Summertime in Sugarland: The 48th National Writers Workshop

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The 48th Dumaguete National Writers Workshop fellows.  From left: Gabrielle Nakpil, Monique Francisco, Mariane Abuan, Philip Kimpo, Jr., Keith Cortez, Marck Rimorin, Jonathan Gonzales, Niño Manaog, Ana Margarita del Rosario, Aleck Maramag, Patricia Magno, Arkaye Kierulf, Stanley Geronimo, Gabriel Millado, Joy Rodriguez.
Photo montage by Fred Jordan Carnice.

I’m a writer, but I don’t write those summer vacation essays anymore than the student who’ll write it next week.  The sandbars become stockpiles for construction work, the sparkling seas get replaced by shiny office windows, and you’re swimming – literally – for breathing space at any one of the three lines of the train system.  So much for memories of summer.

No, at least not this year, though.

This is how I spent my summer vacation: as a fellow of the 48th Dumaguete National Writers Workshop, held from May 4 to 15, 2009, at Dumaguete City, Oriental Negros.

“Hey, you must be Marck.”  I was trying to light up a cigarette when I heard someone call my name at the Dumaguete airport.  It was Ian Casocot; blogger, writer, fictionist, and our go-to guy for things workshop-related.  The student ambassadors of Silliman University were ready to take us to Harold’s Mansion, the place which we were to call home for the next two weeks.  Jordz Carnice, for the meantime, became everyone’s workshop “yaya,” although the many eating places and great conversations we all had made him pretty much everyone’s best friend at the workshop.

The first stop was the row of stores just across the street.  My hunt for Astro Cigarettes was an utter fail, although I did manage to snag three packs of Camels for the price of a pack of my usual Marlboro Lights.  As I took a drag of the Camel, some shreds of hatred I have had for faraway places vanished like the ashes I flicked away.

What Time Is It?  Silliman!


Fellows, friends, and first week panelists in front of “Katayan Hall”, or Silliman University’s venerable Katipunan Hall.  From left to right, top row: myself, Twiggy Bastareche, Sawi Aquino, Bea Nakpil, Sarge Lacuesta, J. Neil Garcia.  Middle row: Padma Perez, Jonathan Gonzales, Joy Rodriguez, Philip Kimpo, Jr., Petra Magno, Arkaye Kierulf, Keith Cortez, Aleck Maramag, Maoui del Rosario, Jordan Carnice.  Bottom row: Mo Francsico, Ynna Abuan, Krip Yuson, Jimmy Abad, Stan Geronimo, Gab Millado, Niño Manaog.

Now on its 48th year, the Dumaguete National Writers Workshop is the oldest and longest-running creative writing workshop in Asia, geared towards young writers who write in the English language. Founded in 1962 by the late Edilberto K. Tiempo and National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo, a fellowship at the “Duma” is considered the pioneer workshop in creative writing. Nearly every Filipino writer of note has joined the Dumaguete workshop either on fellowship, or participated in the workshop as a panelist or visiting writer.

Of course, I only got to know about that three days into the workshop.

For this year, 15 fellows were selected for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make it to a tight-knit circle of writers and critics. Five made it to Poetry, eight passed for fiction, and two made the cut for creative non-fiction:

  • Poetry: Mariane Amor Romina Abuan of UST; and Jonathan Gonzales, Arkaye Kierulf, Patricia Angela Magno, and Niño Manaog of AdMU.
  • Fiction: Keith Bryan Cortez of UST; Gabrielle Nakpil of AdMU; Monique Francisco of UP Diliman; Gabriel Millado and Joy Rodriguez of UP Mindanao; and Ana Margarita Stuart del Rosario, Russell Stanley Geronimo, and Aleck Maramag of DLSU.
  • Creative non-fiction: Philip Kimpo, Jr. of UP Diliman; and Marck Ronald Rimorin of UP Baguio.

