THE most recent tempest whirling in the literary teapot involves the conduct of a recent UP National Writers' Workshop done online. A few of the creative writing fellows ranted online against what they perceived to be bullying by some of the panelists, who are university teachers and sometime writers themselves.
One young writer asked rhetorically, would the panelists be accountable if the “traumatized writers” did harm to themselves after the workshop? Another writer chimed in and reminded the world about the toxic masculinity that some of the panelists allegedly exhibited and the lack of gender balance.
Moreover, the same “old geezers” supposedly act as gatekeepers in the workshops, from the vetting of the writing fellows to the actual workshop itself. It is a closed circle of friends and allies, or a cabal, if you want to be uncharitable about it. There are also problems with regional representation and alleged “political conservatism.”
The mother of all writers' workshops is the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in the US. Recent evidence has shown, however, that it was supported by the Central Intelligence Agency to soften the effect of radical politics on writers during the Cold War.
The husband-and-wife team of Dr. Edilberto and Dr. Edith Tiempo brought the writers' workshop to the Philippines, through the Silliman University National Writers' Workshops that have been running since 1962. But true to the tradition of appropriation by Filipino writers, the Tiempos pushed for American New Criticism in analyzing the works of the young writers. But the Tiempos themselves went beyond the narrow confines of American New Criticism. He wrote strong nationalist novels, while she wrote poems steeped in Philippine mythology.
This shrewd combination was passed on to the many writers who have undergone what is locally known as “the Silliman Writers' experience.” For writers in a developing country cannot just shut themselves in the ivory tower and write self-absorbed literature. They also have to eat, and should know the barbed-wire prices of rice and onions, sugar and garlic. In short, Filipino writers then and now have aspired to master their craft, but remain true to their calling to write texts shaped by “a local habitation and a name.”
The UP National Writers' Workshop (UPNWW) has also been there for 60 years. In the 1980s, during the years before and after the fall of the authoritarian government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Dr. Ramon Guillermo called it “a virtual hive of unbridled literary and political discussion and debate…. Some may disagree with this, but I think that the UPNWW today is still, or still has the potential to be, an important venue for significant counter-cultural debate and discussion. One need only consider the disheartening prospects for the study of literature in today's academe.”
In an educational system where young writers are being trained to be mere “content creators” and the study of languages and literatures is being driven to the margins, the careful scrutiny of texts done in workshops still have a place.
“The UPNWW may be validly criticized from various angles (gender balance, regional representation, selection process of fellows, 'elderly' panelists, perceived political conservatism, etc.), and it may or may not change in the ways we want it to, but it is still an evolving institution which can hopefully adopt practical and concrete proposals for further improvement.”
Moreover, young writers should not go to workshops “to be nurtured,” as one of them said. Works need to be forged in the fire of criticism, in a place where texts are seen not as final products but works-in-progress. The real world of writing means having a life after the workshop. It involves revising one's work, looking for a publisher, selling one's book, and finding a job that would pay the rent and keep one writing. James Joyce and Amado V. Hernandez struggled to create their masterpieces, and so will you, young writers of the Philippines.
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