Author John Scherber recently finished a new book, Living in San Miguel: The Heart of the Matter. This new publication dives into the subject of being an expatriate in San Miguel de Allende. A few months ago we published an excerpt, “Are we there yet,” about being an expatriate and thinking we can easily go back home to our country of origin. This week we are going to look at a second excerpt, “Creative Lives,” about writing in San Miguel.
Writing is always a solitary occupation, no matter where you do it, but it is still somehow reassuring to know there are other wordsmiths laboring in the shadowy background all over San Miguel. I sit on my second floor terrace, where I have twenty-mile views over the reservoir into the mountains. I work outside every day, where back in Minnesota I could work at a cast iron table on my rear deck only about a hundred days a year.
I went looking for a perspective on this other than my own, realizing that no single writer represents this dedicated and independent group very well, so I asked Nathan Feuerberg to join me for lunch at Café Contento on Hernández Macias. It’s a quiet place tucked away inside a building across from the Bellas Artes, where the Literary Sala readings are now held in the second floor auditorium. When I first met him six years ago in a writer’s work group he had been expecting to move on in a few months. Nathan had lived and studied in several places in Europe by that time. Now he is associated with the San Miguel Writer’s Conference in various capacities, one of which is managing their blog site, a venue where I have been known to furnish posts from time to time on the subject of the writing life in México.
Nathan is a slender guy in his late thirties with short-cropped hair and a low-key manner. He ordered a cappuccino and I asked for chilaquiles, a mass of tortillas mixed with shredded chicken, red sauce, and cheese. He talked while I ate.
“What is the writing scene like here?” I asked between bites, to get things started. “Does it draw a lot of wannabe writers, and can they find acceptance and support among the more established literati? I’ve heard it can be tough to break in here.”
“There are a lot of people here writing a memoir. I don’t know if I’d call them wannabe writers exactly, but they’re writing more for family and friends. They’re not as interested in publication; it’s more like a time of life when they want to have something to show their family. Maybe they’ll self-publish a limited run. You can also find a lot of artists here, writers who come down thinking they’ll stay for about a year or two and work on their novel.”
“By ‘artists’ you mean literary writers.”
“Well, I guess I mean people who are serious about writing. People who have made a commitment to write. I meet quite a few people who are down here getting away from the U.S. or Canada to work on their writing.”
“Is this a good place to do that?”
“I think it depends on the person. I was talking to Benjamin Sáenz a few weeks ago. He was here to speak at the Conference. He wrote Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. He was saying that he lives in Laredo, Texas, and he can see the border from his window. He was telling me that he can’t really imagine himself coming down to San Miguel to work because he needs that violence there. He said he couldn’t just be settling into this picturesque place. For some people, they’re going to be better equipped to do their writing if they’re in New York, where they’re driven. For other people, like me, I need a tranquil environment. When I’m happy I do my best writing. For people who need a calm environment this is the best place for them.”
Being a parent, I have written equally well in periods of chaos and of calm. I can do it either way because I’m driven wherever I am, but I greatly prefer calm as a background for writing.
“Does being a self-starter and being motivated go along with that?”
“Right. You have to be a self-starter here. If you’re not waking up in the morning and doing your pages and spending your afternoons editing, you can quite easily be just hanging out and spending your time at cafes and gossiping with people, telling them you’re a writer but not actually doing the work.”
“Is there a lot of that going on?”
“I would assume there is quite a bit of it.”
I knew there was, but I also knew that writing can be a matter of degree and application. I see a difference between being and doing. Being says, “I am a writer,” but may not write much. Doing says, “I’m writing such and such a piece.” It’s an active condition.
“I’m working all the time,” Nathan added, “but I’ve always worked all the time. Even on Christmas I write.”
“What are you working on now?”
“Right now I’m working on a short story collection called Exile Kingdom, and all the stories are under 3,000 words, so the idea is that someone can read a story in one sitting. They’re also all supposed to be ones that you could read aloud in ten minutes or so. They’re more plot-driven than I’ve usually done before, but the plot still comes from relationships between the characters. I’ve also found these stories to be much more bare bones. They only include the essentials.”
