Lessons in Writing from My Literary Grandmother

Dedicated to my grandmother

Manny Vallarino
Sep 7, 2020 · 12 min read

I recently decided to write a series of Lessons pieces for the people who are closest to me and who are still here. After all, they’ve taught me the most important lessons I’ve learned. This is the second piece of that series. The first piece was on what my Galician grandfather has taught me about personal finance.

My grandmother is one of the few geniuses I know. Growing up, I knew she had written books, I knew she had earned a graduate degree in Spanish Literature with a full scholarship at the University of Chicago’s prestigious Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, I knew she was an expert in the poetry, theater, and prose of the Spanish Golden Age, and I knew she was a distinguished tenured professor at the University of Panama.

It’s only in the last few years, however, that I’ve come to know just how fundamental an understanding she has about the art and science of writing, and just how much of that understanding she has shared with me.

This piece is my attempt to share some of that understanding with you, by way of a few concise lessons.

Here are seven lessons in writing from my literary grandmother:

Lesson 1: Read what you want to write.
Lesson 2: Write what you want to write.
Lesson 3: To write properly is to help the reader.
Lesson 4: Consider the music of words, not just their meaning.
Lesson 5: Reading and writing deepen, expand, and enrich you.
Lesson 6: A good piece of writing is at once a whole and many parts.
Lesson 7: Know your desired aesthetic effect.

Lesson 1: Read what you want to write.

What do you want to write?

Plays? Movie scripts? Literature? Lyrics? Jokes? Essays? Poems? Microwave oven instruction manuals?

Whatever it is you want to write: read a lot of it.

If you want to write poems, read poetry daily. If you want to write short stories, read short stories daily. Same with plays, essays, and any other form of writing. Absorb what you read. Study what you read. Integrate your findings into who you are as a writer.

Why did they rhyme those two words? What made that joke so funny to me? What effect does the structure of the story have on the story and on me? Why did they choose that word in that instance? What makes this image so unique? What about this lyric makes me feel so hopeful? Why did that make me feel or think this?

You have to read a lot of what you want to write. There’s no way around it. Read actively. Read like a writer.

Even if you have a sensibility for stories, language, and self-expression, and even if you have the loving discipline that good writing requires, if you’re not actively reading what you want to write, you will be limiting yourself.

So, read what you want to write.

One more thing: Read the best.

Time has a way of culling the truly great from the rest. There’s a reason why some classics are classics, and there’s a reason why some of the most important artistic movements in history have been about revisiting classical aesthetics. Find the classics that speak to you. Read and learn from them.

Read what you want to write, and read the best.

Gracias, Tita.

Lesson 2: Write what you want to write.

Answer: whatever you want to write.

That’s it.

If you’re someone who writes or wants to write, you might be hyper-aware of all the things you could write, which might make you question what you should write. Moreover, the world is full of people with strong opinions regarding what you can and can’t write. As if this wasn’t enough resistance, there’s also the worry of being judged or even banned as a writer, which has been intensified by a tribal internet culture.

Ignore all this. It’s all noise. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything. In about a hundred years, you, me, and all the people making all this noise will all be dead (I’m fun at parties). So, please: Write whatever you want to write.

Forget about what “the market” wants to read. Even the most superficial study of history can teach us that “the market” is a questionable critic when it comes to creativity. Plus, can you imagine Miguel de Cervantes or William Shakespeare obsessing over market trends and their brand positioning? Of course not. They wrote what they wanted to write. This is part of what made them two of the greatest writers ever.

If you’re writing with the conscious intention of pleasing “the market,” then you’re a content-marketer, or an influencer, or a public figure, or a politician. These are okay, but they’re not the same as being a writer.

Writers write what they want to write.

Writing is a unique, individual, loving, risky, imaginative, free, courageous, challenging, fulfilling form of expression. You write because you want to write, because you have to write, because you love to write…not because you want to be liked by others or make money. If you want to be liked by others, learn to let go of that desire, at least while writing, and if you need to make money, find a way to do so that doesn’t involve writing disingenuously, which could mean working a day-job that has nothing to do with writing; some of the greatest writers in history have done this.

So, what should you write? Whatever you want to write.

What about all these people telling you what you can and can’t write? What if other people don’t like what you write? What are people going to think about you? None of this matters. It’s all noise. Ignore it. Remember: all dead. And remember: I’m fun at parties.

