Blanca Herrera speaks about oral storytelling at Casa de Letras

In February 2013, Blanca Herrera, co-founder of Casa de Letras (Buenos Aires) was contacted by Caroline Bojarski from La clé des langues – Cultures et langues étrangères website for an interview. This is the dialogue that emerged from that long conversation

la-cléWhen Blanca Herrera was contacted, Caroline Bojarski was in the process of composing a dossier on the teaching of Creative Writing in Spanish (Creative Writing dans la sphère hyspanophone), and had run into Casa de Letras – Escuela de Escritura y Oralidad on the web.

What drew her attention in the site of Casa de Letras was the particular approach in its three year program, which places orality (oral storytelling) at the very beginning of the curricula through a course called Usina de historias («Factory of stories»).  In this course, the students are guided to place themselves the questions of how stories are born, what are they made of, what makes them unforgettable, what are the practices which enlighten them and what are the obstacles which threaten their growth.  To help each student answer these questions in his or her own personal way, they are guided in the production of spontaneous oral stories, exercising memory as a muse, as orality –not writing- is the ancestral land we all come from.

La clé des langues – Cultures et langues étrangères is a website proposed to teachers of living languages and researchers in the field of foreign cultures and languages.  This site was created in Lyon, conceived to allow teachers and professors to count on scientific, pedagogic and documentary resources aimed at their continuous formation, the updating of their knowledge, and an opening of their respective fields and disciplines.

The interview

The school offers a training about oral narration by working on the expressiveness in the interpretation of the story. As it is very common to find careers which consider oral narration as an integral part of literature, why have you proposed a course on this specific aspect?

Casa de Letras was created in 2001 as a storytelling school. Storytelling is the most ancient literary expression. Both in personal history and in the history of humanity, storytelling is originally oral. Before writing emerged, mankind resorted to oral stories to signify facts, to explain life.

blanca herrera
Blanca HerreraCasa de Letras was created in 2001 as a storytelling school. Storytelling is the most ancient literary expression. Both in personal history and in the history of humanity, storytelling is originally oral. Before writing emerged, mankind resorted to oral stories to signify facts, to explain life.

Isak Dinesen says that storytelling consists on repeating facts in the imagination and make it in such a way that where other one only sees a small, faceless and flat «Kikuyu patizambo» (the native home cooking in Africa), one discovers the great chef full of wisdom he really was. Before becoming a writer, Dinesen was a great storyteller.

It was in 2006 when Casa de Letras incorporates a training program in Creative Writing. For some of our subjects such as «Usina de historias» (Factory of stories) students propose prompts for the spontaneous production of oral stories. Oral tradition appeals to memory and there is where rely the germs of the stories we want to create and transmit to others.

In this course students also learn how to become a story teller, how to play with suggestions, ambiguity and, ultimately, how to create a story open enough so the audience can makes it their own. What are the basic principles to narrate a text, without disturbing its understanding and at the same time valuing the piece?

The Spanish narrator Carmen Martín Gaite said: «I’ll narrate this story as I would have liked it to be told. I’m going to tell this story to me, but with no outrage, as if I didn’t know it at all. Because I think I might know it. But I will not know it until I tell it properly.»

This quote is an interesting starting point if you think about the stories we build and how we tell them. It evokes the memory of those first stories we heard and from which the world began to speak to us. It also proposes to retrieve the ancestral memory of the narrator who around the fire has the gift of capturing the attention of others as though in the imminence of a revelation.

How does the narrator tell?

Basically, he does tell to other, to the audience, an audience that is his/her «partner» in the true sense of the Spanish word compañero —from Late Latin cumpanis, which means, «the one we share the bread with»—. The most significant action of the story takes place in the imagination of the spectator.

When a story is well told, every spectator creates a «movie in his or her head», using his/her own imaginary, his/her own emotions and memory. By listening to the story, he or she creates his/her own story and he or she sees it in his/her imagination as if on a film.

The action told by the narrator happens to the characters in the story but the spectator simultaneously thinks: «It happens to me, it could happen to me», «This is what happened to me and I did not understand it. » The story opens paths of actions and understanding.

For this to happen, the narrator has to play with details and ambiguity, with presence and absence, with suggestion rather than illustration. To suggest means to imply, to evoke in the most subtle possible way. Illustration, on the contrary, shows us something with all its details.

As the narrator does not tell everything throughout the different speeches he or she uses (text, body, objects, light , music), then the public wants to know more, to participate in order to complete the gap left by the narrator. Hence, the circle expands as the narrator perceives that confident commitment, so then his/her story remains open, porous, and permeable to the feedback coming from the audience. This is the reason why it is impossible to tell the same story twice.

How do you distinguish between a new and an experienced narrator?

The novice narrator may respond to a trigger that works by pulling out material from his/her memory while creating a story, which is told with great efficiency, spontaneously, driven by the motivation of that trigger. But hardly he/she will be able to recreate this experience if he/she does not work deeply into him/herself in order to harmonize thinking, emotions and body expression altogether. For the body to move expressively, emotion and precision of thought must be linked.

This preparation and training starts from the senses. If the job of approaching a story begins with an idea, you run the risk of destroying the story itself. You have to approach it from emotions and body, through self exploration and discovery.

