For some people, creative writing is a luxury, Andrea Amosson says, but for her it was always a need. The Chilean-born journalist and author had few resources available to help her develop her writing when she was growing up, so now she's made it her mission to provide those resources to others in a similar situation in Dallas.
Amosson is the founder and director of Atacama Press, which she created to promote literacy among Dallas' Spanish speaking population. She also teaches a weekly creative writing class, taught exclusively in Spanish — the only class of its kind in the area. Amosson is the author of three books. Her most recent, Told From the Hips, is a collection of short stories about the strength of women. It is Amosson's first work to be translated to English.
She spoke to the Dallas Observer about becoming a writer in Chile and turning her passion into a career. She also discussed how important creative can be for immigrants adjusting to life in a new country and how accessing past experiences by reading and writing in a native language is so crucial to memory and grief.
What is the path to becoming a writer like in Chile? Did you feel that you had ample resources to explore this as a career?
It was not an easy path for me. I hope the situation has improved by now, but when I was living there, it was very difficult to approach the publishing houses if you didn’t have any connections. By connections I mean knowing the right people, because while Chile is a democratic country, it is economically controlled by an elite group of very wealthy families. I come from a traditional miner’s family, so I did not have connections.
I do have to say that writing is a well-respected career and it must be because of our two Nobel Prize winners in literature, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. My graduate studies focused more on the theory and analysis of literature rather than its creation; so, it was difficult to find groups to exchange honest or well-formed opinions on the creative side of writing. Finally I did find a couple of writing workshops with two women authors, Marta Blanco and Guadalupe Santa Cruz.
I attended Santa Cruz´s workshop for more than two years, until my financial situation changed and I couldn’t afford it anymore. Journalists don’t make much money in my country. Writing was a luxury for most, but a need for me. I did not have options, I just kept going, writing almost every day since I turned 20 years old, with the little resources I had in front of me.
And today, after three books, I still don’t have connections! And that, I realize now, has been a blessing. I can affirm that my books were published on their own merits and not because I knew somebody.
What age groups do you primarily work with in Texas?
I primarily teach adults. I have had students as young as 19 and as old as 74, including both men and women. I have given presentations to children, about writing and the importance of reading, in elementary and middle schools. I am now in conversations with a local school district to implement a creative writing workshop for the students who attend their dual language programs.
Do you work with students who speak English?
Most of my students speak English at an intermediate or advanced level. Some don’t speak it at all. On the other hand, I have given intensive creative writing workshops to bilingual people who can only write in English, even though they speak Spanish. In those cases, I encourage them to write in their language of preference, because to me it's more important that they can experience the creative process and to express themselves, beyond the language.
What are the benefits of creative writing to non-English speakers in a primarily English speaking country?
When you immigrate, there are so many things you leave behind. One of these losses is your mother tongue, your relatives, the aromas of your country of origin, your memories, some more painful or pleasant than others. One of the advantages of my creative writing workshops is the possibility to reconnect with what is perceived as a loss; even though coming to live in America has given us a lot more opportunities, and we are all thankful, many of the exercises I have created are based on our past experiences.
The students draw on that, first as a healing experience and then as an empowering experience, when we move from nostalgia to a sense of achievement. We have all come a long way from our previous situations and that is another benefit. On the other hand, the more we read, the better we write. And that works for any language. In the end, we are improving ourselves, educating ourselves, reading good literature and trying to create pieces of art using our words. It is a process that can only elevate us, and therefore, elevate our new country.
What are the challenges of teaching creative writing in Spanish in America?
The challenges to me have been finding the resources to do it. I have been trying to form a group of immigrants from all nations, not necessarily Spanish speakers, in order to teach them creative writing techniques and to create a book with their experiences. And I think that, if published in more than one language — including English of course — it would be such a good source of understanding among us.
If we could all have access to these stories, we would be more tolerant, we would be more compassionate, more understanding. Some people have had very traumatic experiences before coming to America and sharing those experiences through writing could build a bridge between communities. I have had students from Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Peru and Venezuela, and we keep learning from one another.
What is the demographic of your students?
Most of my students are originally from Latin America. Most of them have a college education and have jobs that allow them to commit to the classes. I do offer intensive free workshops from time to time, at public libraries in Carrollton or Dallas, and through the Dallas Book Festival.
On those occasions, some of the students come from low income families and limited access to educational resources. But they are so eager to learn that I like to stay in touch with them. Sadly, even when I have offered privately to some of them, to continue to come to my regular weekly classes for free, they cannot make it because of their working schedule or family strains.
How does creative writing benefit the overall person?
It gives you your voice. It helps you process experiences in a healthy way. It makes you want to read more, if you were an occasional reader; or to start reading, if you didn’t before. It elevates your educational level. You feel empowered, that you matter and that you can contribute something beautiful to this world. It can give you a purpose.
If you are retired, you could record your memories and preserve it for future generations. It can open up a new career path at any age. It is incredibly inexpensive: You just need pen and paper — or a laptop — and you can take your writing everywhere you go. It gives you freedom and power and a sense of achievement. Writing a book is not easy and you feel so accomplished when you write that last page.
What are your favorite genres of literature and poetry?
I love haikus. In narrative, I grew up reading the authors from the Latin American literary boom, my favorites being García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. I am reading the work of women lately. I enjoy books from Ana María del Río, Lina Meruane, Gioconda Belli, Guadalupe Santa Cruz, Elena Poniatowska, Julia Alvarez, Rosa Montero, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, among many others. I like suspense and I use suspense in my work. I like to write from a woman’s perspective and I like to read books that break with old stereotypes.
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Who have you looked to for inspiration?
I have become a fan of Rosa Montero in the last months. I have even written her a couple of letters and have been awestruck with her kind words to me. I like the characters she creates, the way she tells stories, her bravery, her view of life and writing.
I also have a special person in my life, the Spanish author Berna Wang. She was my teacher in creative writing in 2006, 2007 and 2013, when I was able to take her online classes. From time to time I go to her with questions, not only about writing but about life too, and I always get good advice from her.
Who moved and inspired you as a young writer?
I like to say that my literary fathers are Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. I didn’t read at all growing up, no matter how hard my parents tried to make me. But then, when I was 12, I grabbed this book One Hundred Years of Solitude and spent all summer in my room, reading. I am a very slow reader and here is why: when I am reading, I hear the voice of each character in my head, and of course, that makes everything go slower!
That book opened my eyes, my brains, my heart. That book made me change from wanting to take the artistic electives in high school to the liberal arts electives. So I did. The fever of reading started late in me, but it is a very healthy disease and I very much enjoy it.