Can you tell us a bit about how the workshop came about and how it transformed into a much more formal project associated with an undergraduate degree and a master’s in Literary Creation?
The Writing Workshop at the Universidad Central has a long history. In 1981, when I proposed the creation of a writers’ workshop to the university’s president Jorge Enrique Molina, there were very few in Colombia. In Medellín, Manuel Mejía Vallejo ran one through the Biblioteca Pública Piloto, but that was all. However, a negative aura followed them. My literary generation was suspicious of them. They believed that they could politicize literature, that they would serve as an instrument of political evangelization or to proselytize. I was emerging from a personal crisis regarding literary criticism, something which I had engaged in in newspapers. And in other countries (the USA, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Chile) workshops ran without any issues. So, I once again began to disbelieve the prejudices, I abandoned the idea of a bohemian or partisan literary group, I marginalized myself from criticism and approached literary creation as something to be discovered.
To begin with I did (without apostatizing) studies in linguistics, history, and literary theory—which had not contributed anything to creative writing, and which the very academy excluded from their curriculum. These were histories and theories very much aligned with the tastes of authors, and I dedicated myself to the creation of a holistic and interactive program in narrative creation, to investigate a method to execute it in practice and to work with those who were willing to strip back the layers. Practice and induction guided me, once again without apostatizing what I had learned. The practice, then, I did by reading the original works, not the histories and theories, to approach without prejudice and conscious of the maps and processes of narrators, both real and possible. I rebelled against the workshops which demanded one read ten volumes about the Quixote or Ulysses (without having read the Quixote and Ulysses). I began to make out a pentagram that would permit me and us collectively to compose and interpret the process of narrative creation. I had won various short story competitions; I knew what that process was like. And now, with the support of twelve or thirteen centuries of literature—behind the backs of the professors and directors of the group and their preferences—I could go in search of that which finally I called the pentaphony of narrative creation.
In 2006 the Writers’ Workshop of the Universidad Central (t/n: TEUC in its Spanish initials) had more than 200 awards to its graduates’ names in local and international competitions. To create, after having read and analyzed the evolutionary changes over twelve or thirteen centuries of fundamental works of the short story and novel but not exclusively the classics, comparing them in a progressive chronological sense—an order which has always been called into question (because, it is said, that which is old is harder to read)—had confirmed the coherence of my proposal. And that’s how I went about confronting and finalizing the program’s structure and coherence (I approached it as a laboratory for experimentation), which we would run with different scheduling and timelines in whichever classroom of the Universidad Central. I appropriated the basic tools of writing, not with grammatical ends but with literary ones and, above all, I examined the creation of a short story or a novel in the cycles and relations of the process. And that is how I configured and systematized the pentaphony: subject, object, relation, perspective, and methods, a pentaphony without which nobody can reach their objective, whether the writer be aware of it or not. And that is what I still do each semester, without ever repeating a single narrative text, because in each author and in each text creative liberty will always be different.
When in the first decade of the twenty-first century the president of the university Guillermo Páramo Rocha—aware of my literary activities—requested that we convert the TEUC into an academic program, both undergraduate and postgraduate, the stage was set. In fact, I designed the courses of the major in Narrative Creation and later the undergraduate in Literary Creation, based on each of the parts which made up the TEUC program, but resizing them. At the basic level, for example, some classes which we used to dedicate to punctuation, grammar, or problems in the Spanish language, I converted into the courses for the first two years. I proposed new categories to practice punctuation; I proposed a course (Literature and Creation) for the first semester as an induction to the whole degree, where the professor and student questioned the Aristotelian and canonical educational paradigm (of paralyzing definitions) to adopt a liberationist attitude toward creativity. (I’m not speaking of avant-gardes, of course, something that so captivates some professors, but rather the permanent confrontation between creative praxis and imitative praxis throughout the long life of narrative genres.)
And then, in the two last years of the Literary Creation program—not of Creative Writing, a gringo model and concept which I respect but don’t ascribe to, because I privilege the subject over the tool: without the subject the tool would not be creative—I developed with proper names the courses or subjects of the pentaphony. This new nomenclature would serve the process which I systematized according to: who narrates (the subject); what they speak of (the idea or topic); how they argue it (the history and the argument); from where they write (the perspective of the narrator), and; how they write and with what (the methods, that is, the use of description, narration, dialogue, and reflection). This schema, developed out of the experiences of the TEUC, was my theoretical framework and my development plan for the degree. When somebody from the Department of Humanities and Literature (that is what it used to be called before becoming the Department of Literary Creation) passed me the program of Literary Studies of another university in Bogotá as a guide for the document we would submit to the Ministry of Education—a common practice among university management—I declined it politely. My research over so many years into the process of narrative creation with the TEUC was never from the knowledge of the Universidad Central’s research areas. Perhaps they would never admit it, because I have always shied away from bureaucratic processes, which are colonialist and succumb to a scientistic labyrinth. I already had it clear in my mind, contrary to what the professor suggested to me, that our objective of study was not literary studies, nor literary theory, nor the established canon, but rather that other field always abandoned and excluded by academia: the processes of literary creation. They are two different objects of study, so as such, let’s not be exclusionary. And they establish different methods and pedagogies.
