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Conference Insider: Todos Santos Writers Workshop

This Baja conference may be going digital in 2021, but staff members are determined not to lose all the cultural and craft elements that make the annual event so special.

Stage & Screenwriting students meet with TSWW co-founder Rex Weiner in the gardens of the workshop’s landmark home. Photo: Emanuela Gardner
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When Jeanne McCulloch and Rex Weiner co-founded the Todos Santos Writers Workshop on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula seven years ago, they knew they wanted to create a community of writers in a location rich in history and culture. Each morning of the annual workshop, participants gather in the garden of the Casa Dracula and read an inspirational quote from the Paris Review Writer’s Chapbook. Then they meet in small groups with genre instructors under fruit trees on the property before setting out to explore the town and surrounding areas.

In 2021, Weiner and McCulloch are approaching the week-long event in a different manner. Like so many other conferences, theirs is going online. “We’re going to reproduce what we usually do in person, minus the fruit trees and the café across the road and the chickens that wander through our workshop,” Weiner says. “We’ll use Zoom with breakout rooms for each class, but we’ll begin with all of us together in the central hub with readings from the Chapbook.”

McCulloch has always appreciated the sense of family and community inspired by the workshop. “We’re relying on that now that we have to be virtual,” she says. “We’re hoping to reach out to many more people who might be interested in our workshops but, for one reason or another, haven’t been able to make it down to Mexico. We see this as a wonderful opportunity to spread our wings and bring more writers into our community.”

The workshop offers tuition discounts to those enrolled in or affiliated with accredited schools internationally. “We have granted scholarships to local Mexican students who are conversant in English, through our support for the Palapa Society, the local nonprofit school in town,” Weiner notes.

What you’ll learn

What you’ll learn at the remote Writers Workshop may surprise you. Traditional morning classes limited to six participants will be followed by afternoon seminars, panel discussions, and craft talks. Participants can enjoy faculty readings each evening. But staff have also prepared what Weiner calls a “video salsa” designed to bring participants as close as possible to being in Todos Santos while staying safely at home.

He and McCulloch will intersperse real-time workshops and discussions with videos of a trip to Tortugueros Las Playitas to watch the release of baby turtles, a hiking trip with a local guide, a visit to fishermen on Punta Lobos to see the catch of the day, and tours of local artists’ studios.

The town was named a “Pueblo Mágico” by Mexico’s tourism board in 2006, thanks to its charm and culture. Associate director Ivonne Benitez, who lives in Todos Santos, makes her grandmother’s mole each year for the workshop’s faculty reading night. In 2021, she’s agreed to do a bilingual cooking demonstration of her mole recipe as part of the video salsa. “We call these offerings virtual mágico,” Weiner says.

Past workshops have included bilingual seminars on the literature of Baja and also bilingual poetry readings. “We find this kind of work/study exchange with our Mexican writers broadens our participants’ experience of the Spanish language in verse and affords unique insight into Latin America’s rich literary culture and tradition,” Weiner says.

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Featured presenters

Award-winning Mexican poet Mercedes Luna Fuentes has presented at past Todos Santos Writers Workshops, as have Mexican poet and historian Edmundo Lizardi, and author and professor Viviane Mahieux, who grew up in Todos Santos and nearby La Paz. “We’re committed to having bilingual elements during the event, so that everyone is acquainted with the music of the Spanish language,” McCulloch says.

In 2021, novelist Joanna Hershon will teach fiction during the morning workshops. Writer and translator Christopher Merrill will teach poetry, while Wiener will focus on writing for stage and screen. McCulloch will teach memoir along with novelist and nonfiction writer Karen Karbo. Afternoon craft workshops include presenters from around the U.S.

“Writers often work in isolation, especially now, when many people are quarantined alone or with their families or their pod,” McCulloch says. “We’ll create a sense of community in our workshops on Zoom and nurture the ability to continue this community beyond the week of the workshop so that you can take that energy with you.”

To that end, she and Weiner are planning a series of writers’ workshops that will take place online throughout the rest of 2021.

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Advice for first-time attendees 

Previous to the workshop, you can meet and mingle with participants on the Todos Santos Writers Workshop Facebook page. On Saturday evening of the weeklong event in February, a “virtual schmooze” will allow participants and faculty to mingle remotely on Zoom. An open-mic near the end of the week offers writers five minutes to read their work in progress out loud for other attendees.

Unable to attend the Writers Workshop in 2021? Staff will post recordings of some of the event’s afternoon craft lectures on YouTube, along with the annual all-faculty panel discussion titled “How I Got that Story.” “We share what we do with the literary community – details like what time we write and advice specific to different genres,” McCulloch explains.

She understands the difficulty of pursuing creative work without a tangible community during the COVID-19 pandemic and reminds writers that they’re not alone. “We’re here to support you and embrace you and meet you where you are in terms of your work and what you want to accomplish. Don’t let your computer be a barrier – let it be an open door.”

 

Todos Santos Writers Workshop at a glance

Dates: Jan. 31-Feb.6, 2021

Cost: $850

Location: Remote

Contact: Conference directors Jeanne McCulloch and Rex Weiner, through website at
todossantoswritersworkshop.com

 

Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart

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