Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Literature as a Coping Strategy by Cecilia Brainard, delivered at the Int'l Conference on Literature Education 2021, LEAP, Inc


Talk Delivered at the International Conference on Literature Education

Literature Educators Association of the Philippines (LEAP), October 28, 2021 

Literature as a Coping Strategy


Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Copyright 2021 by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard




Greetings from California. I’m Cecilia Manguerra Brainard here to talk to you about Reading and Writing Literature as a Coping Strategy. Thanks to Dr. Christopher Yap-Wright for inviting me. I would have wanted to be with you, in person, as it is always nicer to see people face to face. But given the limitations of the pandemic, I am still glad that I can address you from my office here in Santa Monica.


I am primarily a writer. But, by extension of this literary work, I had also edited books, taught at universities, including UCLA and USC, and I have been involved in publishing literary works.

You can find a lot of information about my work from my official website – I also maintain a blog, and can be found in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media.

While preparing this talk, I tried to imagine where you as Literature teachers are coming from. You are probably asking: Who are you and what do you have to say that can help me during this time of pandemic?

My plan is to talk about some of my thoughts about the challenges that we currently face. I will also share with you my expertise as a writer and writing teacher. My goal is to inspire you and to leave you with information, that you can apply in your classrooms.


There is no question that we are living through a historic time. Covid-19 has reached the entire world and has affected our lives deeply. Hundreds of years from now, people will talk about Coronavirus-19, just as we still talk about the Black Plague, Spanish Flu, and other pandemics that have changed the history and lives of mankind.

This pandemic took most of us by surprise. Scientists who had dealt with ebola, bird flu, and other pandemics, had been warning that something like this could come along. Writers, even decades ago, also imagined scenarios where a deadly pandemic would come along. But for most of us, the event and repercussions have been stunning.

I was in the Philippines when the world realized that Covid 19 exists. Even though I live in California, I visit the Philippines regularly. I was there in January 2020 right after Taal Volcano exploded and ash was still falling. I brought medical masks with me to address the unclean air in Manila.

After my usual visit Manila, I went to Cebu – I was born and raised there and continue to have relatives and friends there. It was while I was there when the news story broke about a Chinese national from Wuhan getting sick and dying suddenly. His woman companion also died. We had read reports from China about the pandemic but now we realized it was right there with us. Overnight, people in Cebu bought out all the medical masks from the drug stores. I was grateful for what I had brought with me.

Right away, countries started closing their borders. Afraid that the US would close its borders, I arranged to leave Cebu as soon as I could. Flights from Cebu to Manila were full or cancelled, and I had to insist and be very “makulit”. I did manage to get a very early flight from Cebu to Manila, with a long wait in Manila to catch the international flight to Los Angeles. By this time, people were aware there was a contagious virus around, and tension was high at the airport. Anyone who coughed was glared at.

Finally, I made it back to California. It was February 4, and people in the US had not realized that the virus was already here. People removed their masks when they were in the Los Angeles international airport. Overall people were not masking until eventually more cases were discovered and diagnosed in the US.

But as we all know, the pandemic was already in the US and other parts of the world. The years 2020 and 2021 have been very difficult for the entire world.

As of September 8, there have been 4.6 million deaths worldwide – the correct figure is probably higher.

The pandemic has caused loss of jobs, total disruption of our normal lives. We have lockdowns; offices and schools have gone virtual. Overnight, we have learned how to “zoom.” We have been cooped up in our homes, sometimes rooms. Once, in Facebook, someone posted a photo of a beautiful sunset over the sea – and comments were along the lines of, “Wow, that’s what it looks like!”

And worse, we have also lost people we know to this terrible virus. I have lost a first cousin and five friends to Covid. Some people I know recovered but continue to have long- Covid and feel weak and in pain. I believe that the human body wants to heal and I trust that they will get better.

Covid has limited our socializing. We can’t go to malls, movies, restaurants. Sometimes we can’t leave our homes. Sometimes we can’t visit our own family members. We suffer isolation from the lockdowns. We have fears and anxieties. Sometimes we feel depression and despair.

