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A mother tongue too sweet for a dark story

A mother tongue too sweet for a dark story

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

First academic creative writing class in the Netherlands

MAASTRICHT. The life of Ana Menendez is all about writing: she was a journalist for twenty years, has now published two novels, two short story collections and numerous essays and – last but not least – is the founder (“It wasn’t me alone; I did it with many colleagues, like Lies Wesseling, Rein de Wilde, Jan de Roder and Wiel Kusters”) of the minor in Creative Writing at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

It’s the first academic creative writing class in the Netherlands. Just before Carnival, the first 21 students presented the fruits of their efforts during a special evening at the Turnzaal. Between them, Menendez’s students had eight different native languages and about twenty languages altogether. “The language diversity was incredible; you never see this. That’s irreplaceable. I grew up in a bilingual household – Spanish and English; my parents are from Cuba, I was born and raised in the United States – so I know all the challenges of a split personality”, she laughs. The minor is in English. Can you write in a language that’s not your mother tongue? “It’s almost a moral question. In the class I focus less on language than normally. The grammar and spelling have to be good, but there was less focus on playfulness in English. Will I choose a Latin or an Anglo Saxon word? That’s another level. My primary concern was the story, to make them able to write.”  

The creative writing minor at UM differs from those in the United States, where almost every university offers one. “In the US ten people sit around a table, bring in their work and talk about it. In Maastricht I got the opportunity to rethink creative writing. I first wanted to teach them how to read. Reading is the best way to teach writers what they want to write. What do you like, why do you like it, how can you learn from it for your own work? I told them: in literature class you read to learn about meaning, here you read to learn about creating meaning.” The short stories of Andrej Tsjechov became the main course for the students. “Tsjechov has everything you should know about writing. He shows you the rules and then breaks them in beautiful ways. In most courses the teacher says: do this, do that. Our philosophy is that almost anything goes, as long as it works. This approach leaves room for self-discovery.”

Having analysed Tsjechov, the students had to write a short story in the style of the great Russian writer. In the third and last period of the minor, poems and translation were the main focus. Why translation? “Our class is in English but I wanted to honour our native tongues”, says Menendez. “I wanted to bring them back to their mother tongues by translating poems and stories. One student from Latvia said: my dark story doesn’t work in Latvian. His mother tongue was too sweet, he thought. You only experience this by doing it. To translate poems you have to really understand language. The subconsciousness of it, how it feels. You have to be aware that language is living; that it can mean a lot of different things.”

The minor is not only for students dreaming of a writing career, Menendez emphasises. “Our goal is not to turn everybody into a writer. First of all we want to turn them into readers, and give them the opportunity to write: learn to read in a deep way and write with joy. Everybody, from every faculty can benefit from it. If you want to be an accountant but at the same time want to learn how to write, be our guest.”

The first fruits of the writing class are promising, Menendez says. “They’ve written 44,000 words each. I was delighted by my students and very impressed with the level of work. Every single student improved, some dramatically. A couple of them really stood out.”

Riki Janssen

This minor will be on the FASoS curriculum again next academic year.

Look here for some of the stories and poems written during this minor




Two creative writing students, in brief

Scott Philippe from Belgium, third-year student of Arts and Culture

“I’m a huge literature fan. I wrote for the high school paper, and as the head student of my high school had to write speeches. Last year I took part in a writing contest; they wanted a new Sherlock Holmes story. I didn’t win. After that I wouldn’t write fiction anymore because I wasn’t proud of what I’d written. And then this minor came along. I thought: okay, I’ll give it another try, it’s also good for my reading.” He enjoyed it a lot. “I’m planning to continue writing short stories. I want to go to film school after my bachelor’s to learn how to write movie scripts.”

Philippe is a native speaker of French, but had no problems writing in English. “I read in English, talk a lot in English, I had an easy flow going in English. The difficult part was translating my story into French. That was crazy. I couldn’t do it. I’d played with English expressions and stereotypes; it was so difficult to express myself in French on paper.”

Amanda Sleže from Latvia, third-year student of Arts and Culture

“I used to write poetry. I published some poems in Latvia and was a bit of a writer. But when I came to Maastricht I stopped writing literature.” Now in her third year, the creative writing minor seemed to be the best option of all the Arts and Culture minors, she says. “I thought I’d never be able to finish a story; I’d tried earlier in Latvian but always got lost. You have to know the basics of literature: what is a plot, what is a character, a setting?”

“I also learned a lot about myself. I didn’t know I could do text analysis. I was scared to write a short story in English, but I kept going, and it worked. Practically none of the students were native English speakers, but we use English daily; it’s our second language. The funny thing was when we had to translate our stories into our mother tongue. I couldn’t. The story was born in English; it doesn´t work in Latvian. I liked the minor. It was absolutely amazing – just like Ana. I’m now thinking of doing a master’s in literature. And who knows, maybe I’ll become a writer.”


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