faith, writer's conference, writing

Heart Connections

If I close my eyes, I can see her face. Tiny, with dark hair and dark eyes. In her 40s, she said, though she looked much younger. I think I may have grabbed both her hands with mine when she stated it had been just a little over three months. I know I hugged her to me. When I pulled away to look at her again, I counted three teardrops making a slow, smooth pathway down her cheek.

One. Two. Three. In that moment, it was just me and her; everyone else in the room seemed to disappear. Our hearts connected.

My chest filled with sadness, vividly remembering what those first months were like. Then it expanded further, filling with love. Love for her, for the friend who brought her, the mother that stood behind her. His mother. My breath suddenly caught in my throat. His mother! I met her eyes, the grieving mother, and she acknowledged my unspoken sympathy with a slight nod, before laying her hand on the young widow’s shoulder, as if to say “Her. Can you help her?”

I wanted to ease the pain I saw in her eyes. Hugging her to me again, I prayed that God would give me words that might bring some comfort. I have no idea what I said, but I hope there was a little healing taking place Monday night.

Cecil and Mary grief poster

I don’t remember her name. Or the name of the young widow who approached with her daughter, a girl who had been nine when her father died, just a year older than my Abby. Another widow who lost her husband two years ago, and wondered why she was still having a hard time. The mother who, when her child died, was informed it was because of some sin she must have committed. I don’t recall their names, but if I truly believe that we are here to help each other Home (and I DO) then it shouldn’t matter. They have my name, contact information, my book or brochure, if they want to get ahold of me. And I hope they do.

This is the hardest part of public speaking for me. It isn’t preparing the speech, or speaking in front of a group. Thanks to prayer before each presentation, God’s got my back on both counts.

No, it’s losing the tenuous connection of heartstrings with people I connect with during these events. I yearn to hear from them again. Want to see them grow and move forward. I’d like to hold their hand on their journey, walk alongside them, give out encouraging hugs, remain a part of their lives.

This from a woman who until five years ago, would not have considered doing any of those things.

I barely resemble the woman who stood outside the doors of a Christian Writer’s Workshop in June 2011. I paused for a long time before I opened the door, certain that no one inside would like me, that I wouldn’t belong. I’d made the decision to attend the workshop because my mother had passed away the winter before and the notebooks she’d left behind had made it clear that one of her greatest desires was for her children to utilize their God-given talents. I was determined to take my writing seriously, even if it meant walking into a room full of strangers. The loss of my mother had made me brave; a woman who’d never known how to make friends, didn’t trust females, and was extremely shy made the decision to become more like her mother, who never met a stranger.

After three days with some of the most extraordinary Christians I’d ever met, I left with a mentor in the form of Shelly Beach, several fledgling female friendships, and the distinct impression that these women and a few men had something I desired; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Through the loss of a husband and grandson in the ensuing years, I not only developed that relationship, I began a ministry of sorts in public speaking.

But it is the connections I have experienced at these events that have brought me joy and awe. I find that not only do I feel an unaccustomed love for so many people, I want to maintain those relationships. It was my friend Mary, co-author of “Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink,” much more experienced in forming friendships, who shared that there are those who disappear from our lives just as quickly as they arrive, and not all who cross our paths are meant to be our friends.

I didn’t care much for that explanation. It took me more than fifty years to learn to connect with people, and by golly, I wanted to hold on tight to each and every connection I made, no matter how tenuous. I’m gradually learning it doesn’t work that way. I’m learning to let go. Let go, and let God.

There are connections of the heart, like I experienced last Monday. Relationships I would love to maintain, but realize that might not happen. And then there are connections of the soul; when I instantly recognize a meaning in the meeting. We have met for a reason that might not be apparent now, but will eventually be revealed. I know it. They feel it too. I love when that happens, and seeing how God reveals his purpose.

Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NIV)

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

writing

Why a Conference or a Writing Class?

Are you an avid reader? Have you ever read a book that was so good that for hours, or even days after you completed it, you felt like your mind was far, far away in another world? You looked right at your children or your spouse, maybe even nodding your head, but you didn’t really hear a thing they said because your brain was somewhere else? Spouses or children of an avid reader or writer will know that blank look they get when they interrupt the writer or reader who is “in the zone.”  “You didn’t hear a word I just said, did you?” my oldest son has been known to ask, and I sheepishly admit he is right.  My poor family. That is what it is like for me for days after a conference, with my head so full of things to think about.

I wrote for over 20 years without ever attending a writer’s conference or class, with some success, I might add. I considered myself a self-taught writer; learning by doing, as well as reading everything I could get my hands on about the publishing world and the business of freelance writing. I learned how to write a proposal, query letters, and a synopsis. I managed to obtain nearly 200 bylines in magazines, newspapers and anthologies.

