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To Gut the Text like a Cadaver: A Brief History of the Argentine Writing Workshop

By Ana Quiroga
Translated By Karen Phillips


In 1927, the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga—often compared to Poe for his horror stories and to Kipling for his stories of the jungle—left us his famous “Decálogo para el perfecto cuentista” (translated most frequently as “Ten Commandments for the Perfect Storyteller”). There, he offers a series of essential recommendations for anyone wishing to become an expert in the art of the short story. His list begins not with formal elements or questions of technique but rather with a call to search for a guide or mentor: “Believe in your teacher as in God himself,” he declares, and then continues to mention (in this order) his own literary gods: Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chekhov. With this same fervor, this faith in finding a teacher, writers in Buenos Aires seek out a writing workshop. These young writers are clearly also motivated by the belief that studying craft and process will improve their writing, but they also intuit, even without much knowledge of the literary universe into which they’re setting out, that their future as writers will largely depend on the person who runs their workshop.

From the onset of the military dictatorship in 1976, during which any meeting in a public place was prohibited, gatherings of writers no longer took place in the traditional bars of Buenos Aires, such as the Tortoni, or in the cafés of the Avenida Corrientes, also known as “bookstore row.” Instead, these meetings would occur in private homes, giving rise to a handful of literary workshops like the one that for decades was run by the writer Abelardo Castillo (1935–2017), who led the legendary magazines El Escarabajo de Oro, El ornitorrinco, and El grillo de papel. Author of some of the most emblematic short stories in Argentine literature, Castillo is considered the teacher of generations of writers. Juan Forn, Gonzalo Garcés, Susana Silvestre, and Patricia Saccomanno all emerged from his workshop.

During the same period, at the end of the seventies, the novelist, short story writer, and frequent El grillo de papel contributor Liliana Heker (1943) launched her own workshop. Possessing a precise, almost surgical writing style in which no word is superfluous, Heker is the author of classic stories such as “The Stolen Party” and “They Had Seen the Burning Bush,” essential to any anthology of the best Argentine short stories. Among her best-known students are the writers Pablo Ramos and Samanta Schweblin.

When I traveled to Havana as a judge for the short story competition for the 2016 Casa de las Americas literary prize with four other Latin American writers (Ramiro Sanchiz from Uruguay, Santiago Gamboa from Colombia, Eduardo Lalo from Puerto Rico, and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez from Cuba), we were surprised to discover, among the selected manuscripts, a book of stories so solid, so masterfully crafted from start to finish, that it needed not one correction. No hay risas en el cielo  (an excerpt of which is forthcoming in WWB’s November issue) received the prestigious prize, selected from more than 200 other books; I was not surprised to discover that the author, Ariel Urquiza, had participated in Liliana Heker’s workshop.

“I believe that what one learns above all in Liliana Heker’s workshop is how to edit,” commented Urquiza, “to distance ourselves from our texts and in so doing see the weak points [and] what can be improved. [The process] serves to better understand the internal logic of a text, whether it’s a story or a chapter from a novel. At the same time, all participants also critique the texts they hear read, something that from the outset is not easy. This is something that with time translates into a greater capacity to analyze or edit both our own writing and that of others.”

Another of the mythical workshops that has touched many writers was that of Félix della Paolera—known as Grillo—which he ran until shortly before his death in 2011. Grillo had been a friend of Borges and Bioy Casares. With Victoria Ocampo, he translated poetry by Dylan Thomas. Pedro Mairal, winner of the Premio Clarín for his novel A Night with Sabrina Love, described the experience like this: Grillo “listened to us attentively, smoking his pipe and, when each had finished reading his text, from behind a curtain of smoke, would make a couple remarks—few, but spot-on. He wasn’t invasive and allowed each of us to develop in our own direction.”

“It’s important to note the errors,” [Vicente Battista] tells us. “We must act as though we’re in a morgue, like forensic doctors, analyzing the text as if we were reviving a cadaver.”

Toward the end of the eighties, after his return from exile in Barcelona, Vicente Battista (1940), another of the key figures behind El Escarabajo de Oro, opened his literary workshop in Buenos Aires, which continues to this day. Like Urquiza, Battista insists that “to write is to edit” and that in no other way can we reach the creation of a climate through which, in the manner of Hemingway, a theme can “emerge.” “It’s important to note the errors,” he tells us. “We must act as though we’re in a morgue, like forensic doctors, analyzing the text as if we were reviving a cadaver.”

Mario Goloboff (1939) is a short story writer and poet and author of the magnificent novel Caballos por el fondo de los ojos. He has also written about the literary figures Roberto Arlt and Macedonio Fernández (who so greatly influenced Borges) and authored the best biography of Julio Cortázar. On his return to Argentina following his exile in Toulouse during the military dictatorship, Goloboff started a writing workshop that still meets today.

Another workshop led by a “living legend” is that of the prolific Hebe Uhart, author of original collections of hilarious short stories. Uhart cited the diary of Katherine Mansfield: “Whenever I write something good, I immediately become vain and the next paragraph comes out bad.”; and Simone Weil: “Virtuosity in any art consists of the ability to get away from oneself.”

My personal history as a writer is closely tied to writing workshops. In 1991, following the publication of two short stories in the cultural supplement of La Prensa, I began to give classes for copywriters and to coordinate writing workshops. Having attended the workshops of Abelardo Castillo and Félix della Paolera, I had the tools needed to establish the workshop I desired: one in which the incentive to write and exercise one’s craft are always present, with an eye to helping the participants develop and discover their own voice. Each prize awarded to one of my students is also a prize for my work. Each book published, a source of pride.

There’s no sign that the Argentine writing workshop is in decline. Year after year, writers are being quietly formed who will later come to light through a book publication or award. The fact that Argentinian writers are so frequently among the finalists and winners in literary competitions throughout the Spanish-speaking world speaks to a tradition of writers who continue to relentlessly gut their texts like a cadaver.

In 2004, on a visit to Argentina, the English writer David Lodge marveled that the theatrical offerings in Buenos Aires rivaled those of London. Something similar is happening today with writing workshops. One need only consult the Internet to be impressed by the endless list of traditional writing workshops and their new virtual iterations. Italo Calvino maintained that Buenos Aires was the global capital of the short story. Without a doubt, the city can claim a similar title for its writing workshops.

 

Read the April 2018 issue, “Several Worlds Simultaneously: Seeking Argentina”

Read “After Borges: Tamara Tenenbaum and the Search for a New Argentine Literature,” by Susannah Greenblatt

Read Liliana Heker’s “Everyone Has Her Own Small Treasure,” translated by Sheena Sood

Read the October 2010 issue, “Beyond Borges: Argentina Now”

Read Juan Forn’s “The Karma Some Girls Have,” translated by Marina Harss


Published Jul 5, 2018   Copyright 2018 Ana Quiroga

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