When the Writing Mentor Becomes the Mentee

Cupertino 450

Cupertino Hernandez Castillo — Storyteller

To speak well in your own language is difficult. To write well in your own language is considerably harder. But to speak and write well in a language not your own is vastly more challenging—it might be many years of work to become truly fluent. But climb another mountain yet: to write stories, to build the structures of setting and plot, to explore the layers of character, to work on conflict and suspense—to do that in a language not native to you—wow! That’s amazing.

So amazed I’ve been every Tuesday over the last seven months at a local literacy center, where I’ve been working as a writing mentor with Cupertino, the smiling man pictured above. He and I have had many discussions on how stories work, how to begin them with intrigue, drive them forward through a story arc, and how to end them so there’s resonance beyond the page. We’ve talked about how many different ways there are to create characters and settings, how to tease your readers with delayed or partial information—how to tell a tale slant, so the reader leans in further.

Because I am a writer myself, I know what a struggle it can be to make a story succeed, to make the characters come alive through language, to make the reader care about what has happened and what’s going to happen.

I don’t have any language skills outside of English, so I’ve been gratified to see how eagerly Cupertino takes up the work of understanding the complexities of English grammar. Part of what I do for my work is edit other people’s work, so I know what a confusing maze English grammar can be—and that’s for native speakers. I pull my own hair out trying to figure out some grammatical tangles sometimes, so I respect his efforts.

We Are All Teachers, We Are All Students
Perhaps the best aspect of working with Cupertino is when I am the listener and he is the teacher. He’s told me many interesting things about his being a taxi driver in the mad streets of Mexico City, and about his being a bull rider, despite his small size. He related one particularly interesting story about observing another always-gregarious bull rider that he knew well, oddly meditating in silence while sitting in the empty bull ring, only to die later that day from being crushed by the bull.

This is a storyteller’s eye: Cupertino recognized that something profound was happening with the rider, something unsettling. There was a kind of prescience on both their parts: this would be a day unlike others. I suggested that that incident was the basis of a story only he could write.

At one of our last sessions, we were talking about secondary characters in stories, and he was relating about how even if you are a pedestrian stopped at a traffic signal, there might be a telling interaction with the stranger stopped next to you. A brief moment that could push another pedal in a story’s accelerator. But from that, he told me about how those little moments where people’s lives brush up against one another are part of how we are all connected, no matter our stations and paths in life.

Storytellers Make Connections
I can’t quite explain it, but I was struck by his sincerity and feeling. It gave me that sense that that’s what storytellers do: make, point out, and describe the connections between people, even when those connections fall apart. And how stories themselves connect people.

That we’ve had many conversations on all kinds of subjects has been a surprising delight of our association, which I feared at first, because I had never been a one-on-one tutor before. But that’s all changed. From our beginning conversation, I recognized that Cupertino is a thoughtful man, and I’m happy to think that we are friends.

I just took a break from tutoring at the center because my girlfriend and I are trying to set up an overseas house-sit for a period, something we’ve done before and anticipate with eagerness (though indeed it will be work as usual—or unusual). But that eagerness is equal to that I have in hoping to resume working with Cupertino when I return.

There are still many stories to be written!

Things I’ve Learned About Writing and Hot Pans

I have a guest post on today’s Guide to Literary Agents blog (the “Seven Things I’ve Learned So Far” column) that is the condensed milk version of my “Writing Ideas” post from yesterday. Hey, if I can’t steal from myself, who can I steal from?

As far as things I’ve personally learned, never put your hand palm-down on a hot iron skillet to test how hot it is. If you do, you won’t be the only person I know to have done this. More self-cooking tips to follow.