Attending a Writing Conference: 5 Ways that Could Change Your Life

I live in a coffee city on the Pacific coast.

So as I packed my rolling suitcase to spend the weekend at a writers’ conference, I tucked in locally roasted coffee from my coffee city to share with my friends.

The coffee packaging was clean and simple, the way I envisioned the workshop format. The name of the coffee, Back Porch Coffee Roasters, resonated with me (I love anything that hints at home). And the description made my heart swell: dark chocolate, peanut butter and orange citrus. It would be my gift for the mornings.

We were flying to North Carolina for the first ever Hope*Writers Workshop. We had planned, rearranged and prayed our way the breadth of America to arrive among three hundred women and a few good men with their pockets full of dreams and questions.

There were four of us sharing a little white clapboard house near Bobbin Street with a porch the color of sunflowers. We were Girl Scout friends, some silver, some gold, some new, some old. It was a wonderful mix, the kind that makes you feel wide-awake and supremely lucky.

Every night I filled the coffee pot for the morning brew. Every morning the coffee maker hissed and popped, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, leaked into a dark pool on the countertop.

We each tried to find the leak, holding the carafe up the light for cracks, checking the reservoir and firmly snapping the lid shut with a click. Everyday that coffeemaker brewed coffee, but everyday it leaked. The coffee was delightful, but somehow after brewing, it began a noisy popping and sizzling noise that secretly dripped onto the burner plate leaving the smell of burnt coffee.

The more I thought about it, the more I could see a lesson from that leaky coffeemaker. It reminded me of the ways I have lived my life only to find holes at the bottom or hairline cracks I've neglected to see. These are the ways I am trying to leave behind. Not by pretending not to be broken (I know that I am), but by inviting Jesus to fill me and somehow make me fillable so I can pour out hope and grace on a few shattered hearts.

That broken coffeemaker made me wonder how I could stop the slow leaks in me so I can fully hold what I want poured in? How could I do that this working weekend?

Here are five ways to attend a writing conference (or any conference really) that might change your life too.

1.Get ready.

Because in the early morning dark, I stumble to the coffeepot with one eye barely open to push the brew button, I like preparing my coffeemaker the night before. It is a ritual: filling the reservoir, grinding the beans and scooping the grounds into the filter, snapping the lid firmly in place. In a similar way, I like to prepare before a conference.

Besides all of the reservations for flights, car rental and accommodations, there are ways to get ready for your trip. Here are just a few ideas:

• Order business cards to share contact information

• Read a single book that pertains to your conference

• Purchase a fresh bullet journal

• Make a list of goals for your time away

• Make a short list of people to meet

• Make a list of questions you want to ask

A clean fresh bullet journal is the ideal tool for when you know you’ll be doing a lot of listening, thinking and taking notes. Let’s be honest, I like buying a new journal anytime for no good reason. It seems to speak to me of wide open spaces and unseen possibilities that might come to life just by marking them on the page. A few smooth inky pens wouldn't hurt either.

Then I can do the next few steps right into my bullet journal beginning with notes from the book I read. In fact, the book may prompt a few questions. The list of people I want to meet and questions I want to ask become part of my goals for the conference. It's all tucked in snug before the first session begins.

2.Arrive early and take care. (walks and naps)

I am here to work, but to work well, not from exhaustion and emptiness. So we made a plan to arrive with one full day before the workshop which proved a brilliant move if you can swing it. It was like throwing open a window to let in fresh air and then taking a soul-filling breath. That little window is a chance to let the busyness of life fade into the background and create room for fresh insights into your work. This room around things is called margin and I don’t’ know about you, but I need more of it in my life.

Everyday either before or after our workshop, we took a walk in the nearby neighborhood, noticing the homes, picking up acorns and wondering what it would be like to live here. There is something there, to get out of your city, your home and your familiar routine and see with fresh eyes.

One of my quirks is to play a little game as I walk or run where I choose one thing I’d change on a home facade if it were mine: paint, add shutters or a porch, change a front door, add dormers. I've done this since I was 12 years old. Now that I am a little older and have my own home, sometimes I come away with an idea for my own house. This little jewel of house seemed perfect just as it was and so I snapped this photo.

