I had no big plans for this past weekend … aside from attending a writers conference.
The West Coast Christian Writers Conference in Livermore, California had been on my calendar for months, and I was excited to go. But it wasn’t going to be a big deal. No one attending was looking for fairy tale retellings, so I didn’t plan on pitching to anyone. My plan was to spend some time with my writing buddies, Sarah Bennett (also known as S.E. Clancy) and Rosemary Johnson, connect with some new writing friends, take some great classes, and enjoy the opportunity to meet Robin Jones Gunn again … preferably without fangirling this time. 😉
But, as is so often the case, God had very different plans for my conference experience.
On Tuesday night, the evening before Sarah and I were supposed to leave, our community suffered its biggest snowstorm since before I was born (in 1981, if you must know). 😉 We live in the type of place that shuts down after a few inches of snow, and the average snowfall for this particular storm was around twelve inches. Most of the community was without power. Trees all over had collapsed from the weight of the heavy snow. The roads were covered. And while the sight of the glittering white blanket covering every inch of the ground and buildings outside was breathtaking, I couldn’t help worrying that we might not make it to the conference at all.
I shouldn’t have worried. My friend Sarah is nothing if not determined. Even the power outage, car trouble, and what seemed like a million other obstacles wouldn’t stop her.
By fourish, we were on the road. Within forty-five minutes, we were out of the snow and in the rain.
We made it to our Air BnB on Wednesday evening and went to bed early, thankful for working lights, showers, and heaters.
First thing on Thursday morning, we headed over to Crosswinds Church to help with early registration.
It was so much fun to meet some of the leaders of the conference, especially Sarah Barnum, who was in charge of registration. Sarah was an instant kindred spirit. She and “my” Sarah joked about how they were both Sarah Bs, and were both married to men named Michael. Then she told us that what was even funnier was she was bringing her friend Hannah to the conference. We decided we’d have to get a picture of the two Sarahs and the two Hannahs before the week was over.
Thursday night, our friend Rosemary joined us at our Air BnB, and Friday morning, our conference experience really began. We got up bright and early to help with registration again.
We had a great team and everything ran smoothly. I got to help with faculty registration and had fun handing out name tags and programs to the teachers and writers as they came in.
I managed to give Robin her name tag without blushing or babbling, even when she looked at my name tag and said with a smile, “I’m going to see you this afternoon.”
I was thrilled that she recognized my name, but I think I was able to answer nonchalantly. I’d sent in the first five pages of my manuscript for a critique, requesting Robin, and thankfully she’d had an opening.
Robin was our first keynote speaker for the day. I enjoyed her story about Hannah from the Bible asking God for “just one thing,” and how He had blessed her with even more than she had asked.
It’s funny, I didn’t even think until now of how significant it was that she told the story of the woman from the Bible I’d been named after. It was the first of many significant things about this conference.
Robin continued with the story of how some of her books had been made into Hallmark movies. At the end of that session, she told us she felt led to share something from the book she wrote about the experience. The paragraph she read started with, “Has your dream died? Good.” She then went on to explain how when our dreams die, it gives God the chance to make them grow into something new and wonderful, or something along that line.
I’ll admit, I was too busy thinking, “Ah, yes, I’ve had that happen. I had the dream to become a published author and received rejections again and again. I’m so glad she’s sharing this. It’ll be great for all the first-time conference goers here.”
I can picture God shaking His head in amusement at my ignorance.
After the general session, I attended a wonderful class on social media by Karen Barnett, and then it was finally time for my critique with Robin. I couldn’t wait, but I was a little nervous, too. What would she think of my writing? Would she love it? Would she hate it? Would she tell me I was amazing? Would she tell me I needed to find another hobby?
I headed to the critique area early, and Robin was already free, so I got to go in a few minutes before my scheduled time.
Robin was so warm and gracious. We started with a word of prayer, and then she asked me some questions. I took the opportunity to thank her for how much her books had blessed me, especially Victim of Grace, which I’d been listening to on audio book for the past month or so, and I talked about my writing a bit.
Robin asked me why I’d chosen to write fairy tale retellings.
I explained that I loved fairy tales but wanted to write stories full of truth and light. So many of the retellings available were dark or morally ambiguous.
Robin praised my writing and loved the drawings I shared with her. Then, sweetly but boldly, she said the last thing I expected.
“I think you should write your own stories instead of retellings. That way you can transcend above what’s already been done and bring that light you want to bring to the world.”
There was more to it than that, but that’s the main thing I remember. I have to admit, I was shocked. Give up my retellings? What about my epic series I’d been planning? What about the amazing characters I’d created, as dear to me as real friends? Two of the characters had been my companions for ten years. How could I just abandon them?
I didn’t cry. (Hooray!) I thought I was pretty smooth and casual about the whole thing, as if my whole fairy tale world I’d created hadn’t just come crashing down around me. I thanked her, we hugged, we took a picture together, and I walked numbly outside, trying to begin processing what I’d just heard.
