Notes from a Writers’ Conference

by Abby on May 9, 2017

This past weekend I did something shockingly out of the ordinary: I went to a writers’ conference! In New York City! Without my family in tow! There was a time I considered myself a professional writer first, and a pretzel server/baseball uniform washer/carpool driver second. Those times have changed.

It took a whole lotta effort and planning to dust off the ol’ business cards, pull together a couple of decent outfits, and haul myself up to the Big Apple. Stepping off the train, I was greeted with putrid smells, unhinged taxi drivers, and pouring rain. Never change, New York.

New York City street; Snoopy mural

Although I am rarely sick, I ended up contracting an upper respiratory infection and completely losing my voice during the conference. The one time when it was necessary to speak to other people! There’s some kind of metaphor in there about my fear of networking, but I don’t care to explore it.

This concludes the whiny portion of this post. Because the rest of the trip was AWESOME! Another time I may go into more detail about visiting the Museum of Modern Art, catching up with a longtime friend and colleague, and our incredible dinner at a Greek restaurant. But for now I’m going to focus on the American Society for Journalists and Authors conference itself.

Gauguin painting in Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Just me and a Gauguin, NBD

One of the best parts for me was Saturday’s first keynote speaker, Jenny Blake, the author of a book called PIVOT: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One. She made an interesting point that I hadn’t considered: journalists are already experts at this – pivoting, being agile, fill-in-the-business-jargon-du-jour-here. Whatever you call it, we’ve already been doing it for years.

When print publications began to fold, we started blogging. When online markets didn’t pay (cough, HuffPo, cough!), we turned to content marketing. We’ve learned (or had to learn) to embrace social media, understand SEO, and figure out Facebook algorithms.

The other point Blake made that stuck with me is this: when faced with a plateau or a pivot-point – especially one we didn’t want or see coming – you can do one of two things. You can either dwell on how you got into this mess and woe-is-me all the way into the red. “Print is over! Journalism is dead! I picked the wrong profession! I’m going to die alone eating cat food in my car!”

Or, you can focus on what’s still working and do more of that. Hey, what do you know? I’m a skilled writer with decades of experience. I excel at translating complex ideas into readable, engaging stories with catchy headlines. I know (some) grammar, and I know how to proofread and fact-check. Guess what? Those things still matter! OK, except for maybe those last points. Sigh. Kidding/not kidding.

Personally, I find these little shifts in focus refreshing. And so I would also like to comment on another theme I noticed at the conference and gently suggest a shift. I lost count of how many speakers and panelists mentioned how journalists are not likely to get rich, we’re not in it for the money, and other remarks along those lines. Does anyone still think that?! Has anyone EVER??

And, look: it is a sad but true fact that $1/word is still (!) considered a decent rate for most consumer publications – just as it was when I last attended the conference over 10 years ago. (!!!)

But here’s the thing. We can either dwell on that, or we can look at what’s going right. For me, it’s that I work about half the hours I used to and make twice as much. Per-word rates don’t matter to me because I charge by the hour or project. I rarely write for consumer publications anymore. I can do everything from my laptop, so my productivity vs. my expenses is off the charts.

And the main reasons I got into this gig – freedom and flexibility – are more important than ever, now that I have kids and aging parents. So it’s not all bad news.

It was also refreshing to hear some of the younger editors from (paying!) online publications say they don’t care about the stuff that used to keep us freelancers up at night: your email greeting or signoff, whether you address them as “Ms.” or “Emily.” Most said writers are no longer expected to do hours of (unpaid) research and pre-interviews upfront before we have an assignment. They get it: time is money.*

And speaking of money again, I’ll just point out that everyone says the same thing about teachers as they do about journalists. Well, my parents were both teachers and now, in retirement, they’re living pretty darn large. They just got back from a trip to Europe and they don’t eat cat food or live in their cars (that I know of… they live out of state.) The point here is that it’s not always how much you make but what you do with it. #Frugal4Life

Conference chic outfit

My best attempt at “conference chic.” My pants cost $15!

