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On Writing. Plus: Blog hop! Showcasing some of my favorite bloggers

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Maureen Jenkins (aka Urban Travel Girl) asked me if I’d participate in a “blog hop.”

I’d heard about this whole blog hop thing on the blogging circuit, and as I watched it make its way from one blog friend to the next, I was impressed by the momentum I saw chain-linking around the world.

Also, I adore Maureen. We met on a trip to Pamplona, Spain and I am in awe of her travels and her impressive career (check out her bio below and you’ll see why). Plus, knowing that Maureen works a full-time job, while also freelancing and traveling, I knew I had absolutely no excuse not to do a blog hop if she was asking me to do it.

So here we are.

For those who aren’t yet familiar with blog hoppery, here’s the deal. In order to participate, I agreed to recruit three other bloggers to join in and keep the hop going. I’ll be answering a handful of questions about my writing, below. When I’m done bloviating (or would that be blogviating?), you’ll find links to five (yes, five!) blogs. One is Maureen’s, the others belong to four of my favorite bloggers who agreed to keep the hop hopping. (I went above and beyond the requisite three, because why stop at the minimum, right?).

Here are my musings on my muses:

1) What am I working on/writing?

In April, I wrapped up work on my biggest and most challenging project to date: I wrote the Frommer’s Easy Guide to Chicago, which will be out next month (!). It was an enormous amount of work/labor of love, and I’m really proud of the book. I feel like I earned an advanced degree in Chicago studies in the process, as I toured multiple hotels a day (eight was my record) and ate my face off anywhere and everywhere, often sneaking in a double dinner along the way.

Since the book has been put to bed, I’ve been working on all kinds of assignments. Recently, I started writing for the site Schools.com and am working on a couple of pieces for them on great places to go to college, whether majors matter, etc. In other arenas: Last week, I published a piece on a holistic nursing care facility that’s doing some forward-thinking work in Vermont. In the last few months, I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing for Crain’s (most recently this piece on artisinal ice). I’ve been writing up a storm for a site by GM, called DrivetheDistrict.com (to wit: Punch is the New Martini in Chicago) and some other clients I have through Contently, including Chevy, a site by Zillow called Hot Pads, and Ancestry.com. I just wrapped up my first piece for Hemispheres magazine (more on that when it publishes in September) and another super cool travel piece I can’t yet talk about is running soon in the Chicago Tribune. Oh, and I just found out that a piece I wrote recently about a Memphis sno cone stand for the Washington Post ran in New Zealand (I think the editors over there should give me a regular Americana column). And I’ve been working on a couple of books, both of which are ghostwritten, so I can’t go into the details. But I will say that in the future, I’d love to work on more books.

2) How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

Genre? Ha! I used to think that I had a particular specialty, but that was more than 7 years ago, when I worked on staff at a magazine, and could just about always write about whatever I wanted. And I did! Highlights from my Vegas years included worm-farm schemes, wedding chapel wars, bike-alongs with Mormon missionaries, testing “safe rooms,” hanging out with a pig farmer, embedding myself in Mary Kay cosmetics and the list goes on. Back then, I considered my genre the “freak beat,” because of my love of subcultures and modern anthropology. But all that’s changed since I went off on my own. It’s harder to sell those pieces as a freelancer, so I feel like I’ve channeled my study of humans into food and travel writing, while also working on culture, education and wellness pieces. My true love, though, will always be in-depth profile pieces that examine what makes someone tick.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I think that all writers share a sense of curiosity and our profession allows us to explore that, dignity in tact (for the most part). So many of my stories have started out with an “I wonder if….” “Why does….” kind of conversation. As a writer, I can explore those questions and answer them, while throwing out a cool word like bloviate along the way. A lot of times, I really think that my reporter’s notepad acts as my security blanket, and lets me into parties and situations where I maybe wouldn’t otherwise be. It keeps me removed, but involved at the same time. But most of all, I can always say “it’s for a story” to make myself seem less weird.

