Another Ridgecrest Farewell

I’m concluding my week at Ridgecrest in the same spot where I began—Rocking Chair Ridge. As nice as the new Johnson Spring complex is, this is still my favorite place at Ridgecrest. Every time I sit in one of these chairs, I can’t help but think about the lives that have been changed over the years in this very spot—including my own.

Every time I come here for a conference, God shows up. This week has been no disappointment. I’ve done a horrible job of tweeting, Facebooking, and whatever the latest cool social networking thing is that popped up while I wasn’t watching. I didn’t even tweet-feet, though I did post a picture of Vonda Skelton’s feet on the BRMCWC Facebook Fan Page, just for fun. Though I may have been social-network challenged, I’m certain my time went for all the right things.

What I did do this week is study the craft of writing suspense and thrillers at the feet of award-winning novelist Steven James. I also made a few hundred new friends, hugged a lot of old friend’s necks, and refilled my writer’s soul by hanging with all those fellow word-wrangling addicts.

And as always, there were surprises.

After a gentle but firm nudge from the Holy Spirit, I spent three days in Nancy Rue’s class on writing for tweens and teens. I knew it would be wonderful the moment I walked through the door and saw TOYS! I tried to avoid it, but the inescapable fact is that ther Lord is nudging me to dedicate a portion of my writing life to novels for tween boys (9-12 years old). I feel thoroughly inadequate for that task, which puts me in a good place. If I’m to have any success, God’s gonna have to show up and I’m gonna have to get out of His way.

I had one final surprise today, the sort of moment I’d attribute to coincidence if I believed in coincidence. At lunch today I sat at a random  table with a young woman who I later learned was Andrea Gutierrez, associate editor or Thriving Family magazine. I learned that we have some common friends, and also that Thriving Family is a potential target for some articles I’ve written in the past but haven’t done much with lately. I’ve been so fiction-focused that I hadn’t even considered article writing lately, but the queries will be flying before long. Coincidence? Not hardly.

One last item from Ridgecrest: a word about those wonderful Ridgecrest volunteers. I love red shirts anyway, but after this week I love ’em even more. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with retired folks who come to Ridgecrest and volunteer their time to help the ministry. The volunteers are easy to spot. Just look for the red shirts, and you’ll more than likely find a volunteer. These folks come here from all over the country at their own expense to serve without pay, and their faithful service added so much to the week for all of us. The photo shows my absolute favorite volunteer of all time, an eighty-something lady named Marvella. She’s volunteered to serve at every writer’s conference and retreat I’ve attended here at Ridgecrest, and without her I’d have never found my way that first year. We all love you, Marvella. I look forward to seeing you here next year!

Thoughts from an ex-Newbie

I’m at the wonderful Ridgecrest conference center, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference. I came a day early,as has been my tradition ever since my first year at BRMCWC, when I flew to Asheville using credit card points and HAD to stay a Saturday night to qualify. I stayed in a cheap motel in Asheville that time around because I’d never been to Ridgecrest before. Now that I’m in love with this mountaintop the only reason I’d stay anywhere else is “no room at the inn.”

Even though I didn’t “have” to come a day early this year—the old 25,000 point flight deal is long gone—Sharon, who has a special place in her heart for Ridgecrest, encouraged me to come early anyway. The extra day is mostly a somewhat selfish indulgence for me, an opportunity to relax and enjoy this wonderful place while getting myself mentally and spiritually preparedfor the conference. It also allows me to sit through the opening session fully awake, another plus. If I flew in on Sunday I’d have to be out of bed at 4am to get here, and by Sunday night I’d be in a walking coma.

Back when I first came here, there were no reasonable shuttle services between the Asheville airport and Ridgecrest, so I had to rent a car no matter how much it pained me to pay rental on a car that spent most of the week in the same parking space. There are more transit options available now, but to come a day early I still need the rental car. The meal ticket for the conference entitles me to three institutional meals a day that bring back bad memories of cafeteria lunches in Catholic school, but it doesn’t kick in until supper on Sunday. The ability to drive down to Black Mountain for a bite to eat and a few other supplies makes the car worth the little bit extra—and the shuttles from Asheville aren’t cheap, so it’s not that much more.

