Applying for a National Writing Workshop: A Non-Definitive Guide

I think I’ve mentioned only once on this blog that I was a creative nonfiction writing fellow for this year’s UST National Writers’ Workshop. But I know I’ve talked about it to death the past couple months and posted endlessly on social media, so bear with me because this is the last time I’ll talk about it. 😉

I really didn’t think I’d get in. Countless writers from around the country submit their manuscripts every year to UST, as well as for the UP, DLSU, Ateneo, Silliman and Iligan national workshops; and competition’s always tight. Plus there’s the mentorship/patronage stuff I talked about before, which I think exists in every institution, not just in creative writing.

Those who know me well also know I was terrified. It was my first-ever national workshop, and before that I relied only on small and comfortable class workshops. I didn’t know anyone at UST except for one professor, and we met only once. I’ve heard horror stories of fellows getting thoroughly chewed out at workshops like these, of panelists on their best diva behavior, of the high attrition rate of writers post-workshop.

But it all worked out in the end. I had an amazing time and learned so much. It’s always good to hear other viewpoints, find holes in your work that you didn’t know existed, and widen your writing-centric support system.

I think a co-fellow got it right when he said we still have a high from the workshop. So we were surprised when the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies (UST CCWLS) announced it was already accepting applications for next year’s workshop. Break-up stage na, mga bes.

(Several other calls for submission have popped up afterward, like the one for the 57th UP National Writers’ Workshop. Awards season is also underway, with this year’s Palancas in the bag, and the Philippines Graphic‘s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards scheduled on September 13.)

Here’s the official poster for the 2018 UST workshop, if you’re interested.

(Go to the UST CCWLS Facebook page for more info, and to see the photos and videos from this year’s workshop.)

I had to answer a lot of questions when I got back, mostly about applying for writing fellowships and how the workshop went. You can say this is my attempt to answer everything. Since I’ve only been to the UST workshop, that serves as my main reference. I guess some items could apply to other national workshops as well, or even journal/anthology submissions.

Also, I have creative nonfiction writers and manuscripts in mind for this blog, but I think some advice could work for writers in other genres, too.

Lastly, I don’t guarantee your acceptance into any workshop. Walang sisihan, ha.

Working on your manuscript

  1. Write about whatever you want. Don’t ask former/current fellows, panelists, professors, etc. about what the screening panel would like to read. What matters is how you get your point across, and how good you are in your chosen genre. You’ll be judged on talent and merit, not your ability to kiss ass.
  2. Better yet, write about what you know and who you are.
  3. Some workshops have a specific theme (like the 2017 IYAS La Salle National Writers’ Workshop). If that’s your jam, go for it. If not, don’t force it.
  4. Be honest. This obviously goes beyond CNF submissions. Do not plagiarize. Ever.
  5. You do the work. Don’t expect your fellow writers, the panelists, and/or writing fellows to tell you how to rewrite your manuscript, or do the thinking for you.
  6. Don’t rush. Please don’t be like me. I wrote my second CNF piece just three days before UST CCWLS’s original deadline, and edited it and sent in all requirements two days before deadline, leaving one day for contingency in case the courier couldn’t deliver my manuscript. I wanted to say more, and better express what I had already said, but didn’t have the luxury of time anymore. You must plan ahead, make time for writing/editing/rewriting/re-editing your manuscript, and submit ahead of the deadline.

Submitting your manuscript and other requirements

  1. Follow the guidelines. Kung deadline, deadline. Kung may specified format, sundin n’yo yun. Kung may sinabing number of hard/soft copies at recommendation letter, etc., sumunod. Huwag pa-cute dahil hindi cute ang ganyang ugali.
  2. Send a manuscript that you’re confident enough to show everyone. Most people will tell you to send your best work, but my mentor had it right in saying I shouldn’t. If you send your best work, ano pa iwo-workshop diyan? Anong point?
  3. Put in another way: Send a manuscript you can defend, but also flexible enough that it can give you several options/directions post-workshop.
  4. If you don’t have a writing mentor, ask a former professor for your recommendation letter. Just make sure said professor actually remembers you, has worked closely with you, and can truthfully vouch for you. For the non-lit types… sorry, I’m not sure if former employers/supervisors can also make your recommendation letters.
  5. Allot at least one full day for courier delivery. Since I couldn’t go to UST myself, I used LBC’s document delivery service. LBC also sent me a confirmation message the minute someone from UST signed for my delivery package. Great for peace of mind.

