Festival of Faith & Writing take-homes

by Kristin on April 19, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

I just returned yesterday from the Festival of Faith and Writing (FFW) at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was in every way a wonderful experience. My mind is still spinning, my notebook overflowing. It will take me a long time to sort through and process everything I heard, but for now, here are some highlights:

1. People read memoir to feel less alone. I guess I’ve known this for a while, but I really liked how a couple of memoirists at FFW put it. Rhoda Janzen, who recently published Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, said the memoir structure often involves someone being captive to something, and then being set free—a process we all long for (and many of us can relate to). As she pointed out, a spiritual experience is also about being captive and then set free, but not everyone can grasp or claim that spiritual longing for what it is. In another session, the hugely popular memoirist Mary Karr said that when you read memoir “You feel an intimacy with the writer—it’s reaching, in a deep way, across the loneliness.”

2. Yes, I am writing about my real life, but I am also writing fictions. Here’s what novelist and memoirist Rudy Wiebe said in the session Where the Truth Lies: Exploring the Nature of Fact and Fiction: “Fiction is the narratives you and I make out of the facts of our lives….A fact is something you see—an act of witness and then an act of memory. A fiction is a thing made or shaped out of words….The things we do and witness every day, we also recast into words every day. We are creating fictions. All stories fall on this continuum, somewhere between fact and fantasy.”

3. As writers, though, we are still being called to tell the truth. Author Sara Miles, in the session Beyond Cure: Narratives of Healing, said this: “Telling the truth is what allows us to be whole. Healing is all about creating meaning through our words, our stories, our lives.” (She also said some other amazing things about healing that I plan to expand on in a post later this week.)

4. Truth-telling involves examining the hard things of life, and giving them words. This was addressed by several authors in the session The Art of Bloodletting: Translating Suffering to the Shared Page. Jeanne Murray Walker put it this way: “We need to name what we see and feel, and speak what we know. It’s our responsibility to pass it down to others.”

5. And giving words to the hard things of life takes time. Jeanne Murray Walker continued: “Sometimes an image will keep pulling at your sleeve. Don’t try to attach meaning to it too quickly. Just live with the image, and keep working at it. Great suffering takes us to a land we don’t know, where we have to wait (which isn’t easy to do in this country).” Poet and essayist Paul Willis added: “When we try to write about the hard things in life we often swerve, to protect ourselves. It takes a while to make contact with these experiences. Be persistent and patient.”

6. A critical aspect of truth-telling involves being a part of a larger conversation. Parker Palmer, author and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, said, in a FFW interview about vocation, “Truth isn’t in the conclusions of the conversation, because the conclusions keep changing. If I want to be in the truth, I have to be in the conversation.” In other words, it isn’t just about digging deep inside of me and writing about what I find.

7. Reaching an audience doesn’t involve trying to figure out what they want to hear. Vito Aiuto, of the music group Welcome Wagon and also pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn,  said some interesting things about the creative process in his session Imitation and Obsession and Participation (his concert Friday night was really great, too):  “Don’t try to be universal. Look for what you alone love, what you are fascinated and astonished by. It’s your responsibility to give it words.” (He calls giving in to those things you can’t shake, that you are endlessly fascinated by, a “suspension of the will.”)

8. I have great hope for Christian publishing. I attended a panel discussion on The Next Generation of Literary Publishing. By the time I left, I felt like I had spent the past hour in an oxygen tent. If you don’t know them already, make sure you check out these literary journals and small presses: The Other Journal, Ruminate magazine, Relief, Wipf & Stock, Word Farm.

9. I need to make more time to read. Period. Now at the top of my reading list: Lit by Mary Karr, Take This Bread by Sara Miles, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, O Me of Little Faith by Jason Boyett, and the list goes on…

10. I have great hope for my alma mater. I had a wonderful, rigorous educational experience as a student at Calvin College, but I’ve been…hmm…let’s just say a bit disappointed in the institution since graduating in 1992. I don’t know if all of my characterizations have been fair, and I don’t want to get into them here—at least not right now. :) I just want to say that the conversation I participated in at the Festival of Faith and Writing was broad and deep, smart and honest, and yes, even diverse (as diverse as it could be and still be a foundationally faith-based conversation).  Many of my beloved Calvin English professors organized the conference, reminding me what made my education there so great, and giving  me a renewed sense of hope in Calvin College’s role in the larger conversation.