4) How does my writing process work?

A lot of writers love the rush of deadlines. I hate that rush. I do everything I can to avoid it and usually turn assignments in considerably early (example: this is supposed to publish Thursday. I’m putting it up on Tuesday. And this is voluntary/fun). I’m a planner, in general, so if an assignment comes my way, I usually start working on it as soon as humanly possible. I do whatever interviews/research/site visits are necessary, and then I close myself into a completely quiet room, shut out the world and write, write, write. Usually, there are interruptions for carbs–chocolate, chips, whatever is in the house. Sometimes I sneak a nap in. Or maybe a run. But when I’m working on a big story or project, I plan ahead and clear my schedule entirely for the day or two–no phone calls, nothing–and plug away.

Looking back at the guidebook writing, the biggest challenge was the immensity of the work at hand. The research, itself, was challenging enough. And then came the writing. We’re talking in the 70,000+ word range. So day after day, week after week, I would work work work work work, and still not feel like I was making any progress, because there was just so much left still to do. But I did it–ahead of schedule, too (by a couple of days). Today, I’m still amazed at how easy it is to write a 1,500- or 2,000-word feature. Prior to the guidebook, it seemed much more overwhelming.

And now, meet my chosen blog hoppers! Check out their fabulous blogs and revisit soon, they’ll be recruiting their own bloggers and answering these same questions.

 

Maureen Jenkins

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Maureen Jenkins is an award-winning writer, freelance Travel and Lifestyles journalist, and global Communications professional who’s visited nearly 35 countries and territories. This citizen of the world also has lived in Florence, Italy, and spent a year living in Samois-sur-Seine, a charming village near Paris. Maureen muses about all things travel-related—whether outside the United States or near her native Chicago—in “TCW Travel Connection,” a blog she writes for Today’s Chicago Woman magazine. A passionate believer in the ability of travel to not only transform the way we see the world, but ourselves, she encourages black women to “live globally through international travel” in her personal blog, UrbanTravelGirl.com. During her career, Maureen’s work has appeared in online and print publications including CNN.com, About.com Luxury Travel, EBONY and Jet Magazines, Ebony.com,
Black Enterprise, Working Mother, Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, Today’s Chicago Woman, The Oregonian, Arizona Republic, and the Charlotte Observer.

Lisa Lubin

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Lisa Lubin is an established travel/food writer and three-time Emmy® -award winning TV producer. She is a travel industry expert and has appeared on WGN-TV and Good Morning America. After more than a decade in broadcast television she took a sabbatical of sorts which turned into nearly three years traveling and working her way around the world.  She documents her (mis)adventures on her blog, LLworldtour.com, with photographs, videos, and articles from the road/train/rickshaw/camel.  Her writing and photography has been published by American Way Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian, the Malibu Times, Encyclopedia Britannica, Orbitz, and Huffington Post.  Lisa also owns LLmedia, a media & video consulting business. She has spoken about video and journalism at several conferences including the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), the World Travel Market in London, the New York Travel Fest, the Women in Travel Summit, and “Visit Russia” in Yaroslavl.

