“Things never happen the same way twice, dear one.”
– Aslan to Lucy Pevensie, Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
To tell my truest Festival story, we have to jump back a bit.
My first festival. A wholly unwritten story. I had no idea what to expect. I knew exactly one person at the entire shindig, I wasn’t sure that I was a writer, and I wasn’t entirely sure why I was there at all. I attended a session in every time slot and drifted from place to place in a dreamlike state. I was overwhelmed. It felt like coming home to a family I’d never met, but always known. I shared a spare room in a couple’s apartment, which I hardly ever saw. I was early for everything, and stayed as long as I could. It was like I’d finally gotten my letter to Hogwarts.
And the woman who would become my editor contacted me and asked for a chat after fishing my book proposal out of the Submittable portal associated with the festival. She asked after my book, said she was interested, and we parted with some tentative next steps.
(My full festival recap from 2016 is available here)
I highlighted all the sessions I wanted to go to 10 days in advance. I was unable to trust that the book I’d started working on after the last festival was about to be in my hands for the first time, and be sold, at this one. I had a game plan. I knew what to expect.
[Insert Ron Howard voiceover]
She did not, in fact, know what to expect.
My schedule seemed to disintegrate the moment I stepped off the plane. Any level of chill I had was gone the second I saw my book in print. Day 1 was more raw than I was ready for, Day 2 more official than I felt, and Day 3 too fast for my liking (because I never wanted it to end). But I did manage to hold to a few rules, and I would pass them on to any future Festival goer:
- If you have split interests between a session led by White folks or a Person/People of Color, choose the latter.
- If you have to choose between a celebrity writer voice you already know and an intriguing panel by people you don’t know, choose the latter.
- For every work you buy written by a White/centered culture author, buy another work by an author of Color/marginalized culture.
My festival experience was deeply enhanced by these practices. I heard new voices that both shredded and repaired me in all the right ways, like Padraig O Tuama, Natasha Oladoukun and Robin Coste Lewis. I was called in and called out by Jeff Chu, Austin Channing Brown, and Diedra Riggs. I was given beauty and history and shape by Edwidge Danticat.
These experiences were rich, challenging, joyful, and unlike any I could get from a guest series at my White Protestant Christian points of access. In my spaces, I’m likely to see a number of headliners come through my city or University again. By intentionally leaning out of my knee-jerk preferences, I got a much wider and more nourishing experience than if I had stuck to my script from 2016 – and a much wider list of beautiful smelling, spine-cracking new books.
They will forever be the starry points of light in this story.
But the river that swept me along under that starry sky was a wild one that tossed me into the lap of person after beautiful person who buoyed me through meals, conversation, check-ins. My gracious hosts for the weekend and longtime friends, Kristy and Amber, who housed me in their apartment and laugh-cringed with me through memories of high school youth group events that culminated in contrived tears every night.
My first writer-friend, Shea, who was the first to say “you need to pitch this” and then one of the first to hold the finished work in her hands.
My new author family at Upper Room, J. Dana Trent and Whitney Simpson, whose meditations let me keep finding space in myself despite the overwhelm of the Festival, and who called me to their table with grace and welcome. And our team, Ann and Joanna, who make heavy work light and possible.
A brand new collection of faithful women writers who added me to their gaggle following the conference, where we broke bread in gratitude and shared moments that were simultaneously hilarious, holy, irreverent and beautiful.
A brunch for the books with another friend from home, Amanda, who braved the ice and other humans to come for a wide-ranging chat over crepes.
And now, a new adventure: A night in a convent with one of those lovely women who pulled me into their circle. A waystation for this snowed in traveler drowning in joy.
A Festival experience with just the starry lights would’ve been enough.
A Festival experience with just the wild current of writing community & soul friends would’ve been enough.
An impromptu adventure to a Dominican Sisters’ Mother House would’ve been enough.
A visit with just one of the many friends I’ve been with here would’ve been enough.
An experience without a published work would’ve been enough.
Doing this festival exactly like 2016 would’ve been enough.
But this was more, is more, will be more. It demands more of me, and calls me to pull more people whose voices were not heard at this Festival into the work and demand they be heard in the future.
Thank God nothing ever happens the same way twice. See you in 2020, friends. May we recognize each other then as the ones we are becoming now.
*Credit to Dayenu and my beloved friends in the Jewish tradition for the last bit of this work.