How I Found Inspiration in Baltimore

What, no book? Then scram!
No book? Then scram! Benches are for readers.

I am not a fan of cocktail parties. I just don’t understand why I need to dress up in a suit in order to drink wine. Yet, every year I am tossed headlong into the Cocktail Party Lifestyle. I am a member of The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and I am expected to attend the organization’s annual district conference.

I’m a bit of a black sheep at these things for more reasons than my dislike for cocktail parties, however. For one thing, CASE conferences mostly cater to college representatives; I represent a secondary school. Also each college usually sends a brigade of representatives (aka a built-in group with whom to socialize at cocktail parties); I attend these thing alone.

But don’t get me wrong. I like CASE conferences. There are usually a lot of interesting workshops to attend and the food is always excellent. And, because a person would look pretty stupid drinking wine in a suit at a Red Roof Inn, the CASE event organizers always  select a beautiful hotel – the kind with one of those cavernous lobbies that you’d “ooh” and “aah” over if you weren’t so focused on looking sophisticated in front of the bellman.

So the conferences are great.

But as soon as the sun goes behind the yardarm – or whatever it is those Ivy Leaguers like to say – the bar opens and the beautifully suited people start getting tipsy in front of their work spouses. That is my cue to go to my room, watch TV, and enjoy the splendid isolation that I can rarely get anywhere else.

See how great the conferences are? I learn a lot, I eat well, and I can nurture my inherent loner instincts.

In the days leading up to last year’s Baltimore Conference, however, my usual anticipation was replaced with grumpiness. The reason was my writing. I didn’t have writer’s block; it was more like “writer’s meh.” That is to say, I was writing, but not all that well. At times the quality of my prose bordered on the craptacular.

I plugged away, however. Every night I would seal myself up in my office and work like a dog, but the results were always pretty much the same. I found the pattern so vexing that, in a fit of pique, I made a grim promise to myself: I will spend every moment of my coveted CASE Conference Evening TV Time writing. By the end of the conference weekend I vowed to have a solid picture book draft.

Normally I compose all my stories in my home office on my computer. I don’t own a laptop or an iPad, so to fulfill the promise I made to myself I would have to write my story using pen and paper. I’ve never done that before; I use pen and paper all the time, but only for notes, doodles, and story outlines. Another concern: I would be writing in an unfamiliar hotel room. Would the room be comfortable enough to write? Would it be too comfortable? I spent a lot of time finding that comfort balance in my home office and was doubtful I would find the same balance in Baltimore.

But what was done was done. I made a vow. I’d have to try.

So I checked in and kept the “oohs” and “aahs” to myself because I am a Sophisticated Traveler. Then I put on a tie and attended the workshops on How To Build a Better Alumni Magazine. As the speakers droned on, my colleagues and I took copious notes.

“Focus groups,” my colleagues tapped on their iPads.

“A story about a rat,” I wrote on my notepad.

“Increasing circulation,” my colleagues tapped.

“Named Scampers,” I wrote.

“Utilizing your strategic plan,” they tapped.

“Scampers and the Scientific Method,” I scribbled. Now that’s a darn good title.

On it went. By the time that yardarm expression was being bandied about, I had my story outline and was heading – more like sprinting – to the elevator to get down to business.

I peeled off my suit and donned some comfy sweats. Then, to my amazement, I watched my pen fly.

The new environment and the new method of writing I was so worried about didn’t impede the creative process at all. It invigorated me. It was the shot in the arm I had been searching for.

It was then I remembered Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Every evening I had been writing away without success in my home office. What I should’ve been doing was looking for a way to change things up. Baltimore and a ballpoint pen was change enough. I was dumbfounded by how prolific I was.

By the time I finished the first draft, my stomach was filled with happy little butterflies. I was giddy.

Without pause, I burrowed into my second draft. That draft was accompanied by calisthenics of a sort. I paced the room, I read rat dialogue aloud as if I was a Shakespearian actor. I spun around in the desk chair with delight.

When I was done, I was starving. I had been working without a break for hours.

“I deserve a drink,” I said aloud to myself.

Myself agreed.

Without pause, I grabbed my CASE conference ID tags and headed for the exhibitor room, where the cocktail party was being held.

I was the only attendee wearing sweatpants. I also was the only attendee without shoes – because I (correctly) assumed that the journey down to the party would be entirely carpeted.

To their credit, the wait staff made its best effort to ignore me, but I had no trouble flagging down a glass of Chianti and a giant handful of bacon-wrapped shrimp. I munched and imbibed and trembled with joy.

Then, as I stood there alone, rumpled and shoeless, and looking, I presume, like a hobo who wandered into Gatsby’s West Egg home, I decided that cocktail parties weren’t that bad after all.

77 Replies to “How I Found Inspiration in Baltimore”

  1. This is exactly what I do at America Library Association seminars! Except for the open bar part—most conventions centers have learned to lock up their liquor when librarians come to town. 😉

  2. “Craptacular” is still a standard, Mike, somewhere between “totalshit” and “merde!” (for the sophisticated writers). I often start writing with pen and paper. There is something about the connection of brain-to-hand-to-paper that stimulates creativity in a way that keyboarding doesn’t. Love your cocktail party attire! xoxoM

  3. I smiled while reading this entire post. Your sense of humor is parallel to mine (or is it UNparalleled?). No, you write with a wonderful humor yet gently tell us a true tale in which we writers learn an important lesson. CHANGE IT UP, and always, always make sure there’s joy in the process. Craptacular? I’d call this SPECtacular! (but I will surely use your other word in the near future!!).

  4. I’m laughing out loud!! Craptacular and hobo (hobo is my kids favorite word at the moment, a name my four year old was hoping to attach to our dog.) Wouldn’t it be great if all cocktail parties were barefoot and sweat pants attire. Think of all the money we’d save. Love your stuff!

  5. Breaking patterns is a fantastic method for getting creative juices going. If I’m really stuck, I’ll turn to the analog format and experiment with character or plot, write a scene I know won’t go in the story, anything to get going again.

  6. Great advice. I think I’ll try that. Changing my writing scene, that is, not attending a cocktail party in sweatpants. I DO have standards.

  7. Love the bench, by the way. And that there’s a less impressive, more bird-poopy bench just a few feet away. For the non-readers.

  8. Awesome story! I love doing first drafts on paper away from the computer. I hope you’ll try it even at home.

      1. Aw, come on–he could pull off the sweats at the cocktail party. That scene you painted is too good to pass up. It’s got to go into a story of some kind. Okay, how about Brad Pitt?

      1. I’m totally impressed that you can even locate a photo that you took in 1995…Does anyone know where my shoebox of prints and negatives has gone???

  9. Ah, the imagery…wandering into Gatsby’s West Egg home. You are my hero! I want to go to a cocktail party barefoot in sweats. And after just having come up with a wonderful book idea!! 🙂

  10. OMG! I almost couldn’t find the end of your comments! Great post, Mike, as others above me have said, only more quickly. Can’t wait to read about Scampers and what a fine scientific mind he has.

    I think we should all attend cocktail parties in our pajamas or sweats and gnarly socks. Then my feet wouldn’t hurt so bad from standing in heels all night.

  11. Ha! I can totally see you there in your sweats and bare feet. That’s something I would do… but I’d be in my pajamas and slippers. Maybe flip flops. I can’t walk around a hotel in bare feet… kind of the same way my desk gave you the willies (I straightened it up, by the way) 🙂

  12. I hate any party where I have to make small talk when I am trying to focus on what tiny food to jam into my mouth. Still haven’t mastered the art of eating food off a stick.
    Luckily, I am rarely invited to these types of gatherings.

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