What I Learned at the Writers’ Conference

Inspired by online writing friend Sarah Rexford, who would serve on the faculty, I registered for last month’s Maranatha Christian Writers’ Conference in Norton Shores, Michigan. Part of the appeal was a chance to visit my niece and her husband in nearby Grand Rapids.

A conference can feel like a high-stakes, high-pressure event. Writers stress over questions like Will any agents even look at me? What if I meet with an editor, but then flub my pitch? Is my writing career over before it even starts?

But I wasn’t a bit worried about any of these issues. In fact, I felt as relaxed as Garfield the cat. Sipping chamomile tea. After eating half a lasagna.

Overconfident? Nope. It’s only because my purpose in attending wasn’t to pitch a book. Specifically, I had nothing ready to pitch. I went only to listen and learn, improve my skills, talk with other writers about writing and faith, maybe make a few new friends… and, of course, get my first-ever look at Lake Michigan.


The conference experience gave me all that and more. Fabulous meals, engaging speakers and teachers, kindred spirits, prayer partners–it could hardly have been much better. I even made some encouraging connections–totally unexpected.

So yes, I learned a lot, but I won’t bore you with lecture content. If you’re a writer, you probably know most of it, and if you aren’t, why would you care? No, I’d rather share some surprising facts and pearls of wisdom that anyone might enjoy.

1) On the second day of the conference, I headed for my room in the lodge with my hands full. How to unlock my door?? I’d stuck my key card in the clear pocket with my name badge. I leaned the pocket up to the key reader, and–voila!–the door unlocked. I burbled about my amazing discovery to a younger attendee. He nodded patiently and said, “Well… yeah.” (Tell me I’m not the only one who didn’t know this.)

2) It’s actually possible to visit a conference / retreat center situated beside the third largest lake in the United States… and be unable to FIND THE LAKE on foot.
In my defense, I didn’t know the “Residents Only” sign was meant for unauthorized cars, not pedestrians. As you can see, I finally got there.

3) Sometimes a quote will inspire you AND make you think about the information you take in. How complete is my perception of any given group?

4) After you finish your fries, it’s best not to put your glass salad plate on top of your lunch plate.

You will end up looking at what appears to be a crime scene.

With cheese.

These are just a few of my discoveries. But I’d better stop for now. I have homework to do, editing tips to apply, people to get in touch with…

Thanks for reading,


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Spare Me the “Eroic” Efforts

Witten Road: The Nice Part

Y’all… have you ever committed to doing something you were kind of scared to do, and wanted to get it over with, but had to keep waiting and waiting? Sort of like climbing an endless ladder to jump off a high dive?

That’s what my “Eroica California” experience has been like. The event is patterned after the “L’Eroica” bike rally first held in Gaiole, Italy in 1997. Participants ride vintage (or replica) bicycles and wear retro style cycling clothes. The main thing about the ride itself is that a significant part of the distance takes you over unpaved roads.

Our story starts back in 2018 with our first Ciclismo Classico tour, “Tuscany and L’Eroica.” Brent especially enjoyed the white gravel roads, casual pace, and over-the-top refreshments of L’Eroica. (I didn’t participate, just roamed around the village and took pictures.) Brent found this rolling party such fun that he turned around and registered for the corresponding event in California in April 2019.

After that, in a fit of enthusiasm and optimism, he registered both of us for the 2020 event. He bought me a vintage silver Zeus bike and spend many hours (and $$) adapting it for my fit and comfort. The cables and other trimmings are a snappy bright red. I named it Peppermint and started re-learning how to use friction shifters and toe clips.

As you can guess, organizers had to postpone the 2020 event a couple of times, finally settling on September 2021.

This summer I once again started training on Peppermint. Quite the learning curve: I saddled up for my first ride, grumbling about the clumsy retro shoes, only to realize I had the wrong shoes on. I was wearing my touring shoes, complete with walking cleats. No wonder I had so much trouble getting them onto my old-school “rat-trap” pedals. Pedals fitted with TOE CLIPS.

Fortunately, I hadn’t left the driveway.

Then I had to get re-re-acquainted with the friction shifters on the down tube. I’m so used to brake-lever shifters that I could never remember which way to push / pull the levers to shift both front and rear for the right resistance in a given situation. This time, I developed a little chant, which I recited at the beginning of each ride and before all significant changes in grade.

“Counter-clockwise makes it harder,
Clockwise makes it easier.”

It worked. Don’t judge.

My first ride only extended to the school just south of my neighborhood, where I cruised the parking lot and practiced shifting. Counter-clockwise makes it harder.

The rides increased in distance until I was doing 20+ miles with some serious climbs (Clockwise makes it easier) and fabulous downhills (Counter-clockwise makes it harder).

As the big trip to California drew near, Brent took me out on some of his favorite gravel roads. Most of these were relatively smooth, with fine, well-packed gravel. “This is kind of fun,” I said.

