Among creative writing’s many objectives, it seeks to restore the word, find its hidden meanings, and whenever possible renew its definitions. The poet Juan Gelman asserted that faced with violence we were obligated to reinvent language. Using words is clearly the only way we can give form to and represent the tragedy that the armed conflict has left behind, which has battered Colombian reality. The country urgently needs to value and restore words, because here, in this corner of South America, is one of the places where they’ve been most insulted, twisted, degraded, and harmed, facing the rhetoric of power and war. That is why there was such an urgent need for a master’s program in Creative Writing from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
Without language there is no storytelling and without storytelling there is no memory and without memory there is no identity. Therefore, we must ask ourselves as Kirsten Mahlke did: How can we remember if no narrative has been built? How is it told when we don’t understand what happened? The philosopher and writer Albert Camus reminds us, “the writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.”
I thought it essential that the master’s program in Creative Writing be open to different professions as a way to find and nurture diverse perspectives through which the complex reality of the country could be told. When I began to develop the curriculum for the master’s program, I thought the main objective of the graduate degree ought to be to accompany students in creating their debut work. In other words, we were supposed to, above all, educate authors on the story or novel, screenwriting, dramaturgy, and poetry, because only those who finish a work can become writers and continue with the craft.
To achieve this objective, it was necessary to cultivate sensibility and artistic knowledge, and to encourage great discipline. All of us who write know that it is not easy work and that producing a text is full of adventures. Getting started is usually rough and awkward. There’s no clear roadmap and it begins with feeling things out in the midst of a cloud of uncertainty. Slowly and in the company of some weekly readings, an exploration of personal and family life, as well as the history of the region, the city, the country, and its circumstances, writing itself begins to open up and clear some trails that deserve to be explored. The path is steep and packed with perplexities, but also full of reward.
Without a doubt, sensibility is cultivated and encouraged through reading based on the knowledge and emulation of great authors who serve as models. Even when there are no fixed rules for writing, it’s clear there is a need to maintain a close relationship with books, libraries, and the artistic tradition in which one is ingrained. Therefore, in Bogotá we set out to introduce students to the idea that art is born of intertextual dialogue. Prose fiction and theater, film and poetry all maintain a constant relationship and exchange with the works that establish a tradition. After all, art is play between time periods and languages. And artistic sensibility is encouraged through cultivating understanding and participation in said dialogue.
Many recently graduated students came to the master’s program with the goal of writing an experimental work, and with their work wanted to break all established canons. Understanding this laudable desire, I decided it was important for the program to study the great experimental novel of the twentieth century. I’m referring to Ulysses by James Joyce, which honestly transformed literature; with its publication, it opened the doors to modernism and innovated the discipline. Without a doubt, it is a difficult, complex, and cryptic novel. In fact, Joyce himself once said: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
But, again, by studying Joyce’s work, I wanted to highlight that the great authors are found writing and conversing with the authors who came before them, still rebels who broke with all canons. It is no accident that the work is called Ulysses. Literature is marked by intertextual dialogue; this has been one of literature’s characteristics since its beginnings.
Homer knew the mythology and the role of the gods in his tradition. Hence, the Odyssey also evoked the journey of Jason and the Argonauts. Virgil wrote the Aeneid based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In fact, he composed it in dactylic hexameter, following the meter of the epic poems, even when this was not the most conducive or natural meter for the Latin. In the Aeneid, Homer’s stories are woven together and rewritten, using the loose strings of the epics to build the history of Rome. And though this work dialogues with both texts, it is a unique and novel story.
In Shakespeare’s works we find Ovid and Virgil, and as we go about reading humanity’s great texts, we begin to find the relationships with those who came before. To be sure, we could build a literary genealogy and observe how traditions have been forged. It is like standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before, to paraphrase Isaac Newton’s famous statement.
The artist who begins their work on these matters shouldn’t be concerned with originality. No work is created in a vacuum. For that reason, one should not be afraid of influence. Pablo Picasso said, with his characteristic, delectable cheek, that he was not concerned about copying anyone, what worried him was copying himself.
Few works can be as questioned as those that think themselves originals. Imagination, whether in literature, dramaturgy, poetry, or film, lies in the ability to relate disciplines, topics, and stories that haven’t been connected before. Imagination ultimately resides in the ability to play, know, and compose. In other words, we should talk about the underlying ars combinatoria in these works.
Geoffrey Chauser, the father of English literature, thought not once about inventing a story, and it wasn’t that people were less inventive back then; rather, they were content with a variation that added to and gave meaning to the story. Originality seems to be an obsession of our times, and it continues to be a deceptive illusion. The myth of Oedipus was known in the days of Sophocles, but what’s important is how he told it and from what perspective.
