Festival of Faith & Writing: Ten Quick Observations

Festival of Faith & Writing: Ten Quick Observations April 22, 2012

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.)

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