We chatted as we walked under the November trees about what we were learning. My friend, Carolyn said she came to Hope*Writers as soil to see what might grow. I picked up a smooth oval acorn and rubbed it between my finger and thumb as we walked, thinking of all that was being planted in my heart and might come out my fingertips in my writing.

We talked plenty over cups of coffee about life, children, writing and the books we were reading. But we all arrived in need of rest and we made space to stop talking and rest well. That little intentional quiet gave us time to sleep in or go to bed early. One afternoon at the end of filling our heads and our hearts with workshop woo, the whole house went quiet in glorious sleep for about an hour.

We all arrived from different seasons in life, but one night over dinner I tallied seventeen children between the four of us. SEVENTEEN. Do the math. We had already been doing meaningful work before we arrived. There were seventeen souls making their way into the world we wanted to write about.

We napped it up like it was the very air we breathe and it was. Permission to nap always. Now go.

3.Get a to-go box.

When you attend a conference, there is a lot of information coming at you at full speed. I’ve heard it called a fire hose. It’s fast, furious and powerful. It can be overwhelming, knocking you off of your feet. It can actually hurt, before it helps. But eventually, help it will.

Try to get clear about what parts are for you right now. I took plenty of scribbly notes, but then I went back and circled what seems tailor-made for me.

At the end of the conference we took a long walk in the sunshine before dinner to talk about our take-aways. We ordered shrimp and grits. Because, North Carolina.

You might think of the parts you take away as the take-out carton from a restaurant, that little white house-shaped box with a handle so you can walk out the door with a small portion of a bigger meal.

Here are my take-out cartons for this conference (and life) are:

• Make space for waiting in your plan

• Establish a rhythm

• Narrow your focus

• You’re not the hero

• Take time to dream

• Show yourself human

• Write to serve

It's wild that these very things I can remember in my writing can also stop my own soul leaks. That's something to think about.

4.Count home as your team.

Whenever we leave home to travel for our work, may we remember to count home as part of our team.

I know when my husband travels I hold down the fort at home and when I travel, he does it. While one of us is off learning important new things, equally important stuff happens back home too: the dog gets out, a daughter runs a race, a birthday passes and Dad camping trips ensue.

My life back home is my meaningful life and it feeds into my work, not the other way around. My work is not my meaningful life that feeds into home.

We need a team to make our dreams work and I realized this trip more than ever, that home is part of my writing team. My husband is my best team member and I am his. On one of my calls home, I made a point to tell him so. My words begin as my offering at home, otherwise I've missed a step.

That is the kind of math I never learned in
school.

One night we gathered at The Nester's White Barn. We sipped hot apple cider around a bonfire under a bowl of stars. I sighed because home is always part of the team.

5.Offer a gift.

In the months leading up to the conference, I had an idea. I knew I would receive more than I could hold at any one time: professional ideas, earned wisdom and the energy of creative minds meeting together. But I thought it would be good for my soul to leave a little something behind for someone else. I brought two small items to give away. I did not decide ahead of time who might receive the gifts. I waited.

Having gifts to give without knowing the recipients made me pay extra attention and kept my eyes wide awake for what seemed like random details. I honestly had no idea how to know for sure. I decided I didn’t need to know for sure. Why can’t there be wonder and waiting?

I waited all through the first evening and the next day. That evening I got a faint impression. I gave one away early the next morning. And then late in the final session I recognized a name and by the time we were getting into our cars to leave, I had offered my second gift, this time to tears.

And there it was, the joy that comes from offering your gift where it needs to be offered.

As we headed out the door to the airport, one smooth oval acorn warmed by my hands in the Carolina sunshine wobbled and came to rest on the kitchen table.

Hope*Writers is a community of faith writers bringing hope for their readers into their writing. It's founders are a dynamic team of artists each bringing their craft to the writing community: Emily P. Freeman, Gary Moreland, Myquillan Smith and Brian Dixon.

Written on flights #1836 from Charlotte to Phoenix and #307 from Phoenix to Portland.