Yeah, so, I went to the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. Or, in my case, I leaped out of the “yeah, this travel memoir isn’t for us” frying pan into the “you are not a travel writer” fire.
How to describe the conference…hmmm…well, have you ever read an adventure/travel non-fiction book? The author was likely at this conference. Ever read an article in a travel magazine (Afar; Travel & Leisure; Conde’ Nast Traveler, etc.)? The author was at this conference. Ever read the travel section of a major newspaper? Yeah, you got it, the author was at this conference. So was the editor. And the publisher. And the next person who will write the next major article or book. And then there was me. I wrote two dog books. And one was about my dogs and my boobs. And they weren’t exactly “traveling” (though, sure, those damn cancer cells were, but that’s not at all what they mean by “travel.”) Intimidation set in. Strengthening my resolve set in (yes, but one was a #1 New York Times Freakin’ bestseller!!). Insomnia set it.
First morning I was up and out the door by 8a.m. ( which was easier than you think since I was wide awake at 5a.m.; so you know this can’t go well) to meet a group that was taking the ferry to San Francisco to spend the day in North Beach with uber-famous (and uber-kind) travel writer Don George who would share his knowledge, turn us loose to explore, bring us back to write a piece and then, once back at Book Passage book store, we’d gather together and read our writing to each other. Okay, I wasn’t bad. I hung in there. Never mind that where he dropped us off there was a park and there were dogs…lots and lots of dogs…and so I spent most of the exploration time at the park playing with these dogs (hey Zorro, Lola, Mimi, Cujo, and Chunk!!). I was of course very tempted to just write about this park and the people and their dogs, but that seemed to be not enough of a stretch, so I went with something more “artsy.” Yeah, whatever. Allow me to tell YOU about these dogs.
Most of the dogs were there with a dog walker. Has to be a cool job right? In San Francisco? Nice dog-walker lady told me that if I really wanted to see some awesome professional dog-walking happenings I needed to go down to Crissy Field beach. There, she said, were dog walkers on that beach walking ten dogs at a time. Ten Dogs!!! Ten!! You know I wanted to run down to that beach and roll around in the sand with all of them, right? And possibly never return to a conference I had no business being at in the first place? But that was not on the agenda. Nor is that in my personality. No. I persevered. I petted Zorro, rubbed Chunk’s belly, and chatted more with the dog walker and Cujo’s mom (don’t worry, Cujo was a Yorkshire Terrier and Cujo’s mom was a sixty year-old hippy). Eventually the conversation moved on to how long they’d each lived in San Francisco. The dog walker had been there over 30 years, hippy dog mom 25. She mentioned she’d had a discussion with a “native” San Franciscan who said if you weren’t born there you weren’t “native” and never would be (okay, I can maybe agree with that) and probably not really a “local” (what???). “Look,” I said, “I feel like if you can afford to live in San Francisco for 25 years, you get to call yourself a local.” The dogs rolled in the grass, butted their heads into my legs, and generally behaved like dogs, while the women contemplated what I’d said. Cujo’s mom said, “It wasn’t always like this.” And the dog walker said, “No, it’s ridiculous now. I can’t stand it anymore. I’m moving to Italy next year.” Italy!! The dog walker is moving to Italy next year!! Because it’s cheaper than San Francisco! I’d never wanted to be a dog walker more. (But hold that thought on Italy–we’ll be circling back to that). We said our goodbyes, and while the women were lovely, I confess to spending far more time in my farewell to the dogs. I had to go be a travel writer. [side note: HA!!] Mostly that meant I had a lovely espresso at Pinocchio’s while I wrote about dogs in my journal, then quickly came up with something else to read to the group. This is what I wrote:
She lives in the middle of art. Her laundry is out–two shirts, one fuchsia, the other turquoise–flutter above a pair of faded red shorts hung in the window. The window is in the midst of a baby blue painted sky. There is a larger than life drummer and a clarinetist on either side of the shorts. Below them, a pianist, all playing their song. The notes that spill out onto the street aren’t music though, they’re books. Plastic books suspended from the sky on wires, flying out over the street corner beckoning one and all on a journey. At night, I imagine, the laundry will come in and the books will light up. The musical mural won’t have changed but their song surely will. This is San Francisco’s North Beach, where life is art and art is life.[I warned you about the artsy–what I’m describing is an art installation on a street corner, and yes, someone lived in the building and hung their laundry out in the middle of it all; I’m nothing if not a realist.] Okay, so not a bad first day right? I liked the folks on my day-trip, had lovely conversations with many of them, and was only vaguely aware of how much more well-traveled these folks were than was I. Then the full conference started.
FLAMES!!! FLAMES!!! GOING DOWN IN FLAMES!!!!
Things that were said to me that were not helpful, or perhaps more to the point, not what I hoped to hear:
“Feels a little self-indulgent, doesn’t it?” (in reference to the sample chapters I’d turned in). Well, yes, it’s a memoir, asshole. (He was not, in fact, an asshole…but I wanted him to be so my anger could be justified, or, at least, so my humiliation would ebb)
“I love a lot of travel memoirs, they just don’t sell.” (this from an editor/publisher of travel books).
“But really, how often do you actually travel?” (said with the same facial expression and tone of voice parents use when they’re explaining to their large oafish child that not everyone is good at sports and “that’s okay”)
“Maybe just write about what’s important to you?” (Fine, that’s good advice. But…I thought this book was/IS important to me and I firmly believe he meant was “keep writing about puppies and stay in your own lane, ‘kay?”).
