We’ve posted about Greece a fair amount lately. From rare animals to nude beaches, the topics have run the gamut. And today, we feature a more simple focus. Reddit user Andromeda321 is visiting Santorini, Greece for a work-related conference all week. They report daytime highs of 80° and cheap rent for week-long stays. And with a view like this, what’s not to love?
Two weeks ago, one of the most intense and invigorating periods of my year occurred: the annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. For four days, some 90 students and 25 faculty members met in an intimate bookstore in Northern California for workshops, panels, and evening events that celebrated travel writing, travel photography, and much more.
Over the four days of the conference, as every year, unanticipated insights took seed and risks took flight, and some profoundly important lessons and dreams were conceived. Usually I write a piece summarizing the conference for Gadling, but this year an excellent summary has already been posted. And somehow, what I want to say about the conference, or about the thoughts that emerged from the conference, all seemed to come together in my concluding speech.
In those final remarks I said some things I’d planned to say and some things I absolutely hadn’t planned to say, things that just spontaneously erupted in me as I talked. That eruption, I think, is part of the magic of an event like this, where unexpected connections and mysterious interweavings occur, where you learn things you didn’t even know you were learning and grow in ways you didn’t even know you’d grown.
Here are some excerpts from my remarks. I hope they touch you with something of the spirit those four days cultivated in me, and I hope they enrich your journey, in the outer world and the inner world, too.
One of the things I like to preach when I’m in my preacher mode is that whatever you put out into the world comes back to you a hundredfold, and I feel like this conference embodies that. The generosity that the faculty put out comes back to them. The risk-taking that you put out comes back to you in the best possible way. So much of it is about you going out into the world with the right spirit. The world rewards you when you do that, and I hope that’s one of the takeaways you’ll bring back into the larger world from this conference: What you put out into the world comes back to you….
For me this year is especially important. A month ago, a great party was held in this very room. The occasion was the fact that I had one of those unfortunate birthdays where you age by 10 years overnight. I went to bed in one decade of my life and woke up in another. That birthday was my 60th birthday. For about two years prior to this, 60 was the Voldemort of birthdays for me. I could not pronounce its name out loud. I was so absorbed in the idea that turning 60 meant that I was really, really, really old. And I didn’t want to deal with that. I just wanted to ignore it, or deny it.
And then I had an epiphany, that this is what happens in life: You have a fear and the more you deny it, the more you empower that fear. And then the more you decide to embrace that fear, you immediately empower yourself. I realize that turning 60, or saying that I’m turning 60, is not a death-defying act. But for me it was a very big leap of something. I decided to just say, “OK, world, I’m turning 60.” And it felt great.
What this taught me about fear was that we have the ability to either create a fear and let it grow and prosper, or deflate a fear and take it away. And on the road, as in life right here at home – I believe that we’re always on the road, wherever we are – the way you get rid of a fear is you embrace it. So I embraced that. And I hope that’s a takeaway for you from this conference: that whatever your fear is, embrace it. Embrace it.
It’s about risk-taking. It’s about journeying into your discomfort zone and how that can magically open things up for you. I think that’s an important lesson….
What it comes down to for me is that while I believe that our souls go through various mutations and continue when our physical bodies don’t, I also believe that our souls inhabit our physical bodies one at a time, and we’re here right now, each of us in our physical presence and with our souls, and for all practical purposes, this is it: This is our one chance to live life as fully and gracefully and graciously and lovingly as possible. This is it.
Every single moment, this is it. This is your moment. This is your moment. This is your moment.
The more you infuse those moments with integrity and honesty and passion and attentiveness and the desire for quality and the desire for connection – and to me, the word that really summarizes all of these is love – the more that you infuse every single moment of your path, of your journey, of your life, with love, the bigger and better and richer you become. And everybody around you becomes bigger and better and richer by that too.
And that’s travel, that’s travel writing, that’s travel photography, that’s dish-washing, that’s laundry – it’s really everything, it’s a part of every single thing that you do.
What I hope you’ll take away from this on your journey is that it’s your responsibility to be a steward of the planet, to be a steward of your own stories, to give them the care and the nurturing that they need and to let them out into the world when they’re ready to be let out into the world, and to be a steward of your relationships and connections with other people.
I hope that you will spread the love that you felt here. If you take the seeds of love away with you and scatter them around the planet, we’ll all be so much the richer for that, and this world will be such a better place for that. That’s your sacred responsibility now, your sacred trust.
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]
Assisi, a small town in Umbria, Italy, stands about a mile south of the city center on a quiet country road. I walked here this morning on the gravel shoulder, declining to take the shuttle service in lieu of some exposure to nature. Now I sit on the back patio of this small resort that plays host to the Travel Bloggers Unite conference, quietly jetlagged with a group of weary bloggers.
I’ve come to TBU for a couple of reasons this year, primarily to compare the conference to the American competitor that everyone knows as TBEX and, additionally, to tap into the current psyche of today’s travel blogger. Up next: a talk on how brands can work better with independent bloggers in the main lecture hall of the resort. Later this afternoon: the value of storytelling. There are pre- and post-conference tours scheduled for the attendees as well, but my time only permits a visit to the educational tracks.
It is a small conference this year, with maybe 200 attendees (exact numbers were not available at publication) eagerly scurrying between workshops and networking events. For the size, the resort is a great fit – small enough to house the bloggers and most of the workshops and yet large enough to find a quiet corner. And it’s remote. The bus ride from Fiumicino airport outside of Rome took just under three hours while the journey back will take even longer.
Most of the workshops and talks take place over the course of two days, with networking events and other activities sprinkled in between. Prior to my arrival, for example, there was a workshop on photography with mobile phones, while afterwards, bloggers broke out in groups to explore the rich surrounding area.
Since I arrived too late for the prologue, my first contact with the conference comes at the dinner planned for the group on opening night. It’s a dinner that’s hosted by the resort and the tourism board of Umbria, and like many of the activities this weekend there’s a strong component of local culture that is carefully being presented to the group. As TBU and other conferences grow, I expect more influencers to take larger roles in hosting bloggers, and though there’s an earnest engagement from the attendees, I wonder how many people will write about Assisi only because of this planted seed. Admittedly, however, one cannot expect a conference to run without sponsors, and the interaction between the organizers and the financiers seems to be well respected.
Bloggers, for their part, seem eager to engage with the sponsors, and it’s apparent from the workshops that much of the conference focuses on how to build a marketable site. And that seems to be the difference between TBU and TBEX. Here, their focus lies in enriching one’s personal brand and leveraging the product to work with sponsors. There was plenty of that at TBEX last year as well, but there was also a heavier focus on narrative writing and development. Conversely, TBU only had one workshop on the art of travel writing.
In a way, however, it seemed that most travel bloggers at TBU were comfortable with that ratio. TBEX focused more on the writing side of the equation in 2011, “and that’s where they failed,” one blogger told me. Indeed, as TBEX 2012 starts to take shape, I’m told from several people that the focus will dramatically shift away from writing and over to the business of travel. Those looking to build their writing skills, I was told, should look elsewhere.
For many, however, the value doesn’t really come from the proper workshops or the talks but rather from the networking. In the volumes of criticism produced from last year’s TBEX, one prevailing theme was that it was good to see the broad spectrum of travel personalities in real life and sit down for a few drinks and brainstorming. It’s the reason that I go to TBEX and TBU and the reason that I’ll continue to attend.
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)