Wow, what a week that was! In some ways I am still recovering, though it has been nearly a month since we bid farewell to the last of the conference attendees and speakers. I could blame my feelings on lack of sleep, which extracts a steeper penalty now than it used to. But my real problem was that I wasn’t prepared for what happened.
This year was only the second annual summer workshop for students of the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum, but it was four days and five nights long this time. Last year it ended after a day and half. Still, I should have known something interesting was about to happen at this particular conference. As I looked at the proposed topics offered by various speakers, a common theme emerged: writers in community. An odd combination, it seemed to me. I’m something of a loner, and writing is usually a very solitary occupation. We don’t write in community. And we don’t really commune as writers. Most of us join communities that are based on other aspects of our lives. In fact, apart from writing conferences and the OYAN student forum, I couldn’t think of any place that really fits those words.
Then the 2011 OYAN Summer Workshop slapped me on the back of the head. It dawned on me at some point during the workshop that what I was seeing was extraordinary. Creative, passionate kids with genuine talent bonding around a common desire to change the world with their words. More than this, they were giving themselves to each other. Challenging each other to write better and more deeply. Cheering for each other, laughing with each other, nurturing each other’s need to be not just a writer, but a writer in community. Over and over I heard comments from students and parents such as, “I feel like I found my long lost family!” and “I thought I was alone until I came here, and now I know there are a lot of other weird people too!”
Mark Wilson, one of the workshop speakers, reminded everyone that some of the world’s finest literature has come from writers living in community. The inklings, for instance, shared each other’s worlds in ways that were sometimes harsh, sometimes loving, but always reminiscent of family. Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Lord David Cecil, Roger Green, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others met regularly around a shared passion for literature; both Narnia and Middle Earth sprang up from the rich soil of these meetings.
I couldn’t help but contrast this with the community I experienced in college when I studied creative writing. Did I experience community at the university? Perhaps. I did make friends. I did meet some other passionate writers. But my years in college were, in retrospect, characterized by loose acquaintances with people going completely different directions. I don’t remember any sense of purpose in our critiques. Our writing had no
purpose outside itself. As a result, we were focused inward, on ourselves. Our books were mirrors of our individual pain. Our characters were reflections of our own egos. If I helped someone else become a better writer it was purely by accident. I don’t think any of us considered the possibility that the only way to make our writing—and our lives—worthwhile was through kindness and selflessness.
At the 2011 workshop I discovered how empty such inwardness is. The contrast—even stretched over a 20-year period—is as palpable as the affection OYANers have for each other.
This summer I learned that I have a very large family that stretches across the U.S. and the world. And I suspect the 87 students and 61 parents who attended this year represent an even larger community.
No wonder it was so hard for everyone to say goodbye. No wonder I’ve been carrying an unspoken but happy sadness for the last few weeks. I just said farewell to 148 brothers and sisters.