Sunday, November 2, 2014

Roses and Skunk Cabbages at the IFWC

Last Friday, I packed my suitcase full of hope and enthusiasm and headed out for the Indiana Faith and Writing Conference, hosted for the first time by Anderson University, Anderson, Indiana. This event  replaced the Indianapolis Christian Writers Conference, which was hosted by Wesleyan Church World Headquarters. Thankful that the AU English department had agreed to adopt the orphan conference, I thought this year's event would be similar to the Wesleyan event which I had so thoroughly enjoyed. It wasn't.
       To compare the two point for point would be tedious, so I will hit the highlights (the roses) and the lowlights (the skunk cabbages).

The Roses 
I rode to the conference with good friend and fellow writer Ramona K. Cecil. I always love traveling with her. We're both talkers, so the car is seldom quiet.
       Once there, my first stop was the restroom. As I came out, walking toward me down the hall was my critique partner of about six months. How sweet it was to be able to finally meet and talk with her after having communicated only through email.
       We arrived with time to spare, so we chatted with other conferees, including Gayle Cobb, a gifted illustrator who will graduate in 2015 from Indiana Wesleyan University with a degree in art; a high-schooler, who is enthusiastic about writing and whose aunt just happens to be Ramona's neighbor; and woman who is passionate about sharing Christ with the deaf through sign language and the written word.
       As with most conferences, deciding which workshops to attend is a challenge. I've learned to sit up front only when I especially want to hear a particular speaker or when I know without a doubt the topic will apply to me and my writing. Otherwise, I sit toward the back so I can quietly slip out to another workshop.
       Linda Glaz presented on writing dialogue. She discussed how conventions in writing have changed through the years and what current trends are. She showed conferees how to eliminate intrusive dialogue tags (he said, she whined, he growled, she purred--you get the idea), replacing them with action beats that enliven the scene and supply readers with more information about the characters.
       Lawrence Wilson conducted my other favorite workshop, "The Ministry of Christian Writing." He is a writer, a pastor, and a teacher of theology. He spoke of the apostle John as a gifted writer, pointing out the poetry in his prose. He also emphasized the importance of disciplining oneself to write everyday. Something. Anything. "One learns writing by writing," he said. And if we consider our writing to be ministry, we should write with the same passion and purpose of John: to make Christ known, whether we're writing prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction.
       Other conference roses included some wonderful worship music, an informative panel discussion by an assortment of publishing experts, and a delicious Saturday lunch. The conference sponsored a writing contest, and the winners from among nearly 70 entrants received their awards. Though I was not in the least surprised, I was thrilled when Ramona's name was called as winner of the fiction writing award. Congratulations, Ramona!
The Skunk Cabbages
I didn't expect to encounter negatives at the conference. Ever since I heard the conference was a go for this year, I've looked forward to it, inviting and encouraging other writers to attend. This new incarnation lacked so many features that endeared the Wesleyan event to conferees, however.
       My first portent of things awry came when we arrived. After driving through pouring rain to get there and enduring strong, icy winds to make it from the car to the building, no welcoming fragrance of fresh-brewed coffee greeted us. I wasn't the only writer asking where the coffee was. After all, writers and coffee go together like Star and bucks. (Corny, I know, but I couldn't resist.)
       The wide-eyed student assistant tilted her head slightly and flashed a practiced smile that didn't quite reach the tip of her nose, let alone her eyes. "Coffee? Well, we do have a coffee shop on campus." On campus? This can't be good. "You just go out of this building and cross over to the next building. There's a coffee shop down in the basement." If we wanted a steaming cup of coffee, we had to go back out into the cold, wind-driven rain. No way.
       Water, then. Where could we get a bottle of water? You guessed it. To procure a bottle of water also required a trip through the hurricane, and even the speakers weren't allowed to take such contraband as water into the auditorium.
       I had time to enjoy the worship music before hurrying off to a consultation with an agent. That area was upstairs overlooking the lobby. Since my asthma was acting up, I took the elevator. The doors to the gallery where the sit-downs were to take place were locked. That was fine. No need to panic. I was a bit early, as I always try to be for such meetings. When the time for my appointment arrived, however, and the doors were still solidly bolted, I panicked. I trekked down to the registration desk.
       Great. The same non-coffee-drinking girl was still on duty. I told her the situation.
       "I know. We had them unlocked last night, but they locked them again." She knew they were locked? "Come with me, and I'll unlock them for you."
    I knew I keep apace with her fast clip. "By the time I'd get there, my 15 minutes would be over. I just want you to please inform the agent that I did not stand her up. I was there in good time."
       The Wesleyan Church World Headquarters was a compact site for the ICWC. The new site at Anderson U. is widespread, involving three buildings--not at all convenient, especially in inclement weather. Nor is the campus very accessible. Some conferees who had difficulty getting around in the time allowed between workshops were further challenged by the steps leading up to the dining area. If there was a ramp into that building, it must have been on the opposite side from where we entered.
       None of the above oversights, problems, or inconveniences would keep me from attending again, however. Most were likely the result of inexperience, since this was AU's first time to host. Hopefully, the coffee pot would be on the greet conferees and presenters next time. If I were to go again, I would plan ahead, taking along a brown-bag lunch, as a smart friend of mine did, bottled water, and a bag large enough to conceal both in the auditorium. If I were planning a consultation, I'd schedule it for later in the day. And I would make sure I wore comfortable shoes with good traction--the latter, if rain or snow were in the forecast.
       The most egregious affront, however, came from two of the plenary session speakers. One tried to convince us that we should accept life choices that are clearly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments of God's Word. The other, calling herself a social activist, stood far left of center as she recounted her version of the Michael Brown shooting--stories she said she'd collected from "eyewitnesses." Her background in theater equipped her to present a persuasive plea, but not to be a crime-scene investigative reporter. It was a political rant, one inappropriate for a Christian writers' conference. That's not why I save to be able to go to such a gathering. My goal is to hone my craft, to learn from the presenters about the business of writing and publishing, and to fellowship with other Christ-following writers, agents, and editors.
       The choice of speakers is not the result of inexperience or inadequate planning. A lot of thought and research goes in to choosing speakers. Those choices are deliberate. Therefore, it is with much sadness that I must say I will not attend another IFWC at AU.
       NOTE: I give the conference three stars out of five for the sake of the lovely roses, memories I will treasure.