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.