published 7 Apr 2008, MST
I spent last Monday at St. Paul’s College in Pasig, having been invited as a resource speaker and contest judge for opinion writing at the third Asian Campus Journalism Fellowship for Paulinian Writers and Teacher-Advisers. In attendance at the two-day conference were grade school and high school writers, artists and school paper advisers from the 33 schools owned and administered by the Congregation of St. Paul of Chartres.
I started agonizing about my presentation the minute I got the invitation. Make me write all day on anything and I would manage to cough up a few paragraphs, pages even. But speaking before a large audience—by Sunday, 30 March, there had been 80 names in the sign-up sheet, I was informed—was a new challenge. That I was assigned to the high school division exerted additional pressure on me: How does one conduct a lecture before dozens of teenagers who are used to interactive media and who seem to get by on a language of their own?
My first plan was to play it safe by just writing a “speech”...not even a real speech meant to be delivered before an audience, but a simple essay discussing the subject matter. I figured nothing could go wrong there, and if ever I got overwhelmed by the crowd, I could always read my piece aloud.
But I had not gone past the first two paragraphs of my “speech” when I stopped typing altogether. This was wrong, I thought. I took out, instead, a pen and paper and started an outline, in bullet points and phrases. I ditched the didactic approach (that’s what the books are for) and started following a train of thought guided by my daily experiences in this newspaper.
Later, I transferred my scribblings to a Word document. I junked the Powerpoint. I was personally averse to too much color, animation, graphics, even fancy transitions. And, after all, isn’t good writing the same—the less frills, the more effective?
Friends and mentors also gave me a pat on the back, telling me that the most important thing was to establish a connection with my audience—immediately. If I got that one thing right, everything would follow.
The best advice I got was to just go ahead and have fun. These were children and they signed up for the talks not because they me to tell them Gospel truths on opinion writing, but because they were eager to learn more about the practical experience of putting down one’s opinions on paper, in coherent form.
I had lunch at the school, arriving just in time to meet the conference organizers, led by Mr. Ruben Velarde and Mr. Ronald Santos, as well as the speakers for the other categories. I knew one of them, Mr. Rey Binuya, my own former high school paper adviser, who had just finished his talk on newswriting for grade school students. By the end of the meal, I was already relaxed and confident. I actually could not wait to meet these children.
What I had not been prepared for was the heat, and the notorious after-lunch slot. The talk was scheduled at 1:30 in the afternoon in a rather sunny side of the school building. Had I been part of the audience, I would have had difficulty concentrating, too. Nevertheless, I counted 60 or 70 people by the time I started talking; an hour and a half later, there were children sitting on the floor on the sides of the conference room.
The workshop was called “Beyond Expression.” The main idea was while there was no such thing as a good or bad opinion, there exist good and bad opinion pieces. I added that as journalists, their objectives must transcend merely expressing their views. They must provoke thought or, if they are lucky, action. They must inspire.
It was not a lecture in the sense that I enumerated things they should or should not do in order to come up with good opinion pieces. I was, after all, just a few years older than them (ehem!) and the best way to get through them would be to tell them about my everyday struggles with the op-ed page of this newspaper. In short, nagkuwento lang ako—my little crises, how I get by, how I decide what’s relevant or not, how I try to outdo myself every time, and why I am still here.
I hope I inspired those kids. Through their questions and the workshop, I got a peek into the stumbling blocks of campus journalists and an idea of what they considered relevant to their young lives.
The talk was only half the story. A contest on opinion writing followed. I was supposed to help oversee that and then judge the entries, but since I had to dash from Pasig City to the newsroom in Port Area, Manila in record time (it was already 3 p.m. by then), I just made arrangements for the entries to be hand carried to my office later that evening.
Before I left, however, I decided on the topic the contestants were supposed to write about. Considering that they were mostly incoming high school juniors and seniors, I asked them to write an opinion piece on whether parents should have a say on the courses their children would take up in college. I looked forward to reading the entries.
I was not disappointed. Most of the 38 entries were in English, but I counted five or six that had been written in Filipino. Some of the children said parents should not interfere with their children’s career choices. They said what was at stake was the rest of the children’s lives; they would only do well, they said, in fields they themselves chose. On the other hand, some said they would be willing to defer to their parents’ ideas because they (parents) were wiser and knew what was best for them. The more substantial entries enumerated the arguments for both sides before settling down to a “safe” mix of autonomy and parental guidance. The outstanding ones employed simple language in delivering their point, as well as an occasional original metaphor, such as the two front wheels and the two rear wheels of a vehicle.
Thankfully, I did not have to rank the winners. The judges were simply asked to name five “Most Promising” and five “Most Outstanding” entries. To this day—and although I spent hours making sure I carried out my role as judge effectively—I am worried that I may have failed to recognize well-written entries or unduly commended the more mediocre ones.
But then again, it’s just one piece. Good writing is not defined by a single piece; it’s an attitude of diligence and pursuit of excellence. It’s the ability to say something in a way that’s purely your own. It’s recognizing you can’t be brilliant every day—but that you can constantly try.
I didn’t quite make that last point very clear with those students, but I hope they stay long in the business, enough to discover that gem of a fact on their own.