But then we came to Witten Road. It started out okay, until we came to a stretch that looked like bare rock. Cracks divided the surface into fist-sized sections that felt like cobblestones. The parts that weren’t cobblestone-y were awash with deep drifts of fine gravel, the perfect surface–if you want to fishtail or just slip off the road altogether. Watching the surface distracted me so I forgot the chant and accidentally shifted to a harder gear on some uphill grades.

This was less fun.

“There’s a downhill ahead,” Brent said, and offered tips on optimum position and braking technique.

The descent began and quickly steepened. Peppermint felt like a running jackhammer. I put all my effort into controlling my speed, but slamming into the pavement and going airborne several times per second renders your brakes almost irrelevant. If I could even reach them from the drops, which I almost couldn’t. When I bent low enough to work the brakes, I was too low to look ahead for patches of gravel.

Fishtailing moments provided my only brief breaks from the jackhammer effect.

I’m totally gonna die.

Honestly, this scared me twice as much as the Zombie Pickup Truck incident.

By the time the road leveled out to where Brent stood waiting for me, I had mentally sold Peppermint for $1.50 and a fun-size pack of M&Ms.

After a five-minute meltdown (during which Brent assured me I didn’t have to do the ride in California; I could just go and enjoy the weekend), I stopped shaking and we pedaled on. The remaining gravel stretches were all quite civilized and didn’t try to kill me. I got home, showered, and was good as new.

The very next morning, I made a grocery run. When I came back into the house, Brent was just wrapping up a phone conversation. He disconnected and came to the kitchen.

“Big news,” he said. “Eroica California has been postponed again, to next year.”

Fine. But I’m still selling Peppermint.

Thanks for reading!


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“Old-People Expressions”

A thesaurus offers both single words and expressions / phrases.

Let me just begin by saying Yes, I realize language changes over time. And idioms come and go. One reason idioms fall out of favor is that no one knows what they mean anymore. For instance: before vinyl came back, “You sound like a broken record” was a dead metaphor for “You’re saying the same thing over and over.”
Young people probably thought we were talking about breaking a record like the four-minute mile. With no frame of reference, why wouldn’t they be confused?

So, yeah. I can let old-people expressions go, but in the meantime? Hearing them misquoted drives me crazy. Here are a few idioms currently transitioning into non-sequiturs…

Lookie, I have set foot in my office!

1. “Set foot” — Now, often expressed as “step foot”

Problem? The word “step” means to set one’s foot. So if you say, “I haven’t stepped foot in that store,” you are actually saying you haven’t set foot foot there.
“Step foot” is redundant.

2. “To be a part” of something — Now, often expressed as “To be apart”

Problem? “A part” means included in something, such as a group.
Apart” means separated.
Which is almost exactly the opposite of what you are trying to say.

3. “If he thinks ___, he’s got another think coming.”
Now often expressed as “…he’s got another thing coming.”

Problem? I know, I know… “think” is not normally used as a noun. That’s why “another think” is called an expression. Let me illustrate:

“If he thinks I’m cooking dinner, he’s got another think coming.”
This literally means, “If he thinks I’m cooking dinner, he will have to think again.”


“If he thinks I’m cooking dinner, he’s got another thing coming.”
This literally means, “If he thinks I’m cooking dinner, he will receive another UPS package.”
Which makes NO sense, even less sense than the old-people idiom of using “think” as a noun.

As near as I can figure…

Old people rock!

Thanks for reading,


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Ireland Part 3: Best Ride Day. No, Really!

Thanks for your patience with Parts 1 and 2.
At last, I’m done philosophizing and ready to jump into the actual cycling aspect of the, um, cycling tour.

Here I am with fellow cyclist Julia and our wonderful Ciclismo Classico guide Enrico.

The first few rides in Ireland proved pretty challenging, what with some long uphill grades that pitched steeper and steeper as I climbed. Yep, I ended up walking a good bit. I may have felt a tad demoralized at times.

The scenery was worth the effort, though. And every day brought new adventure and offbeat rest stops. From museums to a seaweed education center to castles to pubs, we never knew quite what to expect. Even the warmup ride on the first day included a stop at Charlesfort, a rugged bastion on the coast near Kinsale. It’s said to be haunted by the ghost of a bereaved military bride.

But the very, very best day of all was the ride from the village of Ballylicky, over the pass of Borlin and into the city of Killarney. It presented these interesting features:

  • Total distance 40 miles, the longest distance I rode all week;
  • The longest climb of the tour… possibly my longest climb ever;
  • That one convenience store where we stopped? No working restrooms;
  • A badly understaffed lunch restaurant. Getting our food took three eternities;
  • The worst weather / hardest rain of the tour as we approached Killarney, leading to…
  • My sunglasses and GPS screen got so wet I couldn’t follow the nav, and ended up losing my way to the hotel.

“Wow,” I can hear you say. “Sounds like a fabulous day… in Opposite Land.”

