Saturday, 20 February 2016

San Miguel’s Writers' Conference 2016

The Genius of it all!

by Nancy Snipper

                            Wisdom, Writing, Workshops and Wonder
Write down these words: accessibility, cultural inclusiveness, excitement and inspiration!  Everyone talks; everyone learns; everyone laughs and everyone walks away looking younger and happier than ever. After all, San Miguel de Allende’s colonial charm is a darling place to excite the senses, inspire writers and invite party-goers to celebrate. This festival beckons a myriad of muses to enrich your soul in honour of the written word. Susan Page is executive director of the festival.

Photo Credit: Christine McReynolds
Photo Credit: Christine McReynolds


Everyone flocks to the keynote speakers 
This year, the literati line-up of nine notables was as powerful as the margaritas pouring into our glasses at the festivals’ fabulous fiestas. These astounding writers included Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Sheehy, Elizabeth Hay, Scott Simon, and other gifted giants of international acclaim.

Photo Credit: Christine McReynolds
One hilarious keynote writer who elicited non-stop laughter was the comedic Luis Urrea. He spoke vividly about his younger years, recreating his childhood, painting his sober days working as a janitor and also at the infamous Tijuana garbage dump whose assortment of characters there forged indelible friendships for him – many who ended up in his novel – one that bi-culturally strode Tijuana, San Diego and the amazing pueblo of Rosario.
Photo Credit: Christine McReynolds
His imitations of his friends, his macho dad whose machismo extended into everything Mexican; he believed it was great if it was invented by Mexicans. His elegant American mother was the foil for his gruff dad.  A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Urrea has written novels (The Devil’s Highway, Nobody’s Son), poetry and essays. He is so entertaining. He says he belongs to the nation of words, and his are uproarious.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Woodland
Another fine speaker – Scott Simon - whose novel Unforgettable about being with his dying mother – an extraordinary  Jewish woman whose humour became known throughout the world via Scott Simon’s tweeting their mini-conversations – he at her bedside in the hospital, both keeping that unbreakable mother/son  as millions of tweets touched the world.
Known as VPR’s great interviewer, Mr. Simon was both moving and humorous. His work at a mentally challenged home in Chicago revealed how he began to change his perception of humanity because of the great friends he made with these adults, and how they taught him to love through example.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Woodland
 Lisa See whose three astounding books explore the cultural hardships of the Chinese. Her description of the practice of female foot binding was riveting. She surely is the authority on ancient customs – many which have been addressed in her books.  On Golden Mountain: The Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, she brings to life the world of her grandparents who led the wave of the Chinese coming to America. Her grandfather started a ladies’ underwear business -“crotchless” being the operative word here. In another book, she uncovers the secret 17th century language invented by women who communicated to one another; they shared the same husband. Her deep curiosity   compelled her to visit the remotest region of China where she uncovered this secret communication.
Her book, China Dolls is being made into a TV series by the great screenwriter /producer, Kirk Ellis famous for his successful HBO "John Adams" miniseries. In his keynote address, he took us through a lesson of cinematic development from the silent to the neo-realism of the Bicycle Thief to clips from his hero, Satyajit Ray and from the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

Gale Sheehy basically reenacted her trajectory rise to stardom as a writer. Her professional relationship with Clay Felker – top editor at New York Times resulted in a longstanding marriage and the adoption of a Cambodian girl she met during one of her assignments in Cambodia. Moving, touching hilarious and energetic, Sheehy gave me goose bumps. Her presentation included film clips from parts of her career. She is a performance artist, now moving beyond her world-famous novel, Passages, continuing her mantra of daring.  Her latest book, Daring: My Passages was put to the test when she closed the evening, inviting anyone from the audience to share their most daring moment.  How poignant and relevant to the evening’s theme of daring.

A plethora of invaluable workshops 
Seventy-seven incredibly dig-deep workshops addressed almost every aspect of writing – all genre varieties, marketing your work and giving it its much needed electronic buzz, to agent pitching and every conceivable topic in between – all this to give your writing an assortment of strategies to get it where it needs to go.
I particularly learned about character-shaping and plot construction in David Corbett’s wonderfully enthusiastic and helpful session.  Incorporating suspense and using setting to illuminate character are interesting and often overlooked topics. Susan Brown and Newfoundland’s Donna Morrissey  stimulated us, offering  techniques  along with the do’s and dont's in their respective workshops, but I was critical of  Morrissey’s refusal to answer questions, and it would have been nice to share with each other what she asked us to write in her workshop on setting. She was more intent on reading from her own book to give examples than hearing what others wrote during her workshop.
Elizabeth Rosner’s Bending the Rules workshop was fun and encouraging. She offered examples of writing from famous writers who broke all rules. She was the maverick who talked about construct taking all kinds of novel forms – that passion is the cornerstone of great writing, not rules.

David Corbett

Susan Brown
Donna Morrisey

Elizabeth Rosner

Enlivening the poetic spirit 
San Miguel’s writers and literary conference is deeply involved with outreach programs for children. Open mike to read your writing, spontaneous questions asked to the keynote speakers, agent panels, book signing and more – are all part of the five-day conference. Poet, Judyth Hill, dubbed the conference’s poet laureate, enlivened our poetic spirit. She created two amazing poems that colourfully resonated the Mexican spirit in the opening and closing evenings of the five-day whirlwind conference. Outdoor excursions, cantina prowls, story-telling and cross-cultural panel discussions informed and entertained us all. 
                                Photo Credit for 2 photos above: Christine McReynolds

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