Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about the Cuenca expat writing scene. The author, John Keeble, is an international photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He ‘retired’ after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 11 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues. He has had wide coverage for his articles and photographs since moving to Cuenca in February 2016 and he is presenting a session on Writing Articles at the Cuenca International Writers Conference in March.
Text and photos by John Keeble
Cuenca has become a city of expat writing creativity – and it looks like the phenomenon is growing. What started as a few writers coming together for mutual support has grown into an identifiable community with support and help groups and, the jewel in the crown, an international writers conference.
The burgeoning of writing creativity is set in a city rich in artistic heritage and practices, and among strong activity in other artistic fields like painting, music, and theatre.
Estimates in the writing community suggest there may be as many as 100 experienced expat writers working in Cuenca and another 100 beginners looking for new ways of life and help in creating their stories and poetry.
“Cuenca is drawing talented, educated and experienced poets and writers who find inspiration here,” said poet Barbara Snow. “Most of us have not come focused on artistic expression. We’ve come because our money goes farther, we don’t have to shovel snow, and we’ve fallen in love with blue domes and red-tiled roofs.”
These writers add to the Ecuadorian writers and poets working in the city. The expat community, through the writers conference organisers and the support group Write our World (WOW), is beginning to link with Ecuadorian writers to share work and skills. This is already happening in some artistic areas: the Art Walk, for example, saw a number of sites where Ecuadorian and expat works of art were being exhibited side by side.
“I think there are more than 100 new [expat] writers working in Cuenca and probably about the same number of experienced writers,” said Mike Herron, coordinator of the writers conference steering group. “They find the time here because they are retired, and they find the environment supports exploring their creative side. It’s not only writing that is so creative here – it is theatre, painting and photography too. Cuenca supports creativity. The people of Cuenca are creative.”
Many new expats arrive in Cuenca with a dream of writing. They have promised themselves that, when they retire, they will unlock writing aspirations blocked for decades in the daily struggle to earn a living. For some, the chance to write changes their lives and brings them fulfillment, but others crash and burn their hopes when they realise that writing is only the first step in success as an author.
“Some people go into shock when they start writing for the first time,” said Franny Hogg, founder of CWC. “They have a dream and they think they can write a book and that a publisher will grab it. They don’t understand how the market has changed. The old way does not exist any more. They have to come to grips with that change where it is easier to publish a book but harder to market it.
“Big dreams are still here but, to start, new writers have to know how the dream has changed for every writer. It is now very important to open up to others, join a critique group, look at the opportunities and not dismiss the changes.”
Writers who press on do find the success they need, she says, whether it is writing for themselves and their families, writing as a life change or, in a few cases, reaching around the world.
Jeremiah Reardon, for example, found release from his 24/7 job and writes plays and articles; Dale Bradley Morris brought about her metamorphosis to author Scarlett Braden with a series of books; and Keith and Tina Paul have recently chalked up their one-millionth visit to their Retire Early and Travel blog.
Unlike many places where expats congregate around the world, Cuenca’s writing community offers stimulation and encouragement to everyone who wants to join in. Published writers are very willing to help new writers with advice and assessment. There are support and help groups. Two of the best-known are WOW which organises through its Facebook page, and Cuenca Writers Collective, which holds a successful – sometimes a crowded ‘too successful’ – critique group meeting once a week. The CWC monthly event, The Spoken Word, draws an audience of about 50 to listen to writers read their work.
But the Cuenca International Writers Conference – this year at the Zahir 360 Hotel from March 14-17 – is a mega-step further on. It is organised by writers for writers and it offers its 50 participants detailed, in-depth instruction on writing, editing, book production, self-publishing and marketing. This is its second year and already 80% of the places have been taken.
“There are such artistic vibes in Cuenca in writing, music and all the arts,” said Lynne Klippel, a bestselling author, ghostwriter and publisher. “It’s very exciting. Everyone is pursuing their own projects and they are encouraging others too.”
Cuenca also offers many opportunities for getting work published — everything for co-operative collections of stories to news and feature articles in CuencaHighLife, Cuenca Expats Magazine and a new publication, Cuenca Dispatch. Both David Morrill, editor and partner at CuencaHighLife, and Ed Lindquist, managing partner of Cuenca Expats magazine, are always looking for good writers to publish. This year’s writers conference will be putting forward 11 representatives of local publications open to writers and offering a teaching session on writing articles.
Lindquist said: “We need writers, especially those who enjoy interviewing and writing about local businesses. In turn, the magazine lists a picture and short bio featuring each month’s contributors.”
Morrill, a former editor at Houghton Mifflin, says there are plenty of options for expat writers to sharpen their craft in Cuenca. “Most good fiction writers started with non-fiction, usually journalism,” he says.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cuenca’s exciting rise in writing and other forms of self-expression and creativity is the very nature of the expat, her- or himself. By nature, expats are the ones who choose a new life rather than get forced into it. They are risk-takers. They are ready for change.
“Most expats are adventurous,” said Susan Herron, book cover designer and photographer. “They are willing to explore more of themselves. They are not stuck in a rut. This is probably why they are open to trying new interests like writing.”
Tomorrow: The jewel in the crown, the 2nd Cuenca International Writers Conference, plus resources for writers