Book Passage 2012: How I Lost My Voice And Found My Vision

It’s 4 p.m. on a Sunday in mid-August. I’m standing in a Northern California bookstore surrounded by about 100 people ranging in age from 20 to 70, drinking champagne, downing brownies, and hugging and crying and laughing all at the same time. It’s the fourth and final day of the annual Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference, and while the conference has officially ended, no one wants to leave. The room crackles with emotional electricity, expands with newfound dreams.

As the chairman and co-founder of this conference-cum-summer camp, I look on this scene with a mixture of wonder, exhilaration, exhaustion and gratitude. Somehow, four days at a benevolent bookstore in a San Francisco suburb have infused me, have infused us, with the belief that everything we do, as travelers and travel creators, matters, that we go into the world with a joyful duty to live as fully and deeply as we can and the accompanying joyful potential to truly transform the planet.

Here’s how I lost my voice and found my vision at Book Passage this year.

It all began for me on Wednesday, Aug. 14, when I gathered at the Marin County bookstore with 11 intrepid adventurers for an all-day pre-conference workshop: a day in the life of a travel writer exploring San Francisco‘s North Beach neighborhood. We took the ferry from Larkspur to the Ferry Building – a glorious way to begin any day – and then wandered through San Francisco’s old Italian neighborhood, now Italy-meets-China-meets-Vietnam, past cathedrals and cafes, parks and pastry shops.

As we walked, I talked about what a travel story tries to do and how as a travel writer I try to get a place, paying attention to defining details – see that shop sign written in Italian, Chinese and Vietnamese; inhale the Old World essence of Molinari’s deli – and asking myself what are the glimpses, sensual details and encounters that matter the most to me, that begin to compose my portrait of North Beach. Then we separated so that everyone could try to find their own scenes, the first pieces in their portraits.By this time, having talked over the engines of the ferry and the noise of the streets for an hour and a half, I had already begun to lose my voice – but it didn’t matter. A special magic was seeding; tendril connections were intertwining.

We reconvened for lunch and talked about the challenges and triumphs of trying to apprehend a place this way, then after lunch everyone went their own ways again to write a short description of their chosen scene, while I sipped a latte at a sidewalk table and savored the theater of the street.

We met again, walked to the ferry, and then back at the bookstore each participant read what he/she had written. By this time my voice had turned into a sandpapery whisper, husky, dusky, but I’d gained something even more precious: the power of a collective passion. Each of us had seen, experienced, a different North Beach, but all with a common enthusiasm. And hearing that enthusiasm infuse and impel their writings, whatever direction and focus each took, was profoundly inspiring. My fellow travelers’ raw passion for the world and for the challenge of conveying that passion in words was an enormous gift. I came away viewing North Beach – and travel writing – with a renewed appreciation.

The conference kicked off officially the following day with an introduction of the faculty, twenty-some travel writers, editors, photographers and agents sitting in a semi-circle in front of about 85 students. As these self-introductions were concluding, for a moment I was simply smacked with astonishment realizing the extraordinary talent that was assembled in that room. Even more astonishing, and humbling, was the realization that they were there because they really wanted to be there, because they care so deeply about what they do and because they knew what was coming – three intensely compressed days of questioning and striving and sharing.

Over these days I was inspired time and again seeing, and hearing, how unassumedly, generously and open-heartedly these masters of their craft were sharing their expertise and wisdom, the secrets of their successes and their failures, challenges and triumphs – and equally, how the students, who spanned the spectrum from absolute beginner to well-published pro, were opening their hearts, minds and souls so wholly and hungrily, sharing their own stories and yearnings, tips and dreams. And I watched in awe as the amazing staff at Book Passage coddled this impromptu community with respect, grace and good humor. The feeling flowed through me and through the conference that this is the way to be in the world, open, vulnerable, trusting and sharing, exultant. It reaffirmed a deeply held belief of mine, that I had expressed in my opening remarks when I was advising participants how to get the most out of the conference: “The more you put into the conference, the more you get out of it – it’s a lot like travel, and life.”

* * * * *

This year multi-talented writer-actor-director Andrew McCarthy insisted on turning the tables and interviewing me Friday night. He was a great and gracious interviewer, and I found myself telling tales I hadn’t mentioned in 20 previous years at the conference.