The panel of critics and readers for this year read like a who’s who list of literary vanguards:

  • First week: J. Neil Garcia, Gémino Abad, Myrna Peña-Reyes, Angelo Lacuesta, César Ruiz Aquino, and Alfred Yuson.
  • Second week: Rosario Lucero, Susan Lara, Ernesto Superal Yee, Juaniyo Arcellana, and Grace Monte de Ramos.

4295_104328566814_750351814_3112566_6467381_nMost of the workshop sessions were held at the Katipunan Hall (dubbed the “Katayan Hall”) of Silliman University.  Some other panel sessions were held in some of the most scenic and beautiful places in Oriental Negros. One was held in serene and pristine Lake Balanan, which was a two-hour drive away from Dumaguete. A workshop session for the second week was held at LaLiMar resort at La Libertad, where the beautiful seas facing Cebu were almost distracting us from discussing a couple of poems and short stories.

However it is in the modest conference room of the KH building that we have, at least for two weeks, forged ourselves to become more than just good writers, but critical readers as well.  Some tears were shed, some caustic comments and replies were exchanged, but in the end most of us realized how much of a work in progress we all are.  I guess the humbling and inspiring words (and snacks and Mentos) shared and exchanged at that small room at Katipunan Hall will always be remembered.

Along with those rides to Siaton, Balanan, and of course, “Mexico” – where “interior landscaping” was the order of the day – we had a lot of fun.  But there are those times where clutch-time and crunch-time take one step closer into serious.  And serious drinking, for that matter.  My submissions to the workshop (one about rummage sales and another about the BPO industry) were critiqued to the tip of their serifs, so that gave me an excuse to drink.  The smell of the sea and the wind in my hair gave me an excuse to drink.  The fact that I was with writers and poets who like drinking gave me an excuse to drink.  It’s an artist’s town, a writer’s town, and a beach lover’s town, but Dumaguete is a town for good food and, of course, good drink.

Deeper Shades of Pale (Pilsen)

dsc_1008The drinking spot of choice was Blue Monkey Bar and Grill, which was a relatively new place just across the main hall of Silliman University and a short walk away from Harold’s.  Many a night was spent drinking and talking on the wooden benches of Blue Monkey, and it’s not every day you’re seated at the right hand of Jimmy Abad.  Bottles of Pale, Strong Ice, Light, and Red Horse had as much room as cigarette butts and empty sizzling plates of sisig and French fries.

Eating was an important part of our whole Dumaguete experience.  Places like Neva’s, Royal Suites Inn, Gabby’s Bistro, La Bicolana, Sta. Theresa, Sans Rival, Mamia, and just about every eating place we went to was a welcome respite from the stressing and nerve-racking workshop sessions.  Not only were our minds fed well with advice, our stomachs filled with good food, but our kidneys (more of my own, I think) were filled with alcohol.

4295_104339031814_750351814_3112740_2200436_nIt was also in Dumaguete where we discovered Hayahay, and made a good friend with the poet Mickey Ybanez.  Mickey’s poetry, as well as his friendly jester-like demeanor, rubbed off on all of us at an instant.

Reggae is, was, and will be the order of the day at Hayahay.  While I don’t think I’ll be making dreadlocks from my own hair soon, I think that fun island music will always be a memory deeply associated in this city of gentle people.

Of course, all that drinking (and whatever came along with it) takes its toll on the body, but it was amazing how used you get to the pattern.  I was no Nick Joaquin, but I was definitely imbibing the spirit of the workshop for all it was worth.  I guess all those shots that involve me holding a bottle of Pale Pilsen every time we ate out was the love affair of the Dumaguete workshop.  Katuwaan that it may be, I’ll hang on to that sash and torch for “Couple of the Year.”

Siquijor, War Buses, and Mom Edith


Dumaguete is definitely not the place for people like me who are afraid of large, open bodies of water, although I am getting around that fear.  When Dumaguete sort of became too small for us, the next logical step was to head on over to mystical Siquijor island.

