Summer writing
SENSES WORKING OVERTIME - Luis Katigbak (The Philippine Star) - June 6, 2014 - 12:00am

Writing is done by facing the blankness and overcoming it with your own words.

When I think of my past summers, I realize that the most significant ones did not involve summer romances, but summer workshops—specifically, in my case, writing workshops. (Not that one precludes the other; the hookup ratio at these things is fairly high. Blame it on a combination of 1. The joy of meeting book-obsessed geeks like yourself, and 2. The need for sweet, messy relief from the intense daily ordeal of being judged on your work by people you barely know.)

Workshops are not, of course, where one first learns how to write. The act of reading is where it begins, as a form of conversation: the reader is constantly reacting to the words he is reading, always questioning or contemplating or accepting. Whether one is reading fact or fiction, autobiography or poetry, one meets the words on a page with words of one’s own.

If — when — the reader develops the urge to write, he or she may begin to feel a kinship of sorts After all, “we are in the same boat,” so to speak: both trying to jot down the best words in the most appropriate order in an effort to express what we feel we must, what we want to.

The young storyteller learns so much from these “conversations,” from reading both bad and good books, by ‘watching’ masters and maladroits at work. Sometimes the storyteller latches on to one or more writers whose work seems to speak so directly to him or her that, beyond the usual ripples that any reading material makes, it leaves permanent indentations on the mind. Yes, I just mixed my metaphors. I hope you will learn to be better writers by observing how badly I handled that.

The point is, one can have as a mentor someone who one has never met. And then there is the real community, which is composed of living, breathing, three-dimensional beings, people one can actually meet, converse with, and punch, if they are sufficiently motivated.

My first awareness of a Philippine writing community came when I attended the 21st UP Summer Writers’ Workshop in Baguio. Before that, I always liked the idea of the artist in solitude, crafting sentences in some room — dingy, perhaps, but accessible to pizza delivery — without caring what anybody else might think. And then I met all these people: fellow writers, of various ages (I was the youngest of the batch, a fact I kept secret as I was offered liquor and other substances), and the panelists — the teachers, the established writers, the judges, if you will.

Grateful as I was for the guidance, and the free Baguio vacation, and the opportunity to meet cute female writers, a thought nagged at me — is this necessary? Are we getting something here that we can’t get anywhere else, something only they can give? I don’t know if you’d call it approval, or an audience; it doesn’t seem that neat. I asked one of the panelists, in private: Can’t one make it as a writer, without all of this scaffolding? He shrugged, and said: “Sure, I believe in genius.” Which was not the answer I wanted, but it was the answer that I got.

In the years since, though, I’ve come to understand that his answer — flippant and dismissive as it may have seemed to me at the time — held truth. Attending a workshop can be a great experience. As fictionist/ book reviewer Sasha Martinez told me, of her summer in the Dumaguete workshop: “I fell in love in Dumaguete; I developed an undying love for Butch Dalisay’s voice. I ate lots of Skyflakes and drank beer at high noon.” And even though it took her some time to banish the “pesky workshoppy voices” in her head that plagued her writing efforts for years after, it’s apparent that she is a better writer than ever.

In the end, we are both always and never alone — you carry your influences, you have mentors in the flesh or on the page, you make connections or you don’t — but writing is done by facing the blankness and overcoming it with your own words. That’s where the stress and the satisfaction are. Of course, if you can score a summer stay in the mountains or by the sea in the meantime, that’s pretty good too.

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