I'm going to finally talk about Kansas.
Now, this shan't be about Kansas as an abstract concept; I don't know enough about the state to summarize it, except perhaps as "it felt like the inside of a water bottle that had been left outside Too Long". Instead, it shall be a short essay. A sappy essay. An essay I wrote to get into college. And guess what? It worked.
Once upon a time, I accidentally created a small gang. The fact that we succeeded in instilling some amount of fear into the local authorities surprises me and worries others. However, our actions are rendered somewhat less alarming when one considers that we were at a writing workshop, and the “local authorities” were our venerated teachers.
Yes. A writing workshop. This summer, I was blessed to take my own masterpiece--that is, the somewhat vile first draft of a novel--to the flat otherworld known as the Sunflower State. Why? Well, the workshop prominently featured “critique groups”: a handful of writers in a hot room who are given permission to gently shred one’s ideas to bits. And who doesn’t want their writing pulled apart and examined under the microscope of a second opinion?
Gentle sarcasm aside, I journeyed to Kansas to learn; learn how to hone my prose, learn if I wanted to pursue writing as a career, learn if I was any good at putting words on page or if I should dump my draft into the nearest recycling bin. As one can see, I had expectations higher than the little bumps the Olathe locals called “hills”.
In reality, the week in Kansas not only taught me how to improve my craft, it taught me to overcome fear. No matter how hard they try to deny it, everyone has something that keeps them up at night. However, besides the ordinary sort of worries, like spiders or someone we love getting harmed in some way, we have slower, deeper-rooted fears. Rejection. Betrayal. Abandonment. Every small disaster serves to reinforce these fears. Though I doubt most people have dueled their closest friend to the death at sundown, other things mirror and intensify the emotions that could lead to such a violent act.
Back to Kansas.
There I stood, fresh off the airport shuttle and marveling at the lack of mountains. As I lugged my suitcases through the cloudburst and up the stairs, I wondered what the week would hold. Would I return home with the contact information for a dozen new friends? Or would I pass the time in relative loneliness, acquiring knowledge instead of friendships? To save myself disappointment, I was inclined to resign myself to the latter, despite the twinges of self-pity accompanying that decision.
Enter the first group of writers.
The Narnian garb and the talking bacon pillow might have thrown many people into mental acrobatics, but I’d been around enough creative types to merely accept it. What shocked me was how friendly these people were--particularly the ones who’d attended past workshops and had therefore already established strong friendships. One of them in particular was rather famous in that community of writers, having won the highly competitive novel contest among other things. I was shocked by their inclusion of me in their antics. Was this workshop already breaking from the mold I’d cast for it?
The journey to the cafeteria interrupted my musings. After squeezing into and subsequently extracting ourselves from a booth, we journeyed to the first session, which announced the theme of the week: “Fair Winds and Following Seas”. Besides giving us a beautiful explanation of the metaphors in that phrase, the leader entreated us “not to hide in the introvert corner”. And so, in accordance with the nautical feel, I started testing the waters. Or, stripping away the metaphors, I started making friends. Soon, the aforementioned gang was born and the rest of my initial fear melted away.
The rest of the workshop sped by, cramming a bookful of knowledge (as well as the odd smattering of top hats and late-night explorations) into a few short days. Nobody wanted it to end; the atmosphere, the people were too lovely to leave.
Saturday, the last day, dawned.
I returned my keys and waited for the airport shuttle amid literal weeping. It seemed like everyone was hugging someone like it was the last time they’d see them--and it probably was. Honestly, the only thing keeping my eyes dry was the looming threat of missing my flight. As I was finishing my goodbyes, I noticed a young lad, rather well-known in that community of writers, wandering about, hugging essentially everyone he talked to. As I had spent a bit of time with him over the course of the week, I went over to bid him farewell.
He hugged me for a long moment. As I tried not to cry over a goodbye to a stranger, he looked me in the eyes and told me to read John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
The moment passed. The shuttle arrived, I flew home and reality resumed its normal course, but I doubt I’ll ever forget that moment. It captured the soul of the workshop. Yes, we were utterly ridiculous, we had deep conversations about figments of our imagination, we walked about in cloaks and tiaras, but in a few short days we learned to care about strangers like we’d known them our whole lives.
In Kansas I learned I didn’t have to be afraid, especially of other people. Yes, I still worry about what people think, what they could do to my ego or reputation. But often I think about the workshop and remember, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).