to produce a creative thesis, a substantial body of work, and the program should be doable in two years. (Two Filipinos—Karla Delgado and Sheree Chua—are in the program; I also met students from the US, the UK, Australia, and, of course, Hong Kong and China.)

There are pluses and minuses to this kind of arrangement, but it’s clearly a boon to those who may otherwise be too busy or just don’t have the option of attending classes and workshops physically in a university, especially a foreign one. It’s less expensive than a traditional campus-based MFA—certainly less than a US or a UK degree—given that one needs to fly in to Hong Kong only occasionally. But Hong Kong being what it is, it’s by no means cheap, especially for Filipinos used to paying UP tuition fees. The costs aside, the international character of the program in terms of both its students and faculty is its strongest aspect, privileging, for once, an Asian sensibility over the usual Anglo-American bias in creative writing in English.

This was something we could’ve done at the University of the Philippines—we’ve had a 30-year lead over everyone else in the region, after all, in offering degrees in Creative Writing—but sadly we just don’t have the funds and the flexibility to attract the kind of international teaching staff you need for a program of this scale and orientation.

But thinking in terms of the region, CityU’s MFA program is a boost for Asian writing and teaching as a whole, the beginning of the reversal of a century-old paradigm where we learned to write in English only in and from the West.