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  • http://projectmonline.com Kathleen Quiring

    Wow, that sounds like a fantastic event. I should plan to attend the next one! I find your first note the most interesting — although, like you, I think I already knew that.

    I’m pretty excited about the future of Christian publishing, too!

  • Lorna

    A great concise view into your conference. Sounds like you picked good sessions and they all flowed well together (or at least in the telling). I’m finding it challenging to write up summaries of my conference, so I appreciate this all the more. ;-) I’m glad you have renewed hope and new contacts. What a blessing for you that will ultimately be shared with us.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Great quotes and lessons from the conference. Thanks for sharing. I was so bummed I missed it this year, but hopefully next year! Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is brilliant. My wife was laughing out loud.

  • http://wipfandstock.com/store/Jesus_Girls_True_Tales_of_Growing_Up_Female_and_Evangelical Hannah

    Thanks for coming to the small press panel! I organized it – and even I learned some new stuff.

  • http://storiesfor.us Amelia

    This is a great recap! I was in the session with the small publishers too and I LOVE, love what they are doing. And I echo your sentiments on #9, in fact, I’m off to go read now!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Kathleen, yes, you should definitely try to keep mid-April 2012 open—I would love for you to benefit from all the thought-provoking and spirit-stirring exchanges happening there (and I’d love to meet you in person, too!).

    Lorna, that’s one of the good things about being on Twitter and having a blog: I feel somewhat obligated to process and organize my thoughts after an event like this, so I can share them. It would be otherwise so easy for me to come home, exhausted, file my notebook away, and never look at it again. Thanks for being one of the people who was interested in hearing more about my experience!

    ed, I wish you could have been there, too, but I’m glad I was able to at least give you some tastes of my experience. Can’t wait to read “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.” In person, Rhoda Janzen was such a perfect blend of funny and insightful.

    Hannah, you did such a great job with the panel! I’m so glad I was there—I really needed that breath of fresh, invigorating air. Btw, your Jesus Girls book was one of the purchases I made at the conference. I’m looking forward to reading it, and would love for you to keep me posted on what you’re up to next.

    Amelia, when you get a bunch of people in a room like that, it starts to feel a bit like a movement, doesn’t it? Happy reading! (What new books did you discover at FFW?)

  • Carmen

    Great read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Wish I could’ve been there.

  • http://www.rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    Wow, girl. You were really paying attention!

    Great thoughts, and I have no doubt you will apply what you’ve learned to your already stellar writing skills.

    It was a joy meeting you in person, and I look forward to doing it again sometime. Keep me posted on your progress with the book.

  • http://www.CreativeGuideToLife.com Susan

    This sounds amazing. I like the part about “giving words to the hard things of life takes time”. So true. I love to analyze and get my head into it all, figure out what it means. I tend to want to shove all my complex feelings into a box, label it, and then talk about it as if it’s sitting on a shelf. It took me years to realize the things I were saying about an extremely painful period of college and beyond was just that… words. I didn’t realize the gravity of how complex it all was, how it changed me. Now I know it was a trauma on my spirit, one that needed some time to marinate and adjust and be enveloped by the rest of me. There were no words yet. And when they came it was startling and freeing all at once. :-)

    I see the negatives as blessings, though they’re usually very hard to accept as such when they’re happening.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Carmen, you would have enjoyed it—so many talented writers and so much thought-provoking discourse.

    Rachel, well, it’s easier to pay attention when you’re not one of Zondervan’s big new authors. :) You had a lot of serious networking to do. I’m so glad we were able to spend time together, too, and can’t wait to read your book!

    Susan, I think you point out a really important reason to not process and write about trauma and pain too quickly or too soon. I tend to think that as soon as I feel ready to write about it, everything should just come flowing out, perfectly expressed. That first take, though, might only be skimming the surface—a good place to start, but not a good place to be thinking “I did it! I’m done!”

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Love the quote from Vito from the Welcome Wagon. Must write that one down. Fabulous concert by the way, I owe you one for that!