Festival of Faith & Writing: Ten Quick Observations

Every two years, readers and writers flock to the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI for the Festival of Faith & Writing. The campus buildings bear names like Huizenga, Vanderwerp and Hiemenga, reflecting the deep Dutch roots of the Christian Reformed Church with which the school is affiliated. True story: When I attended the Festival four years ago, in fact, I had a very tall blonde woman with a Dutch surname bend to read my name tag, take a step back so she could eye me up and down, and then say imperiously, “You’re not a Van Loon!” Epic rudeness, a weird break from the usual locked-down decorum of the Dutch – and in retrospect, completely hilarious.

I looked for her this year, but she wasn’t there. (I can’t say that I missed her much.) What was there was a literary Thanksgiving table, a feast of words shared by hungry people from college students to senior citizens. This year’s keynote speakers included Jonathan Safran Foer and Marilynne Robinson, and workshop session leaders included dozens of writers including Luci Shaw, Walter Wangerin, Jr., and Larry Woiwode. Several members of my writer’s group were session speakers as well.

As I loosen the metaphorical belt around my overstuffed frontal lobe after three days at the all-you-can-eat buffet, here are a few quick observations about the Festival:

(1) Jonathan Safran Foer was worth every penny they paid him to come speak. (Home run.)

(2) If a workshop is called “Ours and Not Ours: Writing The Immigrant Experience” and there are four Dutch Canadians as the panelists, it is possible that the audience may wonder if they’re being featured on an episode of Punk’d. (A swing and a miss on this one, Calvin.)

(3) Redbuds and/or fellow Christianity Today Her.meneutics blog contribotors were everywhere. It was fun to cheer them on, and they Redbuds put on a heckuva reception on the first evening of the conference.

(4) I really enjoyed the panel discussion on the topic of book reviewing led by John Wilson of Books & Culture, Chris Smith from Englewood Review of Books, and Wheaton College prof Brett Foster.It reminded me that a well-written interaction with a book can stretch a reader’s world even if the reader has no intention of reading the book.

(5) I had no idea that Grand Rapids is so anti-left turn: the blinking red lights followed by green arrows for left turn lanes in some places, the U-turns to avoid left turns  in other places made for some unintentionally exciting driving adventures. And don’t even get me started on the microscopic street signs.

(6) In one of his sessions, Daniel Taylor noted that pain is essential to art. He offered a couple of categories to us as writers: “Memoir is remembered pain. Fiction is imagined pain.” Later in the same session, he added another gem: “Write grief, not grievance.”

(7) I facilitated a Festival Circle (a discussion group that met twice during the Festival) called “Re-formed Life: Writing as a Spiritual Discipline”. It was a joy to come together with others who cared deeply about the topic to share experiences, strengths, weaknesses and ideas.

(8) I appreciated the full slate of events, though it was a wee bit painful to have to make a choice and realize that as I said yes to one option, I was saying no to many other options. OK, at times, it was more than a little painful.

(9) Novelist Clare Vanderpool put this out there: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word exploded into a story…” Beautiful.

(10) It was a delight to meet in person so many people I’ve come to know via online interaction. I wondered if the F2F would be strange or awkward, but mostly it was lots of fun and generated a few really meaningful conversations.

(Thanks for every bit of it, Lord. The left turns, the shoeless dinner, and three days spent in the company of other scribes.)

About Michelle Van Loon
  • http://www.themissionalmom.com Helen Lee

    We went to a number of similar sessions! My first one was that panel on “writing the immigrant experience.” I was not pleased for the reasons you mentioned, and by the time one of the panelists asked, “I’d like to hear from you, especially those outside the Dutch immigrant experience,” I just didn’t have the desire to interject at that point! But after starting there, it was easy for the Festival to go nowhere but up. =) I’m disappointed to have missed Jonathan Foer but in exchange I hung out with Redbuds I’d never before met F2F and thoroughly enjoyed it. And pleasure seeing you again! =)

    • Michelle Van Loon

      When the FFW folks send their post-event survey, we need to let them know our unfiltered feelings about that “Immigrant” session – as well as celebrating all that was wonderful about the weekend. :) The FFW team does an overall amazing job putting together this top-drawer event.

      And yes, it was nice to see you once again, too!

  • http://ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

    “Write grief, not grievance.” So good. I am storing that in one of the few brain cells that is not packed to capacity after the conference!

  • http://theradicaljourney.com/2012/04/20/lifes-not-fair/ Tim

    Glad you had a great time, and that you’re back. With all that great interaction, I am expecting wonderful posts to flow from your blog. No pressure!

    Tim

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Maybe you and your wife can make it to the next Festival of Faith and Writing in 2014, Tim! I think you’d love it!

  • http://www.inkyspot.wordpress.com Ilona

    Loved this! And *aurgh* you made me miss not being there even more so! One of my dreams…someday…to attend one of these. And to meet you, along with my other Redbud sisters! Thanks for the laughter this morning.

  • zena

    thanks for sharing some of your time there.

  • Pingback: Links and Quotes from Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing 2012 | Leadingchurch.com

  • http://leadingchurch.com Paul VanderKlay

    Epic rudeness came as a surprise? My tribe sometimes tries to be nice to outsiders but we eat our own with relish. The CRC has lots of Frisians (myself included). You’d think the word would have gotten out about us after we killed Saint Boniface. :) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boniface

    Thanks for your fun and frank post. pvk

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Ah, Paul, I love the Dutch! After all, I married one, and one with a long and storied heritage attached to the surname. I don’t think anyone else could pull together an event that attracted over 1900 attendees like the Festival of Faith and Writing with the precision and decorum that the CRC folks possess. They do have their quirks, but I note them as a fond friend.

      Thanks for sharing, and reminding me of St. Boniface today. :)

  • http://www.aquajane-musings.blogspot.com Jane Hoppe

    Thanks for sharing your FFW experience, Michelle. Wish I could have gone again this year. Glad FFW was so rich intellectually and relationally for you.

  • http://www.enumaokoro.com Enuma Okoro

    Thanks for this Michelle! Good (and funny) highlights to note. I’m with you on the “immigrant” panel :-)
    SO great finally meeting you!

  • Don Hekman

    As a participate in the circle group you moderated and led, that experience rates in my top three “workshops” and made it worth every $ spent on FFW. Trust you’ll lead another FFW circle in two years.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Wow, Don. I’m humbled by your kind words.

      Thank you for your participation, and God’s blessings to you as you get ready to move into the next chapter of your story.


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