The other interesting thing that happened in the Dumaguete workshop was the founding of a new fellowship: the First Siquijor National Personality Workshop.  A trip around Siquijor went awry, as we didn’t reach the pier on time for the next ferryboat back to Dumaguete (although that’s an episode that deserves its own story, which I’ll try to write soon).  That was an interesting time of “Lord of the Flies” power struggles, solid-steel jeepney bodies made in Siquijor, fireflies near balete trees, and cannonball dives off rocks near the sea.  Which, of course, I took no part in.

A few more beers consumed at the mystical island… it can’t get any better…


Than the Silliman War Bus, of course.  For days, some of us longingly looked outside the windows of KH 1 just to ride this vintage attraction of the campus by the bay.  It took us five minutes to get to the art gallery, where we all shared poetic and lyrical passages.  There were Visayan jokes, there were interpretative readings of Umberto Eco… and I sang my translation of “Halik” by Aegis.

After a fantastic dinner of lechon, we headed off to Rizal Boulevard, where we all got to know more about the sugar houses and the other fantastic stories of Dumaguete.  Far from its ill-deserved reputation for sex scandals and getting its name from pirates, “Dumaguete” now stands for a place where you’ll always come back for more.  True; if not for that haunted house just along the corner.  Or more drinking spots.  Or the refreshing spray of the bay.


No trip to the Dumaguete workshop would be complete without a visit and a short lecture from the grand dame of Filipino poetry herself, “Mom” Edith Tiempo.  At 90 years young, she taught us an important challenge to improve not only form in whatever we’re writing, but also content.

I’m not so sure if I can live up to the challenge of reverberation, unusual content, erudition, and everything else, but I’m sure going to hang on to my manuscript signed by Mom Edith… just as I hope she hangs on to that native tapestry and those headhunter figurines I gave to her as a gift.  For that short while we spent at her beautiful residence at Montemar, we really felt like writers on the long road to recognition.

As soon as it all started, though, it was over.  Two weeks, too soon.

The Only Way Back Is To Say Goodbye

power-treeI don’t know how many cigarette butts or what are left by the roots of that acacia tree by the gate near Katipunan Hall, but that’s a place I know I’ll miss.  From there we shared more than just cigarettes: we shared thoughts, stories, critiques on works, frustrations, and just about anything and everything in between.

Whatever we’ve written for the workshop – the pieces that got us there – will probably be revised, some may even be thrown away, or some may just take the panel’s advice and keep them the way they are.  Some of us may end up indeed as writers, and some of us may probably end up not writing at all anymore, thanks to “workshop curses” or whatever supernatural thing happened at Siquijor.  I am sure, though, that many of us – if not all of us – will be back at Silliman for future workshops.  Maybe for refresher courses, maybe for a visit, or maybe even as panelists.

survivorWhat I am absolutely sure of is that a bond has been formed between all of us – not just as writerly folk or workshop fellows or whatever we think of ourselves – but as peers.  Our poems, stories, and essays are not the only things we shared in this workshop, but friendship as well.

I’d be lying if I said that everyone in the workshop became my best friend, or that I took every bit of advice to heart.  What there were are options.  A menu, of sorts; the most important and significant question being, “Do you still want to be a writer after all of this?”

A clear and vivid “yes,” but that’s a confusing question.  I probably am a writer already.  Maybe I have to go through a lot more workshops and lessons to actually be a writer.  Or maybe I’ll never be one.  All I know is that I’ll keep on writing.

final-shotI thought that it was dumb luck – or verbal taekwondo – that gave me that opportunity to make it to the workshop of all workshops.  I still don’t have a clue of what that is.  What I do know is that I’ll always have a special place in my heart for this gentle place, for its people, and the fellows – and friends – that made the experience all worth it.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing a novel, if a story I wrote will be published in a magazine, if I’ll win a prize, or whatnot.  I don’t care much for that yet.  Perhaps the most important thing I should do now is to just keep on writing, to discover where the writer’s Truth is, and have some fun along the way.  It doesn’t have to end here; somehow, my Dumaguete workshop experience is the beginning of a whole new chapter of my life.

Now is the time for me to start writing chapters.

