I had to get away. A sense of reinvention had been clawing at me. Maybe I’d gone too far, but a trip halfway across the country felt right. Sure, I found a new tribe of writers. But the people I’d met defied all expectations.
I’ve entertained an idea of freelance writing for a while without much thought or serious investigation. Follow one person on Twitter and develop delusions of grandeur. I mean, I’ve written a few articles, found a few outlets and raked together enough free clips for a basic portfolio. Then, like all starving artists, when the business ideas ran out the only step that seemed logical was to spend more money.
Let’s call it networking.
Not my strong suit to begin with….
Twelve links down the internet rabbit hole I found this conference happening in eight days in Austin, Texas. Not my first choice of destinations. I’d been to Texas. I wanted to go someplace else, but this conference hit all the right buttons.
And I was late for the early bird price breaks.
On my way to the hotel, I asked the shuttle driver about a restaurant called Whataburger. There was one about a mile from the hotel. I’d walk, but I didn’t want to. Would it be worth it? It’s just burgers, right? Maybe I’d skip it, find snacks at a gas station or something. Without a direct response the shuttle driver said in a heavy Louisiana accent, “Yeah, I’m hungry.”
Not a clear endorsement, but a better answer than I could’ve hoped. We went through the drive-thru, in a shuttle, off the meter, then a winding, almost aimless route around Austin. Off the meter. Best shuttle ride ever.
Austin, Texas is amazing. Everywhere I looked there was a cool café or artsy bar. People were out enjoying the cool weather in the middle of the day. And they looked regular. No hipsters gentrifying anything. Just people enjoying what they have.
Checking in with a greasy bag of food crumpled in my hand—Check.
Not understanding the British accent—Check.
Did not see that one coming.
The hotel was great, the burger, outstanding, the three-hour nap, superb.
Time for a pre-conference mixer.
Cool, I’ve got this.
Down to the hotel restaurant all spiffed up, ready to brag and bullshit. I didn’t know anyone so I got a drink and asked a few clumps of people if they were with the writers conference. None were.
I waited, tried to look less than desperate as though anything on my phone could be interesting. Another large group of people formed, all with name tag stickers on their lapels.
Good sign, right?
I asked a little old lady and found the first of only two raging egos I’d met the entire weekend. No, it wasn’t a writers conference. It was a dinner for grad school candidates in some long-winded ultra-specific microbiology program. That explained the young people’s anxious smiles and the old people’s smug frowns. I’ve never seen body language in a group reveal a greater difference in power. The lady could’ve simply said no, she could’ve said it was a school function, but she took the obscene time to spell out exactly what she, and everyone else, was there for to let me come to my own conclusion that I’d wandered into the wrong place. I saw a story in the little old lady’s demeanor that I doubt she knew she’d told, one of hopes and dreams to change the world, beaten down by self-satisfied professors, themselves lashing out from their lowered expectations, until she found herself with an advanced scientific degree whose only stable purpose took a path she didn’t like, where her self-esteem was based on tormenting others in the guise of progress rather than using her skill in creating a thing substantial. I saw a person, imprisoned to a campus by brilliance and fear, perpetuating cruelty to justify her life’s decisions.
Or, maybe her fiber supplement hadn’t kicked in. I don’t know.
The third hotel staff member I’d asked found out that the writers conference mixer had been moved to a different room.
First guy I met was loud, warm and inviting. Second guy, the same. I pulled up next to them. They were the coolest people. These were different writers than I’m used to. These were journalists and freelancers. Nonfiction types. All of them friendly and outgoing.
Did I step through a portal to a parallel universe? Same city, same building, so how could these people be so different from the grad-school whatevers?
I stayed up late, since I had the time zone advantage, talking with two brilliant individuals about the freelance and entrepreneurial mindset from people in the trenches. Before the conference even started.
Next day the whiskey caught up with me.
I strolled to the venue across the University of Texas campus. Nice walk, cool, lots of squirrels.
A few bleary-eyed greetings as the conference got underway and the keynote speaker took the stage. Hey, I knew that guy. I’d talked to him for two hours at the bar.
The conference had a panel format. Three to six people answering questions and describing their journeys. But there was something else to those panels, something I hadn’t experienced. There was an underlying drive in the speakers. It didn’t stop there. All of the attendees were hyper-motivated and super smart. I think everyone I’d talked to had a graduate degree from J-school. But nobody really discussed credentials. Everyone was nice. They didn’t buy my bullshit, either. They saw right through me. And I’m usually pretty good at bullshitting.
But everything about this was different.
I was so naïve that I mistook the panel on interviewing and thought it was for the unemployed. No! Get a clue, man. This was a journalism conference. It was interviewing subjects for stories. Vastly more helpful in my day-to-day to understand the other side.
There was the second ego whose words told a deeper story than I think he understood, though I doubt his obvious narcissistic disorder much cared.
Post-conference. I met the first two guys and asked about dinner. One guy’s sketchy taxi service driver suggested a place. A few locals confirmed and made recommendations. We piled into the second guy’s rental car and found the most authentic barbeque
restaurant I’d ever seen. Almost cliché, but no, the places I go are clichés of this place. Best brisket ever, best ribs, best corn casserole. Pickles and onions on the side with two slices of white bread. What the hell do I do with those? Maybe a brisket sandwich? And the customers were real.
What kind of world do I live in where I can’t tell cliché from authentic, or people from hipsters?
Oh… California. You hear the impressions, but you just don’t see the shadows on the wall for what they are until you step outside the limelight.
A few more drinks afterward. This is where the gravity of my company captured me. These people were more than motivated. They were serious. They had money to make and nobody was going to stop them. Totally forward thinkers. They brushed off setbacks, found ways around problems and worked their asses off to achieve their goals. No pep squads, no feel-good cheerleading crutched in affirmation. These were go-getters. One person lost a contract worth more than my yearly income. That person took the severe hit and pushed on. Very little lamentation and no loss of motivation.
Honestly, it was exhausting trying to keep up with these people. But these were the types of humans I want to run with. Metaphorically. A few were competitive marathon runners. There was an independent spirit in the conference attendees coupled with a drive that waited for nobody, never asked permission, and made opportunities for themselves.
Yes, I was totally out of my league, but that’s exactly what I wanted. A shift. A different scene. A new approach to my writing. I don’t know if I’ll become a freelance writer, though now I see a path. What I do know is my writing has improved. Maybe not in the words or structure, but in the passion and motivation. There are no external gatekeepers holding me back, or validating my work. It is and always has been solely me. It’s only ever me and the amount of work I’m willing to put into the things I want to be.
The funniest part, these non-fiction people said they thought fiction was impossible. The way I know them, the only thing impossible is seeing through their own illusions. Now I’m sure that’s the greatest barrier for me to work around, as well.