“Why do you keep coming back?” Sandra asked as we walked to the chapel.”To the Festival?” “Yes, why do you come back time after time?”I said something about the content, maybe. I actually don’t remember what I told Sandra, but I kept thinking about her question. Why do I return to the Festival of Faith & Writing, especially after how shocked I was my first year?
The conference is held on the campus of a private Christian school and uses the words Faith and Writing in its title. I assumed I was attending an event for conservative Christian writers.
When I arrived that first time, I soon realized that this was not Mount Hermon or Write to Publish; unlike the writing conferences I’d been to in the past, the Festival of Faith & Writing invites speakers representing a variety of faith backgrounds. It took a while for me to adjust to this. The idea of the Festival, I think, is to generate lively, respectful interaction among writers and artists across various faiths and literary genres. A keynote speaker might be Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, Muslim or Mormon, agnostic or Evangelical; he or she might write poetry or essays, screenplays or fiction, music or memoir. Attendees might be writers, poets, musicians, academics—professors or students—or simply book-loving readers.
Once I realized this, I approached the event with a sense of creative curiosity, literary interest, and spiritual discernment. I listened to talks by authors who intrigued me and some who confused me; I enjoyed stepping out of my world of creative nonfiction to listen to screenwriters and poets talk about their writing process, their struggles, their successes and failures.
And each time I’ve attended the Festival (held every other year), I’ve made new friendships that have deepened over the years; and I have the joy of reconnecting with a variety of people I’ve come to know online.
This year, my friend Charity and I co-led a Festival Circle discussion group called “Writing in Community.” We also hosted, with Bill Vriesema, a meet-up for anyone associated with or interested in The High Calling. Bill maintained poise and chatted serenely with a reserved Zondervan editor. Charity and I, on the other hand, were not the most, what shall we say, subdued ambassadors for our organization. We…laughed. A lot.
And we attended some sessions together, including an interview with Jeanne Murray Walker and Luci Shaw on Ambition. Some notes:
Luci: If you think that when [another writer] does well, then maybe you’re not going to do well…keep in mind that readers have many different tastes and love many different styles. When we create an audience, we’re creating an audience for everyone else’s work.Jeanne: It’s not a zero-sum game…It’s easy to think, Since there’s Shakespeare, why do I need to write? What I’m doing is so small in comparison. We can’t see what we’re accomplishing in the world. We have to do it. Be disciplined and then the work will take care of itself. We have to trust that.
Judith: I honestly think my training as a Jew taught me to be curious. They train us to ask questions. What we were supposed to do was ask questions, to “interrogate the text” as Janet Bradway said. In Jewish school, students never study alone; they always study in pairs, to ask each other questions.
When asked if curiosity makes them nervous, Judith answered:
The most uncomfortable things are the things you have to write about… the stuff that is unpleasant is the stuff that’s really important. If it freaks you out, you should be writing it.
She also talked about the importance of curiosity, writing and asking questions:
Get your students to know how much they don’t know and they’ll learn to ask questions…You may think you’ve found an answer, and it’s really a question. You can always go deeper… No answer should fail to prompt a question.
Here’s a sampling from Ann Voskamp‘s talk “How to Write It So They Will Come”:
- Maybe being a writer is being comfortable w/not knowing…taking the posture of prayer, of a beggar waiting at a keyboard.
- We tend to blur all the moments into this one unholy smear. Poetry slows us down…We’re starved for imagination in a world of industry…Only the passion of poetry can convey the passion of Christ to a world in pain…Purpose to slow down to see–to see what others can’t see…the seed of all creativity is in the seeing.
- You’ll need to have a vein of expectation…that art is the right way of being.
- When you feel empty, that empty space is the right creative space…The exact moment to begin creating is when you feel you have nothing…When you’ve got nothing to give, come to the screen empty and let God fill that screen.
- The way to create anything of value is to accept risk. The road to confidence is risk.
- The reason you don’t believe anything you create is worth anything is because you don’t think you are worth anything.
- Poetry comes from pain. Your suffering is what will give you sight. Your story is in the suffering…To move a soul you have to go to the place that brought you to your knees…Expect to suffer…this is a gift because all new life comes from suffering. Our whole faith testifies to it.
- Take your gift and make it a gift back to Him [Christ].
From her interview:
- People have said to me, “If you stop blogging, you can write more books.” But…I write a blog to net life in real time, to grab stories in real time, an authentic living out of our story…The daily discipline of blogging…it’s a laboratory to experiment and play w/words.
- Writing is what I need to do to think and to let God shape and change me…I see my writing as coming alongside other pilgrims in a journey.
- All art is coming to an altar, sacrificing self…it’s not supposed to be comfortable. It’s a place to come and die.
Caryn: [Artists and writers need…] to see things people are afraid of and give voice to it.Susan: Lament is part of life on this planet. Adam sinned. That’s, like, in chapter three of the Bible. We’ve had crap rolling around on this planet since chapter three. We might as well acknowledge the reality of that.
Gregg: Lament is the process of telling the difficult truth to someone you know loves you in hopes that it will make a difference…I hope more and more of us can experience the mystery of turning the corner of a lament…the psalms bring a level of honesty and reality to worship.
Susan: Jesus said in this world you will have trouble. It’s not necessarily because you’re bad—it’s because you’re alive.
When you do that, you give everyone else permission to do the same…when you walk through that door, you give everyone else permission to walk through that door.
Susan, in a solo session on “Writing Your Life”:
The details of your life are important to you and they’re important to God. By reflecting on the details of life, we start to see patterns…we can discover, What’s at the bottom of my heart? What makes me tick? It’s hard to get at that. Take time to start writing down your life and find out, What is that yearning at the bottom of my heart?
A great book [of memoir] is a series of well-remembered events, written with clarity and specificity.
What’s the story you can no longer not tell? What’s the story that has you dying a little inside? What is it that’s keeping you from failing to move forward? What’s the story only you can tell? If you died tonight, what stories would go with you, that you would be sad no one heard—stories the world would be poorer for you not having told them?There’s a desire running through you if you’re in this room: you’re here because you long to tell a story.
From the opening session with Gary Schmidt:
Writers are servants who ask questions and point tentatively.
Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we write stories.
Begin with a love for the world about which we’re making inquiries.
The writers must attend to the world. Pay attention.
The writer who questions the world begins with another love: of her craft. If you want to be a writer, if you want to pose the question, you have to love words.
I told her about Sandra’s question and said, “I feel such a connection to all those people who love stories, who love words, who love writing and reading. And I feel something inside me filled, something I didn’t know was empty.
“It’s something my family can’t understand,” I continued. “My friends and neighbors seem to enjoy my writing and appreciate my work, but I think I need to spend time with those who understand…those who are in it…those who are struggling to write, to create.”
She and I began remembering moments during the Festival that made us think or laugh.
We mentioned all the people we met: New friends. Long-time friends.
We led a group about writing in community. Appropriately, thankfully, we also experienced community.
And I think that’s why I keep coming back
Because writers—because I—need community.
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Festival Friends: (from top photo) Sandra Heska King, Charity Singleton, Robyn Whitlock, Pat Spreng; Ann Voskamp launching her presentation; Ed Cyzewski; Charity and me with Nadyne Parr and Eileen Button; Anne Lang Bundy; Karen Swallow Prior; Mary DeMuth; Adrienne of Whole New Mom; Denise Frame Harlan; Charity and Ann)