In 2020, I had dreams of dead people – my mother, my father, my brother – there they were and there I was with them, and some of these dreams involved a journey. I used to wake up wondering if the dream was some kind of premonition. I wondered if in my dream, I had traveled with my dead relative that that meant I would die. The dead-people dreams lessened after I got vaccinated. In fact, many of my anxieties lessened once I was vaccinated, which does not mean I am careless; I continue to mask, practice social-distancing, sanitizing, and avoid crowded space.

It is a difficult and sad time now, and yet we have to continue living, continue teaching or writing, or doing what we normally would do. Or at least, try to. Now more than ever, we need courage, not fear; we need imagination, not depression; we need creativity, not stagnation; we need to cultivate our minds; we need to be extra kind and generous; we need to be wise and careful, not reckless. We can lament but not give up. 

I’m sure there are more survival tools, but I believe that now, during this most challenging time of the pandemic, the following can help us --- TRUTH, SELF-EXPRESSION, CREATIVITY.


Once the scientists and doctors gave out public information about Covid, I felt I had a better handle of the situation. Before I had information and when the pandemic was full blown but we did not know how to respond, I barely stepped out of the house. I didn’t even walk around the block. I was afraid that the outside air was contaminated. I didn’t go the supermarket. It was my son and daughter-in-law who bought the groceries that my husband and I needed.

When I became braver and would actually go to the market – weekday, early in the morning when there were few people --- I wore a mask, a shield and gloves. When I got home I left all my groceries on an outside table, which I called my sanitation station, and I had wiped with Clorox and water all jars, containers, boxes, etc before the items entered my house.

Bit by bit, I became educated and understood that if I mask, keep 6-feet distance from others, sanitize, avoid crowded places but go only to well-ventilated area, then I should minimize the risk of getting Covid.

It was the learning of facts, the learning of truths, that empowered me to make decisions about how to handle the situation, thus minimizing my anxieties, and improving the quality of my life.

I mention all this, because there is great power in Truth. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of India, who promoted the philosophy of non-violence said, “Truth is God.” “Truth is God is more accurate than saying God is Truth,” he said.

Unfortunately Fake News proliferates. Things are confusing and difficult enough, and we don’t need fake news to confuse us further. I mention this, because your students are exposed to so much fake news on social media. I hear from friends on Facebook who say the craziest things “because they read about it or saw it on Youtube.” Well, just because something is published or a video clip appears on YouTube, doesn’t mean it’s true.

In today’s world, we need to pick out the truth from fake news. There are many media sites that publish titillating articles even if untrue or half-true, to get a huge audience, to get hits. There are some sites that are just malicious. There are sites that are mouthpieces for political or other reasons and exist just to manipulate people. All these untruths and half-truths clutters our brain and add to our uncertainties; these increase our insecurities; these cloud our decision-making. Truth has a clarity; Truth has gravitas. We may not always like the Truth, but it sits solidly within us and can guide us about how to proceed next.

Fake news is dangerous. It may feel like “fun” but it has a malicious note to it. Fake news not only wastes our time, it manipulates our brains and hearts in a way that is clouded and not clear, not grounded with solid data, just fluff and unchecked emotion. It can manipulate people into going down the wrong road. It can convince some into disbelieving scientists and scientific data and believing all sorts of stories or lies about Covid for instance, so much so that some people have taken Clorox or horse deworming medicine rather than just get vaccinated.

There is a new term now related to Fake News – gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse or intimidation where a person or group presents false information, manipulates factual information, or withholds factual information, making the victims question their memory, perception, judgement, even sanity. Gaslighting destabilizes the victims and delegitimize their beliefs. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves. 

I mention all this about Truth and Fake News because students can access anything online, and many could be drawn to news that is juicy and titillating but could very well be fake news. They need to be taught to check their sources. They need to be taught to respect and value Truth. It is good to teach them not to forward Fake news, no matter how juicy; they should not pay attention to it. They should learn to Fact Check. They need to choose their sources. There are online sites for fact-checking such as Snopes and Media Bias/Fact Check.

It’s very easy: you Google “Snopes” for instance, and you type in your question; you will get articles that answer your questions, with ratings as to the articles’ accuracy. 

Media Bias Fact Check includes a search button, wherein you can type in the name of a media source. It tells you the bias of the source and whether it is factual or not.