I think those “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays are more than just class requirements, or diagnostic tests for grammar.  There are stories on beach outings, camping trips, hikes, family reunions, drinking parties, and summer classes.  Some people may not have stories at all.  I guess the point is not about making an essay that satisfies the rules of grammar, but to realize that the memories of a great summer will be with you for a lifetime.

No wonder they make us all write about it.

Pictures from Facebook accounts (mostly from Jordan and Ian), and TheCorsarius@Multiply.

POSTSCRIPT: This entry is written as a living memory of the Dumaguete workshop, and in loving memory of workshop panelist, pianist, teacher, lawyer,  critic, and poet, Ernesto Superal Yee, who died of a heart attack this morning.  It is an honor, tragic as it may be, to have the last stories, poems, and essays to be critiqued by Atty. Yee.  One day soon, Sir Ernie, see you at the crossroads.  – Marocharim

5 comments on “Summertime in Sugarland: The 48th National Writers Workshop”

  1. Reply

    was searching for some of arkaye’s poems when i stumbled upon this site– dunno kung maaalala mo ako, pero isa ako sa staff ni sen. roxas, at nag-small talk tayo sa blogger’s meet ninyo dati. congrats sa dumaguete; talagang nakakabago ng buhay ‘yang workshop na ‘yan.

  2. Reply

    She teaches English punctuation with a Gothic touch!

    June 28, 2009

    Dear Fellow Communicators in English,

    You must have thought that it was the British sports columnist Lynne Truss who started the big English punctuation rush with her best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I thought so, too, until I stumbled on The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, an American who used to teach English and a consummate grammarian with a Gothic touch. It turns out that Karen Gordon had come up with her delightfully instructive punctuation handbook 21 years before Lynne Truss did, and had actually released an expanded and illustrated edition of it in 2003—at least a year before Eats, Shoots & Leaves hit the London bookstores!

    This is just one of the exciting and provocative features lined up this week by Jose Carillo’s English Forum for your enjoyment before, after, or in-between your English shoptalks inside the Forum. Look at the full story lineup to see what I mean:

    THIS WEEK IN THE FORUM (June 27-July 3, 2009):
    •Advice and Dissent: Who Really Started the Great English Punctuation Rush? (It’s an American former English teacher with a Gothic touch!)
    •My Media English Watch: Grammatically, Semantically Troublesome Threesome (Front-page leads trip over commas, a wrong conjunction, and a misplaced modifier!)
    •Essays by Jose Carillo: When Even the Passive Voice Isn’t Enough (Dare to cleave single-clause sentences for semantic emphasis!)
    •Going Deeper into English: A Huge Treasure Trove of Great Short Stories (The very best from Miguel Cervantes to John Updike!)
    •News and Commentary: Philippines Warned to Boost English Skills or Risk Ending Its Current BPO boom (But do we really need an Australian to tell us that?)
    •Getting to Know English: Lesson #9 – Getting to Know the Prepositional Phrases (Some verbs and adjectives are so picky with their partner prepositions!)
    •Time Out from English Grammar: Twixt Mathematics, Technology, and Ancient Religious Belief (Is mathematics a human invention or a cosmic—and possibly divine—order?)

    I know that you couldn’t wait to read these stories, so come on over now without delay. See you at the Forum!

    With my best wishes,

    Joe Carillo

    • merl56
    • May 20, 2010

    a slight correction…Oriental Negros and Dumaguete is not sugarland…Sugarlandia is Occidental Negros, capital city Bacolod 🙂

      • Ian
      • June 7, 2011

      A slight correction to merl56: I live in Dumaguete, and Occidental may have the bigger sugar haciendas, but Negros Oriental too has sugar, and our history is intertwined with the growing of this crop as well. My father owned a hacienda down South. All of Negros is Sugarlandia.

    • Ian
    • June 7, 2011

    A slight correction to merl56: I live in Dumaguete, and Occidental may have the bigger sugar haciendas, but Oriental too has sugar. All of Negros is Sugarlandia.

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