Over the last week, I’ve written several short posts about the 2014 Faith and Culture Writers Conference. Now that I’ve had time to process everything, I want to share seven final thoughts at greater length.
What I learned (or remembered I already knew).
1) All writers, no matter how successful they are, feel like a failure sometimes.
Tony Kriz opened the conference with a powerful story, and an equally powerful exercise. I can’t begin to do justice to the story he told, but I can share the way he involved the audience in the exercise. He asked us all to sit in a way where we could see a large portion of the audience, and then he made a series of statements. If we agreed we were to raise our hands until he said “thank you.” He gave us the option of not responding if we wanted to, but everyone did. One statement stuck with me.
“Sometimes I feel like a failure.”
Almost every hand went up. This room was filled with published authors, university faculty, and successful journalists. I recognized a lot of people and every one had a hand raised.
My hand was raised too, and I also wanted to say “thank you.”
2) It takes time to find your story.
Sarah Thebarge told us how she wrote her memoir—about surviving breast cancer—and how no one would publish it. The reason, she said, was obvious. In the story, things were bad, and then they got worse, and worse, and worse. That’s what surviving cancer is—a painful struggle where the only two outcomes are that you live or you die. We knew how her story was going to end, so …
And then she met a family of refugees from Somalia. As she got to know them and became involved in their story she got an idea for another book. But in this book she was a narrator with no backstory. The reader didn’t know her and couldn’t live the experience of meeting this family through her.
So she had two incomplete books. And then she realized that these two books were really each half of one book. It took time, but once she lived the whole experience she found her story. The Invisible Girls.
3) Agents and editors want to say “yes.”
I pitched both a literary agent and an acquisitions editor during the conference. Both of them listened intently to my pitch, asked excellent questions, and seemed genuinely interested in my story. They complimented the time I put into writing and editing, and the efforts I made so far to build a platform. They were honest about my story being a niche product that wouldn’t have an immediate built-in audience, but they also encouraged me to stick at it. And they both requested my book proposal!
4) Don’t try to do everything.
Writing conferences are filled with opportunities. Inspiring talks, workshops, panel discussions, one-on-one pitches with agents and editors, and lots networking opportunities. If you try to do it all you will burn out. Pick the most important things for you. Focus on what you need to get out of the experience. Swap notes with friends and colleagues. And if you can buy recording of the stuff you missed, do that too. You can always learn more after the weekend is over.
What I’d change.
5) The dates of the conference.
Last year, the conference was in April, right after Easter, and felt like a real celebration. This year, it was at the beginning of Lent and was a perfect time for reflection and discernment. I liked the contrast between the two, but I didn’t like the conference falling on the first weekend in March for one reason—Daylight Savings Time. I was already exhausted from a busy weekend. Losing an hour of sleep on top of that all but killed me.
6) The lack of diversity in one particular area.
This was a wonderfully diverse conference. Lots of different voices, lots of different experiences, and I learned so much. But there was one exception—worship. There are so many Christian traditions of prayer and worship. Liturgical or free form. Loud or quiet. Emotional or contemplative. All of these are valid, yet all three worship sessions were the same “contemporary praise and worship” experience you find in your average megachurch. For all the voices that were being heard, I felt that my voice—the Catholic, liturgical one—was not. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone. The style and language of worship appealed to the majority, but would have been so much richer had it been open to alternative experiences. Perhaps an office from Common Prayer, A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, or an unprogrammed worship experience open to the Holy Spirit in the Quaker tradition? Who knows what we might have drawn from those experiences.
What I See in the Future.
7) The potential for something great.
I’ve attended two different conference series, both twice. The Willamette Writers Conference, which I attended in 2010 and 2012, is well-established and huge. It is the regional conference for Oregon and Southern Washington. The Faith and Culture Writers Conference, which I attended in 2013 and 2014, is new. I’ve been to two of the three—I missed the first one in 2011, and I believe it has the potential to become something big.
I considered joining Oregon Christian Writers in 2009, the same year I joined Willamette Writers. I had only begun my writing career and I knew next to nothing, but one thing I’d learned from my music and composition background was the value of networking. I knew if I was serious about writing I had to join professional organizations. Willamette Writers made sense and at first I thought OCW did too. But I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t quite right for me. I needed something different.
I think that the Faith and Culture Writers Connection has the potential to be that “something different” for the Christians like me who don’t quite fit in the Christian publishing industry box. Ones who want to engage the culture and challenge both its assumptions and our own. I know I’m not the only writer—or poet, or artist, or musician—who feels this way, and I think the conference and the monthly meetings that Cornelia Becker Seigneur hosts at her home church in the Portland suburbs could be the beginning of something big.
I have lots of ideas, and I feel blessed to be part of the conversation. May the conversation continue over the next year and beyond.