There was a beautiful bridge just beyond the church that was quiet and out of the way. Most of the conference attendees were still in classes, so I had a few moments to myself. I walked along the bridge and thought over what Robin had said. I prayed. I cried a little. I even recorded a fairly upbeat vlog. But I think I was still in shock.
The rest of the day went by in a blur. I found it hard to concentrate on my other classes. I had another critique with an agent who gave me more good things to think about. I wasn’t sure how relevant the critique was since I might not even be finishing the story. At random times during the day, I’d start tearing up as the whole situation hit me again. But to my surprise, I wasn’t utterly devastated.
I guess I was just starting to say goodbye.
One of the things I’d told Robin just before her critique was that I was really trying to be open to the Lord’s leading in whatever direction He wanted my writing to go.
Now I had to put my money where my mouth was, to borrow the popular phrase.
We had dinner that night with “other” Sarah’s “other” Hannah. (Her Sarah had a faculty dinner … did you follow all that?) I knew she was another kindred spirit as soon as I saw her awesome Captain America purse. 😉 Hannah, my Sarah (see how confusing this is?), and Rosemary all listened and offered words of encouragement as I discussed my mixed feelings about the day. Sarah pointed out that Robin’s opinion was an important one to consider, since she’d been in the business a long time and was such a successful writer. Sarah also pointed out that she happened to have mentioned the same thing to me at least a year ago (about writing my own stories instead of retellings), and was playfully “offended” that I would listen to Robin and not her. 😉
We ended the night with a trip to the Disney Store and shared memories and laughter. As I got ready for bed that night, my thoughts spun back and forth. I realized how much of my writing identity I’d attached to these specific stories.
“I write fairy tale retellings.”
“I’m working on a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with an allegorical twist.”
Who was I as a writer if this wasn’t my identity anymore?
I also played the “what about” game.
What about all the people I’ve told about these stories?
What about my daughters, who love what I’ve written so far?
What about their friends, who are already asking for more chapters?
What about my parents? Will they think I’m just giving up on something again like I always do?
More than that, what about my dream of introducing these characters, these stories, to the world? It was a dream I’d held close for so many years.
Then I remembered the passage Robin had read from her book that morning, about dreams dying. And I couldn’t help wondering … was that actually meant for me?
As I worked through all of these questions, I kept coming back to one thought. If I’d learned anything about this writing journey, I’d learned how important it was to let go. That phrase, “let go,” kept echoing through my mind. I kept praying about it, asking the Lord what He thought. Was it time for me to let go now?
The next morning, we headed to the conference and started with a keynote message from Pastor Bill Giovannetti, an excellent speaker and amazingly humble man from my community. He’d spoken the night before as well, but this time I was much more focused.
The first thing that stood out to me was that he actually used the phrase “let go.” As he continued on with his message, which was about Peter walking on water, he had two simple points that stuck with me. He told us that our job as Christian writers was faith. It didn’t even have to be strong faith. It could be wimpy faith. But that was our job. God’s job was the outcome.
It went along so beautifully with the struggle of my own heart.
Right after Pastor Bill’s message, I headed to the front of the auditorium to meet Robin again. I had a thank you card for her, a book for her to sign, and a little necklace I’d found for her at a thrift store a couple of years ago. I’d held onto it since then, hoping I’d get the chance to give it to her someday.
My original plan had been to give it to her during the critique, but I’d forgotten it the day before. Even this little detail seemed orchestrated by God. Giving her the necklace the next day gave me an excuse to talk to her again without feeling like I was inconveniencing her. (Yes, I’m just enough of an introvert to be that person.) 😉
After I’d given her the necklace and card and she’d thanked me, she looked over at me and said, “So, how are you doing after what we talked about yesterday?”
I was touched by the concern in her voice. I knew from her books that she’d gone through her own ups and downs in the writing world, so I’m sure she knew what she’d said had made a deep impact.
Plus, I have a horrible poker face. Just ask Sarah … or my daughters. So even though I felt all cool and smooth the day before, I’m sure my emotions had been obvious.
I shared some of my struggles with her then, about how hard it was to give up my characters and locations. I shared one of the passages I’d written that had felt like such a gift from God. (She loved it … hooray!)
“So use those things,” she encouraged me. “Just use them to tell your own stories.”
Even that seemingly small comment was a huge boost to my confidence. I might be saying goodbye to my fairy tale characters, but the locations, the concepts, even some of the writing, could stay.
We talked a while longer. She expressed concern that she had disappointed me, but I thanked her for her critique and her message the day before. I shared how much I appreciated that she affirmed my writing and my art even while giving me a challenge to consider. I mentioned how Pastor Bill’s message had touched me and gone along with what I was working through.
The smile on her face was gentle as she told me she could see the Lord was doing a special work in my heart, and she was so excited to see it. She signed my book with a lovely, personal message I know I’ll treasure for years to come.
I took some other classes that afternoon that I thoroughly enjoyed, especially Sarah Sundin‘s class on characters. It gave me a thrill thinking about how I could use the tools she shared to create new characters, characters who were my own and no one else’s.
