My Takeaways from the San Miguel Writers’ Conference 8

“[The plot] of personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.” – Phillip Lopate

LAST WEEK, I had the privilege of attending the twelfth annual San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference. I confess, I wouldn’t have even known about the conference if it weren’t for a friend of mine who lives part-time in San Miguel. She mentioned it in casual conversation and invited my sweetheart and me to stay with her if I decided to come. With keynote speakers such as Mary Karr, Judy Collins, and Gail Sheehy, how could I turn down an invitation like that?

So Monday, February 13th, my sweetheart and I boarded a plane bound for the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende (SMA). I’m not sure which excited me most — finally visiting the legendary city of expats and artists, or attending the writers’ conference. After touching town in Leon, we took the hour-and-a-half shuttle ride to San Miguel, arriving well after dark. Not having done my homework, I had always imagined San Miguel as a quaint little town of a few thousand people. Imagine my surprise when we rounded a corner to see a real city’s sprawling expanse of lights. As it turns out, SMA has a rapidly growing population of 150,000.

The conference began on Wednesday, so we spent our first day with our hosts, adjusting to the high altitude (around 6,400 feet). We walked the cobblestoned streets of the historic center to see the “Jardin” (town center), La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel (the parish church of San Miguel), art galleries, and shops, while snapping pictures with our smart phones.

Highlights of the conference

The conference opened with Mary Karr’s keynote speech. (If you’re not familiar with her, she is the author of a number of memoirs, including The Liar’s Club and Lit, as well as The Art of Memoir, which I highly recommend.) She did not disappoint. A few key phrases I took away (paraphrased):

  • Memoir is about having your heart broken
  • All art is eucharistic — you take someone’s suffering and passion and are changed by it.
  • The best memoirs are about survival. The best memoirs bring us back into the room, into the body of the memoirist as child.
  • Every time I write, I’m ambushed by what’s true.

The first session I attended was a panel discussion on how to incorporate a message into your writing. Naomi Klein (Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything), Tawny Waters (Beauty of the Broken), poet Judyth Hill (Hardwired For LoveMen Need SpaceDazzling Wobble and Tzimzum), and personal essayist Iraj Isaac Rahmin discussed challenges and techniques on this topic.

From my point of view, the real benefit of this discussion was in hearing the wide range of writing styles, experiences, and points of view of its members. Some takeaways:

  • Tawny Waters: When writing fiction, incorporate your message with a light hand. Let the people live on the page. Start with a really great character and let the message subtly work its way into the story.
  • Iraj Rahmin: “I usually back my way into things.” Started writing personal essays as an exploration of inner self. “If it was a good essay, it would get some depth and become something larger.”
  • Naomi Klein: “My relationship to this question is different, because I’m a journalist. I come out of issue-driven, progressive-left journalism. For me, it always starts with the issue.”
  • Judyth Hill: “Know what you’re in it for. Know what you love. The amazing thing about poetry is that the meaning rides the great horse of music. Understand the story you are trying to sell and then sing it beautifully.”

The second panel I attended was on the special challenges of memoir writing. This panel included Gail Sheehy (Passages and Daring: My Passages), Jamie Brickhouse (Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze Sex and My Mother), Marian Botswford Fraser (Requiem for My Brother), and Kenneth Woodward (former editor of Newsweek).

  • Marian Fraser: The biggest challenge of memoir had been how to deal with her family and community’s culture of secrecy. She said, “You have to make a contract with yourself. How are you going to deal with your culture of secrets?” It’s not just about telling all — it’s making story out of the some of the most deeply felt moments of your life.
  • Gail Sheehy: A memoir, to be successful, has to have the same kind of tension as when you catch a firefly in a jar. The firefly is pushing against the sides of the jar, pushing against the edges.  A key takeaway for me: Even Gail Sheehy needed help writing her memoir.
  • Jamie Brickhouse: Memoirists have the burden of too much information. You’ve got to decide what’s important and how to sift through that, weed it out. Pay attention to the underlying themes.
  • Kenneth Woodward: You have to ask yourself, What kind of story am I telling? The development of character is to say, “This is who I am.” What kind of journey are you on — from ignorance to wisdom; childhood to adulthood; brokenness to wholeness; failure to success; love to abandonment (or the reverse); sinner to saint; loss of self to finding self; insecurity to confidence?

Other thoughts:

  • Victoria Zackheim (personal essays and memoir): One word defines your writing: conflict. If you don’t have conflict, it’s not going to work for you or your reader. These can be major conflicts or simple conflicts that we face every day. Conflict is the thread that runs through the work.
  • Iraj Isaac Rahim: “The use of objective truth in the personal essay can liberate, rather than confine, the writer as it permits her to dive more deeply in search of the emotional, spiritual, and philosophical core.”
  • Pedro Ángel Palou: “Memoir is an examination of the perception of truth.” He asks, “How do we believe what we believe? What opens our minds to one idea and closes it to another?” Is it all an effort to make sense of chaos?

Do any of the statements (my takeaways) from the conference resonate with you? If so, which one(s) and why? What would you like to add?


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8 thoughts on “My Takeaways from the San Miguel Writers’ Conference

  • sara

    Amber–I’m deeply grateful for your willingness to share your takeaways from the San Miguel conference. I can see where the conference was an insightful one. Seriously, I appreciate your sincerity in sharing. Your reactions tell me a great deal about you as a person and writer.

    What I liked the most was what Pedro Ángel Palou said: “Memoir is an examination of the perception of truth.” So often I ask what he asked, “How do we believe what we believe? What opens our minds to one idea and closes it to another?” Is it all an effort to make sense of chaos?”

    The answers to those questions have changed over the years. Call it experience, age, or what have you. Nonetheless, I continue to find the answers to those questions fascinating and transformative.

    I am grateful for your sharing spirit as you do your part to assist the development of a segment of the writing community.

    Warm wishes!

  • Stacy Holden

    I think what resonates most for me is the idea of “conflict”…and then of discovery. Sometimes, we go into a project thinking that we know precisely what the conflict around which our writing will swirl and resolve. Writing, however, whether academic historical monographs or creative non-fiction essays, must be approached with respect and with an openness to hearing the universe suggest new ways of sharing a story, whether yours or, if a historian, a personality from the past. Often, allowing myself free reign to write lays waste to the neatly constructed narrative of conflict and resolution that I outlined in my head, and I learn that the “real” conflict is something else entirely! And that is why the line that stands out most of those that you wrote above is, “Memoir is about having your heart broken.” No doubt!

  • Barbara Toboni

    Thanks Amber. I like the paraphrase, •Every time I write, I’m ambushed by what’s true. When I write about my son I am always surprised how the pain translates on to the page. But I’m not looking for sympathy from readers. I’m mostly afraid of going too far for my readers so that they won’t get the point, which I’m still trying to figure out for myself. Also, I constantly ask myself what kind of story am I writing…Kenneth Woodward’s quote.

  • Valentina Bellicova

    What a delightful conference to attend! I have heard many praises about San Miguel and its community of creative, artistic expats … now on my list!

    Interesting that there was quite a bit on memoirs, a genre I have thought of tackling myself, and especially since I promised my mother that I would write about “the story.” Although THAT story may have to wait (lots of research needed) I have more than once entertained the notion of “My Story.”. Your notes have cracked open a tiny, tiny perspective on what it means to write a memoir (or two). Thank you.