Last year there was a very fancy literary writing conference held in Portland. I could not afford to go. In the evenings some of the teaching authors would hold short readings that were open to the public. It was held at a beautiful college just a mile away from my apartment (it may or may not have been the college that Donald Miller wished he was a real student at). I went and sat in the outdoor amphitheater, awkwardly pretending to be just fine thank you at being by myself, the only frumpy sober single gal, while published authors read tales of desperation and beauty. It was like I could touch that world, the world of being literary and great, a world where all the girls wore floppy summer hats and had agents, but I wasn’t allowed in. For the rest of the summer, while my husband took our daughter to the park for a few hours a week, I would get dropped off at that same college campus. It was like an oasis from my noisy, crowded life, those two hours every so often. I would wander the library and read literary journals I had never heard of, the sit down at my old laptop and try to produce 1,000 mediocre words.
This fall, I applied for a scholarship for my dream writing conference, more of a workshop really, where like-minded artistic Christians gather round for a week in the high desert to talk about faith and creativity and worship. I sweated through the application, mailed off my best stuff, and received a 50% off discount for the prestigious conference. But even then, at that rate, I could not afford to go. Besides the expense of getting there, the conference was 8 days long. I don’t think it was designed for people with young children or limited amounts of time off. Regretfully, with visions of sun-soaked cabins and intense discussions on craft, I turned it down. That kind of life was for other people, not for me.
Last month, I attended a free day-long writing conference held at a very well-known literary center here in the Midwest. It was put on through the public library, and seats went fast. I snapped one up, eager and excited that the cards were finally falling into place. It was free! It was local! It was literary! I arrived with a notebook and a pen and excited for a delicious day of not being a mother/wife/esl teacher/neighbor/friend (no offense to all those dear roles, I just needed a bit of a break). The keynote speaker was wonderful, a Native American woman who had some grand stories and a gentle activist spirit. The workshops on memoir and short essay writing were a bit dull, and very author-centric (they could have used a bit of the War Photographers ethics, if you asked me). But most surprising and most saddening to me was that the crowd was homogenous to the point of being laughable: the vast majority being older, white, (and by the looks of it) upper-to-middle class women. All the things my current neighborhood isn’t. The conference was free, less than a mile from my apartment, and yet none of my neighbors came. I realized abruptly, sitting in that prestigious literary center, that my questions, my assumptions, and my experiences are only just starting to scratch the surface of this whole ethic of living with my neighbors in mind. Because the truth is that we are even writing about things like downward mobility because the American dream (the upward trajectory) has left a good many people behind. And even as we change surface-type things (hosting free writing conferences for the community, for example) it doesn’t change the heart. It doesn’t change the fact that my neighbors didn’t attend. Maybe they didn’t have access to a computer in which to register for the class. Maybe they are tired of being the only one with their perspective in the room. Maybe they don’t feel like their voice would be valued.
I don’t know the answer, and that is part of the problem.
I’ve been thinking a fair amount about downward mobility and writing. or, you could say i have been thinking about myself, which seems to be my favorite thing to do.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this blog debating how we should approach writing (or photographing, or sharing in general) people who are different from us. I walked away from that conversation with some great convictions on how to walk through life with integrity–because I realized I love living and hanging out with people very different from me, and I really love to write. And the reality is, I have to be very, very careful with that combination.
But beyond the actual content of writing, there are the practicalities. First off, I recently decided that I don’t actually self-identify as a writer. There are a myriad of reasons why, which I am only just now sorting out. I am very grateful to my friend Ben over at Ragged Band for sending me some prompts about my writing process/writing life, which led me to some great conclusions. You can head on over to hear all my rambly-pambly thoughts about it.
Secondly, how does one learn to write better? I have always wanted to go to a writing conference, for instance, but it doesn’t really pass benchmarks I have been trying to live by: is what I want readily available for my neighbor? Is what I want good for my neighbor? I don’t know who first introduced me to these two questions, but they sort of ruined my life. They make every decision that much more complicated, the stakes just a bit higher–even attending a writing conference. But those questions are spurring me on to be a better neighbor, to always carry thoughts of them with me, wherever I go.
Writing, identity, vocation, art, community, solidarity, downward mobility. It isn’t nearly as nice and tidy as I would like it to be. I’m still figuring out this writing thing (I have had a few other adventures in community writing classes, the likes of which I don’t feel comfortable sharing here yet), but I am grateful for the struggle. It makes me sharper, gracious, acutely aware of how far the kingdom is and blessedly assured that just a little leaven goes a long way.
Our little attempts to love each other mean something. All these questions, means something. We are hanging on to what Jesus said sums it all up, the laws and the prophets, the dreams and the aspirations: we are trying to love our God, to see him everywhere. And we are trying to love our neighbors, even as much as we love ourselves.
In the vein of writing/identity and all that, you can also check out an interview I did over at Heather Caliri’s site. She is doing an amazing series on what saying “yes” can do. She interviewed me by Skype and I got ALL evangelical up in there. It is quite the sneak peek into my every-day life, which I don’t talk about too often in these parts.