Flight: LSGH Writing Fellows Soar in Workshop

Young Writers’ Workshop

            I’d already been awake for nearly three hours by the time we arrived at the 14th floor of the Henry Sy Sr. Hall for the 2018 Young Writers’ Workshop. It was 7:40 am, and we were twenty minutes early for the registration. The students were a bit groggy still, having slept on the way there, and a part of me admired their relaxed attitude when my own nerves were stretched taut.

            The workshop, spearheaded by the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center (BNSCWC) of De La Salle University, had only invited a select number students from the following senior high schools: De La Salle Araneta University, De La Salle College Antipolo, De La Salle Green Hills, De La Salle Santiago Vermosa Campus, DLSU IS Senior High: Manila, and DLSU IS Senior High: Laguna.

On our part, La Salle Green Hills had six fellows, split cleanly down the middle:

From left to right: Jaime De los Reyes (12M, Poetry), Kenneth Caparas (12L, Poetry), Rafael Sumilong (12N, Fiction), Benamino Acuńa (12M, Fiction), André Enriquez (12N, Poetry), and Michael Gutierrez (12L, Fiction)

            The facilitators for the one-day event were acclaimed writers Prof. Timothy Montes (Fiction) and Dr. Mésandel V. Arguelles (Poetry). The morning was to be spent on the introduction to their respective genres, followed by writing techniques and writing exercises. The workshop/critique of whatever creative output the students managed to produce was allocated two hours after lunch.

The DLSU student-assistant handed us our kits, and the looks on the students’ faces when they saw the brown envelop filled with sheets of intimidatingly blank bond paper made me laugh. I suppose it hadn’t really sunk in until that moment; how they’d be compelled to write that day.

“All right,” I said, trying not to make things worse, “don’t panic.” Admittedly, looking back, that was terrible advice, if only because it wasn’t at all helpful. “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think you could write,” I added, hands up and palms facing them in the universal sign of ‘look, I’m not lying’.

At that moment, the student-assistant piped up. “You can go in,” he said, gesturing towards the quarter-filled room with its white walls and wide windows, cushioned green chairs and stark gray desks. The other workshop fellows inside were chattering amongst themselves. From where we stood, the sky was bright with morning.

“All right. Let’s go.”

And so it went.

Finding the Metaphor

“Poetry is metaphor,” Dr. Arguelles informed the group of faintly terrified looking poetry fellows, his arms cinched close to his sides as he stood beside the moveable whiteboard, right hand clutching a marker. “It’s saying something and meaning another.”

He went on, discussing the different elements of poetry: imagery, figures of speech, diction, persona, line cuts and enjambment— each one as important as the last. “Metaphor bridges the gap. It makes the impossible real. When we say ‘you are a rose’, that’s not to be taken literally. If you,” he gestured to one fellow at the back, “turn into a rose I’m going to run out of here screaming.”

            The group laughed at that, and most of the morning was spent that way: alternating between laughter, lecture, and practical application. “Not all poems have meaning. Meaning is arbitrary simple because we, the readers, are part of the meaning-making process,” he explained as he showed the group a varied array of poems.

By 11:30, he gave the writing exercise that would decide the best poet of the batch. All were afforded approximately thirty minutes to complete their poem before it would be collected and critiqued by the facilitator. The challenge was it could only be two sentences long, and everyone’s poem had to start with the line: ‘I love and hate’.

This limitation was perhaps for two reasons: one, to be able to workshop every student, and two, to enhance their awareness over their choice of words. Despite this, and the worry that everyone would have the same hugot-type output, the poems were well made, if not amazing.

And in the end, perhaps that’s what makes poetry stand out from all the other genres— its utilization of language. A poet must be aware of the nuance of his words, his stops and starts, the sound of each syllable alone and together.

“Poetry is the best words in the best order,” Dr. Arguelles reiterated. “Everything has its purpose.”

A Writer’s Sensibilities

“You write better than I did at your age,” Professor Montes admitted, his smile a touch rueful as he gave his comments. The fellows having split up into groups of three, each assigned to write either the beginning, middle, or end of their short story. The fiction workshop had been expected to be grueling, a test of both writing skill and control over one’s tear ducts. Much to all of our surprise, everyone’s critique had ended in much deserved praise.

“I could never come up with what you have in such a short amount of time,” Prof. Montes added, as the fellows read stories that ranged from the everyday occurrences in a convenience store, the family troubles of a soldier with a surprise twist, to a harrowing interview of a serial killer. “I wonder if that’s because of your generation.”

This comment was a throwback to his earlier lecture on sensibilities, how a creative work is influenced by the writer’s background. These sensibilities reveal themselves through every choice the author makes: from language to subject matter to character point of view and story structure.

The writer went on to note how each of the fellows already had a distinct “voice” and what an accomplishment that was given their youth. “There’s nothing quite like the achievement of writing, of creation,” he confessed. “It’s something indelible.”

 “Continue writing,” Prof. Montes urged the fellows. “Write the story only you can write.”

Twist Ending 

The day ended on a high note. With the workshop breaking the ice between co-fellows, the room bubbled over with conversations between newfound friends. By the time the facilitators were to announce whom the most notable fictionists and poets in the batch were, the air was rife with laughter and friendly cajoling.

For Poetry, Dr. Arguelles chose a fellow from La Salle Green Hills: André Enriquez (12N).

Prof. Montes, given the amount of raw talent in his batch, confessed to choosing three writers to honor: two who wrote in English and one in Filipino. Of the three of them, two of those were from LSGH, namely: Michael Gutierrez (12L) and Rafael Sumilong (12N).

The aforementioned fellows, caught by surprise, all joyfully bounded up to receive their award: a warm handshake and a book by National Artist Cirilio Bautista.

After a rather comedic graduation ceremony where everyone seemed to, at one point or another, forget to shake the hands of the facilitators or frantically rush off without getting their picture taken, Prof. Montes and Dr. Arguella ended the day echoing each other’s sentiments, which I hope will take root not only in our writing fellows, but also the aspiring ones reading this:

“Stay young, stay crazy. Keep the fire burning. Animo La Salle.”

Last Word

While it’s a bit late to say this now (and a touch self-serving as your Creative Writing teacher): I am truly proud of all of you. To survive a writing workshop is no easy feat, and to come away with awards no less.

Congratulations, writing fellows! Job well done!