Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wild Women Writing: A Treasure of Tips from Travelers' Tales' Larry Habegger

By Cindy Bailey 5.1.06 (for 3.1.06)

The first Wednesday of every month, the Wild Writing Women host a free literary salon with a featured speaker at the Monticello Inn in San Francisco, and – as with so many other events – I kept meaning to go but didn't.

And then finally, after a year, I did. On March 1 st . That month, the Wild Writing Women featured Larry Habegger to speak on the art and craft of the personal travel story. Famous for starting up the award-winning Travelers' Tales series ( ) along with James and Tim O'Reilly, Habegger is also an accomplished travel writer. I had heard him speak at San Francisco's LitQuake, and I remembered I liked him. I really liked the Travelers' Tales books, too.

The salon would start at 5:30. I had just enough time to make it. There was only one problem. What would I do with the three-month old baby sitting on my lap? (This, by the way, is the reason I'm only getting to a write-up of the event now. Who knew having a baby would consume so much time you'd be lucky to sneak in a shower, let alone find a moment to write?) Either Julien came with me, or I didn't get to go. I had no choice.

I strapped Julien to my chest and ran out the door. At the Monticello Inn, it was easy to locate the salon by the 30 or so writers (both men and women) mingling in a cozy section of the lobby. The room had cushy couches and chairs, warm rugs, and a fire place. Wine was being served. Julien had fallen asleep, and so I sort of pretended he wasn't there, grabbed a glass of wine, and took a seat near the back.

Julien, however, did attract attention. Pamela Michael, one of the Wild Writing Women and the host of that night's event, asked me if this was the baby's first salon (bless her), and Larry Habegger approached to ask about Julien and chat about traveling with young children, which we agreed is doable.

After socializing ended, Michael took to the microphone and made some announcements. She then introduced her guest, telling how she had interviewed Habegger for the travel show she hosts on KPFA radio here in San Francisco.

Habegger opened with a colorful story, the details of which are a blur to me now. I believe it began with how he knew Michael, and how he was on his way to the interview when one of Berkeley's crazy people harassed him, truly frightening him for his life. Interestingly, the topic of his radio interview was safety while traveling, and the point of his story now was that safety is relative. You might just as likely be killed in some sketchy, foreign land as you would walking down the street here at home.

His story served as an opening for, and a perfect illustration of, his first writing tip, which was that a travel story should be part essay (the point you want to make), part memoir (the telling details about your experience), and part conversation (which I took to mean, making the story relevant to your audience). I had never heard it put that way before, and found this to be a clear and fresh perspective on an age-old art.

Other writing tips he shared:

• Write for yourself always, and then (afterwards) change the form to meet requirements.

• Apply fictional techniques to your stories.

• Write to your life message; in other words, consider what you want others to get from your writing.

For when you're just starting out, Habegger had these tips:

• Be the best writer you can be.

• Be as professional as possible when dealing with editors. (Know what they want and have your contact information.)

• Get to know as many people as you can in business (because access is just as important).

• Read.

After his talk, he read from the latest Travelers' Tales book, doing what one of his contributors did at LitQuake: he read only part of a story, leaving you to salivate for the rest. So of course, you had to buy the book!

During the follow-up Q&A, Habegger shared more tips in the form of common mistakes writers make: overwriting, becoming too personal so that it's all about you (it has to be about something bigger), weak language, weak story, and a few others.

His talk was both practical and engaging. A treasure of valuable tips. I sensed – from our conversation earlier and from his talk – that Habegger is a warm, generous person and teacher.

Just as the event wrapped up, I felt a stirring on my chest. Amazingly, Julien had slept through the entire talk. He must have known how desperately I needed the escape.

When I got home, I realized that the question I should have asked Habegger is how in the heck do you write with small children. That did not seem doable. I'm sure he would have had some sage advice for me on this, too.

For the next monthly salon, check out . If you want more of Habegger's pearls, consider taking one of his classes. See .

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