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!

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6 thoughts on “When the Writing Mentor Becomes the Mentee

  1. Gosh.

    (1) Keep mentoring, Tom. It strikes one as important.
    (2) Does Cupertino like Apples?
    Sorry but that was simply too much temptation.
    (3) Back in my salad days I learned a great deal of Spanish. Even read a novel in it–Lazarillo de Tormes. But WRITING one? In a second language? That takes a special species of courage. I can’t wait to see what Cupertino creates.

  2. My father was completely fluent in Spanish, but I never saw him write anything other than technical documents with it. He was one of the greatest storytellers in my life. I think I would have enjoyed reading him in Spanish.

    Teaching writing to others is thrilling.

    Learning it from others is thrilling, too.

    Tom, have you ever considered teaching an online writing course? You could share your decades of absorption with a small handful of dedicated aspirants, and even augment your income.

    This is me, signing up for the class and offering to help make it happen, if you go down that path.

  3. Rick, Cupertino has a Macbook, so I think he does like Apples. I am so miserable with languages: I took Spanish for three years in high school (and Latin before that), and can barely muster an “Hola!” No use makes for useless.

    But yes, it’s a fine thing to watch him push his boundaries in writing stories in English. The stuff we’ve been working with has been fairly simple in the scope of storytelling, but the structures are there (and the complexities of working it out in another language makes for great discussions).

  4. Joel, I gave Cupertino Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat in both English and Spanish so he could assess the similarities and differences between the book’s idioms and the strength of the translation. He can read a lot of English with fair ease, but the nuances of non-native tongue fiction make demands on one’s resources; he struggles with that. So the two books might help.

    That would have been fun to read your dad’s Spanish stuff, and probably a fun challenge for him to write it.

    And I have flirted (but never kissed) with the idea of doing a course. It’s funny, but in my self-esteem squirmings, I periodically believe I’m not competent enough to do such a thing, or don’t have anything valuable to offer. But that’s probably not so, and if I began to sketch out the framework for such a course, I’d undoubtedly see how to fill it in with edible morsels. Thanks for bringing it to mind again.

  5. Here’s what I learned from Mark McGuinness: the fact that you don’t know everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach. It only means you should teach those who don’t already know what you know.

    When he was teaching psychology to business folk, his 101 class had to be broken down and explained because what was basic to him was startling revelation to others.

    If you’re talking to writers, your 101 might be just right. I am absolutely convinced that you have a lot to teach me about crafting a story or a sentence. Imagine what you could teach the eleven people who know even less about it than I do.

  6. Joel, I appreciate your considerations on states of knowledge, which are of course, ever in flux. (One does hope they move in a positive direction.) For sure, I know a lot more about writing in general than I did even five years ago, and certainly a hundred barrels more than I did twenty years ago. And these are good barrels, American oak, medium char. (Excuse the metaphor—we are actually cooking our grains for the first try at bourbon today.)

    Anyway, you are right, choosing the right level of the class would be essential and I’m sure I could add value at the right level. And maybe even make popcorn now and then. I’ll think more on it…

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