The story of my own life is a “ridiculous” (to use Andrew’s word) succession of serendipities that led from Princeton to a summer job in Paris, to teaching on a fellowship in Athens, to graduate school in creative writing at Hollins College in Virginia, to teaching and talk show hosting in Tokyo, and then to working as a travel writer at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, my first real job and the (official) beginning of my career as a travel writer/editor. I’d never connected the dots of that implausible career path in public and doing so revealed some important truths for me: I had always followed my heart, but I had also always involved my head, continually scouting for possibilities, keeping alive to the potentials life presents us, and then when the right potential appeared, taking an unreasonable leap because I felt in my core that it was the right thing to do, that it could lead where I wanted to go.

So one message I took away from my own tale was that you have to be alive to serendipity and willing to take risks, that Serendipity + Risk = Reward. We are always encountering doors in life and we always have the choice to open them or walk by. I’ve often chosen to open them, and I’ve usually been blessed that opening the door has led to something good. But partly this is because I carry a sense of my passion with me and I’m not afraid to pursue it, to focus on what I really want to do and be. The downside of this, of course, is that you open yourself up to the possibility of failure. But isn’t a life lived without taking any risks – without saying “Yes!” to a passion – a kind of failure too? The concomitant challenge is that once the door has opened and you suddenly have the opportunity you sought, you have to put 120% of yourself into it and do it better than you ever imagined you could.

* * * * *

One of the many highlights of the conference for me was Saturday night, when I was privileged to interview the great Susan Orlean. I was already grateful to Susan because despite having had extensive and painful spine surgery six weeks earlier, she had steadfastly kept her commitment to come to Book Passage. I was 100 times more grateful as she brilliantly talked about the winding path of her own career, some of the most challenging subjects she’d covered, and how she attempts to get the essence of a place, in life and on the page. For my last question, I asked her essentially what life is all about, and she graciously and eloquently responded that for her, the ultimate quest of her work and of the lives she encounters is to answer two questions: “What is the meaning of being alive and how do we make sense of it?”

That perfectly summed up the quest of my work and life too, a fact that a succession of unexpected convergences at the conference had been making me re-realize. I was remembering, re-living – discovering still very much alive inside me – the teenager who scribbled late into the night in his journals, always asking, “Where does it come together? What does it mean?” Enrapt in the wonder of this re-connection, I realized that over the years it had woven into one threading goal for me: travel stories that not only convey a place and an experience in that place, but that also put the experience in some larger context, tie the particular to the greater whole, illuminating something profound and abiding about life. Where does it come together? What does it mean? That, for me, is the essence of truly great travel writing.

But while I was re-understanding this core quest, the conference was also illuminating so many other things: the richness of soul-friends, some known for 30 years and others met three days before; the astonishing exhilaration of exchanging shared passions with another person; the life-changing confluences, convergences, synchronicities and serendipities with which the universe graces us, when we’re ready; the sheer wonder that surrounds us, every day; and the midnight magic of five ukuleles rendering “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as sweetly and naturally as a frangipani-scented breeze.

I met people at the conference for the first time whom I absolutely knew I had somehow known before – people who seemed to understand me so deeply, and to share so many fundamental philosophies, goals and values, that it was almost as if we were halves of the same soul.

Over five days I found a tribe of such travelers, who share my passion and wonder for the image and the encounter, the word and the world, and who made me realize that our tribe bears a precious duty: to honor our craft and the planet that is the subject of that craft, to fully explore the journey outside and within, to walk the everyday pilgrim’s path with open mind and heart, and to celebrate it all.

On the last day, when I was addressing the conference one final time, I lost my voice again, but this time it was because I was too choked up to speak. What I wanted to say was that through the passionately open-hearted, open-minded, inspired people in that room – their eyes shining, their bodies electric with the wonder of the past days – I had re-discovered a fundamental lesson that had gotten buried in the layers of my life: All you need is love. The love you pour into the world – as a teacher and a student, as a traveler and a writer and a photographer, as an interviewer and an interviewee – transforms you and the world at the same time. It deepens you, enriches you, and it deepens and enriches the people and places you meet. It’s a sacred, unending, synergy of connection and transformation. By doing what we love, with love, we make ourselves and the world better.

On that final day, our tears flowed into the stream of the Book Passage epiphany. And that stream is flowing still, wherever we may be.

[photos via Candace Rose Rardon]