After submitting your manuscript

  1. Calm down. You’ll hear from them in a few months.

So you got in…

  1. Congratulations! Well done. Celebrate. Tell select loved ones. Have a drink, or two, or ten. Tell your persistent inner fear this:

  2. If the workshop coordinator says you can’t post on social media yet, don’t post on social media. Wait for the official announcement. (And when you tell a few people it’s a secret, make sure they can actually keep a secret.)
  3. The announcement is finally made. Go ahead, enjoy. Revel in it. Click on that Share button.
  4. Ask questions, especially after you get the official workshop manuscript and itinerary. Don’t assume everything in there is explicit, especially if you’re like me and don’t check Facebook announcements all the time. For example, I thought we were just attending this year’s Poetry Slam with the Baguio Writers’ Group. I didn’t know we were actually slated to compete against them. Yay, me.
  5. Read the workshop manuscript ahead of time, and read each piece thoroughly. As one fellow said, it’s unfair if someone has read and analyzed your work and wants to help you out, and you don’t do the same for him/her.

During the workshop

  1. It’s a national writing workshop, not a vacation. Pull your weight.
  2. Be nice. You’re with strangers (up to 14 other writing fellows, and more than 10 panelists and support staff) for a week (or more) away from home. I know you shouldn’t shit in your own backyard, but at least don’t be a little shit while you’re there. Or: don’t be that little shit people will talk about derisively for years. You don’t have to be BFFs with everyone, but at least be cordial.
  3. Stay humble. Huwag kang Galing na Galing Sa Sarili (GGSS). Acknowledge your shortcomings; and say thank you, because everyone gave their time and effort to read your manuscript and try to understand you using your point of view.
  4. Listen and learn. From the workshop proper to the stories and gossip told on the sidelines, listen to everything and everyone. You’re there to learn and improve your writing, and get out of your usual bubble, so maximize it.
  5. Keep an open mind, but don’t be a pushover, either. If a fellow/panelist says something you strongly don’t agree with, or if they got something completely wrong, defend yourself and your work. (This is why I also said you must be confident in your manuscript.) If you two (or more) need to hash it out after your session, do so. But do it calmly and civilly.
  6. Don’t hold grudges. Don’t make it personal. And don’t be like my mentor, who actually punched someone out after her workshop session. 😜
  7. Analyze/Criticize others’ work objectively, and within the bounds of their genres. Don’t insist on your personal preferences, ideals, and life lessons. It’s not your story/essay/poem/play/script; and not everything is about you, or even concerns you.
  8. If you really can’t help but be angry at or offended by something someone said, take a time-out. Sit out a session or two. Get it together, then return to the workshop table.
  9. You don’t have to follow every advice/input as is. You can choose which advice to take, ignore or tweak.
  10. If you want to follow in the informal tradition of writing fellows dating each other, remember: Workshop first, landi later (preferably when you all go back home), and landi responsibly. Umayos ka.

For future USTNWW fellows

  1. Choose your videoke song(s) and slam-ready poems ahead of time. Tapos kailangan performance mode ka for both. 😜
  2. Bring a heavy jacket, pants, and closed-toe shoes. Self-explanatory.
  3. Prepare your stomach. You will eat five meals a day for six days (seven in our case). Then if you’re like us, you will also eat an entire pizza at the Pizza Volante branch near Wright Park before dinner; and order a large one from Yellow Cab after midnight, in the middle of a storm. In short: leave the belt and tight clothes at home, and give your poor delivery dude a generous tip.
  4. What to do after workshops? Walk to nearby Cafe Yagam for drinks and socials. Explore Baguio. Or hold movie marathons in your room for everyone. All are excellent ice-breakers.

After the workshop

  1. Keep in touch with your fellow writing fellows and your panelists. Writers need as big of a support system as we can get. And not everyone will be able to relate to that week or more you spent being more serious than usual about the craft.
  2. Keep writing! Make that attrition rate go lower.
  3. Keep applying for other workshops, or for publication. Why stop at one? Career-in mo na!

If you didn’t get in…

  1. It’s alright! Try submitting to other national workshops, and/or try again next year. Calls for submissions are posted year-round, so you won’t run out of options.
  2. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t base your value/talent as a writer on local fellowships and accolades. Many great writers I know didn’t even bother with an MA/MFA, or with the whole workshop/journal/research/awards circuit. Some don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. This is just one route; you can take others if you wish, and you’ll always find your audience. Or you can take your talents overseas through scholarships, and/or submit to international publications and workshops. You never know.
  3. Not to keep your hopes up, but national workshops also pick substitute fellows. There will be cases when a writing fellow suddenly won’t be able to attend the workshop, i.e. death in the family, medical emergencies, etc. So there will be one surprise slot. I’ve been told that UP names its substitute fellows along with its original roster. UST doesn’t — so when the CCWLS calls, you better answer! 😉
  4. If someone you know got a fellowship and you didn’t, hold your tongue, especially if other people are asking them about their experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re competitive by nature or not. Reminding the fellow that you didn’t get in and they did isn’t just sourgraping — it’s fucking rude, and it reflects badly on you. You’re basically demanding that they apologize for what they accomplished, or that it’s their duty to make you feel better when it’s absolutely not.

Well. Hope that helps. Good luck! 😃