“So would you call yourself a minimalist, at least in terms of this collection?”
“For word choice and sentence structure I am. I try to choose every single word in a story, just like you would in a poem. Every verb in every sentence I try to make as exact as possible.”
“Whose work do you admire among established authors?”
“I started writing because I was reading Henry Miller, the third book of the Rosy Crucifixion (Nexus). I also like Angela Carter.”
“What is it about Henry Miller? He was considered scandalous in his time because of his sexual frankness.”
“He’s really honest. That’s what I always try to do with whatever I’m writing, to make it honest. People say that there is nonfiction, which is the ‘truth,’ and then fiction is supposed to not be the truth, and I’ve always thought it was the opposite. Good fiction has to be honest. Otherwise no one will believe it. Most of the fiction I write, even if it’s using characters that don’t exist, they’re still based on my ideas, my values. I’m trying to be truthful about what I’m saying to people.”
“In one of the workshops I gave at the Lake Chapala Writers Conference in February,” I said, “I suggested that nonfiction doesn’t exist and that the truth can only be found in fiction.”
“I get into those arguments all the time.”
“Does having an MFA in Creative Writing help more with teaching others or with your own work?”
“I think having an MFA speeds up the process. The only way you’re ever going to get good at writing is if you’re writing every day, for a couple hours a day. But you can speed up that process. Let’s say you write every day for five years, but if you do an MFA program, you’re going to be as good as that in about half that time. In an MFA program, you learn a lot from your peers. Often, you can’t see your own mistakes, but you can see the mistakes in your peers’ work, and eventually you realize that you’re making the same ones yourself. I was also writing a lot of surreal things before I did the MFA. Most of those programs follow the Iowa Writers’ Workshop concept, which requires you to write realism. So I was forced for years to write realism, which I hated, but once I got good at doing that and then went back to writing the kind of surreal things I’d been working on before, I had the tools to make a surrealistic story work.”
“So even in surrealism, the fundamental skills are still the best way of delivering your message.” I enjoyed hearing this, because I am basically a craftsperson at heart.
“Right. You still have to ground your reader, and you have to use your basic tools, and those are the ones you’re going to learn by doing realistic work.”
“What is your purpose or goal as a writer?”
“If you disseminate your ideas, then eventually you’ll reach a certain amount of people, and change their thinking, and they’ll talk to other people. Your small idea may eventually have an effect on everybody.”
“And who is your target reader?”
Nathan chuckled. “I think I have a niche market of about twenty-five people, all of them artists or writers. I always try to make my stories readable. You don’t have to have a literature degree to get through them. A lot of MFA people don’t get that. Your main objective is to communicate a message to another person, which is a lot harder than some people think.”
“And at the same time, simpler. Do you see yourself down the road as mainly staying with short fiction, or can you imagine yourself writing a novel?”
“I primarily do short fiction, but I also have a novel I’ve been working on for years and I keep going back to it.”
“What is the market like for short fiction now?”
“It’s always been horrible, but it may be getting better. I have at least ten books on my nightstand that were written in the last couple of years, all short story collections, and I think it’s because of the Internet. People don’t have time to read long things anymore. They want something they can read on the subway going to work, or listen to on tape. I feel like this is the best time in the last twenty years to be writing short stories.”
“Do you have enough time to work on your own projects?”
“I have in the last couple of months. I usually spend my mornings working on my own stuff. As we get closer to the next conference I’ll have less and less time.”
“Where do you see yourself in fifteen years?”
“Hopefully by then I’ll have a novel. I’ll be surprised if any of my short story collections ever gets picked up. With a novel you have much more of a chance.”
Going off in search of my car, I left with the sense that Nathan Feuerberg had plenty of time. When I was his age I was locked in the middle of thirty-seven years of writer’s block. I thought of it as silence. Without forgetting most of what I knew, I had still missed the creative middle entirely, although the home stretch seems to be going fairly well lately.
If you’d like to read more of Living in San Miguel: The Heart of the Matter, go to www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com