Stanislavsky maintained the idea that the more actors (narrators, in this case) improvise scenes that are not written in the text, the more they will be able to believe in characters’ human reality and human events. Improvisation is what allows the appropriation of a story by a narrator.

Do you think the folk tale has the same importance as the novel, for example, in the history of literature?

Jorge Luis Borges says that «for many centuries The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Bible have been enough for humanity. Mankind has told and retold again and again all these stories, has set them music and painted them. We have told them many times, but the stories remain endlessly. We might think of someone who, in a thousand or ten thousand years, once again will re- write them. Well, on one hand, we have these stories and, on the other, we have the fact that human beings do not need too many stories. I imagine that Chaucer never thought up a story. I do not think people were less inventive in those days than today. I think they were happy with the variations added to the story, the subtle variations that were added to the story … » The story «importance» or «quality» does not have to do with whether it comes from the popular heritage or literary forms.

Following Borges’ reasoning, good stories (coming either from the oral or the writing tradition) meet two stories: the obvious one, the one told, and another one, underlying, hidden. Let’s take The Odyssey as an example. We can read it in two ways: as a story about the wonders and dangers of the sea (the obvious story), or as the vicissitudes of Odysseus’ return to his home (the story beneath). If we take The Odyssey in the latter sense, then we have the idea of ​​the return, the idea that we live in exile and our true home is in the past or in heaven or anywhere else: we’re never at home. This second story, the hidden or underlying one, is not revealed by what the narrator explicitly says, but by the way he or she tells the story.

Do you think there is a big difference between written works and live shows? Are both of them linked in your workshops?

They are both very different expressions. The written text is addressed to a reader. The reader can read a fragment, abandon the text and go back to it. The oral narration happens in a «here and now» unrepeatable moment. If the narrator is not able to maintain its word lively over the narration, he or she will lose the spectator forever.

In order to tell a text coming from literature, it is necessary to make an adjustment or rearrangement of the piece of work, a sort of translation from the text to the living body of the narrator.

What is the importance of teamwork in the development of a class? Is it important for students to listen to the productions of others?

Teamwork is essential. Students learn both from their productions and the feedback they receive from the teacher as much as from their classmates. We say that the story of the other is always the most important, and this involves the paradox that when you happen to have one, this story is the most important for others. The group is the first audience. The group sets up a network of trust and respect that favors mutual learning.

What are the ways to bring out creativity?

There are several ways such as spontaneous play. Improvisation techniques for storytellers are based on self-acceptance in order to develop creativity by allowing themselves to play without self-censorship. Another way could be by connecting with the group and joining other people’s proposals, namely, transforming the error into opportunity.

Casa de Letras is the first school of Creative Writing in Buenos Aires. How was the general welcoming of the school? What was its founding aim?

Teaching Writing in Argentina has developed over many years in the so-called author workshops. Participants attend to a writer’s workshop and stay there one, two or more years with the same teacher. In addition, universities do not offer Creative Writing programs. Casa de Letras was created to be in between both workshops and universities, offering a methodological program in which objectives and contents are interrelated, and where the plurality of teacher-writers is recognized as a value. Students are guided by nine teachers —a diversity of writers—, which allows also different perspectives on literature, aiming that students will develop a narrative voice by themselves.

How important is the knowledge of many literary pieces and narrative techniques in the craft of writing?

Casa de Letras sticks to the principle that talent cannot be taught. What our school offers to its students is a corpus of tools and techniques to address the craft of writing. In the same hierarchy of this along with a constant writing practice we consider to be fundamental the development of a reader perception increasingly sharper. This does not mean reading for pleasure nor for literary criticism. It is what we call «reading for writers», meaning the reading that unravels the literary procedures used by different writers to create a particular effect. «Books come from books, » Virginia Woolf said. It is unthinkable to develop the craft of writing without reading as a constant exercise.

There is a degree in your school specialized in children’s literature called «Alicia said … » Do you think this literature is undervalued by critics, in general? Are there specific codes to learn in order to write for this audience?

Yes, there is a sort of perception of children’s and young adult’s literature as a «minor genre». Our «Alice said… » program seeks a greater acknowledgment to it. However, literature for children and young adult is also pure literature. It involves the same challenges as writing for adults. However, it is necessary to know in depth about particular codes to address this kind of audience.

On your website you can see a wide spectrum of short courses available throughout the year as well as summer courses. There are a diversity of courses that goes from Experimental writing to Writers as an ethnographers. Do teachers have entire freedom in their courses at your school?

In Casa de Letras there are certain subjects more interesting for us than others, although they are permanently changing. We say that the school is clay molding all the time as it has not arrived to its final shape and, ultimately, it hopefully won’t. The clay is constantly shaping according to those searches coming from the school management, but also according to the teachers’ and the students’ searches. Actually, they are who often guide the courses selection regarding their concerns. Aside from the guidelines they receive from the school management, teachers have considerable freedom to design their own programs. We always work on consensus.

What is the importance of having teachers who are also writers? Could «traditional» teachers teach?

It is essential for us that the teachers who guide our students do so from the perspective of that who produces literature and actually deals with the craft of writing.

Approaches to writing could be multiple: that of the theoretical, the academic, the literary critic. Casa de Letras considers that the best people to assist our students are those who deal with writing, those who know what creating, working and reviewing a text mean, and also those who has gone through the difficulty of publishing a book.