How Learning Spanish Helped Me Write My Book (in English)
I remember the moment the idea hit.
We were about seven hours into a nine-hour-drive back from vacation. My wife and kids were in the backseat watching a movie on the iPad. I couldn’t hear anything, so I put in my earbuds and turned on Radio Ambulante (one of my favorite podcasts; it’s kind of like a Spanish-language This American Life) and started an episode about the ruta negra, the clandestine plastic-surgery route in Medellín. Completely enveloped in the events unfolding before me, I thought, This is a fascinating story. My second thought was, I have a short story collection due soon and I need more stories. I have to write about this.
Let me take a step back, because that makes it sound quick: I had the idea; I wrote it.
In reality, the path was much longer, more winding and difficult – but also more satisfying than I’d ever expected. And since this article is about how learning Spanish helped me write my new collection, Wear Your Home Like a Scar, I figure we’ll do this is three acts.
Act 1: The Set-Up
Like a lot of kids in the States, I had to take a foreign language in school. Also like a lot of kids in the states, my four years of high school Spanish and two years of university Spanish left me at a loss for words. Literally.
I tried to teach myself intermittently – once from a textbook before I went backpacking around Europe, another time with a couple community college classes, then another book. None of them stuck, obviously, and even if I could read, I couldn’t say much of anything.
Still, I felt some pull toward the language, the culture, the history of Spain and Central/South America for reasons I couldn’t explain. Even to this day, I don’t know how to articulate it (though at least I can now explain in Spanish why I can’t explain) and I wanted more than anything to be able to speak the language so I could travel talk to people from those countries and learn more about everyday life there.
But I was continually frustrated. I felt like many aspiring language learners do: when I rehearsed what I wanted to say in my head, it was fine. Then I’d say it and, much to my surprise, it actually came out fine! Then they’d ask me a follow-up question that wasn’t exactly what I’d been expecting and I’d freeze and stammer and eeehhhhh, buenooooo, pueeeessss, and then they’d switch to English to save me the embarrassment or I’d switch to English because I panicked and my chance to finally, finally, finally have a conversation in Spanish would pass.
Then a coworker told me about Duolingo.
Act 2: The Action
I know there are divergent opinions on Duolingo and its efficacy. Is it the best tool for actually learning how to speak? No, probably not. Has it has opened the door for millions of people to learn another language and normalized that goal – which is especially notable here – in a country that is notoriously monolingual? Absolutely.
All that aside, it’s really fun and I love doing it. Even if I’m just dabbling in a language, like I have with Swedish, Catalan, and Norwegian, I enjoy passing the time there instead of scrolling through my Instagram feed for the hundredth time.
Even more important, someone on the Duolingo message board mentioned that Fluent in 3 Months was a great place to look for Spanish learning resources.
I started with the Spanish articles, obviously, then devoured the site. Every image at the bottom of an article lead me farther and farther into my head, letting me explore other countries and cultures during my lunch break. One of those images led me to, among others, Benny recounting his time in Colombia, then learning Spanish through telenovelas and podcasts. Then it led me to Nate Alger’s story (co-creator with his wife Andrea of Españolistos podcasts, one of my favorites) about finding love in Spanish.
But the one that made the most impact was about italki and the importance of conversation practice.
I headed over to italki, perused the community tutors’ profiles, watching their intro videos to see who seemed like they’d be a good personality fit (and whom I could understand), and after a few trial sessions, eventually struck up a great working relationship with Felipe Mena, from Cali, Colombia. He was very supportive and patient from the jump – which was exactly what I needed – but most importantly, he was personable.
Our classes began as just that – classes – but quickly evolved into conversations that flitted between politics, cinema, daily life in Colombia, him telling me terrible Dad jokes in Spanish that I eventually came to understand, and exchanging stories about family life.
At the time, I was busy binge watching El Patron del Mal, a narco-telenovela based on Pablo Escobar. Felipe was understandably a little wary, as many Colombians are, but he saw I wasn’t interested in glorifying the drug lord, but was more attuned to what daily life was like for Colombians living during that time. (Side note: if you’re interested in that time period, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Contreras Rojas is a fantastic novel that uses Escobar’s reign of terror as a backdrop, but focuses instead on quotidian Colombian life.) I’d ask Felipe about various phrases they used, and why every sentence seemed to have the word berraco. He gave me a lot of insight, small details I would’ve never known without actually living there, things that would, in turn, greatly inform my stories.
