Monday, 16 February 2015

San Miguel’s Writer's Festival, 2015

 More Brilliant Than Ever

by Nancy Snipper

Into its 10th year of bringing the world’s greatest writers before you, including 7 keynote addresses, and 300 workshops led by over 55 seasoned writers and marketers  with whom you can hone your skills, and let’s not forget the excursions and fiestas – this year’s smashingly exciting conference  totally impressed me from the first day. The atmosphere was dynamic and exhilarating.

Famous writers, stimulating workshops, enthusiastic participants! 

Tracy Chevalier, author of “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” reflected the caliber of intellectual genius represented by the line-up of great authors. She delighted us with her reading from the famous novel that became a hugely successful movie. 

Tracy Chevalier
Ms. Chevalier spoke about history and the vital role it plays in her writing?   According to Ms. Chevalier, history allows us to come out of ourselves while giving us our roots and personal identities. We are formed by the past yet move beyond it into our own 3-dimensional personhood. A historical fiction writer, Ms. Chevalier leaves no detail unturned in her research.  Interestingly, she only became interested in history through a family reunion in which learned that her Huguenot heritage played a huge part in her family’s past perils: her grandparents escaped persecution in Southern France by fleeing to Switzerland.

Ms. Chevalier’s understated manner, nonetheless, could not hide her great talent to merge historical time frames into contemporary relevance.

Her unpretentious presentation, given in the huge ballroom of the lovely Minas de Real Hotel, displayed her unique gift of merging  academic flare with imaginative grit that fills her novels
The first workshop I attended addressed the topic of writing fiction based on real characters either alive or deceased. Presented by the soft spoken writer Rosalind Brackenbury who had us all writing about a person we know or have known and that obviously affected us so much that we wanted to write a novel in which they appeared. 

Rosalind Brackenbury
The dilemma of hurting those we know can be the outcome of such writing, but she encouraged us all to speak authentically within the fictional narrative.  It was a topic that hit close to home for me; my short stories have been inspired by persons I have known, but imaginative reinvention lies at the heart of all my fictional writing. 

This workshop emboldened me to keep on being courageous when it comes to creating characters – some formed partially from events or people who affected my own life.

Prior to the evening’s fabulous food and wine party of magnifico Mexican specialties – yes, the margaritas were moving into our mouths at a rapid rate – Alice Walker the controversial, Pulitzer Prize winner shared the keynote stage with lawyer and writer, Carol Merchasin who led the interview in a shared conversational format.

Alice Walker
Carol Merchasin
 Author of “The Color Purple”, Ms Walker spoke about genital mutilation (one of her causes célèbre), dodged the accusation she was anti-Semitic by using semantics to defend the attack on her regarding this issue; and she shared her views on how deeply insensitive and greedy the world has become. 

The diminutive author and activist stressed that we all must change – that we must listen and examine what we do and reflect deeply on our actions.

She discussed her own experience being the child of parents who lived a grueling life as share croppers. One theme that stuck with her was the necessity of honesty and that we are all children of God. How ironic that this feminist who celebrates women and stresses the need to listen to others abruptly left me when I approached her and began to share a small anecdote that I felt relevant to one of her key topics – racism.  She said, “I’ll be right back” (twice in fact). She never came back. So much for honesty.

I guess when you have 15 million books in print, you can do whatever the … you want.

Could this brilliant author of goddess-like stature actually be as normal and flawed as the rest of us are? I felt Ms Walker held intense anger deep within her – justified certainly with what she has endured: racism as a Black woman, abject poverty in childhood and having little money to raise her family; and as the recipient of both multiple awards and rejections for voicing her views – many too offensive or radical for Middle America and men of traditional bent - an inevitable hunk of bitterness sits in her delicate soul.  I was stunned by some of the outrageous statements she made and was even shocked at the black and white views she held that posed a dilemma for me: a mythical writer with myths of her own.
Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine and founder of over 25 organizations dedicated to a myriad of issues related to women’s rights, is a gentle, loving brilliant woman who believes that the story – the narrative must start from the ground up in the way oral stories do in aboriginal cultures – that we are all from the same culture – that the story defines civilization not the invention of the wheel. Words must not divide or be exclusive to gender differentiation, politics and bi-partisan and opposing poles, such as black and white, feminine and masculine. She embraces a new norm – that there is no norm, and we must embrace this.

Now 81, this noble pioneer continues to spread her revolution of words. Beautiful, honest and humorous, Gloria Steinem is the original feminist who inspires all humans.

