Friday, September 9, 2011

The Schizophrenic Search For My Nutbar

Reflections from a Book Passage Travel and Food Writing & Photography Conference Newbie

by Diane Susan Petty

I used to be wealthy and successful—number one in my industry.

Now I sit on a bench contemplating a “No Barking” sign, the “P” graffitied over with a “B”. I observe the cars are indeed parked in front and the dogs are quiet. I notice a sign saying an 18-pound male cat named PhiPhi has run away and wonder if it was because the other kitties were teasing him about his name.

Diane (far right) with Don George
I recently became an unemployed, broke mortgage banker. After announcing my desire to make a major life change and become an unemployed, broke travel writer, a mutual friend introduced me to travel writing guru, Don George.

Don’s advice? “Come to the Book Passage Travel and Food Writing & Photography Conference. Meet Spud. It’ll be life changing.”

Down to our last $1000, my husband suggested we might want to use that money for groceries; why not wait and go next year? Groceries be damned; I could drop a few pounds anyway. I’m going to the conference.

One minute I’m excited and hopeful for the future; the former confident me has returned. The next I’m petrified about attending, convinced I’m grasping at straws out of pure desperation. What do I know about travel writing?

When you tell your family you’ve spent your last dime on a travel writer’s conference, their faces go blank and they ask why.

When you read The Paris Wife about Hemingway’s brilliant mind and tortured soul, you momentarily wish you had a drinking problem; it might help you become a better writer.

When a stranger in the airport asks where you are off to and you tell her a San Francisco writer’s conference, her face lights up. “Oh, you’re a writer!” she beams with yearning eyes. “You’re so lucky.” I don’t bother to correct her and spend the next hour strutting around the Toronto airport, imagining I am a writer waiting for my flight.

When I’m unexpectedly bumped to first class, I take it as a sign … even the United Airlines gods know I am destined to be a travel writer, jet-setting around the world with my laptop in a beat up leather bag. I wonder if duty-free sells beat up leather bags?

It’s the morning of Don’s pre-conference field trip to Point Reyes Station. Feeling exhilarated and freaked out, I focus my attention on the superficial, worrying about wearing the right clothes, trying to forget I have the wrong degree. Too dressed up and I’ll look uppity. Too casual and I’ll look like a slob who doesn’t care. I wish I knew what that Linda Watanabe McFerrin was wearing.

Guess what? Wear tattered jeans or a ball gown; it doesn’t matter.

At Cowgirl Creamery, we sit with Don and plot our day. Walk. Observe. Write. Eat. Repeat. Share what you wrote at the end of the day.

My confidence is back; I can walk and talk and gawk. And I love to eat.

I feel the need to be more brilliant, interesting, and observant than anyone else in our group. I want to stand out and be noticed.  I can’t possibly share my ideas or observations lest someone steals them; they are that brilliant.

Don tells us to put ourselves in the shoes of a travel writer. I sit on a bench and try hard to observe new, unique things. The only thing I observe is that I want another one of those new, unique cookies from Bovine Bakery across the street and that the dogs in Point Reyes Station seem to be able to read.

It’s the end of our field trip, time to share what we wrote.

Someone commented on the painful juxtaposition of signs about the future of Point Reyes Station posted on an abandoned red brick building.

Damn. I didn’t even see the building, let alone the juxtaposition.

Another mentions a dialogue about a 45 lb marlin, overheard between a pedestrian and someone in a car stopped in the middle of the road.

Damn. The only dialogue I heard was someone yelling, “We don’t want you travel writers here; we don’t want to become another Carmel.”

Don asks if anyone has written a piece.

Diane with "Gold Shoes"
She is a stunning journalist from Chile with an exotic Spanish accent and totally cool gold shoes. I hate her already. On two scrunched up yellow Post-It notes, she has managed to scribble a brilliant story, complete and ready for publication. She asks for criticism; there is none.

Blogger, Kylethevagabond volunteers to read his piece. When he pulls out his 32” flatscreen laptop, everyone ooohs and aaahs as if he has just invented the wheel.

Damn. Why didn’t I bring my laptop?

A silence hangs over the group after he reads his work. He apologizes; this was just a rough draft. He works for Gadling. He has published 45 articles. Someone says his lede is brilliant and natural. I think his nut bar is perfect until a colleague gently explains it is called a nutgraf.

I want to go eat a nut bar at Toby’s Feed Barn across the street.

The drive back to Book Passage is much less animated. Some of us are feeling we should not be here. Why didn’t I go to journalism school? Stupid, useless, law degree.

Back at the store, feeling completely inadequate, I look at all the courses I can take throughout the year to hone my craft. That’s what I need to do, despite the fact that I don’t yet have a craft and I have nothing to hone. I don’t even know what hone means. Take more courses, then write something. That’s my new plan.

Guess what? It is far easier to pay $350 for another course than it is to write something and risk rejection. Janis Cooke Newman tells us, “Your immediate goal should be ten rejection letters.” Genius.

At the intro dinner, I maneuver to sit with my idol from the San Francisco Chronicle, Spud Hilton. He actually buys articles. He tells our table of newbies exactly what he wants …  lede-nutgraf-scene-scene-scene-walkaway. That‘s it. This is what I came for. I have a roadmap. I’ve cracked the code. I already feel the conference was worth it, and it hasn’t even started. I don’t care if I have to live on nut bars for the rest of my life; I’m going to be a travel writer.


Diane Susan Petty
Diane Susan Petty is a former mortgage banker and accepts full responsibility for the current state of the US economy. She recently attended her first Book Passage Travel and Food Writing & Photography Conference, and she is hooked. When not out seeking new adventures, she lives in the redwoods of Larkspur, California, with her husband, two children and their golden retriever, Buster.

Photos and story by Diane Susan Petty

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