The Mysteries of Creative Writing
When I began writing in the late nineties, the last thing on my mind was looking up whether there was a university program in Creative Writing. In my long experience as a reader—and there were a few writing attempts, too—I enjoyed literature undergirded by popular opinion in twentieth-century Latin America. The most important among these opinions was, of course, that writing is a gift few people have. Those who do not have it should not even try. At that moment, I was not aware of the long tradition of programs in Creative Writing in the United States. Perhaps if someone had mentioned them to me, I would have said that more than actual programs to train writers, they comprised another expression of the North American capacity to mechanize art. Instead, I probably would have said: “These programs are yet another proof of the American spirit, capable of systematizing even Art.” I then came across John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Not only did he speak of writing as a discipline one could learn, but he also confirmed that, in fact, there were many programs in Creative Writing in the US.
At the time, there were not many resources available online. The search engine was Altavista, and essentially it showed what the first universities affiliated to the nascent world wide web wanted us to see; but that was enough. I realized there were several programs in Creative Writing and that, in fact, some of them were illustriously old. Among them, there was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which in its sixty years had received Germán Bello, an admired Peruvian poet. Like him, other American writers went to similar programs, from Raymond Carver to emergent writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction with a short story collection she began to write during her MA in Creative Writing at Boston University.
This discovery made me reconsider my thoughts on the possibility of learning how to write. Unfortunately, much to my dismay, my search for similar programs in Latin America was not as fruitful. There were none. Even less promising was my search for programs in Creative Writing taught in Spanish. So, without any other possibility, I decided to pursue a PhD in Literature, for that was as close as I could get to literature, which by then had become the main concern of my intellectual and creative life.
In La Jolla, California, where I lived at the time, there were no creative writing workshops in Spanish, so I started attending workshops in English. They were somehow frustrating, for they forced me to spend too much energy dealing with the difficulties of the English language instead of devoting my efforts to creating literature. However, the experiment was not entirely off-track: although I did not make a lot of progress in my development as a writer, I understood that, far from being mechanizing, teaching creative writing depended a great deal on the interaction among the participants, and on immense creative freedom.
By then, I had been lucky enough to have won some literary awards, which, besides giving me the chance to get published, made me wonder how I could share what I had learned so far. Excited, I translated The Art of Fiction into Spanish and published it in Peru, where shortly after I began to direct my own workshops. I had to face two rather different problems during that time.
The first problem I encountered was how to name this practice. Creative writing, which literally means “escritura creativa” in Spanish, was the common name in the American tradition. Since there was not a similar term in Spanish, I decided to use “escritura creativa” as a kind of resistance against the lack of a Spanish tradition in this field. At the same time, I wanted to highlight that it was an incipient field in our language and acknowledge that we had much to learn from the American tradition. As years went by, and as new programs emerged in Latin America, it became clearer that our discipline was not exactly “creative writing,” given that, come to think of it, almost all writing is creative. Our practice was, and still is, the creation of literature. Thus I started using the term “creación literaria,” a term I heard the Mexican writer Luis Arturo Ramos use assertively.
The second problem was the old question: is it possible to teach how to write? As I said before, the answer, clear to me until then, was an emphatic “no”: one is born with the talent to write. There is a problem encapsulated in the question, though, because in it, “writing” encompasses a rather large area —like saying “Amazonia” to speak of regions as different as the city of Pucalpa, on the shores of Uyacali, and Belém, a city facing the wondrous estuary on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
The question “Is it possible to teach how to write?” is actually a bad synthesis of three questions. If we take “writing” as the ability to turn any expression, oral or otherwise, into the written word, then it is obvious that most human beings could learn to write as much as they need to in daily life. Or, if we take writing in an aesthetic sense, as the ability to use language originally, unexpectedly, in ways that also shed light on our shared experience of the world, then we would have to admit some people are born with a certain gift, just like some are born with an ear for music. Such aptitudes for writing, far from being binary, have countless forms, and that is why, with a lot of practice, someone can develop a modest ability to write. In fact, many admirable writers have become so with hard work. For example, they say Isaac Babel rewrote his short stories dozens of times before submitting them for publication. Finally, the question can also understand “writing” as the bulk of technical knowledge a person must have in order to write literature. In this latter case there is no doubt that it is possible to teach someone how to write.
Another problem regarding the question about the possibility of teaching how to write is whether we equate “writing” with “creating a masterpiece,” which is hard to achieve, even for those who have practiced for a long time. Literary quality, however, depends on many factors, the first one being the very idea of literature. Literature encompasses a significant, non-linear range, from those texts written just for entertainment to those that explore the limits of what the written word can do, and including texts written specifically as a response to a cultural context.
Therefore, the answer to the question “Is it possible to teach how to write?” is a resounding “yes,” with the proviso that the quality of writing will depend on the modicum of initial talent compounded, as in the compound interest formula, according to the time devoted to learning. Recalling Pablo Neruda, I would dare to say that learning requires an ardent patience, and that the learning process will be more effective if led by someone with more experience, ideally as part of a Creative Writing program.
From 2007, when I published my second novel, I began teaching at the bilingual MA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. I chose this MA because it was, and still is, the only bilingual program in the world, which also meant we would have students writing both in English and Spanish. Our intention was, and still is, to recruit students from the Americas to create an environment where learning functions on two levels: on the one hand, students learn how to write; on the other, we all learn about the literary traditions every student brings from their respective countries.