Another too that can help is self-expression. Any form of self-expression – art, music, theater -- is helpful, but for our group, we will focus on the written word.

Expressive writing, that is writing about emotional topics, has been known to increase health and wellness. Writing about upsetting experiences produces long-term improvements in mood and health. Expressive writing can improve control over pain, depressed mood, and pain severity.

Self-expression is an important way to help us deal with our pandemic stresses, as well as appreciate literature.

Later in my talk, we will look at some writing forms for self-expression. 


Health psychologists acknowledge that the arts can heal emotional injuries, increase understanding of oneself and others, develop a capacity of self-reflection, reduce symptoms, and alter behaviors and thinking patterns.

It is very interesting, but during this time of pandemic, and while people were stuck at home, there were many who experimented with new activities: gardening – people were planting their own vegetables; baking – people were cooking and baking breads, cookies – I myself tried to make ensaymada and pan de sal --- I was successful but stopped because I started to gain weight.

I also continued my new-found interest in drawing and the arts – and fortunately was able to take online classes. I found the new activity relaxing and satisfying. While absorbed with this creative activity, I felt I could stop dwelling on the pandemic, its dangers, the uncertainty that had entered our lives. I felt rested when I focused on doing something creative.

This ends the first part of my talk.


PART 2 – This is the second part of my talk. We will be looking at Reading material you can consider for your classrooms; some writing forms for expressive writing;



I asked some friends of mine who teach Literature about the material they are using in their classes. Many of them talked of pandemic literature. That made sense because we are all trying to figure out how to survive this pandemic and reading about others who have experienced the same thing can be reassuring. What we are probably noting is how the human spirit triumphs over the Black Plague, or Spanish Flue, Ebola, or Cholera. 

One of the first books I got when this pandemic broke out was A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. You can find this for free online from the Project Gutenberg. Go to

Written by Daniel Defoe, the book is written in journal form, but is in fact this is a fictional account of what happened during the Great Plague of London in 1665. It does have many details of the actual events. What I found interesting was how many of the wealthy people fled London when the bubonic plague broke out. I also found it interesting how the officials tried to lie about the number of plague deaths, which some modern day leaders tried to do. However, in the Plague Years, a more accurate count was arrived at by simply counting the number of deaths and comparing these numbers with past figures.

Even though the accounts are grim, what I found heartening is that this plague in London did end. The epidemic ran for 18 months from 1665 to 1666.

What I also found interesting, and which lifted my spirit, is that the bubonic plague can be treated and cured with antibiotics. Man had found a cure for this pandemic.

Man had also found a cure for tuberculosis, for leprosy, and for many other diseases that have plagued mankind.

All these give me confidence that our current Covid virus will be controlled.

There is another pandemic book that is available for free at the Project Gutenburg. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. This is a collection of novellas set in 1348 when the Black Plague was ravaging the Italian city of Florence. A group of ten young men and women leave the city and its horrors and as they travel, each one takes turns telling stories. 

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an interesting novel (also available as a film) about how a boy survives a disaster at sea by using his imagination.

There are other pandemic books, fiction and nonfiction such as: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton; The Plague by Albert Camus; and many more. Check out this site, Pandemic Literature: A Meta-list of the Books You Should Read in Coronavirus Quarantine

There are also YouTube videos about past historical pandemics. But more than pandemics, we can also look at historical events that tested the human spirit and required man and woman to triumph over these adversities. During this time of modern crisis, we need a kind of template of how others have survived times of tribulation. 

I want to emphasize the importance for our Filipino students to read literature by Filipino authors. We have for a long time now, been very Western-centric in the books we read, movies we see. I don’t believe this is not particularly good for our young people’s sense of identity. When I visit the Philippines, I am oftentimes appalled to hear young Filipinos speaking what they think is American-English, my relatives included. In fact some of them, hardly speak Cebuano. I myself grew up multi-lingual, speaking Cebuano at first, then learning English and Tagalog and some Spanish. The capacity for the human mind to learn different words is amazing. It does not mean that one must exclusively just know one language in order to be proficient in it.

