I've been wanting to get to a conference for a while now, but they are not cheap. This particular conference was a one day affair, and the rock-bottom price of $55 for the entire day (8-5) included breakfast, lunch, and unlimited snacks.
AND it was a Christian conference. I had no idea going into it if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It worried me that all of the agents and editors who would be there (not that I had any intention of meeting with an agent or an editor) worked in the Christian market. The Christian publishing world is indeed a world unto itself, and I will be honest here: I haven't read any Christian fiction since high school, when I was at camp at Mount Hermon and picked up a recommended Jeanette Oke book at their Christian (only) bookstore out of desperation.
However, when I saw that one of the keynote speakers was Gina Ochsner, Flannery O'Conner Award for Short Fiction and two-time Oregon Book Award winner, I took heart that the conference organizers were folks who were interested in both spiritual and literary integrity.
After the first keynote address (the other speaker was Paul Louis Metzger) I had to resist the urge to call Shaun at home and tell him how amazing the conference was. It's been so long since I went to a good talk that gave me so much to think about. I'd read Gina Ochsner's People I Wanted to Be: Stories in preparation for the conference, and really enjoyed it. By the end of her first keynote address, I totally understood the whole disciple thing: I was ready to follow her around and sit at her feet, hanging on every word.
The first workshop I went to was with Mike Thaler. (Please do check out the photo at the link. He was wearing the same happy shirt and bright tangerine-colored pants.) Mike writes for children, and has had a long and interesting career. Mike is in his 70's, grew up Jewish, and became a Christian ten years ago. Every time Mike discussed his faith and how it applied to his life and work, he was overcome with emotion and had to pause to collect himself. As a result, we didn't get through very much content, but his evident passion made it a more memorable session than it might have been otherwise. An added bonus: Gina Ochsner attended it as well.
I went to Gina's workshop on tips for generating story ideas when you're stuck, which couldn't have been a more apropos topic for me. Almost all of the examples she gave were from stories of hers that I'd read, which gave me a great peek behind the screen. It was amazing to see what she'd used and how she'd done it.
I also took the opportunity to go to a seminar from Matt Mikalatos, who is a friend of a friend, lives in the area, and has a blog that I enjoy. Matt wrote the book Imaginary Jesus (do not let the cover photo of the skeevy 80's youth pastor-looking imaginary Jesus put you off), which I also read ahead in advance of the conference. I am a total junkie when it comes to stories of "normal" people and their paths to publication, and his talk did not disappoint. It's not every day that a writer passes around a stack of rejection letters ranging from a form rejection addressed to the wrong person to a bitingly personal handwritten note. But Matt really did his own thing when it came to writing his book, and it was published! I find that inspiring.
One seminar I couldn't make it to was Brad Harper's "Why (Evangelical) Christians Do Bad Art." I heard it was good though, so I bought the recording of the session. Much of what he said I'd already concluded independently, but the talk was still worth a listen. Also he quoted his friend Dan Siedell, whose name I recognized from my friend Amanda. Here's a link to an abridged version of Dan Siedell's recent chapel talk at Biola, which was a good companion to what I'd heard at the conference.
By the end of the day I was wishing for more. Of course I didn't agree 100% with everything I heard (how dull that would be!) but the tone and level of the discussion left me invigorated rather than drained and discouraged. I'll be looking forward to next year's conference with cautious optimism; it's hard to imagine how they could top this year's. (Well, OK, axing the worship music would be my only suggestion.)
I came home that evening to a delicious home-cooked dinner, cooked by Ariana and provided by the Mullins family, who stayed the weekend with us while they were between homes. (And countries--read about it on Ariana's blog!)
It was a great day, and one that I hope stays with me for a good time to come.