What if you get banned or “canceled”? If you get banned for writing what you want to write, you’ll be in great company; some of the greatest writers ever, who we now admire, were banned in their day, just as some great living writers have been banned in our day. I won’t mention names, lest I get banned before I can even finish this piece, but they’re easy to find. Don’t worry about being banned by tyrants or by self-righteous people who are unable to write a single word without preceding it with a hashtag, unless your livelihood is actually in peril, in which case I would suggest to try to write around the censors or to try to move to a country where freedom of expression is truly valued and upheld (these countries still exist, thankfully).

Write what you want to write. Nothing else is worth writing.

Gracias, Tita.

Lesson 3: To write properly is to help the reader.

I don’t know how this idea came to be, but it makes no sense. Not only because it’s ironically pretentious, but also because it misses the point.

To write properly is to help the reader.

Languages evolve rules and guidelines over the course of centuries to reflect the natural use of the language and to make communication possible and easy.

This sentence makes sense.

Dis’ m4ke do3snt sent3nce imHo senze!!!!!!

You get it (I must admit that my sense of humor is tempting me to text that second sentence to everyone I know, as a social experiment).

You can’t truly express yourself if you don’t know how to, and the reader can’t connect with you if they can’t understand you.

Remember: To write properly is to help the reader.

Gracias, Tita.

Lesson 4: Consider the music of words, not just their meaning.

I had written a short story in Spanish and shared it with her. It was, at its heart, a love story. During one scene, the two characters hold each other in a way I wanted to describe as being suggestive of a dance. Here’s what I wrote in Spanish:

Él le acariciaba la cara y el cabello con una mano y anclaba la otra en la espalda baja de ella, halándola hacia él. Ella le acariciaba la cara y el cabello con una mano y apoyaba la otra sobre el hombro de él. Sus posiciones sugerían un baile.

No need to understand Spanish; just note the last word, baile, which means dance.

My grandmother read this passage and made one casual suggestion: What did I think of replacing the word baile with the word danza? She added that though the meanings of baile and danza are almost identical, the music of the word danza would sound better in harmony with the music of the story.

Brilliant. This one substitution elevated the image, the scene, and the story.

The music of baile is clear, casual, and simple. The music of danza is refined, romantic, and elegant. For this story, the latter was the better musical choice.

When we read and when others read us, words aren’t just seen: they’re heard.

To train your ear to consider the music of words, you can start by studying great lyrics, plays, scripts, and stand-up comedy routines. Since the words written in these forms are meant to be sung or spoken, you’ll hear the music of words more clearly. In time, you’ll be able to hear it just as clearly when reading and writing.

Consider the music of words, not just their meaning.

Oh, and here’s the new, improved, and more musical passage:

Él le acariciaba la cara y el cabello con una mano y anclaba la otra en la espalda baja de ella, halándola hacia él. Ella le acariciaba la cara y el cabello con una mano y apoyaba la otra sobre el hombro de él. Sus posiciones sugerían una danza.

If you’re curious about the rest of the story, it’s titled “Vasos,” and you can find it on my writing page.

Gracias, Tita.

Lesson 5: Reading and writing deepen, expand, and enrich you.

Reading can give you an almost unfair advantage in life. Here are some of the advantages reading has given me:

  • I have become more forgiving and less judgmental of myself and others because of my having read La ciudad y los perros by Mario Vargas Llosa.
  • I have become more trusting of the mysteries of life because of my having read Largo pétalo de mar by Isabel Allende.
  • I have a richer language to express love and desire because of my having read El amor, las mujeres y la vida by Mario Benedetti.
  • I have become more resilient because of my having read Meditaciones by Marco Aurelio.
  • I have come across malicious people and have known how to handle them because of my having read Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.

The list goes on.

I repeat: an almost unfair advantage in life. The best part about it is that if you’re lucky enough to be able to read (not everyone is), then this almost unfair advantage is readily available to you!

Reading deepens, expands, and enriches you.

The same goes for writing.

Writing has helped me discover things about myself I never would have discovered otherwise. It has allowed me to express my emotions and thoughts to others. It has helped me establish meaningful relationships. It has helped me reframe my past, amend mistakes, inspire myself and others, dream up stories, communicate important information, own my individuality, claim my present, clarify misunderstandings, meet people I admire, make people laugh, shift my perspective, process painful events, immortalize beautiful memories, honor people I love, create my future, and more.

