I left behind three kids’ schedules and my worries about whether or not I’d written instructions about which flavor of Annie’s Organic fruit gummies to pack in their lunches. I left behind my doubts that I wasn’t good enough or qualified to be going to a Writer’s Conference. And I left behind the last days of my 30’s before ringing in my new decade in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
I took the red eye into Leon, a city on the far west side of the Mexican state Guanajuato, then took a 90-minute daybreak shuttle ride east, smack dab through the middle point of Mexico, to San Miguel on the eastern side of the state. I arrived at the hotel disheveled and tired, hoping I didn’t offend the driver with my American-dollars tip, let alone the amount.
As I stood in line to check in, I heard a squeal and felt a familiar fierce hug grab me from behind. My sister Stephanie had arrived! She immediately took over the check-in, Spanish words prancing from her fluent mouth, explaining that I was her hermana and could our rooms be closer together? No such luck, but no worries. It was Mexico and we were here. We were here!
Soon we were seated at breakfast with our teacher, Laura, and two friends from previous writing retreats—more screams and hugs! It’s amazing how bonded I felt to these familiar faces when encountering them so far from home. They had signed up for a day outing to tour the local pyramids, so Stephanie and I decided to explore San Miguel on our own. We traipsed the cobblestone streets, catching up on our lives, while passing bright bougainvillea flowers wending up mustard colored walls. We stopped for pictures along the way and bought fish sandwiches, fresh carrot juice, and mangos at the Mercado. We talked philosophy and politics, childhood habits and parenting dilemmas. And dreams. Of course when in Mexico those tendrils seemed easier to grasp. We came across an open house and toured an upscale home, giggling and plotting what it’d be like to live here with our own private courtyard and retractable ceiling, open over the stairwell to let in the 80-degree February warmth.
Four and a half hours later, we had hit many of the city’s highlights—churches, plazas with historical statues and plaques, the markets—and came back to get ready for the first keynote speaker, Cheryl Strayed.
The blond-haired author of Wild spoke unabashedly about her life as described in her memoir, as well as her experience writing it. She made the point that having an experience doesn’t make a story, but having a perspective, a type of awareness about your experience, is what makes it a story. She talked about how badly you have to want your book in order to do all the hard work, and how it’s the hard-working, more than the most talented people who get to see their books published.
The next day created the template for the rest of the week: two workshops in the morning, an optional speaker after lunch, afternoons off, and a keynote speaker and optional event in the evening. I had signed up for the fiction track in the workshops, and came away with many gems from the week from leaders such as the dynamic Susan Brown, an informative Ray Rhamey, the talented and soft-spoken Jacqueline Sheehan, kindred spirit Kathleen Hudson, a disorganized but vibrant ZZ Packer, and others.
Throughout the workshops we studied topics like sentence structures (simple, complex, compound), how to effectively tag quotes in order to progress the plot, and delved into the distance between the author and the character in terms of word choice. I learned about using point-of-view descriptions to reflect personalities and how to establish an unreliable narrator. We were reminded repeatedly that the engine of plot is conflict, and explored how to build tension by establishing a space between what the character thinks will happen and what actually happens in a scene.
During the women’s panel Writing Our Lives, I learned the difference between writing a raw and healing confession of an event versus the more reflective and universally appealing memoir. Emotional truths live in all types of writing—even in fiction writing, you “can’t write what’s not in you.”
In talking with friends, it seemed their workshops were somewhat hit-or-miss, but also packed full of gems along the topics of Publishing and Media, Memoir, Non-Fiction Writing, or Poetry.
One of the other evening keynote speakers, the charismatic Luis Alberto Urrea, reminded us that “words really work” as he was telling gripping and heartbreaking stories about the Mexican-American border. And, as the entire audience sat on the edge of our seats in complete silence, he bound us to the truth, “If love is not in your pen, don’t write.” No, Luis, we wouldn’t dream of it.
One afternoon, my sister and I found a roof-top restaurant overlooking the span of San Miguel, shared a bottle of wine and chopped vegetables in a spicy lime sauce. By then my pockets were full of pesos rather than dollars, and I had mastered the routine of only using bottled water. My husband Doug joined us mid-week just in time to celebrate the eve of my 40th birthday at the conference’s annual Fiesta party, complete with shots of tequila, traditional Mexican dancers, freshly rolled tortillas, dancing, and fireworks. He, Stephanie, my other writer friends, and Laura joined me for my birthday lunch the next afternoon at a small restaurant where we tried avocado and cucumber, sweet corn, or cold guava soups. Wow. I felt the spirit of a future me looking back over my shoulder, binding me to its whispered promise to “remember this, this precious day, these beautiful souls, this day in Mexico.”
The week concluded with staggered good-byes as we all left to catch different flights on different days. I vowed to stay longer next time and take advantage of the post-conference workshops and opportunity to further tour the city. My sister—a former U.S. Diplomat with a non-fiction proposal—left with two agents vying over her for a book deal. And my husband and I left with the pulse of Mexico in our hearts, souvenirs in our suitcases, and too many autographed books to make the weight limit for our checked bags.
Adios Mexico, until next time.