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]

Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]

Asleep On The Track: The Lives Of Travel Writers

Asleep on the track: the lives of travel writers

Falling asleep on the New York City subway at 3 a.m. is usually not a good thing. I’ve lived in a few places in the world that have subway systems – San Francisco, Prague, Paris, Rome – and I’ve had the good fortune to have never conked out on the subway, waking up miles past your stop in a semi-drunken daze and wondering what strange land beyond your usual station you’ve drifted off to. That is until recently. I was temporarily staying with a friend in Brooklyn and one night, after an evening of drinks and dinner (and, um, more drinks) with friends, I got on the D train to head back home.

It seemed like one minute I was trying not to stare at the drunken couple making out across from me and the next I was blurry-eyed and slumped over – the magazine I had been reading still affixed to my now sweaty palm. I was deep into a Brooklyn I’d never encountered before. I glanced at my phone: it was 3:13 a.m. I got off at the next stop and began wandering. The streets were quiet enough to hear a bagel drop. I was hoping to find a car service but I had no idea where I was. A minute later, though, I turned a corner and, as if a chorus of angels were belting out a heavenly note from above and a divine light beam were cast down from the clouds, there was right in front of me a brightly lit sign: CAR SERVICE.

The first thing I noticed in the Spartan lobby was a man. A large, girthful man sprawled out on a bench – actually spilling over it – like some sort of plump over-sized octopus. My first reaction for some reason was to take his picture. I did, and then I turned to the man behind the plexi-glass and told him I needed a car.

“Andrei!” he yelled past me. And then again: “Andrei! You got a job.”

I looked around and saw there was no one else in the room. Except for the guy sleeping in the bench – Andrei.

Suddenly this rotund giant of a man, looking unusually comfortable in dreamland, was roused from a deep sleep.

Andrei, who was born in Russia, was a friendly man. As we navigated the sedate streets, he peppered me with questions. Where was I from? Did I like New York? What was my favorite vodka?

Then he asked what I did for a living. “I’m a food and travel writer,” I said.

“Tra-vel wrrrri-ter?” he said, sounding out each syllable like he was verbally stepping on terra firma after being lost at sea for a few months.

Somehow he didn’t understand. He’d latched on to the words “travel” and “writer,” acting as if they were as incongruent and incomprehensible together as the words “Yakov” and “Smirnoff.”

I explained it in simple terms: I travel to places where I eat and talk to people and then I write about it.

“Ah,” he said. “You write about where to find restaurant.”

“Yes.”

“Where to find nightclub.”

I gave him an affirmative “uh-huh.”

“Where to find prostitute.”

Um … not exactly.

“But, you know,” he added, “there are five different types of prostitute.”

And then he launched into an explanation of each plateau of prostitution. I tuned out, thinking Andrei had a Parkinson’s grip on my profession. As a lot of people might. It’s very romanticized and understandably so. Travel is something we all aspire to – it’s our ultimate expression of freedom – a dream job, or in Andrei’s case, one in which you can direct people to the nearest prostitute.

But let’s not jump to conclusions. Every spring I teach a travel writing class at New York University. Within the first five minutes of the first class, I tell my students the bubble-bursting secret: that being a travel writer is almost as over-romanticized as bacon, Brooklyn and Italy. Not that I’m necessarily complaining. Sometimes on the road, we can experience glimpses of a decadent life of Hemingwayan proportions, but when we get back home, the cash-strapped reality sinks in as quickly as it takes to boil a packet of Top Ramen. Travel we most certainly do; money we most certainly do not make.

I’m often asked if my job ruins the act of travel for me. I think back to the epic flights sitting behind guys who unforgivingly recline their seats into my lap, watching mediocre romantic comedies (which are always much better from 35,000 feet in the air, for some reason) and eating microwave-baked gruel all to chase a story somewhere on the planet. I actually hate the act of travel. The word travel, after all, comes from “travail,” which comes from “tripalium,” a Roman instrument of torture.

My answer, though, is no, it actually makes travel richer. I’m forced to go one step beyond the realm of the average tourist so I can attempt to get underneath the place. I end up in restaurant kitchens talking to Michelin-starred chefs, in the passenger seat of other people’s cars going God knows where, and sometimes trying not to fall asleep on the subway after a long night of drinking (and, by that I mean “working,” of course). When I finally do get home, it makes the quotidian pleasures of the familiar that much sweeter. Even falling asleep on the subway and getting a lesson from a Russian taxi driver on how to choose the best prostitute is an exciting endeavor when put in the context of a 15-hour flight.

When we pulled up to my place, I paid Andrei and then suggested that, given his seemingly vast knowledge about the ladies of the night, perhaps he should consider a career change and become a travel writer.

The rub, of course, is that he’d never be able to afford such ladies if he was a travel writer.

Upcoming travel blogger conferences for 2012

travel bloggers conferenceIf the word “conference” immediately conjures images of tipsy, poly-suit clad conventioneers, comic book geeks, or coma-inducing workshops, you obviously haven’t attended a travel blogger gathering.

