Every other year, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan hosts a Festival of Faith and Writing. I’ve now been twice (in 2006 and last week). The conference is a blessing as over a hundred authors from a variety of genres and backgrounds discussing their writing to some two thousand participants. One of the interesting things about this writer’s conference is that they don’t limit their authors to those of Christian faith. Yes, most of the authors are Christian, but not all. There have been those who claimed to be atheists and agnostic as well as those of other faiths. I’m sure quite a few of the authors wouldn’t meet the Christian Bookseller’s Association standards. In 2006, Salman Rushdie (who described himself as an agnostic Muslim) was a keynote speaker. The key element for authors to be invited is that they must write about faith, or develop characters that deal with faith issues in their lives. I applaud Calvin College for this, as they live up to their namesake. John Calvin’s Geneva is often seen as oppressive (but then, it was the 16th century), but the city wasn’t as oppressive as is often portrayed. They went as far as to allow the publication of the Quran.
The three day conference is broken with six large plenary presentations where a major author discusses the role faith and religion play in his or her writing. This year, these six presenters included Scott Carins (poet, whose presentation I missed), Wally Lamb (novelist), Eugene Peterson (non-fiction), Richard Rodiguez (non-fiction), Parker Palmer (non-fiction), and Mary Karr (poetry and memoirs). In addition to these, there are a countless number of concurrent sessions that feature authors of all kinds of genres talking about their work. These smaller settings allowed for opportunities to get exposed to a wide variety of authors including one of the highlights this year, Michael Perry (I’ve reviewed two of his books: Population 485 and Truck). Another highlight was again seeing Thomas Lynch, whose book The Undertaking I reviewed a number of years ago.
As a way to give you a hint of what I learned, I will share one or two things I learned from each of the presenters whom I heard at the conference. .
Barbara Nicolosi is a film writer from in Hollywood. Her session was on how to use of pictures in writing, but the most interesting thing she said (at least, to me) was that when someone in Hollywood finds out that she’s a Christian, they will often say something like “Once I get my life straightened out, I’ll become a Christian.” She said she always wants to respond sarcastically with, “Oh yeah, like we all have our lives straightened out.”
Michael Perry was one of the reasons I decided that I wanted to attend this year’s conference and I had a few minutes after the session to talk with him and to have a couple of his books signed. “I’m just a bumbling agnostic,” Perry says. “I’m not looking for a fight, I’m just looking.” He did discuss his upbringing in a small and strict Christian sect and his respect for people of faith and why he sees to it that his children go to church regularly and why he doesn’t make fun of religious people. “I want my children to see good people trying to be good and do good,” he said. I also like how he says his step-daughter isn’t really his step-daughter; she’s his “given daughter.”
Scott Russell Sanders is known for essays and memoirs, particularly about nature. I’m currently reading his memoir, A Personal History of Awe. “Confusing is that which we are capable of clearing up; mystery is that which we can’t clean up,” he said. He went on to describe awe as a “fundamental human emotion.” In a discussion between Sanders and Kathleen Moore, a few illusions of mine were shattered. The solo experience of the author isn’t always that way in real life. Sanders noted that Edward Abbey wasn’t alone when he had most of the Desert Solitaire experiences, that he was with his wife and a child. Thoreau wasn’t completely alone at Walden and that Annie Dillard was with her husband at the time when she was writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Both Sanders and Moore includes family in their experiences.
Wally Lamb is a professor of creative writing at the University of Connecticut and has three bestselling novels: She’s Come Undone, This Much I Know is True and The Hour I First Believed (about the Columbine shootings). “I write because I am hopeful and afraid,” Lamb notes.
Rhoda Janzen memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was recently reviewed by one of my readers. Just that title was enough to draw me to her sessions. She’s tall and although, to my disappointment, didn’t wear a little black dress, she was always outfitted with hot, knee-high boots. Janzen is a poet and memoirist, which she sees as an essentially Christian (and Jewish, as she later added) genre as memoirs generally deal with issues of captive or bondage that ends in release or freedom, much like the Exodus and salvation stories of Scripture.
Eugene Peterson is a prolific writer and Biblical scholar (author of The Message paraphrase of Scripture). He started out to be a religion professor, then became a pastor and finally ended up being a pastor/writer. His “patron saint” is John of Patmos (Book of Revelation) who is told to “write what he sees” (not what he knows!). He likes how John, in the 404 verses of Revelation, makes 518 references to Scripture without quotes. He sees a similar thing in the writing of Annie Dillard who alludes to scripture throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. For Peterson, who sees his field as pastoral theology, one uses stories like Jesus, to invite others into a salvation experience.
Tonya Bolden is an author of children and youth non-fiction, including recent novels on Martin Luther King and Mohammad Ali. She encouraged writers of children’s books not to assume children have prior knowledge of the subject, but to assume they are curious and can figure things out.
Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon and an essayist. I’ve read her book Riverwalking, which I enjoyed even though I never got around to reviewing. She describes the process of essay writing as the “art of the osprey.” One sails above and observes, but when something catches one’s eye (a shadow or a flicker of light), one dives in much like the osprey that goes down, fully committed to catch whatever it is he saw. The essay moves from experience to idea, as the essayist dives in. Moore’s voice was soft but strong and I loved the way she described the most loving word in English is “look.” She also said the most reverent posture isn’t on our knees but standing on the edge, in awe.
Thomas Lynch is a poet and has also written memoirs, essays and fiction. He’s also the only presenter, as far as I know, who sidelines in embalming. In a session with Rhoda Janzen, he (in good-humor as they were joking around) referred to her as a “Mennonite Floozy.” I liked what he said about faith and death. “You don’t need faith at a baptism or a wedding, but at death, with a corpse, a dead guy, faith is in the forefront.”
Richard Rodriguez writes non-fiction and memoirs including Hunger of Memory, The Last Discovery of America and Days of Obligation. He’s a regular NPR contributor. Rodriguez talks about how we write out of our loneliness (which he linked to experiencing God in the desert), but he said we can’t continue to write by ourselves, we need those who can respond to our writing.
Parker Palmer is a Quaker author of many non-fiction works, perhaps best known for The Promise of a Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life. “I write because I was born baffled,” he admitted.” “I chew on contradictions,” he noted, “Faith allows us to chew on contradictions and live well with them.” He went on to warn that if we “believe we can get rid of the contradictions and have all the answers, we’re worst than being faithless, we’re arrogant.”
Stephen Carter, a non-fiction author and novelist, spoke of how writing novels is both stressful and enjoyable, as he can be someone else. Carter spoke of his “partial retirement” from the public life, complaining about how few Americans are serious about anything that can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker. He argued that we need to again teach rhetoric in public schools.
Peter Manseau described himself as a Jewish novelist and a Catholic memoirist. His parents were both from the Catholic orders (priest and nun). Out of school, he began working for as a Yiddish Book Collector, which led to his first novel. Next, he started the website “killthebuddha” which got him into writing op-eds and into the public sphere.
Mary Karr is a poet and the memoirist who is credited with the recent rise in memoirs. Responding to the claim of how her first book, The Liars Club, started a new genre, she pointed out that Augustine wrote a memoir long before any of us had been around. She spoke of the story of her battle with alcoholism and of coming into the church, which is the subject of her recent book, Lit. Her presention was authentic and very funny.
And there were many more presenters there, but there was only three days to the festival…