Lessons Learned


Did you miss me? I’ve done something I haven’t done in a long time – I went on a 12-day vacation! Well, some of it was a working vacation, but it was fun anyway. I was in Alabama for the National Federation of Press Women conference, including a civil rights tour of Birmingham the morning before the conference and an Alabama writers tour after the conference. It was action packed for time off, with days starting at 7 AM and ending at 10 PM - or later. I loved every minute of it!

The conference was filled with beloved old friends, fun new friends, excellent speakers, good food and lively celebrations. (Any my oh my, do these women know how to party.) We had classes on writing, using new media, maintaining professionalism, legal considerations and grant writing. Talking to these smart, professional writers and communicators was exciting, and has given me a lot to think about.

The literary tour moved from Birmingham, to Montgomery, Mobile and the Gulf Shores, staying just ahead of the rains from the hurricane that hit Florida. We saw too many sites to list, but a few of my favorites were the Hank Williams Museum, the Monroeville Courthouse from To Kill a Mockingbird, a Delta River tour of the Mobile Tensaw Delta and meeting “Stick,” a real-life character from Fanny Flagg’s Redbird Christmas. The tour and food was amazing. Big kudos to the Alabama Press Women member and fierce woman, Verna Gates, who organized the tour. She’s won the Liars Contest twice at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and she sure could tell some whoppers, as well as lots of true, interesting facts about Alabama. (Here’s her book, 100 Things to Do in Birmingham Before You Die.)

This is "Stick"

Travel, and being around inspirational people, broadens the mind. This trip was incredibly informative and I’m still processing what I learned. It was also very emotional; joyous and sorrowful. I’m still sorting that out too.

Here’s what I learned:

Value your people. Since I’ve attended this conference for 10 years, I’ve made lots of dear friends I see in person only once a year at conference, like my adopted mom, Marlene. I deeply missed seeing some of my dear ones, like Betty and Clara who couldn’t make it this year for health reasons. And Nancy, who was on a book tour and theater production of one of her works. My mother and I attend this conference together every year we can, and that makes it even better. I love our time together and am fortunate to have her to myself for a little while. Being around my mother helps me understand just how much she’s inspired me. We’re a lot alike, though she is sassier than me.

Here I am with my adopted mom, Marlene

Celebrate your history. History shows the glory and the pain of great growth, and although it can be heartbreaking, we must celebrate the victories. This year we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the National Federation of Press Women, helping many women realize their dream of becoming a professional writer. Being in Birmingham, and going on the civil rights tour, was a reminder how cruel people can be to each other. Alongside the sad stories were many victorious, inspirational stories of how one person can make a difference and change the world, if they’re willing to champion a cause with courage. I imagine that’s how it felt when women first came together to start NFPW.

Writing is hard. Just like painters and musicians, writers are compelled to create. There is no choice. Writing is a solitary sport, taking a lot of concentration for introspection. Maybe that’s why so many writers lose touch with their sanity, as I was reminded as I toured the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald house in Montgomery. The highlight of the conference for me was listening to Rick Bragg, an incredible southern writer talk about the art of writing and how to write with color, imagery and detail. A hilariously colorful speaker, Rick told us there is no muse for writers. That our muses are “hairy, ugly, goat-like creatures” and you can’t wait for them to show up. He’s not alone. Everyone I know that writes think it’s hard, but we don’t care because the more you write, the easier it gets, and we don’t have a choice.

Sometimes your heroes aren’t that heroic. Learning about the lives of authors I love was enlightening. I heard stories of the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s antics and the downfall of their brilliance. In Monroeville a panel of experts told us stories about the writers Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Truman Capote (A Christmas Memory, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and In Cold Blood), including some not so flattering stories from an elderly gentleman who knew the two when they were kids. I always want people I admire to be the kind of person I’d like to hang out with. That isn’t always true.

Panel of experts on Lee and Capote

Keep an open mind. Media is constantly changing. Listening to experts who are up on all the latest ways to use social media and other tools, and taking their advice is important. One thing I learned on my trip is that Tuesday is a better day to send emails and post blogs, so from now on, expect to see my newsletter in your inbox on Tuesday, instead of Friday. Many of my far-flung friends told me how much they wish they could come to Finishing School classes, so I’ve decided to research how I can offer some distance learning classes in 2018.

Deal with it. Things rarely work out the way you think they will, and the trip home was no exception. Stupid flight time errors, luggage complications, coming down with a cold on the flight home, and complete schedule upheaval when I returned, was not how I wanted to end my vacation. Some of it was due to my stupid slip-ups, which gave me the opportunity to practice what I preach, telling my inner critic, “woo hoo,” in celebration of my mistakes. Even though none of this was the end of the world, it has been a comedown. After a brief pity party, I’m working to put everything into perspective. My friend Betty couldn’t make it to the conference, because she had a heart attack the day before she was to leave for conference. When I complained about how crappy the pillows were at the hotel on Facebook, her comment was, “Jill, if that is the only problem at hand…breathe deeply.” She’s smart. I’m going to listen to her.

Breathe deeply

Happy to be home,

Headmistress Jill

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