Reading, ‘Riting and Repentance: Some Notes from the Festival of Faith and Writing

Reading, ‘Riting and Repentance: Some Notes from the Festival of Faith and Writing April 21, 2016

at Calvin College. This was a blast, guys. Here are some semi-cleaned-up excerpts from my notes.

  • I don’t need a literary agent. I need a literary patient.
  • This is a great poem. “The wall comes down.”
  • Calvin vs #orthodoxerasure–there was a panel of Orthodox Christian poets, which had way too much bafflegabby “what is liturgy, what is poetry” for my taste (although I loved Scott Cairns’s “Poetry focuses your attention”) but also made me think there are two conflicting, equally-true ways of thinking about liturgy. One is the view prevalent on this panel, where everything is liturgical. The sort of thing people mean when they say Cat’lick writing is “sacramental” really, but maybe more focused on time and rhythm rather than on physical objects and the five senses? I like that worldview. But I also think of a line, which I want to say is Wilde but can’t remember precisely enough to find out (can you help me find this??), which in my mental paraphrase goes, “Everything in the Mass is ridiculous, except the Victim on the altar.”
  • Wesley Hill’s presentation on the challenges of writing about friendship was super-excellent (and related to my four-part series that starts here). I don’t have much to add to what he wrote there but a) I liked a bit he quoted from Gail Caldwell, not her exact phrasing but a description of the struggle to acquire responsibilities–not to shed them. Friendship is, in a certain way, often the story of how the territory of love is claimed by slow, deliberate choices to take on more responsibility than you have to.
  • Wes also made me realize how rare it is to find stories about the formation of friendship. The best one I’ve seen recently is, I think, We Are the Best!
  • Submission to the Church is made gentle, not brutal, by the tenderness in the Christian’s relationship with the Church–all those metaphors of woman’s love, the Bride of Christ and Mother Church.
  • One theme of the conference for me was the idea of reading and writing repentantly. I’ve always liked this bit from St. Bonaventure & I’m still chewing on what it might mean to read or write in a spirit of repentance. It isn’t really about criticizing one’s past self, since that can often become a way of obliquely praising one’s current, better self. Not all palinodes are performative humility but I don’t think palinodes exhaust the category of “repentant writing.”
  • So like, a panel on representing “others” in nonfiction (basically, the people whose struggles and stigma you don’t share), suggested that the writer ask, “What part of this story is mine to tell?”
  • What they didn’t say, but I would–and this applies to fiction writing as well tbh–is, Who gets paid? Where’s the money going? If you’re writing about stigmatized and relatively-powerless groups to which you don’t belong, maybe you should not get all the cash. Like sorry to go all vulgar-Marxist on you but consider paying “rabbis,” people within the community, to read your manuscript. I paid a couple Ethiopian Orthodox writers to look over the Emebet sections of Amends, and while that was a “standard payment for editorial work” situation and not a social-justice thing, arguably it was the right thing to do from a moral as well as an aesthetic standpoint. (They improved it a ton, made it more specific and funnier.) I’m also realizing that some of the money for the book should go to a homeless woman who taught me some of what Emebet knows. *~*Representation*~* is important but so is cash on the barrelhead. LOL my bitterness about being interviewed. I’m very grateful to be in your publication. (Sincerely. I know nobody is obligated to care about what I say.) I also would totally have written for you, for money, since that is how I pay my bills. (hmu eve_tushnet@yahoo.com I think for free when I have to :/)
  • Speaking of, this is the coffee they were selling bags of in the coffee shop. Get that dollar.
  • Self-awareness in writing isn’t only about seeing your own flaws, but your own littleness, even your own powerlessness, and your ridiculousness. Which can be harder and more humiliating. Also, great audience comment from that writing-the-other panel: “I found that I was exposing my flaws, but protecting my subjects, so I was always the most interesting person!” Honesty about others’ flaws can, when done carefully, be a mitzvah, a service both to the reader and to the subject.
  • And speaking of: Dennis Covington told a story about a New York Times story he wrote about snake-handlers, which closed with a quotation from one woman which was something like, “I knowed it was the truth.” This woman is explaining why she made a difficult decision, in order to follow her conscience. But on the plane home Covington ran into a woman reading this exact story in the paper, who, not knowing he was the writer, complained bitterly about stereotypes of illiterate Southerners. You can see the woman’s bad grammar as a sign of her social powerlessness–making her decision to stand up for the truth even more admirable–or you can see it as purely shameful. There are so many things like this, where people’s judgments about whether elements of their lives are sources of pride or shame aren’t predictable–in fact we got another story about this very thing on that same panel, about a gang member and prisoner who wanted the writer to use his full name instead of giving him the protection of anonymity, since he wanted people to know that he was more than a gang member and prisoner. By offering anonymity the writer had come close to insulting him. You don’t always know what’s shameful, and to whom.
  • James K.A. Smith with a great line: “Young people are not looking for liberation from ritual. They are looking for liberating rituals.”
  • And! “The discipline and regimen of historic Christian worship… [plies] and stretch[es] your imagination.”
  • A panel on “reenchantment” got into a brief, but for me fruitful, discussion of pornography. These are my thoughts, not theirs: Like liturgy, porn is a habit of seeing; an anti-liturgy of anti-icons. The icon is a window to the Divine, while porn is very nearly defined by its lack of interiority. The icon is vertical while porn refuses even to be horizontal. (That’s why the characters and events are predictable, and predictably satisfying, if that’s the word I want. “Does what it says on the tin.”) But there is porn with some character interiority. What there isn’t, I think, is porn where the flesh is an icon of its true meaning. Even depictions of real human longings like justice, submission, or self-gift can only become pornographic when they’re filtered through lies. (Racist porn is the easiest example of this but I can’t think of any exceptions.)
  • Norman Wirzba, super-paraphrased: “We’ve been taught to view soil as nothing but a container for hydrogen, nitrogen, and [phosphates?]. And this view has almost destroyed our planet. So I tried to figure out, What is soil? And I couldn’t. I couldn’t find a clear boundary between biotic and abiotic. Soil is a holy mystery.” (The pornography of soil vs its iconicity!)
  • Nadia Bolz-Weber did the closing keynote. Some notes from her, relevant to all memoirists etc–one guy told her, “We were taught in seminary not to talk too much about ourselves in our sermons because it’s not about you. But you talk about yourself all the the time in your sermons, and it’s not about you.” I second that and it is so powerful.
  • On why she does talk so much about her own “stuff”: She exposes her own mess and disaster to create a space others can walk into if they choose. “It’s a form of leadership I call, ‘Screw it–I’ll just go first.'” And she added something like, “If [listeners] have a reaction about me, I haven’t done it right.”
  • So, that’s my notes. I welcome your thoughts on any of this–comments, questions, howls of execration? eve_tushnet@yahoo.com or find me on the twitters.

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