I went to the conference to get some fresh ideas, to connect with other writers and, frankly, to get out of the house. Goals achieved. And if my croaky voice kept me from networking, eh, at least I got a good meal and a bed to myself for a night. There’s always email and Facebook, right?

*The basic freelancer rules still apply: be polite and professional. Do your research. Have a good, timely idea you can back up with reputable sources. Don’t take it personally if they pass on your pitch. Do not, under any circumstances, do what one writer did and reply to an editor’s rejection with “F*ck you very much!” Oh, yes he did.

Atlas statue at Rockefeller Center, NYC

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As I prepare to head off to New York City for the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference, I am sharing one of my favorite posts from my archives. My writing career has certainly taken me to some fascinating places over the years …

The View from the Other Side of the Pool House

Sherwood Gardens, BaltimoreTucked away in a residential neighborhood in Baltimore, there is a gorgeous tulip garden that bursts into bloom each spring. It’s the kind of place that is astonishing in its beauty, all the more so because somehow it still has the feel of a secret garden, even though it’s very well-known in the area. It’s the kind of place that attracts tons of tourists, landscape painters, and photographers, yet you can still feel like you have a piece of it to yourself.

We often take our family Easter photos there, but because we were out of town and Easter fell early, we hadn’t been yet this year. At the end of a busy weekend, we made a spur-of-the moment decision to take the kids there after dinner one night. It was a little chilly, a little late, and I was leaning towards scrapping our plans. But we had already mentioned it to the kids and, well, you know how that goes…

We got to the park and the boys took off running, giddy with the freedom of open green space and the thrill of being out on a school night. The sun was starting to set, but there was still enough light to illuminate the yellow tulips so vibrant they almost glowed, the fist-sized pink flowers in another bed, and the fluffy pink cotton-candy blooms of the cherry trees.

The kids had brought a red rubber ball, and we broke into an impromptu soccer game. My 6yo son skillfully darted around maneuvering the ball out from under us, arching it over his dad’s head with a graceful kick. I chased after him, feet pounding, laughing, gasping for air. “You’re so FAST! Come back here!” He laughed, too, running faster, never taking his eye off the ball.

My 4yo clambered up trees with branches as thick and curved as elephant trunks. “Look at me, Daddy! Mom, I’m way up here!” His cheeks were flushed pink like the blossoms, hair tousled by the breeze. He discovered the footpaths weaving through the flower beds and took off skipping. “Come on, guys, follow me!” Swinging from branches, leaping off stone benches.

These gardens were created in the 1920’s, on part of the estates of newspaper magnates and oil tycoons. The homes ringing the park are almost impossibly grand and stately, the polar opposite of the narrow, marble-stepped rowhouses that are so iconic of Baltimore. I’ve been lucky enough to get to go inside several of them, as part of reporting and writing stories for local magazines over the years. I once got to interview a butler in the pool house of one of the mansions. (Sounds like a game of Clue, doesn’t it?)

My 6yo sitting among the tulipsIt’s a sad fact of adulthood that I can’t look at these houses now without thinking of real estate, landscaping, property taxes, school districts. I hate how much time I spend thinking about, worrying about, obsessing about money. Success. Prestige. Worth. Being a grownup is so overrated. I miss the innocence of just kicking a ball and climbing trees.

As the evening light began to fade and the air grew chillier, we started to head for home. But before we left, it occurred to me: I didn’t have to own it to enjoy it. And the view is just as beautiful on this side of the pool house. Maybe even more.

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Fritz could be my kid! I was thrilled to have this realization during one of my many, many viewings of The Nutcracker. I love The Nutcracker—the music, the dancing, the costumes. I am lucky enough to have seen it performed professionally several times. My dad took me to see it as a kid and even […]

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Life Goes On

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People still have to eat. Even in the midst of grief and loss and unthinkable events, people still need food multiple times a day. This was the thought that occurred to me two days after my father-in-law passed away. On some level, it seemed astounding to me that the world kept turning. I couldn’t believe […]

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