Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference


Dear Pastor-elders of Community Evangelical Free Church: In April, all of us traveled to Orlando for a pastor’s conference. As you know, over 6,000 others did the same thing. And, in my estimation, at least 5,000 of the attendees were males.

Last week, thanks to your encouragement and support, I attended another conference. This time I was in Pittsburgh, and this time, there were only 155 people there. But—and I noticed this as soon as I walked in the hotel lobby—the ratio was reversed: it must have been 85% women.

It was an odd juxtaposition, these two conferences. Then again, I expected that; I was there to learn about different things—not theology and pastoring in a local church, but the craft of writing. Specifically, I was there to learn how nonfiction authors could improve their writing by using elements of fiction—things like dialogue, conflict, tension, scene, personification, foreshadowing, point of view, and character development.

Sarah, the lady who stood near me as we waited for our registration packets, was there from Chicago, where she is a professional writing coach. Jessica, who sat next to me during the Friday morning session, drove 6 hours that morning from Syracuse; she teaches English to high school freshman. All of us were there to learn how to tell stories—true stories—and to tell them well.

But in the late 1990s, so we learned at the conference, creative nonfiction (or narrative nonfiction as it is often called), was relatively unknown. And where it was known, it was mostly decried. For example, a ’97 Vanity Fair article attacked the genre and its leading protagonist, Lee Gutkind, and pejoratively called him “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction.” Gutkind was a keynote speaker at the conference, and he told us that when Vanity Fair published the article, his fellow college faculty members mocked him to the extent that he didn’t want to leave his house.

Now, however, creative nonfiction is the fastest growing genre in publishing, so we were told. Now, narrative law and narrative medicine, for example, are booming. Many forces, many streams have made it thus, including authors like Tom Wolfe and movements like the New Journalism. But whatever its recent origins, we all know that people have loved the power of stories ever since there have been people to tell them and campfires to tell them around.

On the conference website, it says,

The publishing landscape has recently seen a noteworthy shift toward longform first-person narratives. From traditional news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post to less traditional ones like Slate and Salon, stories driven by a strong first-person voice are taking on many of the most important topics of our time. (emphasis added).

I’m not sure how many at the conference consider matters of faith and the gospel some of the “most important topics of our time,” but I know that we do. And so did the Apostle Paul. He called the gospel a matter of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6). Therefore, shouldn’t Christians commit themselves to being the best writers? Shouldn’t we be those who tell the best stories?

I think so; we have the best subject matter.

And for me, I can say that the conference did many other things besides reaffirming my commitment to the craft and stirring my creative juices. The conference also gave me valuable insights into the publishing world, and also it allowed me to explore a dream that rattles around in my heart, namely, one day pursuing a writing degree. It’s a dream that could be many years away, or possibly never materialize, but the conference provided needed reconnaissance.

As well, there were a number of nuggets from the conference that served as reminders for me in my preaching at Community. Here’s just one example. After a woman practiced her book “pitch” to the panel of experts, the panel reminded the author that, while the book seemed interesting and true enough, she still had to answer this question: “why this, why now?” The panel continued, “readers and publishers have to know why THIS TRUTH, THIS STORY needs to be presented in THIS cultural moment.”

The import to preaching is direct. It’s not enough just to preach truth; good preaching must also apply every truth to our particular cultural moment, and even one’s particular congregation. There were additional takeaways for preaching, but my letter is getting long already.

So, thank you, pastor-elders, for your commitment to the continuing education of the full-time, vocational pastors at our church. Events like this help sustain me in the pastorate. I do not want my pastoral ministry to be like a sparkler—bright, yet brief. Rather, I want to be a lighthouse—standing against the waves over the long haul. And your commitment to send me to this conference added cement to my foundation.

With much gratitude, Benjamin