For those of you just joining us, this past fall I spent a week traveling to visit friends in Austin and to attend the Garden Writers Association symposium in Oklahoma City, where I agreed to be part of a team presenting on garden blogs. My original intention was to chronicle my entire trip from airport departure on September 26th to airport arrival on October 2nd, giving a detailed account of each day. Fortunately for my readers, I have been way too busy for that, else I fear I’d be the online equivalent of the overly enthusiastic tourist, subjecting her friends to interminable slides of palm trees in Florida. However, I did have several requests in the comments section for an account of the Garden Blog presentation I did with three other members of the GWA. So, here goes.
Mary Ann got me into this
I occasionally help Mary Ann Newcomer with Idaho Gardener. She, in turn, had always encouraged me to start going to GWA meetings, and I always whined about how I couldn’t afford it. But then last winter her tune changed. She started telling me how she sang my praises to Debra Prinzing (a member of the GWA board of directors), and that I was going to be asked to be on a panel on garden blogs for the symposium.
Well, it was only a rumor at that point, but it got me to thinking. If I was going to explain blogging to a bunch of garden writers, what would I tell them? The ideas came fast and furious, so I got up out of bed, went downstairs to the computer, and started typing away. (Yes, I do my best thinking at night, in bed, when I should be sleeping.) One thing I have learned in my life, is that good ideas do not stay around in my head forever. It’s best to get them out of my head and into a more permanent form as soon as they show up. They can always be changed or discarded entirely later on, and it definitely helps avoid the “blank sheet of paper” brain freeze. For a writer, it’s like money in the bank, saved up for a rainy day.
Although the email inviting me to be part of a panel discussion on garden blogs was sent to me in Februrary, the panel’s roster wasn’t finalized until early June. Debra, the moderator of our panel, submitted the original proposal for the discussion. Mary Ann and David Perry, a photographer, were the other panelists. I uploaded my previously typed up thoughts to a Google doc, and shared the link with them. But we were all busy, and the symposium wasn’t until the end of September.
We attempt to get organized
At the end of August Debra set up a conference call, and we finally made our first attempts at getting our act together. We discovered we couldn’t have wireless access for our presentation, so we were going to have to use screenshots of our blogs to make our points. At the time we were all disappointed, but from my perspective it wound up being a good thing.
I volunteered to prepare the handout. I had thought from the very beginning that one hour wasn’t nearly enough time to say all that should be said about blogging, and I figured it was up to the handout to make up the difference. We were allowed three sheets of paper, and our handouts were due into the GWA office in two weeks if we were to take advantage of free duplicating and distribution. I compiled the handout from my extensive collection of bookmarks, along with a few new sites that I discovered as I verified my bookmarks, or via Google as I filled in the gaps in my bookmark collection. This is one time when my Google doc came in handy, as it reminded me of topics I wanted to include. By the time I was finished, a person reading through all the links on the handout would know more than I know about blogging–because I included some sites I have yet to read myself.
After I submitted the handout, I had about two weeks to get all my screenshots ready–in between obsessing about packing and other travel arrangements. This forced me to figure out what I was going to say, because I had to know what to take screen shots of, and in what order they should be displayed during the presentation. Since I was also working on the GWA website task force, running a household and making arrangements for the household to run without me, blogging, and gardening, the temptation to put things off until later was overwhelming. I can’t remember now what got short shrift, but those screen shots did get done.
The Night Before
We scheduled a dress rehearsal in Debra’s hotel room for 5pm the night before we were to give the presentation. Debra sat with her laptop at the desk, and we took turns sitting next to her, going over our section of screen shots. While we waited our turn, we perused the proofs of Debra’s forthcoming book. David cracked jokes. Mary Ann started writing out her lines for tomorrow. And I chafed, because it was the last night of the trade show, the last night to get free plants, and she who had deprived herself of plants to come to this gig was determined to get her fair share. All right, more than her fair share. Debra finally had pity on me and suggested I go down to the trade show and come back later to finish up.