It is good for Filipinos to be familiar with literature by our Filipino authors. All of this has to do with our sense of identity. What is in our mind reflects who we are. And so I wonder really about people with images of Hollywood and New York in their heads more than of Cebu or Quezon City.

I have a confession to make. I was one of those who for the most part grew up reading Western Literature. When I was young I read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Anne of Green Gables, Emilie Loring. I went on to read Hemingway, Faulkner, other fine writers, but Western for the most part.

When I started writing, my work started coming out like these Western writers. My protagonist were vague characters, moving around some vague space that was neither here nor there. I recall a critique of a draft of a story in a writing workshop where a very unkind woman looked at me and said, “This (referring to my story) has no redeeming value; this could have been written by a Sacred Heart graduate in New York.” Those were her exact words; I remember the stinging words still. After decades, I remember them still. I recall not wanting to return to that writing class, but forced myself to show I was tough.

But here’s the wonder of it: even though those words hurt me deeply, my mind tried to figure out what WAS wrong with the story. Why, when I was born and raised in Cebu, attended school there and in Manila --- why did my story seem to be a creation of a graduate from Sacred Heart College.

I started to look at the idea of VOICE – writing voice, and how each writer has their own unique voice. And I realized that that story lacked not just my voice, but a Filipino voice.

I asked myself, how writers have succeeded in projected their own voices in their works? And how even translated works like Dosteoevsky’s or Nabokov’s could still have the Russian voice.

In my early, what I call experimental writings, I chose Filipino characters and set them in the Philippines. Many of them lived in the mythical place, I stumbled upon --- UBEC, which is Cebu backwards, a place that came about when I was stuck when I tried to write about characters based on real people I had met or known in Cebu. One day I was doodling and just reversed CEBU to UBEC, and I liked how it looked and sounded, and I used that in my writings. Ubec is a place like Cebu but it isn’t really, because in my imagination, I have moved streets around; I have renamed them. I have changed the geography. For instance in my third novel, The Newspaper Widow, I have a chapter on “The Island of the Living Dead” which is something like Culion. In my novel, I have a leper colony on a small island near Ubec, called Culyo.

Our Philippines has so much to offer writers in terms of history, culture, mythology, people. Our students may find their lives enriched if they turn to writings that match their realities more than the subways of New York. 

Having said that, I have to add that I have written about some characters that are not Filipino because they popped into my work, demanding almost to be explored and written about.

My new book, Selected Short Stories by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, includes a very long story, almost novella length about a French woman, Melisande. This is a loved story set in Paris in 1899.

This French character came from my novel, The Newspaper Widow, set in Ubec in 1910. She was a dressmaker who became the good friend of my novel’s protagonist, the widow Ines Maceda. Together these two women solved the mystery of who murdered a priest. The two women because good friends. In order to flesh out the French character, I had to delve into her past. How, for instance did a French woman end up in Ubec during the so-called American period. I learned that she fled a lover in Paris.

Well then, I felt compelled to write about “Melisande in Paris”, which is the title of that long story.

Going back to my point: while now, it is fine to look at pandemic literature, but we should be sure to look at Philippine literature, novels, poems, stories written by our own writers. Fiction, in its essence has to do with conflict, and so what we can look at during this time of pandemic are stories of the human spirit overcoming adversity.

The students could also look at Philippine epics and folklore with mythological creatures, very popular now with the appearance of the series Trese.


I’d like us to look at some forms for expressive writing. These various formats allow students to write about their feelings, their observations, their memories, conversations, descriptions, dreams, and so on. This various formats allow students to express themselves; these can allow them to vent their emotions; these can stimulate their creativity; these can help them organize their thoughts about the confusing events surrounding them; these can engage them in productive activity especially during lockdown days.

1.      Journal or diary writing or memoir – This can be in-class exercise or homework. Have your students write daily for 30 minutes about any topic – this could be about feelings, observations, memories, conversations, descriptions, etc. Note that the young girl, Anne Frank, kept a real diary during World War Two – The Diary of Anne Frank -- when she and her family hid from the German Nazis in secret rooms in a house in Amsterdam. She, her family and the Van Pelt family hid in those rooms from 1942 to 1944.

