Jenny Ortuoste’s Poetics

I Write Like a Girl

By Jenny Ortuoste

I had my first creative writing workshop experience several months ago at the University of the Philippines-Diliman in a College of Arts and Letters graduate class taught by writer and professor emeritus Dr Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo. It was a creative non-fiction (CNF) class and the major course requirement was a 5,000-word essay on a person, place, or social phenomena. PhD students like myself were expected to produce more, around 10,000 words – the length of a novella.

The process involved several steps. First, one had to produce an initial exploratory piece of 1,000 or so words which would then undergo a ‘workshop’ – extensive critiques on content, craft, style, and technique – by my classmates and professor. Taking into account the comments given at the first workshop, a draft of the full-length essay would then be handed in for another workshop round prior to the submission of the final polished piece, the culmination of one semester’s work.

Before the first go-round, I had no idea what Dr. Hidalgo meant by “choosing our workshop slots” or what such a session would entail. I was nervous. Anxious. I have a published fiction novel to my name. But my professional background and the bulk of my body of work is in journalism, where there are no workshops nor critiques of style.

In newspaper work, as long as you get the “five w’s and one h” into your story, and it’s factually accurate, you’re fine. Your section editors will fix grammar and usage – that’s what they’re there for. Creative writing is something else entirely, and criticizing someone else’s work is something I am uncomfortable with.

Dr. Hidalgo must have picked up on my trepidation; before the workshop on my piece began she murmured, “Is this your first time? Try not to be sensitive. It’s a learning experience.”

As it turned out she – and quite a few of my classmates (the women) – enjoyed my piece (about the old Santa Ana Park racetrack). They were swept up in the narrative, interested in the sprinkling of karera terms, curious about the lifestyle of a little-known sport (horseracing) and way of life. The men had much to say, mostly on technique – construction, scene transition, and so on.

A male friend whose opinions I value highly told me some months ago, “Your ‘Pop Goes the World’ columns (opinion for the daily broadsheet Manila Standard-Today) are getting better. As for the other stuff – try not to write like a girl.” I was stung. “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I said.

What he meant was that he prefers my critical essays to the lyrical ones. I wanted to point out that he was expressing stereotypical notions of male = logical and female = emotional, but that wasn’t his intention. However, these two incidents recalled to me studies that have found that the minds of men and women do work in different ways. Is it a sex-based wired-in-the-brain thing, therefore inevitable and a given? Is it a social-construction thing of stereotypes embedded in culture and reinforced by tradition and media?

My ‘Pop Goes…’ columns come primarily from the brain. They are analyses of cultural phenomena in Philippine society, informed by social science and literary theory, and are social commentaries from my viewpoint as a communication practitioner and scholar and citizen.

But they are also infused with heart and soul. I use the tools of my art, weaving words and ideas and emotion into nets of fragile gossamer beauty or fabrics of wild or subtle color and texture and dimension, to craft with care works that are ephemeral, existing as they do on only as ink on paper or dancing electrons on a screen, but whose ideas and concepts will have their existence in your mind and remain there, alive, as long as you are, as long as you do not forget.

My heart is a girl’s heart of sixteen summers, warmed by the sunshine of love and tenderness, battered by the storms of rejection and adversity, strong and resilient enough to go on beating with hope and still more glowing hope. It is from this heart that I offer the essays that get the most comments – the “popcorn manifesto”, the column on my sisters and daughters. I write about home and horseracing, which are where my heart is rooted.

It is when I write from my girl’s heart that I reach and touch more.

My male friend said, “Make them think.” Yet do I accomplish more that is humanly significant when I also make readers feel?

My male friend said, “We are not teenagers anymore.”

In my heart I am, ever naïve and gullible, with a core of unshaken innocence that believes no matter how evil some people are, how they may hurt you and others, still good is out there, and life is a quest to look for it to preserve and protect our humanity in its purest form, the condition in which we shall exist – and prevail – in the face of advancing technology and much of world culture’s seeming slide into barbarism and stupidity and cruelty.

Good is out there and I keep searching. Sometimes I find it.

There will be other workshops. I will hear professors and peers critique my forthcoming essays, and I will hone my writing skills. Perhaps I will become more technically proficient, adept at the active opening, smooth transition, and insightful ending. My male friend might have more to say on why he prefers my cerebral pieces to the emotional.

But the cold steel of logic and reason, no matter how essential for the continued existence of society and the evolution of man, needs to be tempered with the warmth of love and affection. The technical finesse of craft requires blending with the spontaneous rush of impulse and the gypsy dance of madness and heart’s desire. Otherwise we run the risk of losing our humanity, that which defines and encompasses us and makes it all worthwhile.

So I will always write like a girl. And that is a good thing. ***

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