Lessons from Eat, Write, Retreat

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By Emily Paster

I spent last weekend in Philadelphia attending the Eat, Write, Retreat conference for food bloggers. Although I have attended several blogger conferences in the past few years, Eat, Write, Retreat was my first food-focused conference and I loved every minute of it. The conference was small and intimate; everyone attended the same sessions and events all weekend long, which meant that 1) I was never conflicted about the "right" place to be at a given time — something that happens to me at larger conference — and 2)  it was possible to get to know the other attendees well.

The conference was full of informative sessions on topics such as writing, photography, networking, technical stuff like SEO and analytics and time management. The organizers also treated us to some food and drink-themed workshops, including a canning demonstration from my friend Marisa McClellan of the blog Food in Jars, a fascinating presentation on mushroom farming from the Mushroom Council, a water tasting with Gerolsteiner mineral water and some tips on grilling potatoes from two lively and knowledgeable cookbook authors, Judith Fertig and Karen Adler, better known as the BBQ Queens.

Some of you may recall that I created an appetizer using potatoes as part of the Eat, Write, Retreat Amazing Apps Culinary Challenge. The winners of the challenge were announced at the Saturday evening cocktail party sponsored by California Figs, California Raisins, California Olives and the US Potato Board. Alas, my appetizer did not win — looking at the dish that did win, I think I should have made something more like a hors d'oeuvre than a plated appetizer — but I did enjoy a killer view of downtown Philadelphia and I scored two stuffed California raisins to bring home to JR and Zuzu. Lest you feel sorry for me, I did win several other prizes over the course of the weekend, including an OXO salad-themed gift set, consisting of a salad spinner — that was tricky to get home — a salad dressing shaker, and salt and pepper grinders, and a basket of delicious baked goods from the online bakery Keep It Sweet Desserts.

Much of what I learned at Eat, Write, Retreat is pretty specific to food bloggers, but some of the lessons, particularly those on networking and time management, have general application. So, I am going to share some of these more general lessons here. So, without further introduction, here are my Top Five Lessons from Eat, Write Retreat:

Top Five Lessons from Eat, Write, Retreat (plus free bonus lesson!)

  1. Sometimes the universe hands you an unexpected gift. On Friday night, as I was heading downstairs for the opening night of Eat, Write, Retreat, the hotel elevator doors opened and there stood Tracy, one of my best friends from high school and one of my all-time favorite people in the world. We gaped at each other in disbelief for a minute and then started screaming and crying. (I gather some of the other people on the elevator attempted to shush us to no avail.) Tracy doesn't live in Philadelphia; I don't live in Philadelphia; neither of us grew up in Philadelphia. Yet, we bumped into each other in a hotel elevator in downtown Philadelphia. What are the odds of that happening? We were both booked for the weekend — Tracy was in town for a reunion — but we managed to carve out an hour for coffee the next morning. An unexpected visit with a dear friend is a gift indeed.
  2. Work in uninterrupted 90-minute chunks. This was a great tip from Debbie Koenig's presentation on time management. For those of us who work at a computer, there are so many distractions a click away: email, social media, online shopping. If you are constantly checking email or Facebook, you waste precious time and never get into a rhythm with what you are working on. Debbie recommends working without any distractions for 90 minutes and then taking a real break. As this article from the New York Times explains, 90 minutes is the optimum amount of time for maximizing productivity. I tried this trick this week when working on a freelance article and was amazed by how much I wrote in 90 minutes.
  3. Routines are your friend. This is another great tip from Debbie Koenig. She writes for multiple media outlets as well as being a wife and mother. Debbie created a schedule that lays out the days she will write for her own site and the days she will write for other sites. That way she is able to balance each commitment and never wastes time wondering, "what should I do today?" Personally, I struggle with balancing this blog, my freelance writing, the Chicago Food Swap, volunteer commitments and, oh yes, my family. I am going to try creating a weekly schedule with specific times allotted for each commitment and seeing if that helps.
  4. Networking is like fitness: you have to do it regularly to see results.  These wise words came from food writer and editor, Joy Manning. I needed to hear every single word of her session on successful networking. Scales fell from my eyes as Joy spoke. I was simply not thinking about networking the right way. Networking is not about a quid pro quo exchange. It is about building relationships, helping other people and sharing. To keep your networking muscles in shape, Joy recommends creating a networking journal and starting a daily practice of building relationships. Send a fan letter, congratulate someone, comment on a blog post, or share something on social media. Invite people to coffee or lunch not because you want something from them but because you want be friends with them. Who knows where those friendships might lead? And just like fitness, with networking you have to be patient. It takes time to see results.
  5. The road to success is paved with thank you notes. This was another gem from Joy's session on networking. This particular tip is in my blood. My beloved father never missed a chance to send a thank you note, a congratulations or a note of sympathy. And people loved him for it. When my dad died, a family friend sent me a condolence note in which she repeated the words my father had written her in a condolence note years earlier. That was how much his note meant to her. In this age of email and Facebook and Twitter, a handwritten note stands out and the recipient will remember you. I love this tip so much that I am giving personalized stationery as a graduation gift from now on

Special bonus lesson: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is my husband's favorite aphorism.  Joy had a slightly different spin on it. She said that you can spend your time and energy crafting the perfect persona or you can connect with other people, but not both. No one connects with a perfect person.  As someone who has trouble showing vulnerability — that is a professional assessment, by the way — I need to remember that my perfectionism can come at the cost of forging authentic connections. Perfectionism can also be paralyzing.  As Joy said, you can spend hours drafting the perfect email to an editor, or you can spend that same amount of time sending five good-enough emails to five different editors. Which is a better use of your  time?

I came away from Eat, Write, Retreat with these helpful and inspiring lessons plus many, many more. But the best thing about Eat, Write, Retreat was the undeniable feeling that I was with my people. Food people are my tribe. On Saturday night, after the cocktail party, I went out to dinner with five other women from the conference, none of whom I had met before. We found a random Chinese restaurant that had enough actual Chinese people in it to inspire confidence. Over a surprisingly good platter of dumplings, cold pork belly and Peking duck, we talked about our blogs, our families, and our aspirations. When the conversation turned to how much duck eggs cost in our respective areas, I knew that I was with the right group of women. So a special shout-out to my tablemates Susan, Kelly, Ruthy, Erin and Sherron.

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