The Morning Of
“Later” turned out to be the next morning; our presentation was scheduled for 10:30am. Our breakfast meeting ended early, so I scooted up to Debra’s room to review the order of my screen shots. Something seemed to be missing, so I made a note to change my presentation, and dashed out to catch the last bus leaving for the tours. The idea was that these chartered buses would follow a predetermined loop, and you could get off at any stop, and get back on and continue around the loop to another stop. Only problem was, our bus was a last minute addition, and the driver started on the loop in the opposite direction of all the other buses. It seemed that we were on the bus forever before it stopped at the garden I wanted to see, which was spectacular, well worth a trip on its own, but too small to sustain a visit from the entire symposium itself.
I was almost late
From there I was able to walk to the next garden, charming enough, but I was starting to get uneasy. I hadn’t seen one bus shuttle through since I had arrived at the first garden. Where were the buses? When they came, would there be room for me? I wondered if I would make it back in time for the presentation. I heard the bus before I saw it, and I hurried to the curb and made sure I was on that bus. As I suspected, it arrived half full and left completely occupied. We drove past a large group waiting at the first garden. They would have to wait for a following bus, but at least they weren’t scheduled to give a presentation in approximately fifteen minutes.
I walked briskly into the hotel lobby and took the stairs to the second floor meeting rooms, not trusting the elevator to be available and unoccupied. As I entered the rapidly filling room, I saw Mary Ann, David, and Debra already sitting at the table up front, looking very relieved at my appearing. I had known Debra was going to skip the morning tour, but apparently David and Mary Ann had cut theirs short, David making some comment about not being as calm before the talk as I was. Ha! I wasn’t calm or confident, just naively trusting that the symposium organizers would get me back in time, as they had for every other event. I had been nervously energetic all morning, and it was only the first-timer’s fear of missing something that had spurred me onto the bus earlier that morning.
The presentation begins
Debra introduced us and outlined the program. Mary Ann went first. She described how she used her blog to connect gardeners all over her sparsely populated state. Then David opened his segment with this quote from The Old Man and Lesser Mortals:
Writers and prostitutes grow accustomed to being asked why they do the things they do. There is no easy answer. Of the two trades, writing appears the more mysterious simply because there seem fewer sane reasons to take it up.
That really got the audience’s attention. However much they enjoy gardening, these professional communicators are usually hired to communicate someone else’s message, not their own. Someone else determines the length, the style–even the topic. And quite often it is significantly changed after they’re done, by whoever hired them. David’s point, which he illustrated with many hilarious examples from his blog, was that you get to pursue your own vision, present your own message, on your blog. I envied his relaxed manner, his natural way with the audience. He had them in the palm of his hand.
Then it was my turn. I opened by saying it was my first symposium, and my first public speaking since high school. (That made me feel better, even if it did nothing for my presentation.) First I defined hosting, server, and domain name. Then I displayed a spreadsheet with various expense scenarios, illustrating that webhosting for a year doesn’t cost any more than what many people spend on a hobby for a month. (Assuming you already have a computer and internet access, of course.) I went through the elements or structure of a blog, from top to bottom, using screen shots of my own blog as an example. “This is the header. It’s the first thing people see, so you want it to be attractive yet simple. Here’s my tagline…” and so on. I showed them the admin side of my blog, so they could get an idea of how easy it was to post. Frankly, I don’t think you would have learned anything new from listening to me. Most, if not all of it, could be picked up by reading half a dozen blogs.
All too soon, our assistant moderator sitting in the first row was lifting a sign that said 5 MINUTES. I immediately lopped off a whole section of my talk and starting talking faster. Then the dreaded 1 MINUTE sign appeared before my eyes, and I wrapped things up as best I could. We answered a few questions from the audience, and Debra dismissed the group. Jeff Lowenfels yelled, “You did good!” from the back of the room. A few people came up to the front to ask further questions, and to compliment us on our presentation. Throughout the rest of the symposium, strangers came up to me with compliments or other expressions of appreciation. Of course, none of them remained strangers for long.
Recording and handout available
If you want to, you can purchase a recording of the presentation from GWA. It is the audio portion only and costs $15 plus $5 shipping. However, I think the most valuable part of the presentation was the handout I developed, and you can just bookmark that and access it as needed. I’ve so far resisted buying myself a copy, as I know I will cringe at the sound of my own voice. However, I’m sure my mother would be delighted to have a copy, since she wasn’t able to be in the audience. She’s so proud of me.