Standing on the shoulders of giants: creative writing in Spanish

2nd February 2016 at 16:11

Subject Genius, Dr Heather Martin, Standing on the shoulders of giants: creative writing in Spanish

What kills language learning is content. The sheer banality of what you are reading - and especially writing - about can be a real turn off. Daily routine and favourite subjects (snooze), hobbies and pastimes and domestic chores (quaint concepts): these things are hardly likely to light a fire in your average teenager or inspire them to aim high.

So how to set about writing something in the target language that is worth reading? That will generate real excitement and elicit genuine admiration? The answer is surprisingly simple: by reading something worth reading in the first place. Start by turning things on their head and breaking a few hackneyed rules. Denounce the spurious notion of originality and tell your class that they are going to learn through imitation, by copying the best. They will produce something 'new', or at least personal to them, not through a haphazard process of random invention, but by recycling the old.

Many French teachers make use of Jacques Prévert's 'Déjeuner du matin', and a favourite of mine is Manu Chao's multilingual 'Me gustas tú'. But you can set the bar way higher with what to this day remains, possibly, the longest sentence in the Spanish language, from the short story 'El aleph', written in 1945 by the great Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges.

Weighing in at 414 words, this is a colossus among sentences, to be marvelled at not least for its sheer physical presence on the page. It has the form of a list, but subtly modulated by variation in phrase length, strategic use of parenthesis, and the musical repetition of the main verb, culminating in a moment of ecstatic revelation after the final colon. Copying it out by hand might give your pupils just a hint of what it must have been like to be one of those monks who spent a lifetime copying out the Bible in the days before the printing press. I once wrote it out in marker pen on a strip of border tape that circled several times around my classroom. The detail of it kept the class engaged for months, not to mention any visitors. Equally enjoyable would be to recast it in poetic form, introducing line breaks according to the rhythm of your reading.

All this takes a while, but that's a plus: go slow and reflect on both reading and discussion. There will be new vocabulary to grapple with, whether in Spanish or in English translation, but - depending on the sophistication of the students you are working with - there's no need to get too bogged down in questions of meaning or interpretation. More important is to appreciate the sentence for itself, the different parts of it like variegated beads on a lovingly handmade necklace. Whatever the limitations of their language your students will, with your help, catch a glimpse of Borges' impossible landscape, from the grains of sand on the convex equatorial deserts to the shadows of ferns on a tiled floor to love letters written by survivors at the battlefront to the broken labyrinth that is London. They will catch a glimpse of the invisible too, what lies beneath the surface and the skin.

If your pupils succeed in modelling their writing on this sentence they will by definition produce something epic, linguistically monumental, of which they will rightly be proud. So the task is truly ambitious. But there are also clear rules to the game, so that ambition and imagination are tempered by restraint and discipline. First, you are restricted to the one main verb: 'Vi', 'I saw'. Second, the sentence is a list of nouns qualified by adjectives and accompanied by articles - definite, indefinite, singular, plural, masculine, feminine - you have to choose between these appropriately and get the agreements right. A close reading of the original allows you to consider the stylistic use of conjunctions and prepositions to control the pace of the sentence and the emotional intensity. For those newer to the language, the sentence provides a vehicle for early reinforcement of the basics they are learning; for more advanced pupils it provides the perfect opportunity for revision, for showing off and revelling in their skills. And once their work is polished and corrected, they will have the more indulgent pleasure of thinking how they want to present it.

At this point it is fun to track back in the story, to tell your class about the aleph, a magical sphere of just two or three centimetres in diameter that nevertheless contains everything within it, 'el espacio cósmico', 'sin disminución de tamaño', without diminution of size. Depending on their age they will make triumphant connections with Harry Potter or The Matrix, or Men in Black, and they will begin to understand that all these films and books have their artistic precursors, not least among them, Borges.

You could construct a whole unit of work around this one sentence. At the end of it, your pupils would have improved their grammar and their vocabulary in both Spanish and English (or any other chosen language). They would have engaged in sustained analytical reading and would have drafted, redrafted and presented a stunningly complex piece of individual writing. They would know more about their literary heritage. And they would have thought long and hard about how they wanted to represent 'el inconcebible universe', 'the inconceivable universe': what to leave out of their sentence and what to put in.

In his story 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', Borges wrote that 'All men who repeat a line from Shakespeare are William Shakespeare'. Read Borges with your pupils. Let them be Borges for a day, or a week, or a month. He would have approved.


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist and tweets @drheathermartin.