by Sherri Harvey
It’s my first day at the 2018 Travel Writers’ Conference in Corte Madera, California. I’m sitting in a homey, book-filled office at Book Passage with the legendary Tim Cahill and eight other chosen writers workshopping our stories. As Mr. Cahill speaks, every writer in there listens and takes notes on everything this legend says. After all, he is a founding editor of Outside as well as “Editor at Large” for the magazine. He has written ten books full of true adventure stories and has managed to craft his own brand of humor as well. And as I sit here in this room, I am gloating for being chosen for this highly-coveted spot in his workshop. But I don’t get to gloat for long. The time has come for me to “sit in the hot seat,” as Tim says. This means I don’t get to speak until the end of my critique. I have taken a vow of silence.
He asks my fellow writers “so do we like the narrator?”
um, hello? I am sitting right here. I am the narrator.
As a college English lecturer, I have spent a lifetime cultivating an air of indifference. Since I teach classes that students MUST take, finding a balance between casual indifference and entangled overbearance means my survival in the classroom. It also means my survival in the university. Don’t get me wrong: I am always a writer, even during the dry periods when I am not writing. I also care deeply about my students and my teaching job. I adore WORDS-theirs and mine. And as I try hard to instill that passion in my students, it’s become increasingly difficult to celebrate language in the age of Digital Enlightenment. Over the past eighteen years as a teacher, I have developed my own brand of detachment. And in this moment, I am grateful for it.
But in one second flat, Cahill rips the thick skin off of my flimsy defense mechanism and reminds me of the need for a writer to, first and foremost, be a likable human.
Tim is so affable. He looks like Every Man. Every lesson learned shows up as a wrinkle around eyes that shine. Imperturbable, soft-spoken, and slow to respond, I can almost see the wheels turning upstairs before he speaks. He really listens. Patience is a necessary tool for a teacher. My peers clamor at the chance to speak on behalf of my incommodious narration and Tim sits back and watches. I watch him and make a note to self: when losing patience with my own students, think “CAHILL.”
What does a person do when the well of forbearance starts to dry up? Creativity ebbs and flows in all of us. I feel fortunate that I get to teach what I love to do–writing. But for a long time, my well of words for my own stories had vaporized because I had given so many of them to my students. I barely had any energy to fill myself back up. However, working on a second Masters degree over the past two years, I have reinvigorated my love of words. Learning from other people’s teaching in various capacities has been the much-needed iced frappuccino latte on an arid California summer heat swell. I have been lucky to have spent some time with some savage sages. Because there is always someone who knows more.
When I entered graduate school for the second time in my forties, I found a community of writers that fueled my passion for storytelling and gave me traction to finish a memoir and pursue travel writing. My invaluable grad school peers cheered on my stories and encouraged me to agonize over every word. And in my last semester of graduate school, I met legendary travel writer, Don George.
King George is what I like to call him. He doesn’t know how not to smile. Even his resting face possesses a smile. He believes in serendipity. He cherishes happy accident. He loves people. He serves the drink that contain the secret to living your dream and finding your truth. And he surrounds himself with people who do all of that as well. They write and they teach. Additionally, he is also another ‘large’ editor and a columnist and serves National Geographic in various capacities. And an author himself. He is as open as a desert highway, and just as sunny.
As I have gotten to know him, the inspiration flows out of his body and into those around him. That animus spills over and lands on everyone in the room. So when I landed at the 2018 Travel Writers’ Conference, I found myself wrapped in a cocoon of King George’s 27-year long vision. I won the lottery by being awarded an opportunity to be inspired by his chosen cheerleaders and coaches he has spent years cultivating. Here at his conference, his Magnum Opus, I have become re-re-invigorated. I get to meet the editors of the LA Times, Westways, World Nomads. I get to take photography classes from National Geographic photographers. And as a result, I have been gifted even more energy to continue to court my love affair with words. To spend time devoted to a craft I fell in love with early in life: to tell, and to be told, stories.
So as I sit in this blessed office with Mr. Cahill and as he asks our group of writers whether the narrator is likable, I get it. Although I am always interested in stories, in travel, in words, to be read, I need to be likable. In order to be relatable, I need to be humble. I need to somehow shed off this callouse of defense and allow my insecurities to shine through so my readers can see themselves in my stories. I see it now: the way I expect my students to listen to me, I need to listen to those around me. The way Tim Cahill does in Shed His Grace on Me in Hold the Enlightenment. Or the way King George does in his essay, How to Fall in Love With the World. And every faculty member here, Andrew Mccarthy, Pauline Frommer, Elizabeth Harryman, Catharine Hamm, Jeff Greenwald, Bill Petrocelli, Larry Habegger, and all the staff at Book Passage are both writers, and likable human beings. They lead lives spearheaded by creativity. They write and they teach. They each struggle to make a difference in the world by bridging cultural, national, racial and gender gaps through telling the stories that make us all human.
Because with the good fortune of connection and acceptance, we find fellowship in sharing stories, as humans have done since the beginning of time. Because the stories of our lives become our lives. And all that love floating around the room reminds me that I can be a writer and a teacher. A sinner and a saint. A speaker and a listener. The question and the answer. Full of myself, and humble. Both sacred and profane at the same time. How to live in the flux of that conundrum is what makes us human.
And so as I prepare to lead my Freshman English classes into Fall 2018 at San Jose State University, I vow to be a better listener. I strive to keep looking for the energy to work on my own writing. I keep in mind that cultivating a skill takes persistence. More than twenty years ago, Mr. Cahill set a world record for speed in driving the entire length of the American continents, in twenty-three days, twenty-two hours, and forty-three minutes. From that, he made a living, a life, writing about it. King George has been inviting travel lovers to this conference for twenty-seven years, while also writing, editing, teaching, traveling and hosting stories. Stories make us human. Stories bring us together, unite us, give us a sense of commonality, Each of us tells the same story differently. None of us tell it the same way twice.
And as I think about how easy it can be to lose patience, and become discouraged, I will think about my weekend at Book Passage and drink the inspiration that these fellow lovers of words, tellers of stories, have given me. They wear many hats– teachers, writers, editors, cheerleaders, friends, dancers, singers, photographers–and they wear them with grace and style. I am filled up by their collective energy. I am ready to continue my own story-telling and listening any way that I can. As I re-apply my teacher’s hat, I will give and receive as these fellow wordsmiths continue to do. When I feel like crying, I will picture King George’s perpetual grin. And when I start to become impatient, I will say to myself “Cahill-Cahill-Cahill.”
Sherri Harvey teaches English in California’s Silicon Valley, holds an MA in Modern Fiction and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She spends her days taking pictures, galloping her horses, hiking with her dog, writing stories and meeting people. She adores the great outdoors: go outside and play! She has published both essays and photographs in Literary Traveler, World Nomad, Wanderlust-Journal, Reed Magazine, Dime Show Review, the Same Literary, daCunha Global Storytelling to name a few. Check her out at sherriharvey.com or sunsherphotography.com.