Having a high degree of frugalitycoded into my DNA (at least when spending MY money), I always shop for the cheapest little car I can find and use every coupon and free upgrade I can dig up. I lucked out this year and got upgraded from a bottom-end rubber-tires-and-motor car to a brand new Hyundai Sonata. It’s all a matter of right place, right time, and a car rental desk with such low inventory that the rental guy had to borrow a car from another rental company for the guy ahead of me in line. One of the car cleanup guys dropped the Sonata’s keys on the counter just as I pointed out that I was due a free upgrade. I ended up with a BIG free upgrade! 🙂 The Sonata is a spiffy car with lots of techie doodads and “stuff.” Bluetooth, satellite radio (what a waste), and lots of other features that I wish I had time to play with, but don’t.

Late yesterday afternoon, I drove into Black Mountain for a quick visit to a drug store and a bite to eat. It had turned dark by the time I left the restaurant, but I never gave that a second thought until I pulled on to the ramp to I40 and descended into blackness. Wouldn’t you expect a car with so many techie doodads to have automatic headlights? My far less cool GMC truck does, as does Sharon’s Pontiac Vibe. I suddenly found myself in the cockpit of a cool car with lots of knobs and buttons and no idea at all how to turn on the headlights!

I survived, of course. I pulled over, opened the door (how do you turn on an interior light in this thing?) and found the light switch. Let there be light.

Thinking about that little headlight debacle reminded me of my first time at Ridgecrest. I was as lost as a Baptist preacher in a biker bar, had no idea where anything was, where to go, or what to do. I got here early—two and a half hours before the scheduled registration window opened—so I could get my bearings and find my way around, and I needed every minute. A wonderful little grandma lady pointed me toward Pritchell Hall, where they checked me in and registered me even though I was early, gave me a map and pointed me in the right direction.

All through that first conference experience, whenever newbie befuddlement struck me a helpful soul was not far away, ready to point me in the right direction, encourage me, and make me feel like I belonged at a time in my writing journey when I wasn’t sure I did. Those encouragers are part of why I’m still a writer. Without them, I would have been overwhelmed and given in to the urge to quit. Most of them will never know what a difference they made.

It’s time for me to go now. Registration is open. Time for me to go down to Pritchell and look for some newbies to encourage.

Building Blue Ridge

I’m in North Carolina this week, just outside Asheville at the beautiful Ridgecrest Conference Center, one of my favorite away-from-home places in the world. Ever since I met my sweetheart in Greensboro and we honeymooned on the Outer Banks, I’ve had a special place in my heart for Carolina (only yankees and outsiders call it “North” Carolina). I love the sea oats, sand and salt air on the coast, but if I had to choose, I think I’d choose Ridgecrest (and a good car so we could drive to the outer banks regularly).

If you’ve read my blog at all, you’ve already heard me wax poetisophical about Ridgecrest, and I won’t replay those previous waxings However, some cool things have happened here since my last visit in May, like the progress on the new Convention Center buildings.

East

Southeast corner, viewed from parking lot of The ARC

Another view from The ARC Parking lot, with Rhododendron behind the new building

This cluster of structures is enormous; one picture can’t even come close to doing it justice, so I took a boatload and selected five in an attempt to show the expanse of the new facility that spans the gap between the Rhododendron/Dogwood buildings and the Mountain Laurel Inns.

Overhead View (From Mountain Laurel 3rd floor)

Connection to Mountain Laurel

Initial Framework of the Connection to Mountain Laurel

As I understand it, when the facility is complete it will be possible to have a sizable convention or other gathering (such as the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in May) and never have to step outdoors. I’ll miss the “umbrella or no umbrella” challenge, but not much. 🙂

Connection to Mountain Laurel

View from back corner of Dogwood, with Mountain Laurel in the distance, behind the new complex

I can hardly wait to see what great things God does with this new facility. We could get a lot of writers in all that space!

A Ridgecrest Goodbye–and Guest Blogging, too.

Well, here I am again, writing another “farewell to Ridgecrest” entry from Rocking Chair Ridge. The first Blue Ridge Mountains Advanced Novel Retreat is officially history. The final time of worship (lunch 🙂 ) is over, and I’m at that saddest of moments–having to say Goodbye to Ridgecrest until next time.

