“What did you learn from your students this year?”
It was lunchtime and I was sitting with two women I’d seen throughout the weekend but hadn’t spent any time with. I was tired, I had been at the book store until 2am the previous night and I hadn’t slept particularly well. It was the last day of the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, four days of intense classes and discussion. My brain had been racing since day one; with this question, it slowed and I was thankful.
Teaching is new to me, this is only my second year. I’ve had speaking gigs at a dozen conferences, maybe more, and I’ve helped friends understand some technical issues, but classroom style teaching, I had no experience in it before last year at this same event. I was genuinely shocked to be invited to teach at this prestigious conference, I was honored to be invited back. And the students this year, they were… they leaned forward into everything. There was an expectation, an engagement, and presence, that I do not remember feeling last year.
I was tired last year too, I do remember the same feeling that three days were 47, not because they were a burden, but because they were so rich. My husband asked how it had gone and when I told him some of the effusive things I’d heard, he responded, “Again? Same as last year,” in his laconic, Teutonic manner.
It is so easy to be starstruck at an event like this. It is tempting to drop names. That’s not the point, and our benevolent bosses at the event remind us of this repeatedly. I know I will get another chance to have coffee with a well respected editor at an airport, or to talk shop with successful writers I can’t get enough of. Face out, not in, I remind myself, even though the temptation is to wrangle these people I know and adore and head somewhere away from all this for an hour, a day. I try to be good, to focus on working, to give away everything I know, whatever that is, and to listen, something I am not always very good at.
“I don’t know what I learned,” I finally answered, “not yet. But I feel… optimistic, really optimistic. Like my students really want to make beautiful work. That’s thrilling, to know that somewhere down the road, I’ll see something amazing created by someone I met here.”
Later that day, one of my students from last year took two of the awards, one for writing, one for photography. And one of my students from this year did the same. I can’t take any credit at all for that, but I loved seeing it happen.
The literary journalism world is the one I aspire to, but I don’t really live there. I come from the web, and in my space, travel, the focus is so much more on the experience of travel than it is on writing. This can be frustrating, I become cynical, I have been a sharp critic of travelblogging as a pursuit because it’s come to be more about the (acquisition of) travel and less about the writing (or photography) than I would like it to be.
I do not get to set rules for the way people define their goals or make their work. It’s not my job, I lack any kind of authority to do so. And it’s very hard to divert a conversation away from, “You mean someone will pay for my trip to the tropics?” to “You mean I can write a really great story?” Don’t for a minute think I don’t understand this. Whole businesses and programs are built around the seductive idea of being a travel writer and seeing the world… for free. The dominant conversations are about that, about the “see the world for free” part, and not about the “write a great story” part. And I’ve been the recipient of some truly remarkable travel because I’m a writer.
But that’s not the point. For me, the point is, has always been, to write well.
When I teach at Book Passage, I am reminded, every day, of the difference between traveling and writing about travel. In being questioned, repeatedly, about my own work, I am forced to justify what I do, why I’ve taken the approach I’ve taken, what compromises I’m willing to make, and what I’m leaving on the table by making them. In listening to the other teachers there, I’m reminded of what I don’t know, what I could learn about reporting and journalism and how that would help my work even though I have no interest in traditional reporting or journalism. In taking all those questions, I’m reminded that I actively chose the path I’ve taken — creative narrative about travel — rather than the more lucrative and stable path of service journalism or the gold rush of the web — because I love it.
The Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers conference closes with Don George, conference cofounder and literary travel leader, talking about love. My world is dominated by conversations about commerce, mostly, so talking seriously about love in a room full of striving writers and photographers, artists, is surprising. But it’s important.
In one of my sessions, the moderator said, “Maybe, like Pam, you want to have a day job…”
I interrupted. “Let’s be perfectly clear,” I said, “I don’t want to have a day job, but the kind of writing I do is such that if I didn’t have a day job, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. I have a day job so I can do the work I love.”
This is what I learned this year at Book Passage. It’s what I learned last year. I learn it from my students, from my fellow teachers, from the people that so patiently run the conference and deal with skittish wifi and dietary peccadilloes and desperate requests for caffeine. It’s what I learn in surrounding myself with people — including my students — who want to do work they love. It’s a ridiculously simple message and one that I have to keep learning over and over and over again.
Do the work you love. That’s all, and it’s everything.