Katie Morell

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Katie Morell is a professional writer with more than 10 years of experience. Based in San Francisco, she writes about a variety of topics ranging from entrepreneurship and general business issues to travel and health. Her background includes working as a Detroit-area crime reporter, political correspondent from Michigan’s capitol and editor at a national business travel magazine. Katie entered the world of freelance writing about five years ago and today writes for USA Today, Hemispheres, American Express OPEN Forum, Consumer’s Digest, Diversity Woman and Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, among others. Her work also includes ghostwriting, blogging for companies and corporate communications. Katie’s first book, Stolen Identity: What Everyone With a Name, Birthdate and Social Security Number Needs to Know Now, was released in July 2014. For more on Katie, visit www.katiemorell.com.
Judith Nemes
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Judith Nemes is a freelance journalist with more than 20 years experience writing news stories and features for many consumer and business publications including the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today’s Green Living Magazine, Michigan Avenue Magazine, Edible Chicago and GreenBiz.com. In recent years, her work has focused on green/environmental issues and urban/corporate sustainability. She also writes abut food, travel, health care, and general business topics. She recently wrote a weekly column online for Crain’s Chicago Business called “Green Scene” that covered the local green economy. She also writes for corporate, trade group, and non-profit publications and has been a ghost blogger for corporate executives. She’s an Adjunct Professor in the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago, and a board member and officer of the Association of Women Journalists — Chicago. She received an M.A. in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., and a B.A. at Vassar College. Check out her web site: http://judithnemes.com/ and follow her on Twitter @JudithNemes and Google+: JudithNemes.
Science of Parenthood Blog (Jessica Ziegler and Norine Dworkin-McDaniel)
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Science of Parenthood was created by writer Norine Dworkin-McDaniel and illustrator/web developer Jessica Ziegler. Once upon a time, Norine met Jessica at one of those “it stays in Vegas” holiday parties — which actually sounds a lot more salacious than it actually was. A little while later, Jessica had a kid. Then Norine had a kid. Then Norine began developing a series of science-y/parent-y ain’t-that-the-truth-isms. Then Jessica came in and scribbled all over them. And Science of Parenthood was born. Norine and Jessica are not Nobel Prize-winning scientists … though they play them on the blog. Fortunately, Norine and Jessica are both married to their own adorable geeks, who explain all this science-y stuff to them at those times when recalling the laws of thermodynamics on three hours of sleep is simply too tall an order.

The Unsanctioned Fireworks of Chicago’s Winnemac Park

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Photo by Neal Niemiec, http://seeyouatthefair.tumblr.com/

It’s that time of year again: the pyromania, the booms, the post-apocalyptic sense of wonder. In other words, the Unsanctioned Fireworks Display at Winnemac Park! This annual tradition of BYOF (bring your own fireworks) will blow you away.

Figuratively, I hope.

It’s far better than anything you’ll ever see, ever, at Navy Pier.

I wrote about it here for the site Drive the District.

What if elder care involved farm-to-table meals, herbal supplements and yoga? In Vermont, that’s how Living Well rolls….

One of my more interesting projects of late was writing the story of how a senior residential care facility in Vermont, called Living well, is using a farm-to-table approach to food, a naturopathic approach to medications (when possible), offering art and music therapy, along with yoga and tai chi to improve the lives of its residents and the model of elder care. 15 years ago, this would have seemed radical. Now, it makes a whole lot of sense.

When writing this, I found that I’d arrived at the story at just the right moment. Living Well, a non-profit that’s been operating for 10 years, had just purchased Ethan Allen, a traditionally run residential care facility. So I was able to speak with the nursing staff about what it was like to implement the holistic model, and how the residents responded.

Here’s the story of Living Well in Bristol, Vermont. 

Zipping through Chicago in an Indy Car

If you recently heard a window-shaking vroom! vroom! on the north side of Chicago, that might have been me, riding though town in the back seat of a street-legal Indy Car.

The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association came to Chicago to promote the new Indy Racing Experience, which puts you in the seat driver or passenger seat of a real race car, zipping around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Riding around Chicago, it was a blast watching people’s reactions. The best moment, hands down, was when a pair of twins asked if they could take a photo of the car, and then carefully positioned themselves in front of it, selfie-style. The worst part was getting stuck in traffic in a race car (sweet home, Chicago). All in all, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that makes me love my travel writing job.

 

TILT it! John Hancock Offers Newest Views of Chicago

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My hands are still slightly sweaty at the memory of standing on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Building, 1,000 feet over Chicago, and doing the last thing a reasonable person would want to do: tilting towards the ground.

This was at the unveiling of TILT, the new enclosed glass and steel movable observation box at 360 Chicago, engineered by the firm Thornton Tomasetti, which opens to the public Saturday, May 10 at 9 a.m.