I would like to stress that the wordsmith’s role consists in recounting timeless stories using new material, rediscovering their metamorphoses, their new languages, and unveiling how they stay current. Using the distilled word, the writer catches us by surprise facing the perspective they have found and discovered to renew and revitalize a tradition.
In the master’s program we also emphasize that writing is rewriting. Or, as W. B. Yeats would say: edit, delete, cross out, and search. Simply put, every writer is made and remade throughout the writing process. With rewriting, ideas are clarified, during rewriting they become organized, faced with rewriting they are brought into focus and in the face of rewriting they are nailed down.
Now, despite my urgency in creating the master’s in Creative Writing, neither university bureaucracy nor certain professors shared in my eagerness; in fact, they insisted on the perverse preconception, which has run rampant in Latin America, that “a writer is born not made.” They insisted that talent was something innate and creative writing was a “gift” that could not be taught, and that, as of late, the great writers were “luminaries” above all else.
While I did not deny the talent or enlightenment of the great writers, I did, however, insist that sensibility could be cultivated. And that the purpose of universities was to democratize knowledge instead of mythologizing it. For that very reason, creative writing programs prove invaluable for the development of knowledge.
But bureaucracy tends to be the enemy of the word and all novelty. Therefore, I had to answer countless morose questions: How could I guarantee that there would be students? My answer, usually, would end with another question: if the program wasn’t offered, how could we know whether or not there would be students?
All in all, it took me four years of back and forth with university bureaucracy to convince them that embarking on this adventure would be worth it. At the beginning they said that, while the program being pitched was interesting, we should start with a specialization. Although I disagreed, what seemed most important to me was to begin. So, I developed a curriculum for a specialization. When the Academic Council studied the proposal, they reached the conclusion that it should be not a specialization but rather a master’s program. Go back and rewrite the curriculum, adjusting it to fulfill the requirements for a master’s program. In the end, patience has always been an essential requirement for writing. Only after a lot of back and forth were all obstacles overcome.
That said, the University handed me a ream of blank paper, and I handed them back a master’s program with a designed curriculum that received 111 applications for the first cohort. The master’s program opened with three areas of study: prose fiction (story or novel), screenwriting, and dramaturgy. However, after two years of work, I thought we needed an additional area of study: poetry. After all, the pursuit of poetry always hums in the background of all the arts. I had to face the bureaucracy again: they maintained, once more, that poetry could not be taught. I repeatedly wondered: who can evaluate a book of poems and say whether it is good or bad? And the answer was simple: poets. Just as the quality of a bridge is evaluated by engineers, and they are in charge of saying whether or not it can fall, poets themselves were the ones who could evaluate the quality of a poetry book. And the fourth area of study was approved.
That said, the program would be primarily tutorial. To that end I invited distinguished writers, poets, screenwriters, and dramaturgs to accompany the students during their writing process. I don’t think it was a coincidence that more than sixty students were awarded national and international prizes in the four areas of study throughout the first decade. Without a doubt, the dedication and passion of the founding professors and the students in the program were keys to success.
I also thought it was essential to internationalize the master’s program and convene recognized Spanish-speaking writers to accompany us by giving seminars, workshops, and conferences. So, writers, poets, dramaturgs, and screenwriters from Spain and Latin America came to Bogotá to share their experiences with the students. During the first decade of the master’s program, when I was at the helm, more than 189 international guests were invited, including recipients of the Cervantes, Rómulo Gallegos, and Pulitzer Prizes, among other famous distinctions, simply to point out the quality of the guests. It would be impossible to name them all in this interview, but I remain grateful to every single one of them because they understood the importance of the program and enhanced it. Thanks to them we were able to compile, record, and publish the workshops held in the collection titled Seminarios y talleres con invitados internacionales de la maestría en Escrituras Creativas (2012) [Seminars and workshops with international guests of the master’s program in Creative Writing (2012)].
Lastly, I should add that the master’s program opened doors for creative writing in other universities, and programs have sprung up around the country and throughout the continent. In Colombia, seven programs have now opened in different cities—something that fills me with joy and proves that, in the university setting, creative writing is here to stay.
Translated by Michelle Mirabella
Michelle Mirabella is the translator of “Ferns,” the English-language debut of Chilean writer Catalina Infante Beovic, published in 2020 by World Literature Today. Her translations also appear in Latin American Literature Today, Your Impossible Voice, and Exchanges. She is a graduate of the translation and interpretation MA program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and an alumna of the Banff Literary Translation Centre.