God is everywhere. We all know that. It’s not that there are certain places where there’s more of God, but that there are certain places where He’s more evident because He’s more welcome. Ridgecrest is one of those special places. Holy ground, anointed by generations of prayer mingled with generations of sweat and tears. Sitting in this old rocking chair, I can’t help thinking about those who’ve sat here before me. Decisions made. Broken hearts bandaged and healed. Lives changed. It’s certainly been an important place in my journey as a writer, as well as in my journey as a believer.

It’s time. I know that. I don’t want to leave here, but I know I can’t fulfill God’s calling and purpose for me without getting out of this chair and heading toward the airport. And, as much as I love this place, I’ll be miserable if I don’t go where He’s sent me.

So goodbye again, Ridgecrest. You’ve been a great blessing to me this week. Thank You, Lord, for all those whose dedicated work have made this tool the place that it is.

Oh, and lest I forget… I’m the featured guest blogger on Tiff Colter’s Writing Career Coach blog today.  Stop by for an interesting read!

ACFW follow-up from Rocking Chair Ridge

It just occurred to me that I never posted a follow-up to the ACFW conference. It isn’t that there’s nothing to post. It’s that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

I came away from ACFW with a different perspective on my writing. It’s not that my writing suddenly changed, but that God used some people there to talk to me about my writing in terms that I’d never considered. It’s not that I’ve come away with a different direction for my writing. It’s not that I’ve experienced a great life change. It’s not that sudden and jarring a thing; more like subtle, inner “ah-hah!” moments that tie together things that the Lord’s been doing in me. And–scary though it may be–it’s starting to make sense.

One of the great things about the ACFW conference was putting faces to the names of those friends I’ve met online. People like Sharon Hinke, who read a few pages from my current work in progress and proclaimed me “a chick-lit writer trapped in a man’s body.”  And I finally got to meet some of the ladies in my online critique group. And… well, if I tried to list everyone, I’d run out of space on the web server.

I came away energized and encouraged, and almost overwhelmed by the positive feedback I got for my project. It’s hard for me to put words to, so you know it’s a big deal!

Today, I’m at one of my favorite places on the planet–Ridgecrest, North Carolina. I’m in a rocking chair on Rocking Chair Ridge at the Ridgecrest conference center, passing the time waiting for my room to be made ready. (I’m early, believe it or not!)

I’m here for the Advanced Novel Retreat that’s going on this week. I’m excited about this event, because it’s a smaller affair that’s totally focused on improving in the craft of writing. No pitching, no selling, just growing. And I expect to grow this week.

Expecting results is at least half of getting results. 🙂

Still Rockin’ . . . But, it’s been an “interesting” week.

Here I am, pretty much in the same chair and same spot I was in last time I made a blog entry. The weather is even the same. It’s even about the same time of day.

But things have changed.

I started out with a grand plan to blog my way through the week, posting pictures of the beautiful facilities here at Ridgecrest, and pictures of me with impressive writer-types and and such, and pictures of the goings on here at the conference for the benefit of a few folks who wished that they could be here. It was a wonderful plan.

Then it happened.

It was late Monday when I finally got back to my room and sat down at the ol’ laptop. I noticed that it was warm–an unusual thing, since it was supposed to be sleeping at the time. I opened the lid and saw a black screen with a little window in the middle that referenced some obscure internal Windows process that had failed, and the machine was hopelessly locked inside its own brain.

The only thing I could do was reboot. That yielded an ugly “blue screen of death.” The internal diagnostics told the story: “DST Short Test Failed.” Translation: Hard Disk failure. Ouch.

I called Dell Support Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday a shiny refurbished drive and a set of re-installation disks was dropped off at the front desk by DHL. Later on Wednesday, I had a functioning computer again, albeit without most of the software I use routinely, and without a buncha my files. Not to worry, though. Once I get home, I have the means to extract most of the files from this sickly drive before I return it to Dell. But, that will teach me to go off without doing a FULL backup. 🙁

So, my plans were scuttled, but that’s okay. Seriously, I don’t mind. True, I was cut off from the rest of the virtual world for a few days, but that left me with nothing to do but focus on the conference and getting the most out of my classes and pitches. I survived quite nicely, much to my surprise.

And, it’s been a fabulous week. I’ve gotten to meet a few folks I’ve met with online, I’ve had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of James Scott Bell, McNair Wilson, and Dr. Ted Baehr. I’ve met with some great editors and agents, and I’ve been asked to send proposals for my current novel-in-birth. I’ve been educated, challenged, inspired and refreshed.

