Spanish creative writing course makes its debut
Photo by Dan Addison
By Mary Carlson
Third-year Cloud Spurlock sought to hone her creative writing skills. Fourth-year Kathleen Baireuther didn’t see herself as a creative writer but was interested in maintaining her Spanish fluency. Andy Gray, a fourth-year who spent four summers in Bolivia and an academic year in Valencia, Spain, wanted to work with noted Spanish-speaking writers in preparation for his graduate study in Spanish. Despite their different motivations for taking the course, each of these students enjoys the challenges offered by SPAN 495, a Spanish creative writing course being taught for the first time this semester.
The brainchild of Spanish professor Fernando Operé, this seminar-style course is unique among U.Va.’s foreign language courses in that it requires students to write fiction, read each other’s writing aloud and critique it in class discussions that are conducted entirely in Spanish. As Operé sees it, the time for a course with this level of rigor was long overdue. Since the “Spanish community is growing so much,” he said, the demand among U.Va. students for Spanish classes and study abroad opportunities has increased dramatically since the 1980s.
The inspiration for a Spanish creative writing course came through Operé’s conversations with his longtime friend, Spanish writer Mempo Giardinelli. With the help of Randolph Pope, chairman of the Spanish, Italian & Portuguese department, Operé secured funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research & Graduate Studies for a three-credit workshop that would give students the chance to work closely with Giardinelli as well as Laura Freixas and Antonio Skármeta, two other distinguished Spanish-speaking writers.
SPAN 495 meets twice a week and includes both undergraduates and graduate students. Though most are native English speakers, several students are native Spanish speakers. Each visiting writer teaches one-third of the semester. Throughout the semester, students must do double duty, not only writing short fiction assignments but also critiquing their classmates’ work. Operé explains that by assuming a dual identity as writer and critic, students stand to learn more about the creative process than they might in a conventional literature course. “The critic does the post-mortem. He deals with the literary work, which is like a dead body. But with the writer, the body is just being born. It’s very important to give students that perspective on the creative process.”
For Gray, a Spanish major who plans to begin his graduate studies in the fall, writing well in a foreign language is no simple feat, even for an advanced language major. “To do it well, you have to have a native command of the language or close to it,” he said. “The course has definitely given me a sense of how difficult it is to write well. What I write may be grammatically correct, but there is that little shade between writing correctly and writing elegantly.”
Spurlock, who is considering pursuing a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in creative writing or becoming a Teach for America teacher, agrees. “Reading is not really a problem for me. But it’s really hard to produce writing in a language that’s not your own. I spend a lot of time going through the dictionary and thesaurus.”
Baireuther, a double major in Spanish and Political & Social Thought who has visited Ecuador the past two summers with research grants, offers a different perspective. While she acknowledges the difficulty of writing creatively in a second language, she finds that it has its unexpected advantages. “I use Spanish as a creative outlet. I find that I censor myself less when I write in Spanish than when I write in English.”
Beyond what it teaches students about the creative process, SPAN 495 can broaden their level of cultural awareness. In this respect, SPAN 495 represents an important step forward in U.Va.’s internationalization effort. Not only does the course bring acclaimed foreign faculty to the University, thereby helping to internationalize the culture on Grounds, it also emphasizes students’ advanced-level language skills. On an even larger scale, the course is clearly consistent with the U.S. Department of Education’s International Programs and Activities, which seeks to “increase U.S. knowledge and expertise about other regions, cultures, languages and international issues.”