The first writer’s conference I ever attended was the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s workshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa in the summer of 2011. My mother had died the winter before and I’d inherited many of her notebooks and journals. In them, I discovered two prominent themes; my mother’s strong desire that her children get to heaven along with her fervent hope that they would use their God-given talents while here on earth. Over and over, she wrote about her dreams for her children, and it was evident that she never doubted for a moment that every single one of them had talent.

My interest in the conference was just as much spiritual as it was creative.  What better way to honor my mother’s desires than to hone my craft and fuel my spiritual fire? My husband not only encouraged me to attend, he insisted it was high time I invest in what he considered my burgeoning talent.  David believed in me. I enjoyed that first conference so much, I was hooked.

The next one I attended was last November’s Heart of American Christian Writers conference (HACWN).  Again my husband encouraged me to go, caring for the kids while my friend Mary and I attended several days of amazing workshops.

I learned a great deal at each of these conferences; ideas in how to promote myself and build up my platform as a non-fiction writer. I took both fiction and non-fiction workshops, knowing I could incorporate some of the fiction techniques into narrative or “creative” non-fiction. I came home last November determined to establish myself as an expert in my non-fiction topic of couponing. I already was the expert after 30+ years as an avid couponer, but through couponing workshops and a weekly couponing column, I became the “Tri-State’s Coupon Queen,” and am now called on for speaking engagements on the topic. Not only that, but just in the last 15 months, I’ve had seven essays accepted for inclusion in anthologies, making my total count now 17, and added another 50+ bylined articles, giving me credibility as a workshop presenter on the subject. Around this same time I modified a writing course I had used with 12 homeschooled teens and designed a writing workshop for adults. Not only did I want to learn, I wanted to encourage and jumpstart the creativity of other women and men who had the desire to write. I now conduct writing workshops at community colleges and an independent bookstore.

This May I attended the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, IL, thanks to a scholarship from author Cecil Murphey. Once again, I needed the spiritual boost just as much as the creative, since my husband David had died in March and I was struggling to find direction in my life.  It became a healing time for me. In June, I attended the Cedar Falls conference for the second year, this time speaking on writing for anthologies.

More recently, I spent three days in Michigan, taking workshops at the Maranatha Christian Writer’s conference. I hadn’t intended on going to another conference this year but when I saw that my generous scholarship benefactor, Cecil Murphey, would be speaking there, I looked through the list of workshops, and my heart beat faster. I immediately wanted to go. After I e-mailed my good friend and mentor, author Shelly Beach, things fell into place so easily, I knew I was suppossed to go. Shelly not only reccomended the conference, but also met me at the airport.

Yes, dear readers, you heard that right; getting to this conference involved me flying on an airplane for the first time.

If I’d done nothing other than sit at a table with Cec Murphey and listen to him “talk shop” with Shelly, the entire trip still would have been worth it. Many of you will remember that the book Cec co-wrote with Don Piper, 90 Minutes in Heaven, was my husband’s favorite book, and their Getting to Heaven the last book he touched. Cec has written over 120 books including this beautiful new one, which I now own a signed copy of, Making Sense When Life Doesn’t; The Secrets of Thriving in Tough Times. I just started it, and it is amazing. I’ll review it when I finish.

Why do I recommend writers or aspiring writers attend a conference or class?

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 at my workshop that paying for a class gives them a reason for taking time out of their busy days to write. “Tell your husband or your kids that you paid good money for a writing class so now you need to write and sell something to recoup your money.”  If you take yourself seriously, others will take you seriously, too.

Learn more about the business and the world of publishing. It is no longer 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 that we can find the answers to at conferences and workshops.

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 have made life-long friends at each conference I’ve attended. My world has gotten so much bigger in the last two years. It was at the Cedar Falls conference I met the co-founder Shelly Beach, the friend who was instrumental in me meeting “Cec.”

Meet and network with editors and 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 have developed both personal and professional relationships with editors and agents I’ve met at conferences. While initially the prospect of meeting with agents or editors was quite daunting to me, I have experienced some wonderful conversations with several of them. I can’t speak for non-Christian conferences but the agents and editors I’ve conversed with at the Christian conferences have been great. Of course, the easiest conversations are those I’ve had without the anxiety of attempting to sell something.

Wonderful things happen at Christian writing conferences.Again, I can’t speak for all conferences as I’ve only attended Christian ones, but I’ve found that if I pray before, during and after a conference, keeping my eyes and heart open to God, amazing things have transpired at each of the conferences I’ve attended, some so powerful they are difficult to talk about without crying.

This advice doesn’t just apply to writers; I would encourage all creative people continue learning and honing their craft throughout their life, whether it is painting, drawing, music, or quilting. During some of the seasons of our life, it might have to be simply checking out library books on our subjects or subscribing to magazines on the subject, but if time and money permit, a class or conference can be a great jumpstart to living creatively!