What I Learned from Jot: The GR Writers' Mini-Conference

(Writers must write. Photo: Free images)

Did you know Grand Rapids has a writers conference that's absolutely free? Welcome to the delight I felt when I learned about Jot: The GR Writers Mini-Conference, a semi-annual one-night event hosted on Friday, Sept. 12, at Baker Book House. 

I felt invigorated and refreshed by what I heard and learned about blogging, editing and the discipline of writing regularly. I'd like to share some of those lessons with you.

'The Gift of Vulnerability' in writing

I found the most to connect with in the talk by Ellen Stumbo, a blogger and journalist who spoke on "The Gift of Vulnerability." Vulnerability in writing is something I strive for, but I often struggle to let myself be open out of fear of what readers will think of me in all my messiness. 

Like cracked pavement, we're all broken. (Photo: Free images)
Stumbo, a pastor's wife as well as a writer, opened her speech with a confession: She wanted her daughter to die. Having hooked me with that opener, she could say anything next, and I'd be along for the ride. 

She described the dark days after her daughter was born with Down syndrome, during which Stumbo often dug her nails into her palms so forcefully that they left marks, just to keep herself from doing something worse.

When she began blogging honestly about her fears and anger, she was set free from the shame. She began to connect with other women, other moms, who had felt the same way but were too scared to say the words out loud. When she said the words, "I wish my daughter away," she released herself -- and countless others she inspired -- from the bondage of fear. She could let it go -- and heal, and offer others hope.

Stumbo's gift to me on Friday night was multi-layered:
  1. She reminded me of what I've been told lately by more than one writing mentor and friend: Share that passion inside you. You've had experiences unique to yourself, and you've responded to them and learned from them in ways that only you can share. 
  2. Stumbo stressed that half-truths are no truths at all. If you share only part of the story, without revealing any of your weaknesses or motivations, you have not served the reader. You have preached a message you believe, but have not explained why you believe it. The reader might end up feeling confused and alienated by your avoidance of the whole truth. The reader might walk away worse off than when s/he came to your blog.
  3. She clarified that vulnerability is not a chance to put someone else down, a chance to be spiteful, a confession without discretion, or a chance to say "it's not fair." It's also not a good idea to offer up the whole hot mess if you're still in the thick of it.
  4. She emphasized that vulnerability is a chance to offer hope, a chance to bring light into darkness and a chance to share your brokenness to bring about redemption. I would certainly say she is flying that flag in her own writing, after having read a few posts from her blog.
I look forward to following the presenters in the future -- especially Ellen Stumbo -- and I'm so thankful to the Jot organizers for their labor of love in putting on the free conference.

I hope to meet some of you, readers, at the next Jot gathering.

About the conference

The event, now in its fourth year, was organized by four local writers: Andrew Rogers, a published nonfiction and short-story author and acquisitions editor at Discovery House Publishers; Josh Mosey, a fiction writer, blogger and Baker Book House employee; Bob Evenhouse, a fiction writer who is in the process of seeking publication for a young adult series; and Matthew Landrum, MFA, poet and poetry editor for Structo Magazine.

The organizers created a four-hour, post workday structure for the event, which I found to be very helpful. Four keynote speakers gave brief talks with five- to 10-minute breaks between each, then at the end of the keynotes, attendees could choose among three simultaneous workshops: one on poetry, one on speculative fiction and one on blogging. I attended the blogging workshop.

The keynote speakers were Alison Hodgson, a writer and humorist; Andrew Rogers, conference co-founder; Ellen Stumbo, a blogger and journalist; and Sam Carbaugh, a cartoonist, illustrator and newly published children's book author. I appreciated the insights shared by these speakers and fellow writers I connected with during the workshop.

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Partly Dave said...

Good summary of the events. The idea of being vulnerable in your writing tends to scare me a little--well, a lot. Maybe that's why I write fiction or write about it. I can represent an event from my life I can do this in fiction. I can conceal it and I can alter it. If something is too painful even for me to write about in the guise of a fictional character, I can still modify it. I can dwell behind the anonymity of fiction and still be vulnerable. For an introverted person who, like Oscar Wilde, "can't bear catharsis," I can still express my feelings.

JOT is a great thing and while the session or not all of equal use and equal relevance, they're still interesting to sit through. I thought Andrew's was good as well. I know Sam Carbaugh and do read graphic novels, his talk was fascinating. You'll have to let everyone know what you think of the Breathe Conference.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the write up! It was great having you participate in the blogging workshop.

Rachel E. Watson said...

Thanks for your comments!

Dave: I like your thoughts on writing fiction. For some reason, I've always gravitated toward reading fiction but writing nonfiction. So maybe I should read your fiction! :-D

Josh, I appreciated you hosting the workshop. I took your advice and decided to set three consistent posting days (Tuesday, Friday and Sunday) as well as some consistent content themes.

Sarah Mascara said...

Thanks for sharing, Rachel! I didn't even know about this workshop, but I'm glad I could glean a little learning from it through you. :)

Rachel E. Watson said...

Glad to be of service! Maybe I'll see you at the next Jot? They're talking about holding the next one in March. http://bit.ly/jotreflections