Writer in Residence

I believe in... workshops

By Martha Bátiz

Open Book_Martha WIR workshop

A escribir se aprende escribiendo, we say in Spanish: It is only by writing that one learns how to write. Lots of writing and reading are an absolute must, but acquiring writing techniques is equally important. That is why I believe in workshops. Writing is a solitary occupation, but once a draft has been started or, better yet, completed, external input is necessary. Does this text accomplish what we want? Does it elicit the emotion that was sought for? What about the rhythm of its sentences? Their register and tone? Writing is a conversation between the author and the reader. The very best, most experienced and accomplished writers are able to grasp what their readers need. But for most of us, our editor, our partner, our friend are the people whose help is key for us to imagine and accommodate our potential audiences. Workshops in general, and creative writing courses in particular, offer a safe space where to take one’s first steps towards becoming a writer.

        No one is born knowing how to create a character or build an atmosphere in writing. Reading can provide clues as to how this is done, but the right exercises and critiques can strengthen the muscles every writer needs to start, and finish, their journey. Regardless of what the writer’s ultimate motivation is —be it personal growth or formal publication— workshops provide their members with a community of welcoming peers who can offer invaluable support. And nothing is more important than finding one’s community: the generous eyes that can see beyond our reach, the compassionate souls that can lift us when we stumble, the sharp minds that offer advice and shed some light over those dark corners we haven’t yet discovered or are too afraid to explore.

        When I was 22 years old and fresh out of acting school, I submitted an application for a small grant to Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes which included a bi-weekly mentorship. It was this mentorship that I was after. The late Mexican writer Daniel Sada was in charge of the short-story category. When I showed up for our first session I was the only one without any previous writing experience. The other two young participants, both male, had taken part in previous workshops and the list of the books they had read was extensive. I felt intimidated: I was unfamiliar with the dynamics and rules of this new creative space, and felt I hadn’t read enough. I felt like a complete impostor. I wanted to quit, but thanks to Daniel Sada’s insistence and patience, I stayed put and slowly but surely started feeling slightly more comfortable in this new skin: the writer’s skin. And after a year of working with him (I’m honoured to say we struck a friendship that lasted until his untimely death in 2011), I had fallen in love with writing and the workshop format.

        Something incredibly beautiful is born when a group of strangers with a common passion focus on helping one another improve their writing. The collaboration, the bonds that are created, are unique. I couldn’t get enough of that feeling. Consequently, I applied for another grant that happily resulted in a close mentorship. At Daniel’s urging, I had set my eyes on the prestigious Centro Mexicano de Escritores, or Mexican Writing Centre which was founded in 1951 by Margaret Shedd, with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. I had applied in response to Daniel Sada’s faith in me, but was convinced I wouldn’t get in. I was only 23 years old and, anticipating my defeat, I made plans to apply again the following year.  With that in mind, I forgot about the application and went on with my life. Imagine my shock when I picked up the phone one evening and was informed that I had been one of the five people chosen to receive that grant. I remember being at a loss for words, my hands and knees shaking. I remember jumping for joy after hanging up. I remember my parents’ proud faces when I shared the unbelievable news with them. I am smiling again now, writing these lines, recalling the memory of this most special moment. How remarkable that I was being welcomed into a historical institution -- into the place where some of Mexico’s finest and most successful writers had workshopped their first, yet ground-breaking, literary works.

        My mentors, Alí Chumacero and Carlos Montemayor, both living legends of Mexican literature at the time, focused on different aspects of writing. Chumacero, a poet, was a goldsmith of language. He made sure all elements of each sentence were grammatically correct and, more importantly, aesthetically and musically pleasing, and befitting of the character, time, and place at hand. Montemayor, a narrator and essayist, focused on how we had built our characters (were they believable?) and our plots (predictable? Predictable was bad!). Were we using all of our senses in our descriptions so as to create the right atmosphere? Did the dialogue we constructed advance the action while at the same time vividly revealing the character of the interlocutors? Had we found, and were we developing, our own voice?

        Through my mentors’ guidance, and my peers’ comments, I understood more about the details, big and small, that need to be attended to as we write. I learned so much from sharing opinions and, at times, agreeing to disagree with others around the table, that I organized my life —juggling my job as an actress, my undergraduate studies, and my job as a columnist in a national newspaper in Mexico— around my Wednesday workshops. The critique was sometimes harsh, yes, but never disrespectful nor unfounded. There may have been pain, yet our weekly sessions made me a stronger, much more careful, much more conscious writer.

        When I migrated to Toronto in 2003, moving from a Spanish-speaking environment to an English-speaking one was a challenge at many levels, but none proved harder and more disheartening than my search for a local writing workshop in Spanish. The few I found were nothing more than social gatherings where people expected, and offered, an easy round of applause. I soon understood that if I wanted to continue growing as a writer, and find a demanding yet supporting writing community in my adopted city, I would have to switch to English, at least for the time being. My only option was to enroll in the  the Certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

       At first, it wasn’t easy to be the only non-native English speaker in the classroom, but the challenge was worth it. I honed my skills, made lifelong friends (hi, dearest Marina and Deb!), found a Fairy Godmother (explaining this would require a separate post, but yes, she’s magical), and after completing the program in English, I offered to create, and teach, equivalent courses in Spanish. Armed with the knowledge and expertise acquired throughout the years in all these workshops both in Mexico and Canada, I felt ready to give back. This is how the Creative Writing in Spanish courses at U of T's SCS were born.

        Since 2009, it has been my greatest honour to replicate, course by course, and within my humble limitations, the safe, nurturing space of the workshop format to which I owe so much. Whatever piece is brought to the workshop, whatever is said during the workshop, it stays in the workshop. No one is judged. The collective goal is to highlight elements in the text that we think work well, mention those that don’t, and offer, if possible, solutions or suggestions that might be helpful. This allows for all participants to feel at ease, drop any masks, and explore areas of their creativity that they might otherwise censor.

        It is therefore not at all surprising that I myself continue taking part in workshops whenever I have the opportunity. I am constantly looking for meaningful connections with fellow writers, both in English and in Spanish. I learned from my parents that, no matter how accomplished a musician you are, you still have to keep doing scales. Taking part in workshops is the way in which I do my scales, and I derive enormous pleasure from it. This July, for example, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a Macondista: a participant in the Macondo Writers Workshop, created by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros. I spent four very intense, happy days on Zoom under the guidance of Nelly Rosario, exploring the many possibilities offered by ekphrastic writings. I loved every minute of that learning curve. The sense of community, the great collegiality and sheer generosity shown by everyone involved, was truly inspiring.

        Writing is a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be lonely. Uno siempre vuelve a los viejos sitios donde amó la vida: You always return to those old places where you loved your life. For me, as a writer, that place continues to be the literary workshop. It grounds me, levels me, brings me back to the basics: how can I tell this story in the best possible way? It takes a village to raise a child – or to write a book. And in my personal village, the workshop will forever remain a sacred place.   

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Martha Bátiz is an award-winning writer, translator, and professor of Spanish language in literature. She is the author of four books, including the story collection Plaza Requiem, winner of an International Latino Book Award, and the novella The Wolf’s Mouth, winner of the Casa de Teatro Prize. Her most recent publication is the story collection No Stars in the Sky (House of Anansi). Born and raised in Mexico City, she lives in Toronto.