Nice Learning Curves: Matador U’s Travel Writing Course

It was with general trepidation and sheer stubbornness that I enrolled at Matador U. I couldn’t stand re-printing “take travel writing course” into my New Year’s Resolutions List, again. Instead, I re-copied “take ornithology course at Cornell University.” That one has made the coveted list as often as Susan Lucci and her dozen nominations.

I’ve taken a slew of writing courses before, and I kept hearing Caro Soles voice of reason (in response to a rabid course-enroller’s question about what she should sign up for next).“There comes a point where you have to stop taking classes and just write.” She may have said it more eloquently than that (actually, I bet $5 she did, because she was/is one of the most articulate instructors I’ve had. And, Caro articulated to me on several occasions that “chickens lay eggs, humans lie in bed, they do not LAY.” Life lessons were learned in her classroom).

During the winter semester at George Brown College in Toronto, I spent the afternoon learning “How To Write For Children.” By evening, I was sliding into a desk with a stiff coffee to listen to Brian Henry, a Harlequin books editor, impart his erotica-writing wisdom.

At Douglas College in New Westminster, BC, I cannonballed into the deep end of a program called “Print Futures Professional Writing Program” as my career as a massage therapist was beginning to rub me the wrong way after 10 years. During the admissions exam, I was tempted to silently back out of the sauna-like room. I was seated with a librarian who was whizzing through the test like she’d just taken a break from her Mensa social to see what simpler folk were doing.

Simpler folk were trying to determine what the hell an ‘independent clause’ might be. Could I identify it in a sentence? No. Could I describe it in one sentence? I tried. “An independent clause is what Mrs. Clause is sometimes referred to on Christmas Eve.” I was certain I was going to flunk out of the admissions test, so, I aimed for a weak smile from the program director in my attempts to be the funny flunker.

With a hot face and clammy hands I flashed back to the Farringdon Hill Enrichment Centre, age 8. I had been invited to join a weekly class for whizzes and braniacs, largely due to my oh-so-creative writing, NOT my math skills. However, I was attending the enrichment program with Richard Nott, who, was a bonified math magician. I know this because I copied every single one of his math test answers up until grade 9 and maintained an A+. In addition, his mother made the best ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies, everyday, in my memory. He always had six cookies in a Ziplock, to fuel his math-mad mind.

Anyway, seated amongst the mini-Mensa people on my first day at Farringdon, skeptical that my poetry about smiling pine trees and tales of cats in outerspace and cotton candy cloud-eating monsters had earned me a place, I found out that there had been a mistake. Marg Simpson (yes, really), our vibrant teacher with rose-tinted octagon-shaped glasses, asked if I could, so kindly, retrieve the ‘acetate markers’ for her. I wanted to drop dead. The mini-Mensa society stared at me and observed my actions like I was a zoo animal (about to barf and/or shit myself). Acetate markers? What the hell were those? Clearly I wasn’t smart enough for the enrichment class, I hadn’t been enriched enough!

Richard Nott, my source of chocolate chip cookies and fraction answers pointed out the acetates to me on the trolley of supplies. Panic attack postponed. Duh. They were markers for the overhead projector thingie.

Point is, it seems, I’ve always found myself strutting a little too peacocky into situations, like professional writing courses. They let me into Douglas, even though Mrs. Clause is not AKA the Independent Clause. And that librarian? Bless her heart AND the other precious librarian who I sat conveniently beside in the Technical Writing class. I was 32 and had no idea how to cut and paste. An url? What? Excuse me? Never heard of it. Why aren’t you pronouncing the “h”? And, how do I do italics again?

But, if you have passion in your bone marrow and steely guts, you can leap into such learning curves. Regardless, I would advise sitting close to the librarians if the opportunity presents itself (thank you, forever, Dee and Linda, though, I can’t recall a stinking thing about how to do a style sheet).

Not only did I learn how to cut and paste, in Joe Wiebe’s Writing For Magazines class I learned what a “bildungsroman” was. Yes, somebody actually used that in a sentence, out loud. It’s a coming-of-age story, and this is sort of my travel writing bildungsroman, if you will.

The intimidation factor of taking a new course is always lurking like dark chocolate in the drawer. The overwhelmed sensation is at the ready. Lean into it slightly, and it will happily swamp your once-rational world. The commitment to a course is a trial marriage. There’s a  honeymoon phase, self-doubt, upheaval, late nights, romantic notions , elation, future-dreaming and mucho wine-drinking.

Is there ever a good time to enroll in a course? No. There’s always real work to interfere, social engagements to distract, Pinterest, the cost, beaches in Belize, the Food Network, fatigue, shiny things, insomnia and books more interesting than course content.

But learning is good for the soul, brain matter and alma mater. Sometimes you learn what you don’t want to do (cranio-sacral treatments, homemade gnocchi, stained glass windows, technical writing—insert snoooore here). Other times you are immersed before you know it.