Perhaps your young students can find inspiration in this beloved diary of a girl who still have a full and rich life while confined in those tight quarters

Perhaps your students could write about How they are surviving the pandemic?

2.      Letter writing  - is a dying form. I remember writing and receiving letters, but eventually it became simpler and quicker to send emails, or contact people via Messenger or Facebook or texts. Short tweets, even emogis have taken the place of those long elegant letters. I shudder when I read some of those texts filled with abbreviations instead of complete words.

Why not have your students explore letter writing? Have your students write a letter to a relative or friend who lives far away. I think relearning how to form complete thoughts and sentences to express one’s feelings might be refreshing to them. Here’s a good exercise that always gets people creative juices going. Have your students write what I call the Unsent Letter --- a letter they will never send. This could be to someone they dislike, or someone they secretly admire, or even a dead relative or friends.

To stretch their imagination, you can have your students write a letter from their pet’s point of view. What does your cat want to say now? Perhaps the cat is irritated at how crowded the house is nowadays.

3.      Poetry – one can write free form or experiment with different poetic form. They could experiment with writing Haiku for instance, the poetic form of three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line.

Here is a Haiku written by a clinical nurse, Jamie Jill Maness

Life on the Front Lines

Scrubs on, then scrubs off.

Put others before ourselves.

Eat, sleep, and repeat.

First line – 5 syllables

Second line – 7

Third line – 5 

4.      Fiction or creative non-fiction – one can write fiction or turn personal experiences into stories. 

5.      Dream writing – one can write about dreams. The wonderful thing about dreams is that you can actually use this dream for self-knowledge. Once the narrative of the dream is written down, one can take parts of the dream and give it voice. So for instance my dream about dead relatives, I could, after writing down the sequence of events in the dream, take say my brother and give him voice. It could go something like: I appeared in your dream because we when we were children we were happy, and now it is a time for anxiety. I was there to remind you that happy days will come again.

6.      Laments, which is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. I stumbled upon this up this moving lament by a father whose 42 year old daughter died:


𝘉𝘺 𝘗𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘰 𝘈. 𝘛𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘮𝘢𝘯

Stay a little longer my child

Keep your father company

As he welcomes another sunrise

Without you.


Stay a little longer my daughter

Keep your son company

He who is proud of you

In your prolonged absence.


Stay a little longer my child

Let’s reminisce days

As we welcomed sunrise

In the black sand of San Roque

And frolicking at the park

In the shadow of Mayon.


Stay a little longer my child

Keep your father warm

Watch over your only son

For a few days more.

7.      Spontaneous writing – timed writing about any topic at all, with or without prompts. You could tell your students to write for 5 minutes about anything at all. You could use prompts to start their writing:  “When I was _____ years old, I …..” or “It was Christmas when….”

8.      One sentence story – In this exercise, the writer writes continuously without breaking the story into sentences. I will share with you some lines from my one-sentence piece The Che Guevara Night:

It was the night I call the “Che Guevara Night”—my last night in Manila, so a couple of girlfriends and I went out to Malate, now a hot spot in Manila, to the Café Havana de Manila to be exact, Friday night it was, when streets were blocked off and the rotunda teemed with people, not just the baklas of long ago, although I understand Remedios Street still has gay bars — I am always amazed at how crowded places can get in Manila: malls, streets, packed with people night and day — and so at 8:30 we were seated in a corner of the Café, the Remedios side, looking out at the very same street my mother and I used to walk on every Sunday on our way to Malate Church — 

9.      One-syllable story– in this exercise, the writer uses only monosyllabic words: Here is part of a one-syllable story to give you an idea.

“You used to cry in the night when you thought I could not hear. “Ben” you would say. “Ben.” He’d never speak back.  There was no way. Now you’re not here to cry what he won’t hear. Now I’m the one to craft my own pleas in vain. “Bess,” I say. “Bess.” You’ll never speak back. There is no way.  

Regarding Haiku, the one sentence story and the one-syllable story, there is something that releases creativity when one is so focused on form. It’s almost like tricking the creative side. Try these for yourself or for your students.

This ends the second part of my talk.


PART 3 – This is part 3 of my talk. Here I’d like to give you practical tips that may help you with your classes, whether you are teaching Literature or teaching Writing.