Gloria Steinen (photo by Sunday Wittie)

The Perfect Pitch Session That Sends Writers Into the Agent’s Den.

Louisa Rogers
Many of the keen-to-be-published participants signed up to give a pitch of their novel or screen play to one or more of the five agents the conference had invited. An invaluable workshop led by Louisa Rogers addressed all the pitfalls and common errors we make when we pitch our story. After outlining a format for presenting the proper pitch whose 12 points included the appropriate behavioral manner of presentation, Ms. Rogers got us into group of three to practice making the pitch – that defining moment that might get you signed on with an agent. Each one of us role played: we each had a go at pitching, being the agent, being a listener, and finally sharing our comments with constructive suggestions and feedback within our small group. 

Too much detail, rambling on, giving the hook in one or two sentences, forgetting to mention the genre it is and acting unnaturally were pointers we all benefited from.

I found I was a far better pitch adviser than a “pitcher”, but my two writing pals graciously let me know that I had engaged them fully. This workshop provided a clear guideline map as to content communicative tips for pitching to an agent face to face.  I decided to take the pitching plunge for my novel, “Floating on Lily pads”, and made appointments with two agents. Kimberly Cameron fit me in at the end of the day. But the rain created a move from the cold tent where pitches were taking place necessitated a speedy retreat into the noisy lobby of the hotel. Interruptions, and her husband showing up earlier than planned – to take her home, gave insufficient time; it was supposed to be 15 minutes. She did ask me to send 50 pages of my novel and also suggested a different title.

Kimberley Cameron was fun, but I seemed to be cursed with being the butt of unfinished conversations. 

I had better luck with the agent Melissa Fleishman out of New York who asked me to send the entire manuscript of my novel. One problem though: it isn’t finished!

Scott Turow, Richard Blanco, Angeles Mastretta, Jane Urquhart and Gloria Steinem also inspired us as part of the prestigious rostrum of keynote authors. Each one offered wit, honesty, humorous stories and insight into their own unique writing journey. Ms. Urquhart was as funny as any Stephen Leacock essay. Her self-deprecating humour was hilarious – proving Canadians have a laughable sense of self; she communicated this cleverly and eloquently.
As each of their personal stories unfolded, I realized how authentic these hard working visionaries are – that as exquisite masters of their craft, they continue to celebrate the infinite possibilities of a world through the printed word.

Their genius both confounds and inspires me to continue slogging away on blank pages my imagination feels compelled to fill.

One of the best panels comprised several writers who offered tangible tips on how to self publish. Each has formed their significant following of zillions of readers via all sorts of electronic media vehicles and clever strategies. 

These successful self-published authors which included, Judith Gille, Joseph Dispenza and Stephanie Bennett Voga mentioned several companies who specialize in creating and distributing your book. Almost all on the panel had indeed been picked up by agents or directly by a publisher due to the enormous number of readers they attracted. Their electronic platform was immensely invaluable for gathering “your tribe” – a term used by Ms Bennett Voga. Elance and can be invaluable for searching out people to do all the editing and cover work you need to create your book... Create Space can print on demand and Lightning Source can do multiple prints

All these writers have words to benefit the world. 

Mr. Dispenza has written several books, including one on a centenarian healer and another on eating properly while undergoing chemotherapy. Ms. Bennett Vogt wrote a book, called, “Your Spacious Self: Clear the Clutter and Discover Who You Are”  - picked up and released by Hierophant Publishing in 2012 several years after she had done her first edition by herself. Ms. Gille wrote about moving to San Miguel and how she awakened to her own transformation and a deeper sensitivity to Mexican culture and the country’s people.
One clear message highlighted by all on the panel was a poignant reality: the process does not stop after your book is done; next comes its marketing and readership growth.

It may take months to do the book, but now that the baby is born, one must nurture it and get it out there.

I so much wanted to attend Ms Gille’s workshop, titled, “The Nuts and Bolts of  Self-Publishing”, I had more questions regarding the topic. I had been successful in self-publishing my poetry/short story book,” Beyond The Dream: Epic Solitude”, but  now I wanted to move into the freedom of self-publishing my novel if no agent would represent me.

Mary Rose Hayes
I had to make a choice. I needed to know more about dialogue. I was finishing up my novel, and I really was in the dark about when and where to place dialogue.  Had I put in too much or too little? Mary Rose Hayes’ workshop was so instructive. She gave us examples of dialogue used to convey character and provenance, setting and conflict. I learned that showing – rather than telling – meant using becoming the characters as they speak. I learned that characters speaking to each other about others is a solid strategic tool used to reveal everyone’s personality, further the plot, and spice up the narrative.  In addition, she dealt with the issue of slang, dialect and accents, and techniques to use in order for the words to flow natural the page and hence to the reader’s eye (Phonetics was out; it is confusing to read). Then she asked for two volunteers to come to the front of the room. 

