The room was freezing, and then it was boiling. First, we bundled into our scarves and coats, brought with us inside from the cold Boston morning air, and then, we peeled off all the layers again. In a room of glaring fluorescent lighting, silver water pitchers atop white tableclothed tables, and notoriously bad hotel carpeting, no one seemed to be able to decide how many clothes they wanted to wear.
The malfunctioning of the air conditioner, though it might be the first thing I remember when I think about this week’s Women in Travel Summit, is certainly not the most important detail of my four days in Boston, although it does have meaning for me. The cold and heat of the room, that wave of heat passing over us from above, encouraging us to shed our coats, scarves, and mittens, marked a metaphorical shedding for me, too.
This is because I was the one standing in the front of the room, my computer propped up on the podium, a microphone angled toward my face. At the moment the heat clicked on and the stale warm air started drifting down onto our shoulders, I started my presentation, asking the 35 women before me to let their guards down and to be open to the possibility of revision. I talked about Adrienne Rich’s lovely and powerful essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” the very first essay I was ever introduced to in graduate school and the first essay I ever taught to students, and I talked about the importance of honoring our work, rather than just typing it out and hitting the publish button. To all 35 sets of eyes, many with incredibly diverse and worldly experiences, I talked about integrity and how and why, as women, our stories matter.
It’s not the first time I’ve said this: I tell my students at the University of Arizona this every semester: that revision, the art of seeing something with fresh eyes, of seeking to revisit and old tale, an unsavory sentence, a tired image, is an incredibly powerful tool. Revision (or as we like to write it, re-vision) wields power; and having power allows our writing to flourish, and to matter to someone other than ourselves. Our audiences require at least this from us.
But don’t let that fool you: I was so, so very nervous, not because I haven’t gotten up a million times in front of my students every semester to help walk them through their own writing projects, but because this was the first time that I was bringing my teaching self into my travel writing world. The two have been disconnected for so long–as if one morning I’m a nice, put-together writing instructor in a pencil skirt and black pumps and the next evening I’m in jeans and a backpack, jetsetting to some faraway destination with business cards that say nothing about my being a teacher anywhere on them. When I proposed the workshop to the planning committee of WITS, I wondered if maybe I didn’t have enough experience, if maybe I didn’t have a big enough following (if maybe my shuddering at the word “following” was indicative enough that I wasn’t qualified to talk about creating better stories that would attract more pageviews and more shares on Facebook….), if maybe people would look at me and see a creative writer who has a degree but who’s only published travel writing, journalism, and a couple of photographs here and there. I wondered if maybe I was still too young to have anything decent to say about writing craft. But I hit the “send” button anyway, my application drifting off into cyberspace, and I put the whole business out of my mind for a couple of months until I received an email from Beth Santos, the CEO and founder of WITS, that I’d been invited to Boston.
It’s a complicated space to be, to say the least, between responsible teacher and wanderlusting writer. However, there is power now, I realize, in merging these identities. By the end of our hour together, I was literally floored by what happened between the women and me. The women hadn’t gone the direction I’d originally thought, revising an existing blog post, maybe rewriting a tired scene or rethinking another way to write a “list post;” instead, they were in the process of daring themselves to start telling stories they’d always wanted to write about but never had the courage or the safe space to do.
Stories of the nervousness of admitting to her parents that she sold her eggs to travel, of healing from being attacked from behind by an assaulter on a quiet street, not far from home, of learning from the Eritreans what being the n-word meant in other context, of working with Ugandan mothers and feeling torn between photographing them and creating poverty porn….
This was not exactly what I had expected, and I nearly teared up at the end of the presentation when a few women came up to me and asked me if I could take a look at their work and let them know what I thought. One said I should start a business coaching aspiring bloggers on the art of storytelling, and another told me lots of women in the room had been tweeting lessons they were learning.
My heart leapt. Me, the little girl who’d been scribbling in her little pink journal when she was five years old, now a woman, sharing a kind of expertise in a field she’s loved since that first step she took off the airplane in Madrid ten years ago as a college student. Ever since that moment, and the outpouring of writing that came from that experience, I’ve wanted this. And here I was.
The rest of the weekend, too, kept my heart full and hopeful that travel writing can be ethical, feminist, and worthy—all the adverbs I always pair with a genre of writing and blogging that is not always valued or considered important.
As I fly back to Tucson, where I will jump back into my pencil skirt and heels for tomorrow’s technical writing class, I come back with a renewed sense of who I am, who I wish to be, and how I hope to live my life. As a call-to-action, I encourage all of us to look deeply, passionately, and lovingly at what we do and how we do it, and re-vise, re-vise, re-vise.
And maybe eat a Mike’s Pastry cannoli in-between.
Yours in travel,
PS. Sadly, my smartphone doesn’t perform all that well in low light, so take these Instagram pics I’m including here with a grain of salt. 🙂