Monday, July 15, 2013

Travelling 17,135km to attend a Conference

27 – 30th June 2013

Catching a bus on New York’s 5th Avenue, I made my way to the Port Authority Bus terminal and boarded a Peter Pan Bus to Hartford. The seats were comfortable and the two and a half hour trip passed quickly. Arriving in Hartford, it was only a short, ten-minute walk lugging my luggage from the bus depot to the Hartford Hilton where I was staying.
Always a welcome sight to any traveller

After registering for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) conference, I relaxed for an hour or so in my room before taking a deep breath and heading down to the lobby to meet other NSNC members.

Suzette and I recognised each other immediately from our Facebook photos and she quickly introduced me to a number of other members as we walked to the City Steam Brewery for dinner.

Just a small selection of inspirational people I met that first evening included: Bill Tammeus, former faith columnist for the Kansas City Star and his wife Marcia; Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, recipient of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for international journalism and former foreign correspondent with The New York Times; Mike Morin, columnist and radio personality from New Hampshire and his lovely fiancé Barbara; hilarious Long Island resident and humour columnist with the Stamford Advocate, Jerry Zezima; Bob Haught NSNC Newsletter Editor and his wife, Mary; Dorothy Rosby, self-syndicated humour columnist from Rapid City, South Dakota; and Eric Heyl, President of the NSNC.

It seemed quite surreal; almost two years ago I had bought Suzette’s book, The Art of Column Writing (after googling “How to be a columnist”) and here I was in late June 2013, on the other side of the world, meeting the beautiful Suzette for the first time and attending the 37th NSNC Conference in Hartford, Connecticut.

The City Steam Brewery (est. 1997) is housed in the historically important 1877 Cheney Building designed by noted American architect, Henry Hobson Richardson.
Cheney Building, Hartford CT
Our delicious buffet dinner was washed down with samples of their famous beer, The Naughty Nurse. Afterwards we made our way back to the Hilton and the NSNC Hospitality Suite on the seventeenth floor for more socialising… or… networking, as we like to state in our tax returns.
City Steam, what can I say? They make good beer.

The next day the conference began with an opening address by NSNC President Eric Heyl. A hilarious keynote speech by Dave Leiber kept us entertained for forty-five minutes as he shared the formula for amazing storytelling. Author, international speaker and consumer columnist for the Dallas Morning News and former columnist for twenty years with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dave’s address was a true indication of the quality of speakers lined up for the entire conference program.
2013 NSNC Conference attendees listening to the entertaining Jerry Zezima

Just before lunch, columnist, author, contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul books and radio personality with more than forty years experience in New York City, Boston and currently, New Hampshire, Mike Morin shared how to pitch a book to media personalities and show producers. He explained what makes a good interview guest on radio and gave us tips on public speaking.

Our lunch at The Kitchen at Billings Forge included a roll call of the states by former New York Times columnist, Diane Ketcham. Conference attendees stood up and briefly introduced themselves; fellow colonial, Dan St. Yves, freelance writer for the Calgary Herald in Canada and I were the only international representatives.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known as Mark Twain, made Hartford his family home from 1874 until 1891 and it was here he wrote some of his greatest works, including one of Max, Sam and Henry’s favourite bedtime stories: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
With Suzette outside Mark Twain's family home

After lunch we were treated to a tour of his fascinating house and museum. That evening, our keynote speaker was legendary American advice columnist, Heloise. Her long running daily column, Hints from Heloise is published nationally in over five hundred newspapers.
Heloise with Jerry Zezima

Our lunchtime keynote speaker on the second full day was author and columnist, Professor Gina Barreca. Her lunchtime address had us all in stiches and I laughed until I cried. Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Gina writes regularly for The Huffington Post; The Hartford Courant (the oldest continually published newspaper in the United States); Psychology Today as well as appearing on The Today Show; CNN; 20/20; 48 Hours; the BBC and Oprah.
Professor Gina Barreca

Over the course of the conference we heard from nearly twenty different speakers and writers, with each one bringing different gems of wisdom to tuck into our writing toolkits. Certainly, I have never attended a conference that I have enjoyed more than this one.

My small contribution was to donate to the NSNC scholarship fund’s silent auction: the latest copy of R.M. Williams Outback Magazine (that featured Arbuthnot’s 1889 Red Gum Sawmill in Koondrook; across the river from Barham), two packets of Tim Tam chocolate biscuits, a jar of Vegemite and a hipflask of Bundaberg Rum.

I’m sure more than a few people (including Hawaiian shirt-clad, Stu Bykofsky from the Philadelphia Daily News) suspected I might be a few chops short of a barbie, to travel 17,135km from Barham, Australia to Hartford, USA, just to attend the NSNC Conference.

However, I met so many talented, entertaining and inspirational writers from across the country, my only hope is to manifest a way to return for next year’s NSNC Conference being held in Washington DC and meet up with them all again. 

This has definitely been an incredible life experience, I will forever look back on and think, “I can’t believe I did that.” As opposed to, “I wish I’d done that.”

 - Annie Barr

A selection of NSNC Award Winners: L-R: Kevin McKeever, Telly Halkias, Dave Barry, Dave Leiber,
Samantha Bennett, Ginger Truitt, Amanda Beam and Suzette Standring.


  1. Excellent piece. You've captured so many moments and memories with perfection. The meeting was so much more fun by having you there, and all your new friends miss you!

    1. Thank you Suzette. The conference was a credit to you, Bob and Luenna and all the other helpers. Brilliantly run, excellent value for money and with top class speakers. For a nation of 300million people, I am mystified why you didn't have more writers and columnists attending... however, it was great for the 80 or 90 of us that did as we got to meet and talk to nearly everyone!!

    2. PS: I am missing my new friends too!

  2. Great column, Annie! A delight meeting you!

    1. Thank you Cathy and likewise, it was great meeting you!

  3. Annie, what a wonderful tribute. We did not get to meet, but I am the guy with the Santa Claus beard in your pic above. I loved this piece; please please please don't be a stranger! best, Telly

    1. Thank you Telly - I had to zoom in on that photo to read your name tag! Well done again on your award for great writing. My only regret about the NSNC Conference was - it wasn't long enough to meet everyone.

  4. Pleasure to meet someone who traveled so far. And thanks for the Vegemite. I'll continue to spread it thin. Cheers ... k

    1. Thank you Kevin - I wondered who ended up the lucky recipient of the Vegemite!! Congratulations again on your NSNC award.

    2. I figured Stu would be pay a king's ransom for the rum you brought, so Vegemite seemed more in my range.

    3. The rum of course is worth every penny ...or dollar... and combined with your American Coca-Cola it is a match made in heaven but Vegemite is an equally noble epicurean investment - once you understand it is NOT to be layered thickly on bread like peanut butter but rather lightly smeared across your fresh buttered bread or toast, so you can truly appreciate the not so subtle flavours of yeast extract :)