Every year, when the winners of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature are announced, you always read about first-time awardees who succeed on their first attempt, and in a major category at that. This isn’t one of those stories.
By the time September began, I had already developed an absurd if not juvenile aversion to the mailroom. In August, I imposed a rule that I would check my designated metal box at most once a week, preferably on a busy day, when I had several items in my schedule, my mind cluttered with more important things to do. That way, I would not subject myself to the cycle of breathless anticipation, eventual disappointment, unhealthy sourgraping, and lingering self-doubt, any more than was necessary.
Deliverance could not come soon enough. It had been a week since Gabby Lee posted a photo of her husband’s congratulatory letter and cream envelope on Instagram (Short story, different category, I’m good). A day earlier, Jeff Canoy winning first prize for his narrative on the Marawi crisis made the rounds on social media (Same category, that leaves two more empty slots, I’m still good). No searching on Google. No clicking on Twitter hashtags. Rules kept the pang of failure transient and at a minimum, almost negligible in the grand scheme of things.
That morning though, I needed to check my electricity bill. It would usually arrive on the first week of the month and I did not want to pay penalty charges out of petty dread. So I took the elevator down, and with hesitant steps, made my way to the mailroom as a stowaway would walk the plank in pirate movies. Every time my Beach Walk slippers hit the marble flooring, they made a slapping sound that repeatedly bounced off the walls lined by metal boxes, a reverberation that would climax either with mental applause or a taunting gong, depending on what was in my mailbox. Or not in it.
I bent forward and peeped into the aperture of 24R, a sliver of yellow light revealing the mailbox’s contents. If this were an indie movie, the camera’s POV would reverse at this point, to show my furrowed brows and the dilation of my pupils as they scrutinized what’s inside. Silence, except for my heart’s thumping, every pulsation forcing itself out of my eardrums, only to be pulled back and shoved to the back of my throat. There’s the expected utility bill. A small piece of paper, face down, resting on top of it, too. Maybe a notice from the post office? Which courier did the foundation use? I would not know, and I could not was not allowed to Google. I inserted my key and flipped the metal cover up.
The piece of paper was a flyer for another apartment unit on sale. Unsolicited. Unwanted. Unapologetic. What a waste of extra heartbeats.
It was probably time to accept that I had lost for the third consecutive year, fifth year in total since 2007. That brings the tally of casualties to two Filipino short stories, two English essays, and an English short story for children. I surmised I would read about the rest of the winners in a press release due out soon, and past catharsis, I would get back to my daily routine that by then could be summarized using three bullet points: drive through Manila traffic, give a lecture or do patient rounds, and wash the dirty dishes.
I fished out the Meralco billing statement, made a blind sweep with my fingers to make sure the mailbox was truly empty, and walked briskly to the elevator, pocketing the envelope without bothering to open it.
Ano nga ba ang kailangan para magkaroon ng kwenta ang isinusulat ng isang manunulat? Ano nga ba ang batayan para masabi ng mga taong “Oo nga, writer ka”?
Kung ang mga isinusulat ko ay walang teenage angst o kahit anong galit sa mundo, writer ba ako? Kung wala kang makitang pagkakaiba sa writing style ko at ng isang Grade 6 pupil, writer ba ako? Kung ang mga sanaysay ko ay hindi pang-Palanca, writer ba ako? Kung ako lang ang taong nakakatintindi ng mga gawa ko, writer ba ako? Kung mas gusto kong gamitin ang “nakakapraning” at “nakakaburaot” kesa “nakapapraning” at “nakabuburaot,” writer ba ako? Kung lahat ng mambabasa ay hindi nakakarating sa huling letra ng huling salita ng huling pangungusap ng huling talata ng artikulo ko, writer ba ako?
Writer (Daw) Ako, Peyups.com, 30 June 2002
I wrote these paragraphs in 2002, the earliest and only reference to the Palanca awards I could find in my writings. I was 18 and on my second year of pre-med in the University of the Philippines. Back then, my greatest literary achievements were two awards in high school: first place in an essay writing competition during a student congress in Baguio and 5th place for newswriting at the National Schools Press Conference held in Tacloban. To have mentioned the Palancas and to have stated the question in the negative, that only meant I had been thinking about it, that I dreamed of winning it, but I didn’t know how to, or even if I could. That was typical teenager me writing.
It was around that time when I quit being a probationary news correspondent of the Manila Collegian. I left my resignation letter addressed to the editor-in-chief LJ at the guardhouse of the old NEDA building, where the student publication held office. The office was locked that afternoon and probies didn’t have keys. It was an unprecedented decision. I am sorry—I wrote—I am not one to quit, but the schedule has become hectic for an aspiring doctor who has to maintain his scholarships. I have always been an all-or-none person; I don’t want to be a mediocre staff writer only because I have to prioritize academics all the time.
