Every June for the past nine years, I’ve attended the Cedar Falls Christian Writers Workshop. I no longer go for the writing and publishing aspect, though I do continue to learn something new every year. Instead, I attend because of the God-encounters, the connections old and new.
And every year, I promise myself I will indulge in a period of solitude and prayer afterwards, to give myself some time to decompress and process the intense spiritual experience. The “high” can last for days. The sky is invariably bluer, the grass smells sweeter, the air is crisp, I’m in awe of birds flying overhead. I smile at everyone, stop to hold doors open for others, go out of my way to be helpful and kind, basking in the residual aura of the spiritually-charged atmosphere I’ve just encountered.
While I’d like at least two days of quiet contemplation, flipping through handouts and business cards, journaling and perhaps diving into one of the books I’ve purchased, the suitcase demands to be emptied and a load of laundry must be done. The cat and the daughter vie for my attention. The garbage can is overflowing, the sink full of dishes. Less than 48-hours after I return home, I’m back at work, feeling the full effects of re-entry, returning to reality.
These are my people, my tribe, my church. I get a little glimpse of heaven in this building called Fellowship Hall.
It was at this very conference I discovered something broader than happiness; eudaimonia, a Greek word loosely translated as finding the purpose of your life.
Just ten years ago, I couldn’t even imagine getting up in front of a room and talking. Now, public speaking is one of my passions. David saw that in me before I did, and God planned for it all along.
One of my first workshops was a two-hour couponing one at a community college in October 2011. David was at the back of the room watching my presentation. At one point I glanced up and the look on his face made me catch my breath. It was because of his presence I could relax when a reporter came to do a news article. I was smiling at the man behind the one holding the camera.
“I love seeing you like this. You come alive in front of an audience,” David commented on the way home.
I feel alive at this conference; seeing friends and mentors I might only see once a year, meeting broken and gentle souls, experiencing small miracles, giving and getting more hugs than I can count. I am a better person because of these people. I want to spend each and every day with them and other kindred souls.
This will be my ninth year attending the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s Workshop, and my eighth year as a presenter. Two weeks after last year’s conference, I moved an additional hour away from the venue, but I’ve never considered not going. In fact, during my job interview for my current position as program coordinator at a spirituality center, I made sure to mention I would be gone for a few days every June to attend this conference.
It took me two years after I learned about this conference to work up the courage and rationalize the cost to attend. It was my husband who suggested I invest in myself and my writing. He was my biggest encourager. Outside of the learning that takes place at these kinds of conferences, I’ve netted lifelong friends and mentors at this particular conference. While there are many reasons to attend a writing conference, here are my top five:
To learn more about the craft of writing. I believe in lifelong learning. No matter our level of expertise in writing, there is always something new to learn. Sometimes we have to make a commitment to hone our craft and that commitment might involve both time and money. Committing to a conference or a class could be the first step in taking our writing seriously. Call it an investment in yourself. I tell attendees in my writing classes that paying for a class gives them a reason for taking time out of their busy days to write. “Remind your husband or your kids that you paid good money for a writing workshop so now you need to write and sell something to recoup your money.”
If you take yourself seriously, others will take you seriously, too.
To learn more about the business side of publishing. It’s not enough to be a good writer; you also have to learn about the ever-changing world of publishing. What is a book proposal? How do I write a query letter? How can I build up my platform? Do I need an agent? Where do I find markets for my work? These are questions you can find the answers to at conferences and workshops.
To connect and network with other writers. There is nothing more enjoyable than “talking shop” with another writer who understands the foibles and follies of the world of writing. Writers at conferences and workshops share markets with each other, commiserate about rejections, and support each other’s accomplishments. I’ve made life-long friends at each conference I’ve attended. My world has gotten so much bigger in the last few years. It was at a conference that I met my mentors (and good friends), Shelly Beach and Cecil Murphey.
To meet and network with editors, publishers, or agents. Not everyone who attends a conference ends up sitting next to an agent at a lunch table and subsequently signing a contract with her husband a few months later, but I did. I’ve developed both personal and professional relationships with editors and agents at conferences. While initially the prospect of meeting with an agent or editor was quite daunting to me, I’ve experienced some enlightening conversations with several. Of course, the easiest conversations are those I’ve had without the anxiety of attempting to sell something.
Amazing moments and divine encounters regularly happen at Christian writing conferences. I can’t speak for all conferences as I’ve only attended Christian ones, but I’ve found that if I pray fervently before, during, and after a conference, and keep my eyes and heart open to God and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, amazing things have transpired at each of the conferences I’ve attended, some so powerful they’re difficult to talk about without crying.
