Keeping the pen going
*I wrote this essay 3 years ago and submitted it for the big anniversary celebration of the Dumaguete Writers’ Workshop. It was ultimately rejected by the editors so I’m sharing it here.
If my life is turned into a line graph, one would notice that there are a few points in the line that disturbed the line in one way or another—bent it towards another direction, perhaps—divided it into two or more little lines before coalescing once again; but the line, no matter how skewed, even frayed, always goes forward. If one looks closely at these ‘points of disturbance’, there would be one that represents my participation in the 35th Dumaguete National Writer’s Workshop. I imagine it to be one big red dot, pulsing with passion and desire.
In May 1996 I was a 22-year-old registered nurse who was silently resisting taking the path that lay before someone like me: find work in a clinic or a hospital for experience, take the CGFNS exams then work abroad, preferably in America. Two years before I took a position at an NGO working on HIV/AIDS prevention, which my parents approved with reservation. At 22 I have come to terms with, and have accepted, my sexuality; I was in the midst of ‘coming out’ to friends when I went to Dumaguete.
More importantly, at 22 I was also reacquainting myself with the craft of writing. In spite of being an award-winning student journalist in elementary and high school, my writing came to almost a halt in college. I was happy to write the required works in 5 semesters of English but beyond that, I didn’t write. I rediscovered writing a few months after graduating, while I was reviewing for the Nursing Board Exams. In 1995 I got accepted at the UP National Writer’s Workshop. It was my first time to be in the company of aspiring and established writers, talking about nothing but writing, art, and the art of writing. I was giddy. I learned a lot from this workshop but socially I struggled because I felt like a clueless outsider. Most of the participants knew each other prior to attending the workshop while those coming from certain schools were sort of clannish when it came to new company.
When I first saw the announcement for the 1996 Dumaguete workshop, I felt afraid. In Baguio I heard about the triumvirate of workshops aspiring writers usually go through: Baguio, Dumaguete and Iligan. My new friend from the Baguio workshop said that the Dumaguete workshop is where the real writers are picked out from the aspiring ones. He had told me the story of one participant who supposedly threw all his manuscripts overboard as he traveled back to Manila because he was told in the workshop to stick to his day-job. But I was also excited at the prospect of spending 3 weeks on a place I haven’t seen. In the end, I guess I wasn’t that afraid. I submitted my poems and stories and I got accepted.
Coming to Dumaguete, I was no longer just the ‘nurse who wrote’; I was a workshop ‘veteran’ and a published writer. Two poems I wrote about the Baguio workshop came out in Philippine Free Press while another got published in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. But the workshop still blew me away. Memories of the 3 weeks I spent in Dumaguete will always be cherished, stored deep in my heart. Not all memories are pleasant; I shed a few tears when some of my works received scathing feedback. What the workshop instilled upon me was the love of the word, which emanated from Mom Edith and Dad Ed and the panelists. The love for continuous learning was something that I gladly shared with my co-fellows, some of whom remain my friends to this day. Who would’ve expected socially-awkward me to make life-long friends in 3 weeks?
Once, after discussions on one of my poems wrapped up, Mom Edith asked me about a detail that seemed to baffle the readers. I was worried because it was a metaphor that masked a subtle gay reference but I explained it to her. She just nodded her head sagely and smiled and when I was done she said, “I thought so. Then there is no need to alter your poem.” Days later she would sign her book of poems with this dedication:
Keep the pen going, but always in the right direction, okay?
The Dumaguete workshop influenced my writing from then onwards. I haven’t stopped from writing, to be frank. No matter how many ‘points of disturbances’ I encountered, writing has become the constant thing in my life. That is why that big red dot in my lifeline keeps on throbbing with desire, with passion for the written word. Had I seen Mom Edith after the 1996 workshop, I’d have told her that I have kept the pen going but, whether it was in the right direction or not, who is to say? I write from my heart–flawed as it is.