“Yes, definitely, a travel memoir needs a big, emotional, over-reaching arc.” (Whack! Went the final nail in the coffin of my travel memoir dreams. I’m just too shallow, too un-malleable, too opposed to epiphanies, and well, too flat-lined in my approach to life to write a travel memoir.)
And the one that kept happening, whether I was talking to instructors or fellow attendees,
—“So how many countries have you been to?”
This is a thing, people. Humans are ingenious at figuring out ways to distinguish themselves from one another—to prove they are “more than” others. Among travel writers and photographers, that way is by the number of countries you’ve been to. And I didn’t know my number. I’d never added it up. I’d never thought to. One speaker was introduced with the comment that she’d been to 105 countries—and she corrected the moderator. “107,” she said, with a sly smile (she’s over 80 years old, and still traveling). I heard 85, 42, 56…and so on. People…I can’t name 85 countries!!! [For the pathetic record, when I got home I mentioned this to Chris and he and I both counted up the countries we’d been to. My “number” was 19. His was 14. We were both shocked I’d been to more countries than he had, but that is a result of my college roommate being married to a naval officer and hence I visited her in Japan and Hong Kong in the 80’s, and also, because I went to Yugoslavia with my first husband in the 80’s and it’s now five countries—so that one trip gave me 3 countries. Right. I’ve been to more countries than him because I’m older than him. Also, at home, 19 sounded reasonably well-traveled. Trust me, at a travel writers conference, that’s a Monday.]
I was so out of my league. So….so….so….NOT FITTING IN!! Oh, the irony. The outrage. The humiliation!! My whole “It’s Not Like I Fit In: Tales of An Awkward Traveler” was based on this premise that my whole life I kept thinking that to travel and truly be a worldly, interesting, global citizen, I needed to be like these people. I needed to backpack, and rappel, and hike, whitewater raft, live in a tent, and visit small islands, war-torn third (fifth?) world countries; I needed to safari, to wear strings on my wrists instead of jewelry, meet the natives, take crazy, ridiculous risks with my physical safety, rappel up waterfalls (I’m sure someone at this conference had done that), and, BE THESE PEOPLE! And when I’d finally come to terms with the fact that I had no interest in being those people (let alone the skill…or the time…or the willingness to live at the edge of a kind of worldly-rich poverty), and that the way I traveled and what I’d learned and what I could share was OK—it was just FINE, it was even book worthy!—I then took myself and set myself down right smack in the middle of the people who intimidated me most in the world. The whole world. All 107 countries of it! These people who moved through the world like they belonged there—they belonged in Vietnam, in Bali, in Leningrad, in Nepal, in the outback, the Seychelles, Tuvalu (go ahead, look it up, Buddha knows I had to), even for godssake, South Sudan (which, just so you know, has only been an independent country for maybe five years), in countries I didn’t even know existed! And, I did not fit in. Not by a long stretch. Even my shoes (cute, sparkly, Banana Republic ballet flats) gave me away as not one of them. They’d been to actual banana republics!! (It’s not just a store!!) And their footwear was very, very practical and decidedly un-cute (even in Corte Madera where they were walking no further than the café to the back of the bookstore).
I don’t know what I was thinking. Now, lamely, I keep thinking that what I wanted to say, what I should have said, is that I never meant to be a travel writer. Instead, I thought I was a writer who now wanted to write a bit about her travels. See, to date, I’ve written (well, at least what I’ve written that’s been published) about tragedies that happen to me and my dogs. I’d rather not keep writing about that. Don’t misunderstand me, I’d be a “dog writer” my entire life if I could do it in a way that didn’t require me or my dogs (and mostly, I mean my dogs) to live through tragedy after tragedy.But my books are memoirs. And what that means…in case that’s not obvious, is that I actually live these tragedies before I write about them. And, if it’s okay with the universe, I’d sort of like the tragedies to stop. This doesn’t seem to be asking a lot (oh, but it is, it is!!!). So I thought, I’d write these travel-related stories that I tell all the time. Honestly, if you had a cocktail or two with me, inevitably I would have told you of the time I was ten years old and broke my arm in South Dakota, but we were already in Las Vegas by the time my parents realized “holy shit, she broke her arm!!” ; or the time in college I went to London and was roommates with a trust-funded sorority girl whose boyfriend sent champagne and flowers and theater tickets to our room every night, allowing me to see the Go-Go’s before they had gone anywhere but missing out on first run of CATS because, well, see “Go-Gos”; or the time Chris and I crashed our rental car not just once (him) but twice (me) in Majorca ; or the time I fell in the sinkhole on the floating island in Fiji and saved my camera, if not my dignity. I would tell you these stories!
And you, apparently, would say “Yes, but what is the arc of this story?” Or, if you were at this conference, you would pat me on the head, smile condescendingly (or so I imagine) and say, “I’m sorry…how many countries did you say you’d been to?”
I didn’t say any of this of course. I just kept trying to keep up. Trying to fit in. Trying to figure out something I could take away from this conference. And I, occasionally, kept trying to say “but…um…#1 New York Times bestseller? I can actually write. I swear.” And they’d smile and look at my sparkly shoes and pat the top of my overly-coiffed head and ask if I’d been to Tajikistan lately.
Tajikistan? I was barely handling Marin County.
(to be continued…again!)