The Book Passage Travel and Food Writers Conference had its 20th anniversary in August of this year. It was small, there were approximately 75 students. The conference is made of the usual stuff — formal talks by travel writers and classes taught by food bloggers and panel discussions about social media and breakfasts made blurry by staying up too late the night before. Book Passage is expensive, inconveniently located, and doesn’t include the cost of staying overnight at the limited hotel options nearby. And Book Passage can, I believe, make a very big difference in your trajectory as a travel writer, making it worth every dime. It was probably the most exciting, meaningful conference I’ve had the good fortune to attend.
A disclaimer and some context, first. This year was my first year at Book Passage. A travel writer friend, Jen Leo, had been badgering me for years to attend. (Jen is one of the regular voices on This Week in Travel, she launched the LA Times travel blog, and she edited Sand in my Bra, a travel compilation.) “YOU need to go,” Jen told me, “Promise me you will save all your ad money from this year to attend.” Then, shortly after TBEX (the Travelblog Exchange, a bloggers conference) in Vancouver, Don George offered me a faculty spot teaching a course on travel blogging. (Don contributes here at Gadling, but he’s also the author of Lonely Planet Travel Writing (How To), a contributor to National Geographic Traveler, and one of the founders of Book Passage.)I accepted and attended my first Book Passage as faculty. This means I didn’t pay the conference fee and that some of my expenses were covered. That said, let me assure you, I wasn’t there for the money. I was there to teach, to participate in panel conversations about social media, and to find out what all the fuss was about. By the end of the weekend I was equal parts delighted and really angry with myself for putting it off for so long. I was wildly honored to be there as a teacher, but I wanted to be a student every minute I wasn’t teaching. Jen was right, I needed to be at Book Passage. And if you are serious about your work as a travel writer, but having a hard time finding your way, or just looking for the next sign post, you do too. Why? Here is what you can find there.
A Sense of Possibility. Travel writing can, at so many junctions, seem like an impossible career path. For those of us who are truly in love with words and writing, it can be deeply frustrating and demoralizing. But the environment at Book Passage is all about encouragement and possibility. There are places where your stories can see the light of day and at this conference, you will meet people who genuinely want to help you make that happen.
An Emphasis on Creating Good Work. On the first night of Book Passage, I listened to Tim Cahill (the founder of Outside magazine, author of Road Fever, and so much more) talk about new media. He struck me as something of a curmudgeon, a guy with tendencies to dismiss the digital world as not worthy of attention simply because it was digital. But I changed my mind about that when he said something along the lines of “all the Twitter and Facebook and blogging tools in the world are not going to help you if you can’t tell a story.” This emphasis on creating good work was repeated throughout the weekend. There are no easy shortcuts, you must sit and write and do so until it is good. It is hard and it is worth it.
Valuable Critiques from Respected Pros. For a little extra money, you can book an hour with a writer or editor who can help you whip your story into shape. They’ll give you actionable notes that can get you unstuck or out of your own head. This isn’t coddling positive feedback, it’s a private session that will make your work better. If you’re further along, you can do three days of this in a small group with Tim Cahill. His students seemed positively shinier by the end of the weekend.
Access to Experts. Book Passage is small with a low student/faculty ration. The travel-blogging class I co-taught with Jim Benning (the editor and co-founder of World Hum) had 12 students — that’s a lot of one on one time with plenty of opportunity for Q&A. Plus, faculty were always accessible between sessions — in the book store, over breakfast, during afternoon breaks on the patio. They don’t disappear when the sessions are over. They’re next to you in line for lattes and they are genuinely interested in what you’re doing.
Really Great Company. Book Passage is the travel writer’s tribal gathering. It doesn’t matter where you’re going next: Phnom Pehn or Honolulu or Dar es Salaam. Somebody has been there and can’t wait for you to go, but mostly, they can’t wait to read what you have to say about it. Really. These are people who are just as compelled to write as they are to travel and they understand. Not only do they want you to have an amazing adventure, they want you to write well when it’s over. And you kind of love all of them for that.
Fairy Dust. I’m a firm believer in conference fairy dust. At big conferences, you find it in the hallways between sessions or in the hotel when it turns out your New York friend has the room across the hall and you have a bottle of Scotch. At big events if you want fairy dust, you have to look and get offsite and make plans. But at Book Passage, the fairy dust seemed concentrated, like something great could happen at any moment. Like an editor could say, “That’s a great idea, write me that! I want to publish it.” Or an idea could go from abstract to concrete in front of your eyes. Or you could go home inspired, knowing that yes, it’s a fool’s path, of course it is, but you would not have it any other way. I saw all these things happen.
I sincerely hope I’ll be invited to return to Book Passage next year as faculty. But even if I’m not, I’m going to do what Jen Leo told me to do all those years ago. I’m going to save my money and go as a student. You should too. See you there.
Image: The Travels of Babar Record Cover by Dominus Vobiscum via Flickr (Creative Commons)