Demystifying Creative Writing Workshops

I just finished my first creative writing workshop, even though I have been writing for some years already. Before Berlin, I lived in Buenos Aires for three years, a city where everybody seems to be a writer and all well-established writers organize workshops at their places. I have always been somewhat reluctant to take part in such writing circles, mainly for two reasons: I don’t think creative writing can be taught, and I don’t want my writing to be influenced by others.

I arrived in Argentina during the summer of 2012. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t know anybody, but I didn’t have anywhere to go and Argentina offered a two-year residence permit to Venezuelans. My only goal was to continue my studies, since I had interrupted them when I left my country. But soon I realized that it was impossible for me to study and work at the same time. The financial situation was too stressful, so I got depressed and locked myself up in the tiny room I had rented in San Telmo, the old part of the city. That winter I read Crime and Punishment. I was so impressed by it that, right after I finished it, I decided not to go back to school and rather devote myself entirely to the pursuit of my literary vocation. A year later, I was writing a short story that kept surprising me with new possibilities and new dimensions. After a couple of months of work, I realized that I was writing my first novel.

I finished that novel four years later. Four years of fear, panic, and pleasure. Four years of discipline, sacrifice, and caffeine. Now I like to think of that novel as my first university degree. During those years, I learned more than I could have ever learned if I had stayed in university or attended a creative writing workshop. I believe that the intimate process of writing a novel is not only unique and indescribably enriching, but it is an indispensable experience for any committed writer.

The year before I moved to Buenos Aires, UNESCO named it the World Book Capital City. It is sublime how many little, beautiful bookstores the city has. I used to walk through Avenida Corrientes all the time, a street full of libraries and theaters, where I would find the best books at the best prices. My favorite bookstore was called El Ateneo. Its building is a magnificent theater built in 1919. There, one can sit on its ornate balconies and read books without having to buy them. In those couches, I read authors like Faulkner, Kafka, Flaubert, Borges, Conrad, Vargas Llosa. Reading was key to the process of learning to write. I was amazed by the infinite possibilities there are to narrate a story. I learned two remarkable lessons reading these authors: they taught me that the way one tells a story is more important than the story itself; also that discipline is as important as talent, often even more so.

After I finished the novel, I felt it was time to go back to school. I applied to BCB and attached the novel to my application. The school granted me the South American Scholarship in Literary Arts. That is my biggest achievement yet in my literary career. However, during the first semester, I didn’t have time to work on my collection of short stories due to the immense load of school work. That is why I decided to take the creative writing workshop in my second semester. This way, I would be able to re-incorporate creative writing into my life routine. That is how I landed in Clare Wigfall’s workshop.

I have to admit that I was skeptical at first. Writing had been for me so far an act of solitude. An act of freedom. A chain of subjective decisions on aesthetic and moral matters. Self-examination. A personal exploration and interpretation of my experiences, traumas and philosophical questions. How can someone help me — regardless of how experienced they might be — in those personal matters without being intrusive? Forcing the product of that intimate thought process through a class prompt sounded like it could only impoverish it. Writing with a group of people, in a second language, felt unnatural to me. Nevertheless, I decided to do it. I told myself that I would just redirect every silly prompt to the short stories I wanted to write.

Those silly prompts turned out to be surprisingly uncomfortable for me. For example, once we had to write our own version of a popular children’s story. I found it annoying because I wanted to use the time to work on my own story instead. However, based on Rapunzel I wrote the story of a political prisoner who used the time in the cell to study and design a democratic system for his country, just like Rapunzel used the time in the tower to grow her hair in order to throw it out of the window and come in contact with the outside world. It turned out to be an interesting piece, and I would like to go on working on it in the future.

Before this class, writing had been a territory of absolute freedom. Having someone tell you what to do and how to do it, when you have been a god in control of your own little world for the past years, was not easy. However, I accepted the challenge, and through those prompts I found myself in unusual positions in which I would have never put myself otherwise. The result was  an unusual creative product. Clare would offer me an odd starting point and then she would let me be the god of my little world. After pulling through the resistance of my own ego — and admitting that there are many things that I still have to learn, just like the rest of my classmates — new possibilities and new dimensions unfolded in front of me.

During the workshop, I basically did what I did during those intense years in Buenos Aires: I read and I wrote. I read and discovered brilliant authors such as Lucia Berlin, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver. And I managed to write two pieces that I had been wanting to write for a while. I wrote them in English, though, so I feel like they are not as good as they could be if I had written them in my native language. However, writing in a second language taught me something extremely valuable. I became more aware of language than ever. My word choice was never so deliberate. And I see this reflected in my relation to my native language and, by extension, on my writing in my native language. I learned that every word must serve a purpose. Every word must have a justification, just as every word I decide not to use should be justified in being left out. By doing so, words are impregnated with symbolic meaning. That is how I tried to compensate for my relatively poor vocabulary. Simple words, but with a powerful, symbolic meaning.

Another important lesson I learned was that if I put myself in an uncomfortable position — if I accept the challenge and get over my insecurities, fears, and over my silly ego — I’ll be granted access to an unexplored territory of creative freedom. If I want to renew myself, I can’t begin from a comfortable starting point. From a comfortable starting point, nothing unpredictable can arise. Like I did in Buenos Aires, I learned two remarkable lessons during Clare’s workshop.

Writing is a solitary activity. Writers can feel insecure and disoriented after spending years working on a project without any feedback. It is definitely my case, and I still have doubts about the quality of my work. But having the opportunity to share your work with other writers helps you make those little technical adjustments on your piece, here and there, so the reader understands that story you are trying to tell better. The writers’ workshop helps to eliminate that level of uncertainty.

I think creative writing can’t be taught, and so does Clare, probably. And probably so does every well-established writer in Buenos Aires. The goal of a creative writing workshop is not to teach people how to write. Its goal is to show them how to access unexplored creative territories. Its goal is to show writers the limitlessness of narrative possibilities and to challenge them to expand their creative horizons. Its goal is, especially, to stimulate that intimate thought process which fictional literature is made of, and help writers to find the best way of putting it down on paper.

In this month dedicated to fiction writing, Die Bärliner will be sharing a selection of stories from the student body, four of which have been  produced and edited in Clare Wigfall’s workshop:

– “Wilderness Camp” by Julia Bohm

– “He, Tanawat” by Hyuna Choe

– “We’re the Walls” by Julian Thielman

–  “Mr. Bondad” by Erick Moreno Superlano

Remember that you are welcome to get in touch if you have a story to share this month (erick.morenosuperlano@berlin.bard.edu), and we will try to place it in the schedule.  

1 reply on “ Demystifying Creative Writing Workshops ”
  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I am deeply impressed by the decisions you have made and the motivation underlying them. There is a unique and special life energy in every word.

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