I want to talk to you about some techniques you may consider for your writing classes. I am sure by this time, many of you have gotten used to virtual teaching, but let me share some information from the University of Utah. There is nothing particularly special about this information except that I found it online and seemed sensible.

A writing teacher, and I believe she teaches college-level classes, Natalie Stillman-Web, said, “Teaching online is not about hastily uploading files or constructing a correspondence course but instead centers on designing and fostering a digital learning community. Over decades and across disciplines, researchers have found that online students’ sense of social presence – their interaction with an instructor and classmates who they perceive as real people – has been linked to student motivation, satisfaction, retention, perceived learning, and critical thinking.”

This teacher said: “We found that students most valued their instructor’s feedback on their work, followed by effective course organization. Students also pointed to peer review and discussions as important ways they learned with their peers.”

This same teacher noted, “Since we couldn’t hold student presentations of their final projects in the physical classrooms as usual, I asked my students to create videos using Adobe Spark. Surprisingly, their projects were the strongest ever in my decade of teaching the course: the video format… allowed students to more clearly organize and articulate their ideas.” 

In another site for primary writing, teachers talk of getting the students to draft pieces, engage in conferring, collaborate to markup mentor texts, and publish their writing through online platforms.

The art classes I take are via Zoom, and in these classes, the teacher is able to show us how he or she actually does a particular exercise. The one teacher uses colored pencil, the other uses graphite, and I am able to see them on the computer screen in action. They explain what they are doing, and actually, I am probably able to observe their illustrations better than in a physical classroom. The downside is that they cannot always actually see the work of the students; sometimes Zoom presents fuzzy images.  But the two teachers I have allow us to do in-class exercises. In the one class, the students share their in-class work at the end of the class, and the teacher gives mild critiquing, emphasizing what works, and suggesting how the student can improve the work.

On the last day of class, we even have a party, wherein we draw the food and drink that we have brought for our own selves.

The other art teacher has a once month sharing time for students to share their works. He has also created a Facebook group wherein his students, past and present, post their art works. In this site, students can comment on the work, and all the comments I read are generous ones. 

What I’d like us to take away from these online classes are: students’ need feedback about their writing exercises from the teachers and peers, and the final works need to be celebrated in some way, perhaps via video presentation or via publication on online platforms.

I also know of an artist’s group that created an e-magazine , The Maginhawa Street Journal, wherein writers and artists post articles and art. This is a sophisticated production, with an editorial board, its own web name and so on. A Facebook group site can allow students to post their writings and art as well.


Before I give you some tips about creative writing, I want you to know that my book, Fundamentals of Creative Writing is available for free on Wattpad (  )

   . This book describes the essentials of creative writing and includes chapters about setting and scene, character, conflict, dialogue, plot, point of view, voice, style, theme, tone, and other topics. The book is straightforward, with sample stories and exercises. Teachers have been using it. I made this available when the pandemic broke out to help students and teachers. You are welcome to use in as well. Look for Cecilia Brainard in Wattpad.

I also want you know that my travel blog – Travels and More with Cecilia Brainard on blogspot has many entries about creating. The blog also features guest bloggers and their writings, so this is a good way for your students to find poems or stories by Filipino and Filipino American writers. Look for Travels and More with Cecilia Brainard. 


Rather than repeat information that’s in my Fundamentals of Creative Writing, I’d like to share some thoughts about teaching literature or writing.


For students who are beginning writers, --- the style of teaching that is most effective is to focus on the strengths of their writings. When I tell them what works, they will produce more of that. For example:

The weaknesses of the writing are posed, not in a critical way, but as questions or suggestions. Instead of saying, “This dialogue doesn’t work,” For example: I may say, “Why did this character say this? Are these curse words (F words are sometimes overused by students) necessary and effective? What other way could the character say or do to express his or her anger?”

The homework is what is scrutinized more. The level of critiquing depends on the level of the class. Master classes for more experienced writers don’t hold back on feedback to the writer. The seasoned writer can generally take the critiquing. Although the comments should continue to focus on details of what works, what doesn’t work, questions about the work, and suggestions.

