The University of Iowa

Creative Writing: From Valparaiso to Iowa City

April 14th, 2010

By Roberto Ampuero*

This is an opinion piece written for the Press Citizen in coordination with International Programs’ April 9 WorldCanvass program focusing on Latin America.

Five years ago in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa we began teaching creative writing…in Spanish, of course. It was an initiative that we started with one section and a handful of pioneer students who aspired to write fiction in a language that was not their native one. Writing fiction in a language you are studying is far from easy, but it allows you to improve your knowledge in a different way: namely, by narrating out of your own imagination, finding new words and structures that you need to express something locked in your mind and heart. The result was frankly impressive. All of a sudden there were waiting lists to get in. The interest was far greater than we had anticipated. Today we are three professors and writers in the Department—Ana Merino, Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, and myself—teaching fiction and poetry, and we harbor ambitious plans for the future.

When on my book tours through Europe or Latin America I relate this experience, people look at me with amazement. Many think (we know clichés are world-wide) that Americans are only able to speak English and expect the rest of the world to learn their language. Thus when I explain that the students at our university not only learn Spanish and the culture in that language, but also write short stories and poetry in the language of Cervantes and García Márque, they are stunned. And in truth, this is far from common in the world, although it is a growing phenomenon in the United States, particularly in the case of Spanish.

The idea of teaching fiction in Spanish grew naturally out of the tradition nourished by our university in this field. On the one hand there is the Writer’s Workshop, which for decades has boasted students and writers of prestige, even numerous Pulitzer Prize winners. On the other hand there is the International Writing Program that every year invites for three months talented writers from around the world. The IWP is a truly international cultural institution and put Iowa City worldwide on the map. There is no country (except, possibly, North Korea) that does not have at least one writer, poet or playwright, that has not attended the IWP.

When our department began teaching fiction writing in Spanish in 2005, we were basing ourselves not only on the long literary tradition of the University of Iowa but also on the roughly 45 million Hispanics who live in the United States, and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who speak Spanish without being Hispanics.

All indications are that the Spanish language will continue to gain influence, both in the United States and the world. It already is, and will continue to be, vital in the practice of many professions of the future. With so many Spanish speakers in the US, it was natural that the university might offer the possibility of writing fiction in that language. Now we offer not only a basic course but an advanced one as well. The important thing is that learning creative writing inspires the exploration of the soul and the language, stimulates fantasy and invites a more rigorous use of grammar and vocabulary. It allows one to share one’s work with fellow students and instructors, as well as to benefit from their criticism, and it makes it possible to cast one’s fictional work into a written text.

For me the teaching of fiction in the United States offers an additional dimension. In the seventies the distinguished Chilean writer José Donoso taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and when he returned to Chile, then under a military dictatorship, he organized writer’s workshops based on the same model. There young writers spoke of literature, and also, clandestinely, about politics. They constituted cells of democratic resistance fed by the experience of Iowa City. I never imagined that thirty years later I would be teaching creative writing at the same university that inspired Donoso to build workshops where young writers longed for democracy, human rights, diversity, and artistic liberty. For me to teach creative writing implies sharing with my students as well the democratic and humanist dimension which defines the whole idea of a literary workshop.


* Roberto Ampuero is assistant professor at the UI, columnist of El Mercurio, one of the most influential newspapers in Latin America, and author of 10 novels, one volume of short-stories and one cultural essay. His novels are published in Latin America and Spain, and are translated in 11 languages. March 2010 Dr. Ampuero was appointed by the President of Chile as one of the ten Directors of the National Council for Culture and the Arts (CNCA), the department of culture of that country