At a recent writers’ conference I had a chance to attend a 90-minute session with Larry Habegger, the Executive Editor of the Travelers’ Tales series who also offers travel writing conferences – his latest accompanies a group to Turkey. My notebook from the session is buried in packing boxes right now, but often the lessons that stick in your head weeks after are those you actual learn. The highlights:

Twelve of us attended. A woman asked: why should anyone care about my personal experience? This gave her fits of writer’s block. She was particularly struggling with an essay about her old car. Several of us said we could totally relate to her ancient wheels, and Larry mentioned that proves that if its of interest to the author, there’s an interested audience. Write it, write it well, and people will read it.

We brainstormed for 10 minutes or so about the purpose of our writing. Thinking about the messages I hope my pieces convey. I came away with several lines I want to print large and hang on my wall for inspiration.

Larry read two 150 word vignettes from one of his books, short prose pieces of almost pure description that encapsulated a single emotion, from the insecurities of approach a Parisian matre d’ to the ghosts of war. He suggested vignettes as a writing exercise to spark creative juices.

Be emotionally honest, he said. A woman spoke of an essay she wrote about lap swimming, where she admitted an unflattering truth, but offered a lesson in patience and maturity. That essay sparked the most reaction of her career.

We spoke of memory too, and the power that comes from weaving the past into the present. Readers can travel to more than one place, and the emotional resonance ringing through the writing can capture an audience in ways flat description cannot. Larry discussed an essay where a spoonful of coffee returned the author to a childhood diner and his father. I would suggest the recent New York Times Travel article “In Mexico, on the Lam With Ken Kesey.”

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