Matador U, the new media school created by (the world’s largest independent travel magazine) kept niggling its way into my web pages. Matador is the internet’s facsimile of the water cooler for travel writers and it continued to pop up like cupcake shops in downtown Toronto on my Twitter feed and Facebook. Hundreds of students worldwide had enrolled in the first two months. My high school prom date, the very handsome Mark Picketts, virtually introduced me via Facebook to a writing friend of his, Keph Senett, who was ironically taking the Matador Travel Writing course. He thought we’d get along like a house on fire, and in turn, that very fire ignited my concentrated writing again.

The glossy appeal of Matador U is that the course content is accessible for life. You can work your way through the curriculum assignments repeatedly if you choose. Each chapter is designed to propel you further into the industry with the lure of press trips, potential stints in Belize with the Road Warriors program (via the Belize Tourism Board), valuable networking opportunities with fellow students and links with National Geographic Traveler.

For $350 US, the 12 chapter course instantly throws you into the market. If you already have a blog, you’ll have a head start, as most assignments are posted in this format. Matador provides a blog space for you (“off the air”), but kickstarting your own domain and going public on is recommended.

You should be relatively disciplined and treat each week as a class that you have to attend. The chapters become available each Monday, and in addition to course work there is recommended reading. But, it’s the kind of stuff you’d want to read anyway, not the usual Shakespearean drudgery. There are links to hot travel bloggers, New Yorker articles, Modern Gonzo, tips from Anne Lamott and steady support from a swat team of pro writers and editor Julie Schwietert-Callazo.

Students are from all over the map: South Africa, Australia, China and also on the move to Peru, Thai hostels, Turkey and latitudes in between. The forums provide the perfect venue for grabbing feedback, collaborating, inspiration and harnessing possibility. Job leads, contests, grants and press trips are posted in the hub of the Market Forum. And, there’s always lively chatter spreading across the Twitter timelines between Matador U students and alumni.

It’s solid content and a concrete launching pad for a beginner or seasoned writer needing spark. Wonder how you can monetize your blog? How to land a press trip? Want to write for Lonely Planet? How much does a gig like that pay, anyway?

Yes, there’s a bounty of work, but it’s doable and fluid, and there’s a captive classroom to interact within and gain momentum from. The Introductions thread alone makes for a great late night read! I was impressed with the calibre of the writing of my colleagues, the differing travel itineraries and motivations, Julie’s insights and referrals and the grit of the assignments.

Think you’re ready to quit that dumb day job and call yourself a fancy freelancer? Can’t wait to see what you post in Chapter 7– Myths vs. Reality: 9 Things You Need to Know to Make Travel Writing Your Career.

If you have unbridled ambition and want to harness social media, talk amongst a talented niche group, get some insider scoop on branding, media kits, advertising and stretch yourself out of your writing rituals, Matador U deserves an investigation.


Find out more here:  Matador U Travel Writing Course, just as I did so innocently in October, on Keph’s page.

Life always unfolds in unexpected and reassuring ways.


Signed, not with an acetate marker,

Jules, Matador U grad







Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Nice Learning Curves: Matador U’s Travel Writing Course

  1. Stick to it Jules. You now have all of us looking over your shoulder and you wouldn’t want to disappoint… right?

  2. johanne

    As usual, your blog makes me smile and ponder at the same time. I enjoy the pics too, the one of your hand writing away makes me want to reach for a notebook and a favorite pen. FYI, this semester we have Anosh Irani as the writer in residence at UFV. I hope I run into him. Remember Richard Van Camp a few years back?
    Matador…I want to go to Spain, not take the course (obviously, since I haven’t travelled much, how could I write about it?! 😉
    ….what will my next comment to you be? you can read between the lines I’m sure…my book club is still waiting for a published version of a wonderful novel…just saying…

  3. marco

    fantastic post as always Jules, i am humbled by the shout out, prom date xo

  4. Dee

    I think I like being written about, Jules! I have a few confessions to make, though. You were actually seated beside a lowly library technician during the Print Futures entrance exam, and she was just as flummoxed by it as you were. And she doesn’t have a clue what Mensa people are but will be Googling it as soon as she’s finished this reply.

    Keep up the great writing! We’ll all be able to say we knew you when…

  5. Sounds like a fabulous course. Congratulations on finishing it. For the record, most of us at Douglas were intimidated by your raw talent.

  6. Congrats on getting through the course! Several of our writers got a lot out of it as well; hope it brings the same luck to you!

  7. Jules, thanks for the input

  8. The good and insightful articles keep me coming back here time and time
    again. thank you so much.

  9. Hello, I log on to your blogs regularly. Your writing style is
    witty, keep doing what you’re doing!

  10. My brother recommended I might like this website. He was entirely right.
    This post truly made my day. You can not imagine just how much
    time I had spent for this info! Thanks!

    • So, did it give you the injection of inspiration to sign up for Matador’s course? I’ve dog-eared your Nashville post just now-we have several faves there. Have you been to Arrington Vineyards?

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