To my astonishment, I found myself standing in front of the participants with a tall man; both of us were requested to read out loud our respective role from Hemmingway’s novel, The White Elephant”. 

I got so much out of this workshop – the most important point being, I was telling too much rather than using dialogue to do it for me. 
Carol Cassella
That point was further honed in a workshop led by Carol Cassella. She clearly defined the roles for which details are most effective as written in her hand out:  to move the action, reveal character and, define the imaginary worlds created by fiction that got us writing about the use of details to describe setting, character and action responses. Again, the phrase – show don’t tell – was used, but this time it was description rather than dialogue that advanced the plot and the characters moving it. As in the dialogue workshop, she also gave hand outs – some including excerpts from various works, including, The Accidental Tourist”, and Charlotte’s Web.”  These passages illustrated how details can tell us so much.  Examples of non-purposeful descriptions were also dealt with. Avoid extraneous details.  

I also attended a panel animated by Canadian author, Jane Urquhart and writers, Tracy Chevalier from the United States, and Mexi.can-born, Pedro Angel Palou who now lives in the United States. He recently wrote a book on Poncho Villa. This illustrious panel’s title “Words for Peace”, addressed the topic of a book’s influence and impact factor on cultural change. 

“Any act of the imagination is a stroll across boundaries.
                                                                                                                  Jane Urquhart
Jane Urquhart
This stimulating discussion opined passionately on several topics: censorship, impunity, government corruption, lack of translation and a paucity of market exposure for non-English language books and the tragic situation of disappearance of writers in the Latin world, along with corruption was discussed by Mr. Palou. International PEN was referred to – one of the most important organizations protecting journalists and their rights. Many have been killed, including 14 from Mexico. San Miguel has its own chapter in PEN. 

Though laws are written to protect freedom of speech in most countries in the Western World, it became evident that impunity prevails hiding its face scarred in censorship.

Lightening the mood, I read my own poem called. “Our Vets Have Been Voided” – a poem that the Gazette newspaper in Montreal was going to publish, but censorship by one editor canned it, saying it was insulting our own government leader too strongly.  

Politeness seems to be a Canadian curse for some writers.

Isn’t it strange and ironic that I had the freedom to read the poem here in Mexico, but my own country, considered a crusader of free speech, vetoed its publication? (That poem is published on this blog as well as in my book mentioned in this article, and on Matters of Personal Interest).
God Bless the San Miguel Writers Festival for encouraging and offering such passionate support to all writers in pursuit of the freedom of expression – even if some of us are on the “wrong side” of political correctness. 

What must be realized is this conference is a vital liaison for many non-profit organizations dedicated to raising money for several outreach educational programs, such as Ojala niños.
Run by Elsmarie Norby, Ojala niños constantly helps children in literacy, health, creative development and many more invaluable programs.
Susan Page, Director of San Miguel Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival along with her amazing team of volunteers could all be heroes written about in a non-fiction work.

 Fiesta Time… Taking a Big Bite into the Enchilada!

Celebrating is a San Miguel specialty, and the festival fell right in step. Throwing a dazzling10th anniversary fiesta, the festival outdid itself with its amazingly huge party inside the high vaulted ceilings and stone walls of the Instituto de Bellas Artes. Wow! Dancers dressed in Aztec costumes, food that could have fed the entire state of Guanajuato, dancers gliding up and down the stairs and different halls resembled a Cirque du Soleil performance. A huge firecracker show with the gorgeous lit-up Parroquia Church glimmering in the background and Gigantes (tower-tall costumed stilt walkers) danced to the live music and the crowd joined them.
An equally humongous cake needed four of those dancing gals to carry it. I had blast, and I bumped into Kimberley again (remember that agent who had to rush off). Well, there’s nothing like a party thrown by the Festival to break the ice, and through the din of dancers and dynamic atmosphere, I completed my pitch, and this time, she asked for 100 pages. Such are the magnificent blessings of San Miguel brought to us all who have been lucky enough to participate in this astounding writers’ festival.

I took my final bite into the whole enchilada on February 15th.
I can hardly wait to taste next year’s serving to once again satiate the writer in me!     

Links to Charlotte Bell's photos for the  San Miguel de Allende Writers' conference.
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