So…read and write.

Not only because reading and writing will make you a better writer, nor only because they’re pleasurable and noble ways to spend your limited time on Earth (all dead; fun at parties), but because they will deepen, expand, and enrich you, way beyond the page.

Gracias, Tita.

Lesson 6: A good piece of writing is at once a whole and many parts.

‘Cohesion’ and ‘coherence’ are good words to remember when writing for the whole and for the parts. ‘Harmony’ and ‘unity’ might also help.

To achieve your desired aesthetic effect (more on this in Lesson 7), the parts and the whole of your creation must be in alignment:

  • The corner of a beautiful painting must purposefully contribute to the beauty of the whole painting.
  • The last word of a joke must coalesce the whole joke and propel it forward.
  • The first sentence of a microwave oven instruction manual must have power in isolation and also in the context of the whole manual.
  • Especially that last one.

If you write precise words that don’t add up to anything, your impact on the reader will be limited.

Similarly, if you create a grand piece of writing but are careless about its details, your impact on the reader will be limited.

So, consider the whole and its many parts. Zoom out, zoom in, zoom out again, and repeat, until the whole is as clear as its many parts, and vice versa.

Gracias, Tita.

Lesson 7: Know your desired aesthetic effect.

In other words: What do I want this piece of writing to be? What do I want it to provoke?

Do you want it to provoke a feeling of love? Surprise? Fear? Hope? Hopelessness? Disgust? Joy? Sadness? Anger?

Do you want it to challenge an established perspective? Do you want it to be hurtful? Do you want it to be funny? Tender? Educative? Suggestive?

Perhaps you think in color. Do you want this piece of writing to be orange? Light blue? Green? Red? Pink? Yellow? Purple? Silver?

What is your desired aesthetic effect?

The clearer your answer to this question, the clearer your subconscious and conscious choices will be when you write and the more powerful your piece of writing will be.

Gracias, Tita.

Let’s review. Here are seven lessons in writing from my literary grandmother:

Lesson 1: Read what you want to write.
Lesson 2: Write what you want to write.
Lesson 3: To write properly is to help the reader.
Lesson 4: Consider the music of words, not just their meaning.
Lesson 5: Reading and writing deepen, expand, and enrich you.
Lesson 6: A good piece of writing is at once a whole and many parts.
Lesson 7: Know your desired aesthetic effect.

My grandmother is a joy to read and to listen to. Such care goes into every word. In studying music I’ve learned that every sound matters. My grandmother lives this principle when it comes to language: every word matters. Reading anything she’s written and having conversations with her are self-contained aesthetic experiences. I’m grateful to have shared and to continue to share these experiences with her, as well as to have learned so much from her.

One last thing…

When I was a boy, I would write in the air. Literally. I would hear the words to an imaginary story, and, with an imaginary pen, I would write in the air.

What was this? A pure impulse to write.

Or schizophrenia.

I’ll go with the former.

If it weren’t for my grandmother and her lifelong encouragement of this impulse to write, many of my words might still be floating in the air, aimlessly, as would I. It is thanks to her that I’ve been able to discover some of these words and write them into the physical world.

Though I can’t help but wonder: How many words are still floating in the air, waiting to be written into the physical world by their rightful writers?

There’s only one way to know: Write. If you have even the slightest impulse to write: Write. If you think you might want to write, but you’re not sure: Write.

Per my grandmother, originality and artistry reside in the individual choices a writer makes from the linguistic resources that are offered to them by a language. So, to be original and to be an artist, all you have to do is choose. Choosing takes time. It takes letting go of countless habits. It takes getting comfortable with your self. Be patient. For now, if you have the impulse to write, make this one choice: Write!

Gracias, Tita.

This is the cover of one of my grandmother’s books, an essay that analyzes the rich (and often hilarious) duality of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza in Miguel de Cervantes’ magnum opus, Don Quijote de la Mancha. In case you want further proof that Time is a storyteller, this cover was designed and created by my great-uncle, whose granddaughter, my cousin Mónica Jaén, now designs and creates the art for my creative projects.

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Manny Vallarino

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Website — https://www.mannyvallarino.net/ | Private Mailing List — https://www.mannyvallarino.net/list/

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Manny Vallarino

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Website — https://www.mannyvallarino.net/ | Private Mailing List — https://www.mannyvallarino.net/list/

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