“Think back to your childhood. What did you enjoy doing? What were you naturally drawn to? When you were a little girl what made you happy?”
“Take your time. Dig down into the deep recesses of your mind.” I continue, noting a few furrowed brows in the room full of women.
“Some of us will have to dig deeper than others,” I add with a smile, and good-natured laughter erupts from the corner of the room where two women in their seventies sit.
“Did you spend hours outside poking anthills with sticks? Follow your mother around as she cleaned house, begging to dust the furniture? Love working with your grandmother in the garden? Were you a voracious reader, devouring books like the chips in a Pringles can?”
A younger woman looks up from the sheet of paper in front of her. “I’d almost forgotten! I used to spend hours making Barbie doll clothes! They weren’t very good; just quilt scraps my mom gave me that I cut holes in for the arms.”
A single woman in her thirties, the Barbie clothing designer sports spikes black hair, a ring in her nose, and arms covered with colorful tattoos. She looks the part of a creativity group member, but the truth is, all of the women belong; something about creativity appealing to a restless stirring inside them.
Thirteen women attended the inaugural meeting of the inelegantly dubbed “Lifelong Learner’s Creativity Group” I began at the library where I was employed in 2017. Forming the group made sense for a librarian. A 2015 Pew Research study revealed that adults who use libraries are more likely to consider themselves to be lifelong learners, actively pursuing learning opportunities. The group was consistent with a library’s mission to engage learners and inspire thinkers, but organizing it was not simply a job-related, altruistic move. It had been months since I’d experienced the kind of creative energy that ignites in a room full of people interested in the same thing. I’d seen it happen in writing classes I’d taught and at writing conferences I’d attended. I missed the passionate exchanges about writing and the rush of adrenaline that came with speaking and practicing one’s passion, the camaraderie of being in a room full of people that shared that passion. Those women needed what the creativity group could offer.
So did I.
As we took turns introducing ourselves, it soon became apparent we all had one thing in common; we wanted to add creativity into our lives and suspected that doing so would make us happier.
We were correct in that assumption. Scientific research demonstrates that practicing creative pursuits results in a happier, healthier life. The activity can be as simple as journaling, playing an instrument, or spring gardening, so long as it has meaning for the individual.
I didn’t make friends easily for most of my adult life. I was too busy raising eight children. That changed in 2011, when I attended my first writer’s conference, connecting with women and men interested in writing and publication.
A year later, I’d discover the value of friendship when my husband unexpectedly died and some of those writers attended his funeral, becoming a support system of sorts. I made additional friends outside of that writer’s circle through a workplace setting, classes I taught, involvement in grief ministry, and by forming both a Bible study and the creativity group.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said. The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death found that the groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. If you want a stronger faith, become part of a faith community. If you want to be more interesting, spend time with interesting people. To be more creative, hang out with creative individuals. Find your tribe.
It wasn’t long after I traded in that library job for one as a Program Coordinator at a Spirituality Center that I began a similar group there, aptly named “Artisan Souls.”
Something extraordinary happens when I facilitate groups and conduct workshops. I’m so exhilarated by the energy in the room, I’m hardly aware of the passing of time, and I leave those meetings deliriously happy, a soaring feeling that can last for hours, even days. Researchers call this joyful state “Flow,” the loss of time and self-consciousness that happens when we’re completely absorbed in an activity, whether it’s intellectual, professional, or physical. Flow can be achieved through activities such as running a race, playing the violin, or writing a book, as long as the activity is voluntary, intrinsically motivating, requiring skill, and challenging in some way. A growing body of scientific research proves that flow is positively correlated with happiness, and that people who experience a lot of flow also develop increased concentration, performance, and a higher self-esteem.
I enter the state of flow when I write or conduct workshops, but I’m open to experiencing it through other avenues, which explains one of the tenets of our creativity groups; to try new things. In these two groups I’ve painted on canvas, designed Vision Boards, practiced hand lettering, and made jewelry.
One month, a member of our Dyersville library group brought ukuleles for everyone, insisting we’d be playing a tune by the end of the evening. As my fingers fumbled clumsily with fret and chords, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I wondered why I wasn’t catching on when the women on either side of me made it look easy. Then I happened to glance up. A woman across the room was having just as much trouble as I was. Our eyes met, and we both laughed. I didn’t have to worry about failure or looking foolish. I was there to have fun, not to become a musician.