Yeah, but we also enjoyed:

  • Peaceful roads winding among sheep and cow pastures
  • The uphill grades were gentle and rolling with breathtaking views around every bend
  • At the top of the pass, while at the one place wide enough to park the van for a snack stop, we were treated to the unprecedented sight of a “big rig” truck trying to thread its way along the winding, one-lane road.
    (It wasn’t going well. My guess is, the driver either blindly picked “shortest route” on his GPS, or he got directions from Dr. Seuss.)
  • Once we reached the top of the pass, the corresponding downhill was nearly perfect
  • Both uphill and down, plenty of time to stop for pictures
  • When we did get our lunch, it was delicious
  • Not one car ran over me, even in the rain (it’s the little things…)
  • I had a rain jacket so I wasn’t gonna melt, anyway
  • Once we got to Killarney, a fellow guest realized we’d missed a turn and helped me find the hotel
  • Never had a disheveled cyclist dripped so much water on such an elegant lobby floor
  • On a related note, I’ve never been so glad to step into a building in my life.

The road to Killarney gave us a day full of challenges to overcome, beauty to admire, and surprises that kept me guessing. As near as I can figure, that kind of day is always going to be a good day.

What about you? Do you find a challenging day more fun than an easy one? Are you okay with curveballs, or would you rather have everything planned in advance?

I love your comments! To join the conversation, please use the “Your Turn” box (or the “Leave a comment” link) below my bio, where I’ll be sure to see it and reply.

Thanks for reading!



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Ireland Part 2: Greetings!

Last time, I wrote about our cycling tour in Ireland, and how a guy with a guitar and a cute dog helped me adapt to the metric system that’s used there. I’ll get to that whole “bicycle” and “tour” thing later, but right now I want to share an Irish custom that I embraced immediately–no math required!

The first day in Ireland, we got to the city of Cork and checked into our hotel. Because of indoor-dining restrictions, we couldn’t wander the streets and pick a local joint for dinner, unless we wanted to visit one of the food carts in the alley and eat outside. Let’s spoil ourselves a little, we decided, and made reservations for the hotel dining room.

After we were duly seated, the young man assigned to our table came along and greeted us with, “Welcome! And how are yourselves this evening?”

Hmm… “yourselves,” not “you” or “you guys.” What a charming turn of phrase!

I kind of wanted to adopt him.

Later, when another diner was leaving, did this same waiter send him off with a polite-but-boring “Have a nice evening?” No, he did not. He said, “Look after yourself, now!”

Why was I so captivated by being addressed as “yourself” instead of “you?” Here in the States, we most often use “yourself” or “myself” reflexively–that is, when the person both does the action, and is affected by the action. Example: “I cut myself while I was chopping vegetables.”
(I can neither confirm nor deny that I drew this example from real life.)

The phrase sounds different and therefore refreshing, but there’s more to it than that. There’s something about the word “yourself” that seems more caring, more individual. For me, the waiter’s greeting conveyed that he saw a whole person, not just some customer sitting at the table.

As near as I can figure, I found the expression meaningful because it seemed to incorporate the soul.

Yes, I’m overthinking. No, I’m sure Irish people don’t go around analyzing greetings for a soul connection. Yes, their expressions are likely as commonplace to them as our American ones are to me.

Still… what if I gave a little thought to speaking to people in a meaningful way? Don’t we have enough meaningless words floating around? Why not actually communicate?

So I’m going to “piggyback” off this charming custom, and try speaking to people in a way that lets them know I see and value them.

Without, you know, going all “Jane Eyre” or anything.

What about you? Do you hear yourself using worn-out “formula” greetings? Or replying “fine” … when you’re not? Ever want to shake things up with a real conversation?

I love your comments! To join the conversation, please use the “Your Turn” box (or the “Leave a comment” link) below my bio, where I’ll be sure to see it and reply.

Thanks for reading,


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The Thief of Blackfriars Lane, by Michelle Griep

Normally, I avoid Victoria-era stories set in England. I expect them to be too depressingly Charles Dickens-ish. But this recent title by Michelle Griep caught my eye. Here’s the blurb from Amazon (the image is theirs, too):
“Constable Jackson Forge intends to make the world safer, or at least the streets of Victorian London. But that’s Kit Turner’s domain, a swindler who runs a crew that acquires money the old-fashioned way—conning the rich to give to the poor. When a local cab driver goes missing, Jackson is tasked with finding the man, and the only way to do that is by enlisting Kit’s help. If Jackson doesn’t find the cabby, he’ll be fired. If Kit doesn’t help Jackson, he’ll arrest her for thievery. Yet neither of them realize those are the least of their problems.”

This intriguing premise sucked me in, and I’m glad it did! Griep’s likeable characters came alive on the page. Their tale has plenty of suspense, mystery, honor, deceit, humor, spectacular failure, and danger. Plus a sneaking hint of romance that they certainly take their sweet time acknowledging. Maybe it’s the stress of not knowing whether they can trust each other.

Whether you usually like historical fiction or avoid it, I encourage you to give this Great Weekend Read a try.

Thanks for reading,


(c) 2021 by Jan C Johnson

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