To the letter

A tradition that creates new spaces of expression, forms new literary outcroppings and improves foreigners’ Spanish.


It was the sign about a lecture that inspired Leslie Mac Lean. In one of the halls of the University of California in Santa Cruz, it was announced that the writer Pía Barros would comment on her next literary workshop in Santiago. This American student needed little time to convince herself to join this workshop.

“ I had been travelling throughout Chile with my friend Liz Tynes. We both loved it and wanted to find the way to come back” says Mac Lean The magnetism with the country was such that she asked for invitations for both of them to apply for a scholarship and join the course. Furthermore, “I proposed to write my thesis on Chile”.

After a few months, she had already her creation that she wrote in situ. As usual, she soon received the criticism of her classmates. As same as in a trial, she had a defense in charge of emphasizing her strengths and a prosecutor that highlighted her weaknesses.

“It was about reinventing a fairy tale. I named my story Cinderella Boy.. Writing in another language is a job that gives you a lot of humility because you have to improve your linguistic ability” she says. Finally, her hero found his happiness, because he was published in a picture-book that makes this young woman very proud.

For her, as well as her friend Liz, the environment was memorable: “The workshops were wonderful, everybody smoked and had coffee. They were very feminist and not very politically correct. i.e. they directly criticized you, which would never occur in California”

Marking trends
But Leslie Mc Lean’s arrival was not so unusual. The workshops are a constant source of information for hundreds of foreign students who carry out their thesis about literature or Chilean History. Some of them go there to interview somebody… and they stay if they like the workshop methodology.

The writer Alejandra Basualto, with a vast and prestigious career in these kinds of activities says that non Spanish-speaking foreigners go to the workshops “to improve their Spanish and to know if their literary level is equivalent. You can tell when they have skills to write. In fact, in one of my courses, I have a Brazilian woman that writes beautifully”

Rodrigo Hidalgo, the literary coordinator from Balmaceda Arte Joven reveals that there are free initiatives in Santiago as well as in the regions as of ten years ago. Argentineans, Peruvians and Bolivians participated in these initiatives. Felipe Serra, a young narrator, has attended three workshops of professional writers; he has paid attention to his foreign classmates, especially those who speak other languages.

“I imagine that at the very beginning it is a little bit difficult to understand the texts when they are read out loud, as well as to read an idiomatic expression used by some authors in their stories, although Chilean writers – he clarifies downplaying his fears –  don’t often write Chilean Spanish”

Something for everybody
With decades of experience as director of workshops, Pía Barros enumerates the types of workshops: Traditional workshops, literary gatherings, with the variation of homework and forced foot, there are methodological workshops with teaching techniques and writing in situ. There are also the reflective types, centered around certain readings, which are not creative themselves.

The age of participants is important for Alejandra Basualto. The ones from Balmaceda 1215, who are younger than 23, “are raw material and they have to be initiated into the learning of the trade, noticing their cacophonies, that their poems can be too rhythmical, and that free verse doesn’t mean that you can write just anything.

Once initiated into the trade, everybody must face questioning. There are young writers who consider themselves classics. “They come here with their ego as big as the mountains, with the intention of being discovered, impervious to criticism that they attribute it to the incomprehension and ignorance of those who criticize them” In general, those people do not stay too long in the workshop or they change their attitude.

Pía Barros herself values “the humility of the learning” and collaboration. She remembers when one of her students said: “I have an idea and it is very clear… I’m just missing the title… and the story!” Almost nothing. That workshop was called “Juntas podemos” (together, we can). And they got to work.