He also turned me on to Radio Ambulante.
Act 3: The Climax
I’d wager that I’m probably like most language learners. When I start a new language, I dive in head-first and never even consider coming up for air. Newspapers, podcasts, TV series… Everything I consume is in the target language.
The Españolistos podcast was great for this, because the hosts, Andrea and Nate, speak slowly enough to understand but not so slow that it feels patronizing. Andrea, a schoolteacher, explains things in a way that’s easy to understand, and at points I feel like I learn more from Nate’s mistakes than I do from actual lessons. The podcast did wonders for building up my confidence, which was especially important as I dove into Radio Ambulante. I listened to it everywhere. In the car. At the gym. Washing dishes. Mowing the grass. I wanted to listen to each episode multiple times, back-to-back, because this was exactly what I’d been looking for: a window into life in Latin America. Stories about Latin America from the people who lived there. And lucky for me, when I happened on the podcast, they had six seasons’ worth of back catalogue for me to explore. I gravitated toward episodes set in Colombia, because the accents tended to be a little more neutral and easier to understand, but I consumed them all.
And that’s when a funny thing began to happen. The more I listened to them, the more I understood. (It sounds dumb writing it down like this, but I think most people on this site will understand.) Quick sentences that previously sounded like a jumble of words with one I recognized stuck in the middle became tangential asides, inside jokes for locals. A storyline I knew was important because of the emotion in the speaker’s voice became a tableau being painted before me. I felt immersed in the world. And this wasn’t a podcast meant for students. It was made by native speakers, for native speakers, but I could still understand it. Best of all, the podcast inspired me.
I had a story about a home surgeon I’d written a while back that I really liked, but something just wasn’t quite working. Then, on that drive home from vacation with my family, I figured out how to fix it. Why set a weird story about home surgery on the Jersey Shore (actually, why did I ever set it there in the first place?) when I could draw on this rich, complicated chain of clandestine surgeons in Medellín? With some poignant details from Felipe, along with a long conversation about the socioeconomic conditions that help these surgeons thrive (which is a whole different essay), I’d completely rewritten “His Footsteps are Made of Ash.” The story that closes out the collection.
Another episode focused on two men called Eduardo Bechera who came from vastly different backgrounds. It’s a classic set-up for a comedy of errors or mistaken identity, but something about the story as it was reported imbued the situation with a much deeper, more humanistic bent. I started wondering what it would be like if, instead of one of the Eduardos being a visual artist, he was one of Escobar’s sicarios that ruled over Comuna 13 in Medellín. I knew from reading numerous articles and talking to Felipe – not to mention that I lived in Baltimore for many years, a very violent city that is overrun with drugs – that many of the people involved in the drug trade had gotten in not because they wanted to sell drugs, but because there were precious few other options. So I combined the Eduardo setup of “El Otro, El Mismo” with character vignettes from El Patron del Mal, tossed in a little Willie Colón, and came up with “Pedro’s Navaja,” a story about family and coincidence and sicarios set in hospital room during Escobar’s reign.
Several other stories came from situations like this. A second-person La Llorona/La Melinche story; another about love and revenge on the Juárez border. Even when it was just a minor detail, something that the average reader might not recognize, these small bits helped me see the story world in a new way, making it more vibrant than it would have been otherwise.
While I am incredibly proud of both the stories in the collection and being able to make these connections and associations, none of it would've been possible without the study techniques and resources I found on Fluent in 3 Months. Whether it was using Anki decks to increase my vocabulary or developing useful conversation scripts for those first tenuous conversations, the information I found on the site is far and away the most decisive factor in successfully learning Spanish, especially given my previous attempts over the last fifteen years, including the months I spent in Spain and Portugal.
I’m definitely not at a C2 level and am not in danger of being mistaken for a Spaniard, but I can have fun conversations with people around town and understand a lot more of what’s being said than I could even six months ago. In the end, the stories that came from my Spanish learning enrich the collection a gigantic amount, giving it a much bigger scope than the Baltimore streets where most of my stories had been set. It's not only more dynamic, but – I hope – it can help recontextualize Colombia from a narco-country to a beautiful, vibrant country full of deeply interesting, passionate, colorful people.
And as for what’s next? Well, I just started learning French last week. Maybe there’ll be a novel in that.