‘Tis the season for some of the year’s biggest travel industry blowouts. Each has a different focus–some are for accredited travel writers, others hone in on the burgeoning travel blogging industry or events tailored for the public. What they all share is an emphasis on networking with industry professionals, travel trends, and continuing education in the form of field trips, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, and yes, a fair bit of partying.

Below, our picks for the best in travel industry camaraderie and information exchange:

Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX)

The year’s most anticipated travel scribe gathering will be held June 15-17 in Keystone, Colorado. Expect a mix of over 350 fledgling and veteran writers, PR and travel industry experts, guest speakers, and workshops. In your downtime, take advantage of Keystone resort and environs by hiking, mountain biking, paddling, fly-fishing, or riding. Psst. Europe TBEX will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, October 11-13.

New York Times Travel Show (NYT)
Held March 2-4 at Manhattan’s Jacob C. Javits Convention Center, this is a great event if you’re an accredited writer with a specific niche (Industry Professional Sessions include topics like “Focus on Africa,” and “Focus on Travel Media”); there’s also a “trade-only” day. The public and and newbie writers can explore the Exhibition Hall, check out a variety of cultural events to be held on five stages, and let the kids run amok in the Family Fun Pavilion. Bonus: Accredited travel professionals can attend the Friday Exhibition Hall and travel industry welcome reception, and Saturday and Sunday seminars and Exhibition Hall free of charge.

Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU)
Feel like a tax write-off trip to Umbria, Italy (did I just say that)? From April 20-22, this UK-organized conference unites travel writers and bloggers with travel PR experts, tourism boards, and travel companies. Seminars include photo walks and workshops, and using social media. Best of all, delegates will be able take free post-conference tours of Umbria.

Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference

Lonely Planet guru/Gadling editor Don George co-founded this renown industry event with Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli in 1991. Held annually at Petrocelli’s Marin County bookstore (located 15 minutes north of San Franciso; the other Book Passage is a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building). The event has attracted in the past luminaries such as Tim Cahill, Larry Habegger, and Gadling’s David Farley. This year, esteemed writer Susan Orlean will be in attendance, and the schedule includes four days of seminars, workshops, panel discussions, and optional evening field trips. If you’re serious about travel writing–and few places provide as much topical diversity as the Bay Area–sign up, stat.

Be sure to check out Don’s article on “Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences” before you sign up or get on a plane (they say advice doesn’t come cheap, but this is free, baby).

[Photo credit: Flickr user Dia™]

Presenting Xtranormal’s “I want to be a travel writer


Books by Gadling bloggers

books,Gadling bloggers are a busy bunch. When we’re not posting the latest travel news or accounts of our adventures, we’re writing for newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Many of us have written books too.

David Farley takes the prize for weirdest subject matter with An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town. So what’s Catholicism’s strangest relic? Nothing less than the foreskin of Jesus!

Some of us have jobs other than writing and this is reflected in our work. Talented photographer Karen Walrond has published the only photo book so far by a Gadlinger, The Beauty of Different: Observations of a Confident Misfit. Flight attendant Heather Poole is coming out with Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet in March 2012. Foodie Laurel Miller is coauthoring Cheese for Dummies, coming in 2012.

Sean McLachlan will become Gadling’s first novelist when his historical novel set in Civil War Missouri, A Fine Likeness, comes out in October. When he isn’t traveling he’s writing history. His military history books for Osprey Publishing include American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics, Ride Around Missouri: Shelby’s Great Raid 1863, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: the Italian Disaster in Ethiopia, and Medieval Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons. He’s done three books on Missouri: Outlaw Tales of Missouri, Missouri: An Illustrated History, and It Happened in Missouri. He dipped into medieval history with Byzantium: An Illustrated History.

Given that we’re all travel writers, it’s no big shocker that we have a slew of travel guides between us. Andrew Evans wrote the Brandt guides to Iceland and Ukraine. Pam Mandel wrote the Thomas Cook guide HotSpots Hawaii. Matthew Firestone is a Lonely Planet regular. His titles include Costa Rica, and Botswana & Namibia. He’s contributed to several other titles. McLean Robbins contributed to the Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide (Mid Atlantic). Melanie Renzulli shares her love of Italy with The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy: Florence, Rome, Tuscany & Umbria and Frommer’s The Irreverent Guide to Rome. Libby Zay has coauthored three VIVA Travel Guides: Quito, Ecuador; Macchu Picchu & Cusco; and Guatemala.

Don George takes the cake for travel writing. Not only has he given us all some good tips in Lonely planet’s book on Travel Writing, but he’s edited a long list of travel anthologies such as Lonely Planet’s Lights, Camera, Travel!, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, By the Seat of My Pants, Tales from Nowhere, and A House Somewhere. Besides his LP titles, he’s edited Salon.com’s Wanderlust and Travelers’ Tales Japan.

So if you in the mood to read something offscreen, pick up a title from one of these talented authors!

[Image courtesy Yorck Project]