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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

entry arrow1:29 PM | Getting Busy with LitCritters

Every so often, one gets bitten by the need to start something new. Call it an advocacy of sorts, even a mission, but this year I've taken a group of former students to try to explore the geography of fiction. This includes, of course, an immersion into the craft of creative writing.

It's an expected extension of any teacher's life. The four walls of the classroom can only do so much. Sometimes when marking a student paper, I find myself commenting that what I am holding is exemplary stuff, if a little inchoate in its literariness. Brilliance is always marvelous to behold in a prevalent academic atmosphere where college has become, more or less, a factory for overseas employment. (It is now sadly a culture where conscientious teaching easily labels anybody a "difficult" teacher. Do you remember that line in The Incredibles when Mr. Incredible laments about a culture where mediocrity is fervently rewarded? Sometimes I feel that way about things.) So, knowing that defeat is inevitable in the struggle for molding students of truly incisive intellect, most of the time the extent with which I acknowledge "brilliance" is to tell the student he or she has, well, "potential" (what a dirty word), and then wish them good tidings with their talent. Then the student graduates a nurse or whatever, and all writing potential is lost in the ensuing rat race.

The torment for any teacher would be this: if one had done more to encourage, and to actually take people under one's wings, would the outcome have been more different? Mentorships are rare these days. (I had mine in writer Timothy Montes and über-scholar Ceres Pioquinto -- and they taught me well.) All people of consequence have solid tales of meeting teachers who showed them a path. It is a mythology I subscribe to because it gives me another reason to stay in a profession easily trumped by the salaried success of regular call-center agents. So I told myself I'd answer these questions this year, and thus LitCritters Dumaguete was born.

The name LitCritters is a clever (or cute -- you choose) reworking of the term "literary criticism" to denote those who take part in the practice. The idea for the group was first conceived in Manila in 2005 by the novelist and speculative fiction advocate Dean Francis Alfar to help his circle of closest writer/friends appreciate and develop the craft of fiction writing.

LitCritters (in Manila) remains to this day an exclusive group of six that includes Dean, the graphic fictionist Andrew Drilon, Vincent Michael Simbulan, Nikki Go-Alfar, Kate Osias, and Alex Marcos Osias -- all of them writers of note. Because of my special "geographic dislocation," I remain a kind of member-at-large -- although I still am expected to take part in the rigorous reading and writing exercises that Dean devises for the group in a weekly basis. (The latest writing challenge for all of us is to come up with a 75,000-word novella by 31 March 2007!)

LitCritters Dumaguete is a "branch" of this exclusive group, which I will be moderating with Dean's blessings. LitCritters Dumaguete will group together six former students, all of whom show the greatest potential (at least for me) in terms of creative writing right now in Silliman University. This would include Michelle Eve de Guzman, Robert Jed Malayang, Rodrigo Bolivar, Lyde Villanueva, Marianne Tapales, and Anthony Gerard Odtohan. We met for the first time last Saturday, taking them through an exhaustive reading of three stories by William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, and Socorro Villanueva. (Hardier tasks will come in future sessions.)

The mechanics for LitCritters is simple. We meet once a week. Everyone is expected to read the stories. Writing, after all, begins with reading: one cannot be a serious writer if one does not do the reading required for one's writerly education. Every week, we read four stories. LitCritters Manila mostly tackles speculative fiction. Due to the "amateur" nature of the members of LitCritters Dumaguete, however, we are peppering our reading with selections from the classics, as well as genres that include realism, etc. Dean once told me that "the purpose of having different sorts of stories is to see the strengths of each genre, including the 'genre' of realism." And sometimes, we deliberately choose poorly written stories "to deny the 'praise the story' mentality that tends to crawl in most workshops." Ultimately, the goal of the group is to sharpen the ability to critique. This is where we learn the words and the terminology to call a spade a spade.

There is a brief lecture on some aspect of craftwork or storytelling or literary interpretation, and each person in the group is expected to critique the text by turns, based on discourse elements and craftwork. The main purpose is to learn from the stories how to write better. We in LitCritters are expected to go beyond simple "critiquing" such as: "I like it," or "The story is nice." What we want to foster is a vigorous and detailed reasons for liking or disliking a story.

Every four weeks, we are expected to write original stories (we call these the LitCritter Originals) for the group, not to exceed 5,000 words, nor to go below 1,500 words—unless otherwise specified. The goal is to improve the story, and to revise it for national publication (in Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic, Story Philippines, or in any of the anthologies that are regularly published), for national awards (the Palanca Awards, the NVM Gonzalez Awards, the Neil Gaiman Graphic Awards, the Salanga Writers Prize, and others), and eventually for international publication.

We -- my former students and I -- are doing this beyond our everyday academic demands. Who knows what things this exercise will bring us? Hopefully the good stuff. That should give this one real-life narrative a very happy ending.

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