All in all, after 25 years of investigating the process of artistic creation (I always find support in all the Arts) in hundreds of authors and works, I had advanced enough to design another program—of four years and now curricular and subject to the norms of the academy—dedicated to the development at a macro level of what I had done before at a micro level. However, this time with all the perversities (I say as both a joke and, in all seriousness) of the classroom, of the timetabling prison cell, of attendance records, of the impertinence of marking, of the “work” which dispels creation. I think the Universidad Central never took notice of that research project which I undertook on my own with the TEUC (otherwise, it also wouldn’t have existed). Perhaps the reviewers and, thereafter, the civil servants of the Ministry of Education who approved the major and the undergraduate and master’s degrees could sense that.
You wrote a book, El universo de la creación narrativa, that despite being published in 2010, speaks to your experience in writing workshops. And yet, it goes further because the book proposes a method of writing—in other words, it not only attempts to present a history of narrative techniques but proposes a way of creating with very defined guidelines. How did you conceive of the book and how do you see its significance nowadays, as it continues to be used in undergraduate and master’s courses at the Universidad Central?
Since my time as a Law student at the Universidad Externado de Colombia, which I continued at the Instituto Caro y Cuervo and in the Universidad Pedagógica, I have been a researcher attached to the old index cards of the time (now less so due to digitization). The way I taught the Writers’ Workshop for twenty or more years was built on these archives. I started making index cards with everything I read, according to the changing program of the TEUC (which I modified according to the research and the experience of the students). I used to look at the history of literary techniques from books like those of Kayser, Wellek, and Warren. I discovered in them the order of the theorists and historians, so distant from the systems which channel the process of creation, which, ultimately, was the only thing or what most interested me. In virgin territory, such as in relation to the forms of dialogue, I went to the original narrative works, sampling and tabulating from works from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. When I studied the subject (author, writer, narrator, character, heteronym, reader), I discovered errors made by the theorists, in the form of distortions and false myths. From each stage of the process of the Workshop I was left with the index cards. For that reason, with everything I had written up following those archives, pages I had stored in those lever arch files from the end of the twentieth century, I arrived at the conclusion that publishing them as a book was simply a necessity. As the university doesn’t let us research, much less write, and the bureaucracy of classwork is all-consuming, I took too long in editing the book, which finally appeared in 2010, published by a small-scale press I had founded in the eighties.
In short, in 2004 we had arranged some diplomas in Narrative Creation; in 2008 the major in Narrative Creation was born, and in 2010 the degree in Literary Creation enrolled its first four students halfway through the year. In 2013 the master’s degree was born. My book, whose title continues to be relevant, El universo de la creación narrativa—the universe of narrative creation—summarized the experiences and the experiments of almost thirty years with TEUC and its conversion and adaptation to the academy (always doubtful on my part) and, eventually, reproduced my objective or at least my desire to propose a theoretical and practical route to clarify the processes and the circuits, the keys and the pinions of narrative creation, and to explore that route with these new writers.
More than ten years since its publication, has your outlook changed in any way with respect to your work and perspectives on the book? If so, how?
A level of influence from literary studies—which I sparred with in my Workshops—forced me to rewrite it soon after, and in 2014 a second edition appeared with those changes. Now I’m preparing a third edition because I also soon realized that something had been left out: my liberationist spirit. If there is no spirit of liberty, if the canon harasses us, if the molds pursue us, renewed creation is hampered, diverted, or lost. That is something which one can impress in the sessions of the Workshop or in the classroom, but it is difficult to express or transmit in writing. So much so that I realized some began to see my book as a manual, when it intends to be quite the opposite. In the Workshop I make sure to emphasize how throughout history each tool has had a different renewed use. Each part of the pentaphony (subject, object, relation, perspective, and methods), while remaining the same and without losing that tradition, is different according to the way each new writer uses it, because I cannot confront myself if I don’t have some earlier referent through which I become a) the opposite, b) something similar or, c) something else. This is the spirit of the creator, to learn from the permanent change coded in art’s evolution, whose essence will never be discovered in the notion of the static canon to which we have arrived. This is noted when, in a session, you take apart three short stories or novels from different eras. That capacity for liberty, however, wasn’t reflected in the first two editions, even though it was insinuated. Now I am preparing the third edition to give it that spin, I don’t know if I’ll achieve it. (There’s a reason why many authors never write down their workshops and conferences; words and spirit tend to be divorced from one another.)
From the unedited index of my book, I have taken up and exposed the two great blocks and subjects of the degree—resizing these cores, of course. Let me repeat, I had no need of a theoretical framework alien to experience itself; the confrontation between narrative texts was sufficient, the life and proposals of the authors and the proposal of a route which, in that moment, had a demonstrable validity with solid proofs of more than 300 awards to the graduates of the TUEC. By way of synthesis, three factors came together in that moment: the theoretical-practical experience of the Writers’ Workshop (1981-2011); the writing and publication of the book El universo de la creación narrativa (2010, 2014); and the birth of the first degree in Literary Creation in Colombia (and indeed any country across the continent).
Translated by Thomas Nulley-Valdés
Interview carried out by LALT Colombia correspondents Óscar Daniel Campo and Alejandra Jaramillo.
Thomas Nulley-Valdés is Visiting Fellow (adjunct) at the Australian National University in Canberra where he graduated with a doctorate in Spanish and Latin American literature in 2020. His main research interests include: the macro- and micro-level analysis of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Latin American texts, authors, and contexts; contemporary Latin American short story anthologies; and World Literature theories and methodologies. He is currently preparing his first monograph, titled McOndo Revisited.