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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

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

This is the first 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.


This is my third year attending the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. I first became interested in the conference after my wife Linda and I moved full time to Manzanillo, Mexico, located on the Pacific Coast, south of Puerto Vallarta. San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is situated inland, approximately halfway between Guadalajara and Mexico City, and about 8-hours by car from Manzanillo. Friends in Mexico called my attention to the upcoming conference, and I was so impressed by the speaker lineup, the workshops and the city itself, that I immediately signed up.

Folk Art in San Miguel de Allende

Folk Art in San Miguel de Allende

2015 marked the 10-year anniversary of the conference. For the last decade, Susan Page and an army of volunteers have been organizing a five-day extravaganza that has earned international recognition for the quality of speakers, extracurricular activities and workshops. I will talk about the speakers and activities in part II and III of my guest blog, but first, I’d like to discuss the workshops.

I have been writing professionally for a long time; for the last 30 years, it has been my full-time job. In addition to working as a reporter for the Calgary Herald newspaper, I have also been a journalist and international correspondent specializing in the energy sector. As an author, I have had three travel memoirs traditionally published; A Paris Moment, So, we Sold Our House and Ran Away to the South Pacific, and A Thames Moment. In addition, I wrote a mystery thriller, Secret Combinations, that was released by a Canadian publisher.

However, I have had little formal education in regards to creative writing, and the opportunities to meet fellow practitioners and learn from experienced faculty members were important considerations in attending the conference. I wanted to learn firsthand the tips and techniques used by successful writers to enhance their work.


The conference offers over 50 workshops, ranging from fiction to non-fiction and poetry. They are organized into seven sessions spread out over five days. Each workshop is 90-minutes long, and features a lesson from a subject matter expert, exercises, and a Q&A opportunity.

One of my favourite workshops was Randall Platt’s talk on point-of-view, tense and voice. She spoke at length about how an author creates a character, delving into a fictional construct by asking simple questions about their gender, physical appearance, and then building on interpersonal relationships with family, spouse and friends until a character emerges that can convince the reader that they might actually exist. For our exercise, Randall had us imagine the Point of View of a major character in the story of the Titanic. I chose the iceberg.

The Business of Writing

Publishers are in the business of making money from books, and the sector is currently going through a massive upheaval as online retailers like Amazon undermine their ability to price their product. The knock-on effect upon authors is immense; few publisher will now take on an unproven writer unless they have some built-in notoriety or social platform.

The conference offers a sampling of workshops that inform and offer alternative publishing outlets, such as self-publishing. I attended a very informative session taught by Judith Gille, an independent author and bookstore owner. Gille outlined the Nuts and Bolts of Self-Publishing, walking attendees through what essentially the author needs to do to step into the shoes of the publisher. The publishing rights for A Paris Moment recently reverted to me, and I am in the process of launching the 10th Anniversary eBook edition of the travel memoir; what Judith had to say about successfully entering the ePublishing sector was both reassuring and immensely informative.

Agent Pitches

The conference offers another tremendous benefit; the opportunity to pitch your manuscript to an agent. For many years, I have been sending out query letters to agents in regards to several of my writing projects, to no avail. At every conference, however, I have had the chance to speak one-on-one to an established literary agent, learning how to overcome nervousness and communicate my enthusiasm for my work. This year, I spoke to Kimberly Cameron, of Kimberly Cameron & Associates. She was sufficiently impressed by my pitch for A War Child (a contemporary historical fiction set in occupied Paris during the Second World War), that she requested a copy of the entire manuscript for her consideration. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

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

Part Two
Part Three