At the time, new programs in Creative Writing were emerging both in Latin America and Europe, which confirmed not only that writing could be taught, but also that there were many aspiring writers interested in learning. Such happy news also made me reconsider my teaching goals, which was not easy precisely because of the great American tradition of Creative Writing. Of course, part of the syllabus is easy to design—i.e. the use of point of view and the emotional effect of a text—but I also started noticing certain gaps. Perhaps the most important were technical aspects with which to represent the characters’ inner world, even though literature depends a great deal on what happens within characters.
Certainly, modernists from Virginia Woolf to William Faulkner have explored the process of writing about inner worlds. Is also true that Latin American writers like Mario Vargas Llosa did use similar resources. However, available teaching materials about this subject in creative writing programs were scarce. The boldest alluded to free indirect speech without going too deep in its fundamental role when representing a character’s inner world. So I started a search that forced me to come up with a new course called Minding Fiction, given the double meaning of the term minding. Like this one, I have designed other courses that add, albeit modestly, to our students’ experiences, dealing with subjects not easily found anywhere else.
Perhaps one of the most fruitful experiences in teaching creative writing is finding those gaps, which encourage us to contribute, to the extent of our abilities, to addressing them. For example, I am currently working on a text in which I hope to clarify to my students the notion of structure in a piece of literary writing.
After a couple of years teaching creative writing, I began to understand that “writing” did not only involve the three aspects I mentioned above. There was another, much more important one: practicing writing. It is hard to compete with writers as they are presented in the movies, writing novels almost automatically, with practically no effort. Instead, they seem to focus on life after writing—the book presentation, interviews, public appearances, a new romantic interest, etc. In reality, people who write know that what happens post-writing is but an instant compared to the time needed to write a book (sometimes even decades).
Therefore, teaching our students how to write also means telling them, urgently, that they are taking up an endeavor whose biggest reward is the very process of writing. Getting published, like every other post-writing activity, is a result, a side effect. This is, in my experience, the hardest thing to teach, for quite understandably the aspiring writer enthusiastically wishes to get published soon, also imagining all that happens beyond the writing process. I was like that when I began my career as a writer. However, one does not fulfil one’s job as a teacher without having a conversation on how writing is the reward, as well as a privilege.
A way to deal with such a challenge is to bring up the notion of the “professional writer.” I use the term in class deliberately to clarify two things. First, we should consider as a professional someone who practices an activity regularly, generally with the intention of making a living. Second, being a professional also means performing a certain activity with the highest standards. Therefore, a professional writer is one who writes regularly and to the best of their ability.
Just as we can claim someone who writes can already be considered a writer, regardless of their artistic development, we can also claim that those who think of themselves as professional writers have embraced writing as a constant exercise in trying to produce the best work possible. In that regard, we writers have a great deal in common with metalsmiths, but the difference is our pieces are made of words.
It is also important to remember that creative writing is an art. As such, it is a “personal, a direct impression of life,” in Henry James’s words, and literature is in the best position to offer that impression. Writing supposes a work of self-discovery, which can be supported by a program in Creative Writing, but, like any other intellectual standing, it depends greatly on each student’s personal quest.
Eventually the time comes when, if everything goes well, a student leaves the program and enters the world. It is then when instructors, as in any other field, should be satisfied just by having shown the path, always with the best intentions, but knowing quite well that the best students will find their own. Some of them will expand our understanding of literature with their own practice, thanks to their own personal impression of the world. When that happens, we should celebrate, for it makes literature a larger metropolis, more inclusive, with neither center nor periphery: a city where all of us writers have the right to belong.
Oceanside, California, April 2021
Translated by Lorena Iglesias
Lorena Iglesias Meléndez (Valledupar, 1984) is an editor and translator. She formerly taught classes on literature, Spanish, and academic writing in large and small institutions in Bogotá and the United States, where she moved in 2013 in order to complete a doctorate. She is currently dedicated to reading about feminism, anarchy, the abolition of the family, and criticism of work. She lives in Bogotá. She writes for the blog bilinguadas.
Born in 1962, José de Piérola grew up in Celendín, Cajamarca, Peru, where he discovered literature. He studied engineering and worked as a systems consultant in Lima and Los Angeles until 1996, when he left his career as a consultant to dedicate himself to literary work. He has won the Premio Internacional Max Aub (Spain), the Premio Copé (Peru), and the Premio de Novela Corta del Banco Central de Reserva (Peru). He is the author of Shatranj (2005), El camino de regreso (2007), Summa caligramática (2009), Un beso del infierno (2010), and the short story collections Sur y Norte (2008), Máquina del tiempo (2015), and La llave del Paraíso (2018). His translations into Spanish include The Art of Fiction by Henry James (2007), The Stranger by Albert Camus (2015), and Dracula by Bram Stoker (2021); he also translated Quechua Magic-Religious Tales from Lucanamarca by José María Arguedas (2017) into English. His most recent book, Fabulations (2018), is a collection of minimalist stories that blend fable, history, and fiction. He earned his doctorate in literature from the University of California, San Diego, and he received the Regents Outstanting Teaching Award at the University of Texas, El Paso, where he currently directs the bilingual master’s in creative writing.
In our nineteenth issue, we close out Women in Translation Month with a special selection of Spanish-language women writers reflecting on groundbreaking Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector and her impact across national and linguistic borders. We also feature a dossier on Colombia's Álvaro Mutis, fourth Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize, and reflections on Spanish-language creative writing programs and the University of Salamanca’s José Antonio Ramos Sucre Lecture Series on Venezuelan Literature.