All too soon, it was time for our very last keynote session. Robin shared the story of how she’d longed to be a missionary when she was younger, and how she’d even applied to be a laundry supervisor in Nairobi, Kenya after taking a personality-based ministry test. When she wasn’t accepted for the position, she was devastated.
But God had other plans for her. She became an author instead, and her books were translated into many different languages and reached even more people for Christ than she could have ever dreamed.
She shared an analogy about laundry buckets that would be too complicated to explain here but went along perfectly with the subtle and not-so-subtle messages God had been sending me all weekend.
By this time, I was ready. How could I keep clinging to my story when God was so kindly, so clearly asking me to give it up? Even with the sadness and scariness that came with letting go, there was a huge sense of peace, of relief. The obstacles I’d been running into again and again, the panic I’d felt every time a new fairy tale retelling was released, and the pressure of writing such an epic series with so many interwoven plot and character arcs were all gone. The thought of focusing on one story, a brand new story, was so freeing.
But God wasn’t finished yet. It was time to announce the winners of the “First Page Writing Contest.”
Earlier in the month, I’d submitted the first page of my after the “happily ever after” retelling, Roses and Monsters, for the contest hosted by WCCW. The idea was to send in the first page of an unpublished manuscript that would hook the reader and make them want to read the rest of the story. There were categories for both nonfiction and fiction.
I had no expectations for the contest. I thought it would be cool to win second or third place. When those two places were announced, I figured that was it. Honestly, as we waited for first place to be announced, I was praying it would be one of my friends (Rosemary, Sarah, or Hannah, who had all entered).
Then they called my name.
Sarah did this hilarious little dance and squealed and waved her hands around. I think Rosemary jumped and grinned over at me, and Hannah and Sarah Barnum leaned in and clapped. I’m not sure. Everything was a blur after I heard my name. I just sat there with my hands over my mouth in complete shock.
I managed to make it to the stage without tripping or making a complete fool of myself. I do remember that as I reached out to take my certificate and trophy, the little dragon charm on my bracelet got caught in my sweater and wouldn’t come loose.
I can’t tell you what winning that award meant, especially after the roller coaster of emotions I’d been through that week. It was as if God was saying, “Yes, you are a good writer. Yes, I have plans for you, even if they don’t involve the story you thought they did. Trust me, daughter. I’ve got this.”
Isn’t that just like Him, though? He knew that sweet celebration was just the encouragement I needed to stay the course.
There are other beautiful things I remember after the crazy announcement.
Hearing the happy cheers from friends old and new and from writers I loved and respected.
The huge bear hug and sweet words of affirmation from my non-huggy, non-mushy friend Sarah that meant the world to me.
The laughing comment from Robin after everything was over. “Well, what are you going to do now? Here I challenged you to write something else, and then you won an award!” (I let her know it was for a different manuscript, and that it didn’t change my mind.)
The picture Sarah stealthily took of this last conversation with Robin, and how even though my first thought was, “Man, I still look so huge in pictures,” Sarah told me that all she thought of when she saw it was the joy on our faces.
The fun picture of the two Sarahs, the two Hannahs, and a Rosemary thrown in for extra flavor.
The bittersweet goodbyes and my full heart as we left the parking lot for the last time.
And that, my friends, is the story of my weekend, of the conference that was supposed to be “no big deal,” and of the God who took me by surprise in a huge way.
I’m so thankful for everything He taught me. I’m thankful for Robin and the way she challenged me, encouraged me, and uplifted me through the whole process. I’m thankful for my sweet friends. I’m thankful for all the staff and faculty who worked so hard to put this conference together and brought us such wonderful, informative classes. I can’t wait to get my recording from the conference and soak everything in.
As an added blessing, I’m so thankful for the way my entire family, my parents included, were thrilled for me as I shared my story of the conference and one hundred percent supportive of my plans to move on from my fairy tale retellings to something original. The pride and joy on their faces as I talked to them gave me even more assurance I’d made the right decision.
I’m overwhelmed to think of hundreds of other personal stories from this very same conference, and curious to hear how God used the various teachers, classes, and messages in the other attendees’ lives.
So, what’s next?
I have no idea.
I know that, barring any unforeseen tragedies or road blocks in the next couple of months, I’ll be attending the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in April.
I have no clue if I’ll be riding with someone or driving myself. (Those of you who have witnessed my driving, even in a small town, and my tendency to end up at Shopko no matter where I’m supposed to end up will understand the significance of this.) 😉
I have no clue what I’ll be pitching, or if I’ll be pitching at all.
But I’m thinking that no matter what I plan, God may have a different idea for the conference entirely.
This is what I do know. The same God who gently guided me every step of the way through WCCW will continue to lead me along this amazing, scary, crazy, beautiful writing adventure for His glory.
And when God dreams, big things happen. Bigger things than I could ever think up with my own little human dreams.
I have this crazy feeling that the best is yet to come.
“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
Ephesians 3:20-12, NASB