Creative Writing as an Open Door

What motivates a person to take up teaching—and, more specifically, teaching creative writing? What draws young dreamers from Luzon to the promise of Mindanao? In this personal narrative, Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz lays bare not only the psychic benefits of teaching school, but the rewards of the writing craft itself and the challenges of engaging her kindred souls to keep the literary torch burning.

I have been teaching for twenty-five years. 

No matter how many times I write that down, it still doesn’t quite sink in. But then I see a parade of my former students turning forty, or becoming executives, or doctors, or whatever it was they had set out to do, or worse, having children turn eighteen, and I realize that yes, I have been teaching for a quarter of a century. And what a privilege it has been. In my column for Mindanao Times, I once wrote about how a true teacher must have compassion for the student: “Compassion is when you see that your job does not exist in a vacuum. None of us exists in a vacuum. Your student comes into the classroom with a life context and existing wounds, in the same way you do. Our worlds collide and it is important to enter with caution, at least, and with gentleness, at best. Compassion, from the Latin compati meaning “suffer with.” No matter how many degrees or credentials you have, if you do not consciously share the suffering and vulnerability of all living beings, then you have no business being a teacher.” Nowhere is this more true than in the creative writing classroom or workshop. And it is a lesson I am still learning. 

Throughout my twenty years of writing practice, I have been blessed with teachers who were instrumental in awakening the writer in me, as well as motivating me to keep going. I don’t think I would have continued in the path if I had been left on my own. It would have been easier to give up, which is what I actually did for six years during my marriage. But I just couldn’t let go of the opportunities that I had received. It would have been unjust. 

In the beginning, as a Literature major in De La Salle University, I loved to read. But I had two teachers who were also writers and who gave us creative writing assignments in addition to the usual critical papers. One of them bludgeoned my instinct for storytelling immediately by saying my draft was full of cliché and that I was hopeless. But the other one, Marjorie Evasco, focused on what worked in my draft of a poem— a metaphor and an ear for the poetic line. It convinced me I had something. It sparked an ember in me that I will always be grateful for. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes calls it “la chispa,” and that is how a fire begins. Thus, even though it’s old-fashioned to say it now, I really consider Evasco my literary mother. 

But the Philippine literary world is a well-wrought, if feudal system: join a writers workshop, meet senior writers, get published in a magazine, win a Palanca award, get recognized, and then finally get your book published by the grace of the gods, who will write your introduction or your blurbs. This is the same path I took, admittedly, and with no shame. On this well-worn path, Isagani R. Cruz guided me. He was the one who encouraged me to submit my work to the Silliman National Writers Workshop, even though I didn’t really see myself as a writer yet. In fact, I had written only one story and eight poems, which didn’t quite fulfill the requirements, but I got lucky. Edilberto Tiempo liked my story so they accepted me as a Fellow for both fiction and poetry. It was irregular, but it changed my life. In those glorious three weeks, doors flew open. At the end of the three-week workshop, I was certain I wanted to be a writer. 

So I dropped out of the PhD Literature program that I was enrolled in and shifted to the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. As a teacher, that was clearly a lousy decision because I had already completed a Master of Arts in Language and Literature. It didn’t make sense in terms of improving my academic credentials. But I was stoked. I wanted to learn how to write, and the only way I knew how at that time was to take a course in creative writing, which, thankfully, also came with a scholarship. In this program, I was student to the brilliant writers Cirilo Bautista, Luisa Aguilar-Carino (now Igloria), Charlson Ong, Rolando Tolentino, but most significantly, Isagani Cruz. Cruz eventually became my mentor for my thesis, a collection of stories about women loving women. And much later, the publisher of my first book. Sharing the same surname, I am always asked if we are related; why yes, he is my literary father.

Throughout the MFA, there was negative criticism during the workshops, but that only served as fuel during the revision process. Today, fifteen years after I completed the degree, what I distinctly remember from the varied styles of the program faculty members is how important it was that they themselves were creative writers, and had struggled through similar issues in their own work. As a student, I appreciated most this compassion, or “suffering with,” which assured me that I was not alone, that others have been there before and triumphed. The MFA may not have made me a great writer, as no course work ever will, but it certainly taught me how to write, as well as how to teach creative writing. 

In the dark years that I was not writing, I started teaching creative writing as elective courses intermittently. Many of my students complained that it was too hard and that my expectations were too high for students who didn’t really want to be writers. But among that lot, I was glad to meet a handful who were surprised by their own talent, and I hope they are still writing, even as they have other “real” jobs. All it takes is “la chispa” and the refusal to let it die out.

