How I Found Inspiration In Baltimore

This repost from 2012 is an oldie but a goodie. It also serves as a nice companion piece to my recent post on writer’s block.


What, no book? Then scram!
What, no book? Then scram!

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). Because of this, 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. 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 things 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 sparkly, 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 didn’t own a laptop or an iPad, so to fulfill the promise I made to myself, I would write my story using pen and paper. I had never done that before; I use pen and paper  only for notes, doodles, and vague 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 squeaky 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 assumed—correctly—that the journey down to the party would be entirely carpeted.

To their great credit, the wait staff made its best effort to ignore me, but I had no trouble snatching a glass of Chianti and a 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 so bad after all.

And, hey! I got that book published! And it got great reviews! And won four awards! And you should totally buy it!

39 Replies to “How I Found Inspiration In Baltimore”

  1. WAIT! There are so many unanswered questions! Was Scampers a lab rat or wild rat? Did Scampers repeat his experiment THREE times to ensure reproducibility? Was his hypothesis proven -did is paper get published? What color were your sweat pants?

    1. Fine questions all! Let’s get started.

      Scampers is a wild rat, but, in later drafts, I made her a mouse instead.

      Scampers conducted three different experiments before arriving at her conclusion. She also had a control group.

      Scampers (who is female, by the way) did prove her hypothesis. Although the results were not published, she did make a snappy poster.

      My sweatpants were black. I am not a fan of sweats because the pockets are never deep enough. I have since purged all pants-for-sweating from my wardrobe.

      Hope this helps!

  2. As always, you make me laugh, Mike. A wonderful solution to writer’s “meh.” I especially like the image of you as a hobo cocktail party crasher in your sweats and socks. And what is “rat” dialog? Dialog between rafting rats, I suppose. 😀

  3. I’m surprised they didn’t say anything about the bare feet. I went to a hotel once that had a “free breakfast” and I was bare footed. They told me I had to have something on my feet if I was going to be in the area where food was served… :-/
    It sounds like you had a great inspirational trip! I hope it continues and I can’t wait to find out about Scampers! 😀

  4. “I read rat dialogue aloud as if I was a Shakespearian actor. I spun around in the desk chair with delight.” Wait, you don’t do this all time??? I totally have to buy all your books now.

  5. Bravo! Very entertaining story. Sometimes changing things up a bit does give one a new perspective. What did happen to Scampers??? Loved Erik’s questions. Please answer. I’m like you, I attend conferences and then retreat to my room for solitude. Love your word ” craptacular!” Perfectly describes some of my manuscripts and a few other things.

    1. As per your request, I have dutifully answered all of Erik’s questions. As for your own question, I am going to request that you allow me to answer it at a later date.

      Feel free to ask me other questions, though!

  6. I do the same thing at conferences. I mingle and then retreat to my room to work. There is something about different locations to raise “meh” to “oh my.” I know it isn’t the bacon-wrapped shrimp.

  7. How did I miss this one? I’ve just been working on a new rhyming picture book, and I wrote much of it by hand in the car while waiting for Liam to do his afterschool activities. A new environment/work method does tend to shake things loose, I think. Three cheers for Scampers! That title sounds like it could make a great STEM series. Just sayin’.

      1. The question would be, which one? I’m still waiting to hear back from Candace Fleming on a critique of a NF PB. I just sent a rhyming PB to Highlights so they can match me with a mentor for the weeklong Summer Camp in July. I’ve got several others in the revision hopper. One is currently out on submission, but after receiving two different responses from editors, I think I need to revise it. I asked the Highlights folks if I could have my mentor read and critique one or more PBs each day, and they said yes! So, I’m taking a suitcase full. 😀 I think you should enroll in Summer Camp this year. Working in a vacuum is tough. Very dark and dusty….

  8. Priceless. I can totally see you at a fancy-schmancy cocktail party in your sweat and sans shoes and not caring a whit. And, I can see you daydreaming about rats instead of alumni magazines. I knew I liked you for a good reason! Oh, and rats speak in Old English? Who knew?

  9. Okay, you are just NOT EVER a craptacular writer. You are a spectacular writer, and I enjoyed every verb and adjective, every humorous nuance and writerly angst in this SPECTACULAR post. You had me at ” I just don’t understand why I need to dress up in a suit in order to drink wine.” How I love your sense of humor, and your ability to write about — well, even rats and wine and un-shoed feet – so spectacularly.

  10. This line grabbed my attention:
    ” I learn a lot, I eat well, and I can nurture my inherent loner instincts.”
    For those reasons alone, I would venture to a conference, if only they weren’t so darned expensive. But I love your story. I can see you forgetting shoes in your mouse-induced excitement. Bet you got a few odd stares. Or maybe a few jealous ones.

  11. Barefoot and in sweats would not seem too amiss in some of the philosophy conferences I have attended, I think, haha! It seems the more eccentric you are, the wiser you are perceived to be by some.

  12. I’m so glad you were listed in recommendations for me. I like your style. Barefoot and in sweats sounds great after a good writing date with a rat.

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