For beginning writing students, I may critique works anonymously. I can point out the strengths and weaknesses with less fear that the student being critiqued will be crushed. Indeed it is difficult to get your work critiqued, and it requires strong spirit to take feedback, and a stronger spirit to reflect on the comments and rewrite.

In writing classes, the students and I will read, aside from students drafts, published stories, which illustrate points I want to make.

For instance, if we are focusing on dialogue, we will read a story that has strong dialogue. We read and critique the story and discuss and critique it in the classroom. In looking at this good story, students can learn the nuances of writing --- what works, what doesn’t work.

It is possible that we will look at an entire novel – it depends on the class – and that novel can be our source for discussing the various elements of creative writing.


I like to have in-class writing exercises aside from homework. The in-class exercises loosen up the class, and allows students to flex their writing muscles. The products of these exercises are generally not critiqued. The class may applaud after the reading, and I thank the writer. The reason for this is that the work is raw, fresh from the creative mind; it has not been edited. The praise encourages the writer. In fact, praise is highly important, not just for beginning writers, but for everyone.

You see, creative writing is difficult enough. It is not just the struggle of getting words down but it’s the baring of one’s soul that makes the effort challenging. It is not easy to reveal what is close to our hearts, what could be “secrets.” This is the primarily reason why beginning writers in particular should in a way be critiqued gently. They need praise, but they also need guidance and information about how to make their work better.

In my workshops, I use prompts to get the participants started. For instance, write for 10 minutes, and your prompt is:  When I was ____ years old. It is amazing, how this prompt can open a floodgate of stories from everyone.

Here are some examples of prompts:

She studied her face in the mirror…

I was afraid … really afraid …

We came back every year to lay flowers at the spot.

The other night, I dreamt ….

My favorite room was ….

You can see that you can use just about any phrase as a prompt. Some teachers will pull one line from a book or bible and use that as a prompt. You could even ask your students to write down topics they want to write about, put that in a box, and pull one out, per class meeting.


Something useful for writing students is to teach them what I call “sensual writing.” I am referring to the five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. If the writer makes it a point to write sensually, the scenes come alive and readers can experience the scene more vividly.


I want to include mention dugtungan writing in this talk. I first heard about this from the Cebuana writer, Lina Espina Moore, who had told me that they used to do this back in the 1930s.

The dugtungan is collaborative writing that is creative and fun. It is something like the Renga, Japanese linked-verse poetry writing by 2 or more poets. The writers write alternating sections of a poem.

Some years back, I was in an online writing workshop with friends, and we wrote a dugtungan short story and a novel, both were published.  Our silly story “New Tricks” was part of an anthology by Milflores. In this story, one writer wrote some sentences, then passed the piece on to the next writer, who added lines, and so on. Two people then smoothed out the piece to make it coherent.

The novel was more elaborate because of the sheer length and complexity. We decided from the start that the book was going to be just a fun piece, chick lit. One writer started a chapter, and then the next writer wrote the second chapter, and so on. The end result was quite a mess. The voices of the five authors were apparent, meaning the writing style was not smooth. We submitted it to a publisher who said the same thing. It took a lot of editing to make the work publishable. The novel is called, Angelica’s Daughters, now out of print, although I believe it is available online.

The book actually received a very strong review from a German professor, Dr. Michaela Keck who was impressed with the process and product. At some point, I met her in Frankfurt, Germany, and what I found interesting was that she said, she wished the novel had not been too smoothed out. In other words, she wanted less editing.

I have in fact found that sometimes when I overwork my work, the voice loses its punch. This can happen with long pieces more, such as a novel. When I rewrite and rewrite a draft, it becomes stale and I actually get tired of it. It’s better for me – and it is actually suggested by many writers  --- to finish the draft, no matter how bad the writing is, before editing is done.

This concludes my talk.

Thanks again to Professor Christopher Yap-Wright for inviting me, and thank you for listening to me. I wish you and your students the very best. 

You can find me in my official website ( )  and in social media. Don’t hesitate contacting me if you have questions. I will post this talk in my blog, Travels (and More) With Cecilia Brainard

Goodbye for now, and salamat.

 Tags: Philippine education, Philippine literature, literature education


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