Riesling, raspberries, rewrite
María Antonella Menta Fernández
Josean, my writing professor in my freshman year of university, looked like he could survive days and weeks in the wilderness with just his pocket knife and some rope. He later admitted to doing exactly that for fun. It was hard to picture him reading Cortázar for entertainment.
On the first day of class, Josean announced that he was starting a reading club, if anybody cared to join. What surprised me was that, from a class of around two hundred people, only eleven cared to join the club. In the first meeting, we talked about our favorite books, and he promised to start sending us short stories every week so we could comment on them during our meetings. The texts we read were experimental, diverse, out of line with what we would usually read on our own. They meant to inspire us, to wake our curiosity and, most importantly, our imagination.
It worked. Before long, we were sending our own stories to our peers for comment. Josean started bringing wine to our meetings; we brought our lunches and our ideas. In our intimate feast, we gave each other feedback. Almost without us noticing, he created a small comfortable space of people who cared about reading and writing.
And, by imitation, we started becoming our own editors. He became a mentor for all of us. Everything was allowed, but he would point out clichés, at ideas that seemed unique and experimental but were merely sensationalist, at things we thought were original but had already been written so many times. We learned to criticize others’ work properly, noting what worked and what didn’t with each paragraph, sentence and word. And at the same time we got a taste for Russian beer, sea salted chocolates or homemade cheese, we learned to enjoy the red ink that covered the stories we got back, filled with feedback. Annotations weren’t mistakes any longer, but all the ways you could make your story better.
Josean insisted, in his classes, that his criticism wasn’t directed at ourselves but at our work. A lot of students never got it, and they hated him for the bad grades they were getting. It took me a while to get over my own pride, my own need to show how good a writer I could be. But by being part of a community, I saw the work of my peers, and I saw how good it was, or how good it would be once they edited and edited and edited. I saw my own stories, written and rewritten several times, getting closer to the story I had in my head which was effortlessly perfect. The truth was, it wasn’t effortless at all. But with some work, and some help from my peers, and some critiques from my mentor, it came close to what I had imagined as perfect.
And you can’t help but feel—at your 3:00 p.m. sociology class, trying not to fall asleep after maybe drinking a bit too much wine, surrounded by some of the people with whom you were just discussing Dostoyevsky and Balzac and your own writing—that you are pretty certain that’s as good as it gets.