I had never been to a writer’s conference before, which may seem odd since that’s what I do for a living.
But these conferences are notoriously expensive, when you include airfare to and from Hawai‘i and the cost of accommodations, and being a writer, well, you’re usually broke.
So I’ve read about them, I’ve longed over websites, I’ve listened with uncloaked envy to people who have attended these mysterious wonders where speakers talk about story arcs and cliched ledes.
Then I finally decided to suck it up — read: fork over some hard-earned cash — and go to one myself.
And I’m not kidding when I say this: I literally signed up the week of the conference. And I had no place to stay, either.
The conference was for travel writers and photographers, put on for the past 22 years at Book Passage, a reputable independent bookstore in Corte Madera, Calif. that puts on highly regarded conferences and workshops throughout the year, including the one I had attended this weekend.
It’s expensive — a little more than $600 for the four-day conference — and airfare to San Francisco, especially at such short-notice, wasn’t cheap. So I had lofty hopes that I’d get my money’s worth.
And I have to say, the experience was well worth the investment. (I even missed a little south shore bump, too.)
I hadn’t been to one of these before — it seemed like most people were conference alums — so I just sat in whichever session sounded remotely interesting. I settled on, “Writing the Big Five,” with Jim Benning and David Farley, both accomplished travel writers and return speakers. The course focused on the five main types of travel writing: magazine stories, newspaper articles, personal essays, blog posts and books.
We started by introducing ourselves with our names, hometowns and favorite animals. More than 60 people filled the event room in the back of the bookstore, hailing from as far as Berlin to as nearby as the Santa Cruz Mountains. (For some reason, there was a strangely high number of people who were from Minnesota and didn’t know each other.) There were two others from Hawai‘i and a guy named Alan Toth. I felt right at home.
The first thing the pair of speakers did was dispel myths about travel writing.
“The first one. You make a lot of money.” That made attendees chuckle.
Though I’ve been freelancing for more than 10 years now, it was nice to have time to actually think about my approach to my craft and career. The discussions in this course challenged me to hone my writing, to be more specific in my descriptions, to not be lazy with my word choices, to re-read and edit more carefully my work, and to strategize on how to sell my stories to editors.
The next seminar — this time a discussion about finding your story on the road — really inspired me.
In this panel discussion, Spud Hilton, the travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle aptly said, “Sometimes you gotta jump in the van.”
Meaning, sometimes you have to do the stuff that you’re going to write about. And sometimes you’re not going to like it. Sometimes it might scare you. Sometimes it might be against your better judgement. But if you’re going to make this a bona fide career — and you want a paycheck — well, you gotta do what you gotta do. And jumping in that proverbial van might be it.
I didn’t realize, until I attended this conference, that there was such a huge world out there to be explored. And that I could, very feasibly, write about it.
It’s too bad it took me $1,800 and three days in another city to figure this out.
But maybe that’s what it was going to take.
I’m just glad I got in the van.