And frankly, I would rather not leave Ridgecrest and go back to the real world. . . but I know I must.

I was talking with a girl at the front desk the other day, commenting on how much I love Ridgecrest and wish I didn’t have to leave, when I came to a startling realization. If I were able to stay here on this mountaintop, sooner or later I would take it for granted and lose my deep and reverent respect for the place. You can’t know you’re on the mountain if you’ve never been in the valley, and you never know how special a place is if you’ve never been to places that aren’t special.

All that makes me wonder. Am I missing something wonderful and amazing right in my own neighborhood? Is there a place right where I spend most of my time that’s just as special as Ridgecrest? I’ve got a feeling that there is, and I pray that the Lord will give me the vision to see it and make the most of everything he’s gifted me with.

One thing I’m certain of–there’s a wonderful spot in Little Rock where I long to be, and my yearning to be there is stronger by many times than my desire to stay at Ridgecrest. And it’s because of that wonderful spot that I will soon say goodbye to this blessed mountaintop and head for the airport. I’ll be on my way to the best place in the world. Right next to my soul-mate, my lover, my best friend–My wife Sharon. Wherever she is, that’s where my heart longs to be.

Dorothy was right. There’s no place like home.

I’m Rockin’!

I’m writing this from a splendid, weathered rocking chair in a place known affectionately as “Rocking Chair Ridge.” It’s a wonderful little strip of elevated concrete that spans the gulf between two buildings at the Ridgecrest Conference Center, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I’m here for the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Rocking Chair RidgeWriters Conference that starts late this afternoon, and believe it or not (and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t 🙂 ) I’m early. I arrived a little past noon, and after dodging the busses, vans, and cars of departing youth groups and Salvation Army women, I found a parking space and got myself checked in. I didn’t even have to wait in line–there wasn’t another soul on my side of the check-in desk.

But the downside of my early arrival is that my room won’t be ready for a couple or three hours . . . so I’ve got to hang out here on Rocking Chair Ridge and endure the sunny, 71 degree weather and the feel the gentle breeze on the back of my head. Darn! What a hardship! 🙂

Ridgecrest is one of two big conference centers owned by Lifeway (The Southern Baptist Convention). This is the second time in my life that I’ve been to Ridgecrest. The first was last year at about this same time, and it was a much different experience. For 17 years I’d been listening to my SBC brethren speak about Ridgecrest in the same hushed tones that Catholics use to when they speak about the Vatican. I didn’t understand why they had such a special affection for the place. After all, it’s just a conference center. I’ve been to lots of conference centers. No big deal. But last year, as I drove through the gate, I could feel it. It felt different inside than it did out there. I felt as though I had passed through a filter and a lot of the “stuff” I had rattling around in my heart stayed outside. All the apprehension, all my carefully crafted strategies and slick, well, prepared pitches and other “me-focused” stuff stayed outside.

I registered, checked in to my room, settled into the chair and opened my conference folder. Then, I read the theme scripture and cried for about half an hour. When I got up from that special moment at Jesus’ feet, my whole perspective on the conference and in my writing in general was different. I had no idea what was next for me, only that whatever it was, if I was going to continue writing I was either going to do it God’s way or not at all.

It was a wonderful conference last year. I left with new opportunities, new ways of thinking, and a totally new level of commitment to what I was doing as a Christian writer. And, to my surprise, that junk that refused to follow me through the gate wasn’t out there waiting for me when I drove back out to head home. I guess that without me feeding it, it died of malnutrition while I was inside.

It’s different for me this year. I knew what to expect, and I didn’t bother packing stuff that wouldn’t make it through the gate. There was a point last week when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it here, but it seems that God wants me here this week, and he made a way. Some day I’ll realize that He’s bigger than me and my problems.

So, here I am on Rocking Chair Ridge. My room’s probably ready now, but I’m in no hurry. I’ll just sit here and rock a while, and listen for the still, small voice in the breeze as it welcomes me back to Ridgecrest. It’s funny . . . the other day I was telling someone about Ridgecrest and they said, “You talk about the place in the same hushed, reverent voice that Catholics use when they talk about the Vatican.”

And they were right.