Guest Post: San Miguel Writers’ Conference by Gordon Cope – Part Two

This is the second of a 3-part series written by Gordon Cope who has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Gordon has offered to give us an “insider’s look” into the writing conference held annually in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Every year, the conference lines up half a dozen prominent authors as keynote speakers. In the past, they have included Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Luis Alberto Urrea and Laurence Hill. This year, I was especially impressed by three speakers: Tracy Chevalier, Scott Turow and Gloria Steinem.

Street Decorations

Street Decorations

Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl With A Pearl Earring, was the 2015 conference’s first featured speaker. She is an historical novelist, and revels in researching her stories before writing them. She dwelled on the concept of history, how it is perceived so differently between cultures and even individuals. She offered several famous quotes, including Churchill’s paraphrasing of Santayana’s remark: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, and Henry Ford’s, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”

I tend to lean more towards Churchill’s point of view. It is impossible to say that knowledge of a past war has led to the successful avoidance of subsequent hostilities, or the reality of the Holocaust prevents us from committing more mass murders; the example of the First World War being followed by the Second World War and the Holocaust being followed by the tragedy in Rwanda clearly belies any universal learning.

There is, however, much value in understanding how we as humans build moral understanding. Carl Becker, an American historian, had the following to say. “The value of history is, indeed, not scientific but moral: by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, it enables us to control, not society, but ourselves — a much more important thing; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet rather than to foretell the future.”

Chevalier made the point that all human babies start as blank slates, learning to listen, to communicate, and to understand their world around them. What we draw upon that blank slate stays with them for the rest of their lives; we must take care that they learn to love, and not to hate.

Scott Turow is best noted for his many courtroom novels, including Presumed Innocent, which was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford. Rather than read from his works, Turow took us on a highly personal journey. He reminisced about his desire to be an author, which arose at an early age when, as an ailing child, he read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and was enthralled by the sword play and action. He thought “As wonderful as it is to read a book, how much more incredible would it be to write one.”

In addition to his fame as an author, Turow has also long been a participant in a (in)famous rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders. Along with Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tam and other literary luminaries, the band plays for various benefits and causes. Turow didn’t entertain us with a musical interlude, but he did have several memorable quotes:

1. Dave Barry, on their musical merits: “We play music as well as Metallica writes novels.”
2. A newspaper review: “It has one of the world’s highest ratios of noise to talent.”
3. The Washington Post: “the most heavily promoted musical debut since the Monkees.”

Turow is also a practicing lawyer, and, clearly, much of his work has been an inspiration for his novels. He is currently working on a book about the International Crimes Court; I look forward to reading it.

Gloria Steinem is dynamic in person; it is difficult to believe she is now over 80 years old. She spoke for an hour on her life and her commitment to equal rights for women to a rapt audience. I was especially amazed at her sense of humor; surely, someone who has dedicated her life to the advancement of such important and weighty causes has every right to possess a serious demeanour, yet she has an uncanny ability to laugh in the face of adversity.

Local Food Market

Local Food Market

During the Q&A session following Steinem’s talk, many audience members reminisced about their first exposure to Ms. Magazine, how it informed them of the problems affecting women, such as equal rights, domestic violence and equal pay, in an age when many of these topics were barely even recognized as important issues. It was impressive to hear how many of the women who spoke were galvanized by Steinem’s publication, and went on to establish state and national organizations that lobbied politically and agitated socially for their rights.

I recently had the opportunity to read through Steinem’s biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn: Norma Jeane, a collaboration with photojournalist George Barris, who had been one of the last people to photograph and interview Marilyn prior to her death in 1962. It is a series of essays based upon Marilyn’s own words and Barris’s photos. The book was written almost a quarter of a century after Marilyn’s death; as Steinem notes in the forward, she was one of the few women writers among the 40 authors who had penned biographies of her up to that point. Steinem brings a feminist viewpoint to the cultural icon’s life that adds insight and poignancy to both her public persona as a sex symbol, and her troubled private life.

For more information about the conference, visit their main website.

Part One
Part Three

4 responses

  1. It sounds like you made the most of your trip to the Conference. As a non-practicing lawyer, I think Scott Turow would have been fascinating. How he makes time to write and keep up his legal practice is amazing to me. And what can one say about Gloria Steinem? Her thoughts about the role of women today are as relevant as ever. And as for Tracy Chevalier, it would have been wonderful to hear about research from someone who does it so thoroughly and so well. Keep these posts coming!

    1. Scott Turow is indeed amazing for his ability to write the way he does and still maintain a practice. An interesting aside; he is one of the most laid-back, non-assuming persons I have ever met. If you were standing in an elevator with him and one other person, you wouldn’t even notice him.

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