LJ wrote back, and with kind words expressed his regret because I was only one news article short of making it to the Manila Kulé staff box, of attending meetings and NatSits (i.e., national situation discussions) sans the probie label—how I should have spoken to him directly about wanting to shift from newswriting to feature writing before writing my letter—but he respected my decision and many years later he would tell me that he saw no point in trying to convince me to retract. Alam mo, ikaw lang ang binigyan ko ng 10/10 sa interview kasi napabilib mo ako sa mga sagot mo.
Summer of 2002 was when I started to miss writing beyond what was required in medical school. On my aunt’s desktop PC, I typed two personal essays. Roughly one month apart, I submitted them to Peyups.com, the online community of the University of the Philippines that founders Karl and Mimi started in 1999. Anyone who felt an affiliation to UP, no matter how tenuous, frequented Peyups at the height of its popularity for two reasons. First, its public forums, a virtual microcosm of the UP system that served as an online tambayan where people could discuss any topic you could think of, from the profound to the mundane, rated G to R-18. And second, the daily dose of artiks (short for articles), which were essays, typically 500 to 1000 words, contributed by users and refereed by webmasters and pro bono editors, before the chosen ones ended up on the website’s homepage and were subsequently archived in neat categories.
At a little under 600 words, Writer (Daw) Ako! was my first essay posted online for public consumption. The artiks were open to comments and often the most popular or most controversial posts generated threads that would rival those in the forums. I don’t remember trolls being an issue then. Peyups readers did criticize, but more often than not, the online community was generous with praise. From 2002 to 2006, I would contribute 38 essays and stories to Peyups, most of them under my semi-monthly column that I called Lightning Crashes. When Peyups died down, I migrated my articles and continued to write in my personal blog. My audience followed and grew in number.
Fast forward to 16 years later, faced with the prospect of another Palanca loss, I would go back to my original question:
Writer na nga ba ako?
I thought I would win in 2016. I had just come back from a year of fellowship training in Melbourne and did not yet have the necessary licenses and documents to start my private practice. I had plenty of idle time. A few days before my birthday, I sat down, opened long-dormant drafts in my computer, and wrote about how I learned to ride a bike at the age of 30, the narrative interspersed with one of my most difficult operations as a neurosurgery resident.
It was my first attempt at creating a long-form essay, at least five times longer than my usual blog post. I retrieved my ring-bound manuscript compilation and notes from the 2007 UST National Writers Workshop, where I was a fellow for maikling kuwento, and gleaned all useful feedback from co-fellows and panelists so I could play to my strengths. I read essays from previous winners that I could find online. The ferocity with which I wrote was delightfully surprising, as if I had inadvertently opened a cupboard stacked with locked-up paragraphs and all the words just spilled forth. Still, it wasn’t enough. I wrote about failure and, well, I lost.
Luckily though, the loss was redeemed by an email I received a week after the Palanca winners were announced. Gabby Lee wrote to say that the same essay had been selected for inclusion in Likhaan, the peer-reviewed literary journal published annually by UP Institute of Creative Writing. It would appear in an anthology edited by J. Neil Garcia and I would receive a hard copy of the book in addition to a substantial cash prize. It was the first time I would see my name next to luminaries in Philippine literature. Parang nanalo na rin ako sa Palanca. I knew that essay was worth something; writer’s gut feel, if there’s such a thing.
I tweaked my essay (In the original entry, there was a typo on the first sentence!) to its final form that now appears in Likhaan 10 (University of the Philippines Press, 2016), and decided to submit the revised version to the 2017 Palanca awards. Long story short, I lost again.
Gutted, that was when I asked myself, like any other Filipino writer must have after a Palanca losing streak: why was I looking for validation in a contest decided on by three people? I owned a blog known to a good number of medical students and doctors all over the country, even to OFWs with an insatiable need for online Filipino stories. My essays would generate Facebook shares and likes, Twitter faves and retweets, and mostly positive comments. A handful became viral or had been re-posted in Rappler and Inquirer. Just before I turned 30, I had an essay published in YoungBlood, another tick on my literary bucket list. I contributed regularly to a magazine for health professionals. Were these not enough?
The simple answer was that I still wanted to win, an adolescent yearning that time could not temper, only made more intense as the object became more elusive. After Manila Collegian, I was not allowed to quit again. That’s a rule.