Here’s what it’s like: I step into one of eight slots. Looking down, Matchbox cars zip along Michigan Avenue. Lake Michigan is a lovely cerulean blue. Then, there’s a whir that sounds like an airplane’s engines firing up. I grab the handles on the floor-to-ceiling windows in front of me, as the platform I’m standing on starts, well, tilting. I grip the bars tighter.

After what seems like an eternity, it pauses. There’s something completely irrational in my mind that is convinced that I’m making it move, and if I don’t stand completely still, all eight of us may fall to our deaths. Which is weird, because I actually didn’t expect the view to freak me out. But, as it moves again, I’m just a smidge freaked.

Pause. I grip the bars tighter, my arms holding me back. “Not such a terrible workout,” I think, gazing at my non-existent arm muscles, looking at my white-knuckled hands, looking at anything by the game of urban Frogger going on below.

And it starts moving again, this time at its fullest angle of about 30 degrees. It may not sound like much, but when you’re in that box, looking 1,000 feet down, hearing that jet-like whir, it’s enough to give those palms a little glaze, for what feels like the longest 30 seconds of your day.

 

Tilted

 

Tasting the Sweet and Spicy Side of Santa Fe with a Chocolate Elixir

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Earlier, I wrote about our spooky New Mexico experience, wherein a stranger got into our car after following us on a hiking trail about an hour outside of Santa Fe.

Lest you think our entire visit to Santa Fe was marked by creepery, it wasn’t! We had a blast, ate our faces off, hiked/ran/explored and all that good stuff. One of the highlights of the visit was a stop at Kakawa Chocolate House, a small cafe that creates historically accurate drinking chocolates. I spoke with the owner as well as the founder and wrote a piece about Kakawa that’s published in this weekend’s Washington Post. Check it out!

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What would you do if a stranger followed you into your car? We found out during a hike in New Mexico

The trails are too narrow to pass someone, unless they allow you.

The trails are too narrow to pass someone, unless they allow you.

It was Thanksgiving Day, and nearly 50 degrees in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The snow from a recent storm/cold snap was melting, and we had nothing on the docket but enjoying the outdoors. We drove down to Los Alamos to hike and stopped at Tsankawi, an ancestral pueblo village, that’s part of Bandelier National Monument, where we walked, heel to toe, along narrow foot paths and rocky ridges, climbing ladders to reach new heights and beautiful vista views.

There were few others along the 1.5-mile trail. We passed one older couple, greeting them as they ushered us ahead, and for at least a half hour, it felt as though we had the whole dwelling to ourselves. Neil walked a bit ahead of me, as we made our way across the slippery, ice-filled ground. But eventually, he slowed down because there was a man ahead of him who was walking/scrambling/scooting over the rocks and ice quite slowly. With such a narrow path, it’s impossible to pass anyone unless they want you to.

We came to a large rock with a ladder attached to it. This was where we’d climbed up, earlier, coming up the trail, and now it’s where we had to go down. Except there was one problem: the man was standing with his back to the ladder. Staring at us.

We busied ourselves. I walked over to the opposite side of the rock and looked down. Neil followed me. There had been one ladder we’d climbed where we had the option of scrambling up rocks instead.

“Is this the one that had the alternate route?” I asked Neil, loudly.

“No,” said Neil, just as loud, gazing at the ground 10 feet below. “We’ve got to take the ladder!”

We both looked at the guy, who then turned and, backwards, descended the ladder. We followed.

By now, we were about 100 yards from our car. It was the home stretch. But an inherently creepy feeling had settled in. I found myself looking at the man with a whole new scrutiny, trying to judge whether or not that creepy feeling was justified. He seemed to tilt to the side when he walked. Had a bit of a twitch. And he was making a pretty dedicated effort to maintain our same pace.

To our right, the bathrooms appeared and Neil announced that he was going to use the men’s room. I turned at the same time, planning to use the women’s room. The guy overheard us, and was now walking, double time, to get to there first. “Please let this be a single-room bathroom with a locking door,” I’m thinking to myself, worried, at this point, about the guy following Neil into the bathroom.