It was only in UP Mindanao in 2007 that I started teaching creative writing to students who were actually studying to become creative writers. What a challenge to strive to become a believable exemplar in what we are teaching, i.e., to assure students we know what we are doing because we’ve done it. And what a difference it has made to my writing practice as well. There, I learned that a crucial aspect of the writing process is discipline. It is what spells the difference between those who finish the course and those who don’t, as well as those who keep writing after graduation, and those who quit. Discipline teaches us that inspiration is nothing but a spark, and without consistent effort, it will not become a fire. Discipline teaches us that an open door is just that—we need to take the necessary steps to walk through it in order to get to what’s beyond—no matter how tired or afraid we are. 

Moving to Davao in 2007 was a door that I bravely entered, and which has brought my writing practice along a different but parallel path. Joining the Davao Writers Guild has given me many opportunities to serve and shape the writing community. As its first director, I helped organize the Davao Writers Workshop (DWW) in 2009, and thus began to participate in fostering the established Philippine literary system. The DWW was designed as an entry-level workshop for writers from Mindanao in order to prepare them for the national writers workshops, or for publication in our own literary folio, Dagmay. As is the norm, the workshop is competitive, so prospective fellows need to submit their works for consideration by a deliberations committee. Certainly, we choose fellows based on skill, but we also prioritize what we call “workshoppability” of the drafts—whether the pieces open up specific aspects of literary craft to discussion. We also sometimes select fellows for “potential,” as evidenced by the material they are working with, particularly Mindanawon issues. We try to encourage writing in Binisaya, the lingua franca of the region. Lastly, we ensure that we have fellows from outside Davao City, as a way of expanding our geographical reach. In the DWW, I will dare say it is not about patronage, but access. 

Being part of the DWW as director for three years, and as a panelist for the next four, has taught me that being a writer in Mindanao isn’t just about writing. It is about helping create an environment that enables others to tell their own stories. No matter how difficult it can get to organize the workshop, especially when the grant money is released late, it is always rewarding when the writing spark is ignited (or fanned) in the fellows. We do it by giving the fellows a sense that their writing matters. Yet admittedly, one of the legendary DWW lines is Macario Tiu’s “Ilabay na lang ni sa Bankerohan River,” which he delivers (year after year) when necessary, and always with his trademark sincerity. As a writer, I know how painful it is to be told that a draft is better off thrown away than revised, but it is an important lesson we all need to learn. While I always try to find something to save in the drafts, I do sometimes feel that sometimes, starting over is the only way to get on the right path. But it is a decision that only the writer him/herself can make.

Maybe I haven’t been the kindest or most compassionate creative writing teacher these past nine years. It takes its toll. We become impatient with beginners struggling with emotional issues, and making excuses. Heck, the grammatical errors alone can make one scream. But it is always gratifying when I see some of them go on to publish, or to join national writers workshops, or even win writing awards. To me it feels like coming full circle; giving back to the larger community of writers what I have myself received. 

The writers workshop is now quite an established aspect of Philippine literature, led by Silliman clocking in more than fifty years, and having “birthed” many literary stars. Yet statistics also show that some writers do quit after the workshops, or along the way. And surely, some writers have made it even without having undergone workshops. Why do we keep doing it? When Davao Writers Guild held a strategic planning, one of the key decisions we discussed was whether or not we should keep the DWW going. While its benefits may not be as immediately quantifiable as grant-giving bodies are now demanding, we all still believe in the role that the workshop plays in developing the community. As writers ourselves, we cannot resist the terrifying invitation of an open door. 

(Ms. Cruz’s book, ”Women Loving. Stories and a Play,” the first single-author Philippine anthology of lesbian-themed works, was published in 2010 by De La Salle University and Anvil Publications. Last year, her stories were published as an eBook entitled "Women on Fire.” She is presently Associate Professor of literature and creative writing at the

University of the Philippines Mindanao and president of the Davao Writers Guild, Inc.)

______________________

NOTE: This year, the Davao Writers Workshop will be held on November 30 – December 4 at The Big House in Juna Subdivision, sponsored by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts and UP Mindanao. Keynote lecture by guest panelist, Timothy Montes is on November 30 at 10 am. Craft lectures will be given by other panelists every day at 9-10 am on December 1-4. All the sessions are open to the public. Workshop Director is Jhoanna Lynn Cruz assisted by Deputy Director Jeffrey Javier.