For the 2018 competition, I submitted my essay on the deadline. I had just returned from an overseas trip the day before and had to work overnight to finalize my entry, in a caffeine-fueled dash trying to make sense of the arrows and scribbles on the draft pages I brought to Thailand and back. I thought I had until 12 midnight to make changes, till I had the sense to check the online press release and, to my horror, saw that I could only submit until 5 in the afternoon. I had a lunchtime meeting in UP Manila; I had no choice but to go to the Palanca foundation’s Makati office in the morning.
“Maiiyak ba ako kapag binasa ko ito?” she said as she checked the long brown envelope’s contents. She was alluding to the title.
“Ah, baka po. Sana.”
Behind her, a wall shelf that stretched from end to end, filled with hardbound compilations of previous winners, arranged by year and category. I restrained myself from standing up and pulling one or two tomes to browse on my lap while I waited. When did Gregorio Brillantes win for Faith, Love, Time and Dr. Lazaro? Luis Gatmaitan for Sandosenang Sapatos?
She handed the acknowledgement slip, which by now had acquired a certain familiarity. I said thank you and left. Before hailing a taxi, I looked at the piece of paper in my hand and found out her name was Leslie.
Earlier in January, Gerry Los Baños, the deputy director of the University of the Philippines Press sent an email informing me that the manuscript I submitted in March 2017 had been accepted for publication. It was a collection of my essays on medical school and neurosurgical training. Two other publishers had previously said no, but I persisted. I only had the courage to submit to UP Press after they accepted my essay in Likhaan.
“Do not pre-judge (your work), that is the lesson,” UP Press director J. Neil Garcia said to me on the day I went to UP Diliman to discuss my upcoming book.
It was an excerpt from my revised manuscript that I submitted to this year’s Palancas. If this essay lost, I would try again in 2019, no question. I had already made up my mind that I would keep joining the contest year after year, until I became good enough to win, or lucky enough, whichever came first. A very thin line separated enduringly resolute from foolishly stubborn. I reckoned that if I read enough books by the right authors and kept trying to improve my work each time I failed, that should swing the pendulum toward the former. By now, I had finished Butch Dalisay’s The Knowing Is in the Writing and Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo’s creative non-fiction manual; I wondered what else I needed in my armamentarium.
In the days following news of Jeff Canoy’s win, I kept myself busy with my classes in UP College of Medicine and my patients in Philippine General Hospital.
“Good morning, may I speak with Mr. Ronnie Baticulon?”
It was a woman’s voice, an unknown number on the display. I was on my way out to do a morning run, not intending to bring my mobile phone. Not a lot of people addressed me Mr. instead of Dr.
“Sir, sa Palanca awards po ito.”
Is this an auditory hallucination?
HUY PALANCA DAW!
“Ah bakit po?”
“Sorry Sir, ngayon lang po kasi kami na-inform ng LBC na hindi daw po nakarating sa inyo ‘yung letter and invitation. House closed daw po.”
“Ha? Bakit? Nanalo ba ako?”
“Yes Sir, second prize… Wait lang po ha…”
The crisp sound of paper being shuffled at the other end of the line.
“…English essay, Some Days You Can’t Save Them All.”
A full week after all the other winners got their congratulatory letters, that was when and how I found out: I won my first Palanca. What a waste of self-induced misery for several days. When I hung up, I received a Viber message containing the package’s tracking label so I could figure out how to get my invitation. The sender was the same person I was talking to over the phone, and her name was Leslie. Yes, same lovely, lucky Leslie.
Needless to say, I waited a long time for this. I am brimming with gratitude, but what exactly does a Palanca mean to this neurosurgeon?
Indeed, I got the validation I wanted, having successfully transitioned from med student/doctor blogger to Palanca-winning essayist. An extra line in my curriculum vitae, an extra sentence for the person tasked to introduce me before speaking engagements in medical conferences. But this is, by no means, an end. Tomorrow, in all likelihood, I would still need to drive through Manila traffic, do patient rounds and/or give a lecture, and wash the dirty dishes. But now I have a Palanca certificate on my desk—a gentle nudge forward, an encouraging tap on the shoulder for me to keep writing despite the demands of medicine and the academe.
The best part is realizing that at this point in my literary career, to quote Butch Dalisay, the writing would now matter more than the winning. Perhaps it always did. Perhaps that was why I was willing to subject myself to as many failures as necessary in order to win. Perhaps somewhere, there’s a teenager dreaming of a Palanca who would get to read this essay and do the same thing.
I will continue to write the stories I can, because the stories of our people need to be told. And what I learned in almost two decades of writing is that sometimes, that’s the only way for their voices to be heard, especially now when truth is drowned in noise and it has become needlessly difficult to listen. This doctor believes, that is how writers create happy endings.
Full list of winners in the 2018 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature here.