Time seemed to slow as the guy craned his neck while walking past and looked at me anxiously. I felt my hairs raise. That’s when I noticed that he was heading straight ahead, towards the women’s bathroom. I threw out my hand towards the bathroom in “be my guest” fashion, and said, “Go ahead.” I’m not sure the invitation mattered.

Neil finished up and came out, and I traded places with him. I could hear, next door, that the guy was no longer peeing, but I didn’t hear the door open. I dried my hands and when I opened my door,  he walked out of the women’s bathroom at the same time. Neil and I gave one another a look. At this point, we’d been within 10 feet of this guy for about the last half hour, but no words had been exchanged. We both wanted out of there.

We were closing in on the cars, so I started to jog along the path. Neil followed my lead, pretending to be a monster and faux chasing me (this is not out of character, actually). We got to the parking lot’s thigh-high post. Neil hopped it with ease, as I climbed over more slowly. I swear I felt someone breathing down my neck right then. My cheeks flushed in annoyance, and I actually stopped myself from turning around and saying, “Back the fuck off.”

But I figured, we’re here. Our car is within sight. It’s over. Right?

We walked through the parking lot, which is right next to the highway. We weren’t the only ones there. There was a car backing out in front of us, and another woman getting into her car a little further ahead. By all means, we should have started feeling safer now. But we didn’t. Because our car was last in the parking lot, and as we passed one car after another, the guy was still following us.

Until there were no cars left.

I was feeling pure adrenalin as I quickened my step towards the car. “Open the door, open the door,” I was trying to beam the message to Neil, who was holding the keys. He was on the same wavelength, and we both opened our doors in one quick swoop. As we both sat down, we went to lock the doors. That’s when the back door opened. And the man climbed in. And the man sat down.

We both turned around and start screaming, each with our own flair.

“Get the fuck out!” yelled Neil.

“Sir, you do not belong here!” I screamed, having no idea where the politeness came from. “Get out of the car, sir!”

And, thank god, he listened. He looked scared, in fact, and opened the door and got out. He stood next to the car with his hands in his pockets, like he’d just been scolded, and he paced. Neil and I locked the doors and looked at each other. “Did that just happen?” We tried to catch our collective breath.

Neil backed the car up a bit, ready to go, but waited, to make sure that the guy didn’t try to get into anyone else’s car. After a few minutes, I told him I thought we were ok to leave, and we pulled away. It’s all we talked about for the next few hours, and, in hindsight, we start putting things together. Like the realization that, being stuck behind the guy for so long, we’d actually had quite a while to study him: fair skin, long sleeve t-shirt and dad-style jeans, glasses.

In fact, in looking back, it seemed odd that he wouldn’t just stop to let us pass. We were carrying out a conversation at a normal tone, which, in the middle of the high desert, can come across quite loudly. It was as though he was following us, from the front.

Then there was the way that he’d waited in the bathroom. The realization that he’d actually run, following us, to the parking lot. The shock that a total and complete stranger got in our car with us and we couldn’t stop him.

And the relief that nothing actually happened.

I have no idea how you’re supposed to act in that situation. When do you decide to trust your instinct that something’s not right? On the trail? At the ladder? The bathroom? Even then, what’s next?

It actually makes me sad to think back to the image of the guy standing there, hands in pockets, pacing, like we’d scolded him. Clearly, his reality is different from ours. Things make sense to him in a different manner than they make sense to us.

In my gut, I don’t think he’d had any intent to harm us. But you never know, do you?

We ended up going on another hike after driving away from there. After the jitters left (well, most of them), Neil wondered if we should have called 911 and reported it, more for the guy’s sake, than for ours. I said I thought we did the right thing. I hate the idea of being responsible for a guy–who, ultimately, did nothing but really, really freak us out–getting locked up, or who knows what.

But there are two sides to every story.

What would you have done?

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