Why Do I Keep Coming Back?

“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.

We also went to a session on Curiosity and the Writer, with Amy Frykholm and Judith Shulevitz.

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.

I attended a session on lament with Caryn Dahlstrand Rivadeneira, Gregg DeMey and Susan E. Isaacs:

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.

Ed CyzewskiDuring Q&A, they were asked about going public with one’s pain through writing or speaking. Susan answered:

 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.

As Charity and I drove away from Grand Rapids toward home, I wondered again why I keep coming back.

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.

* * * * *

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)

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  • Comments

    1. Ann! Thanks so much for this! You made me feel like I experienced at least a little piece of this conference through your eyes. A gift. Great job at gathering the highlights and replaying back for us.

      • annkroeker says:

        I realized after I clicked “publish” that I could have spread out these quotes and ideas over several days; alas, I just packed it into one post and shot it out at readers. On the other hand, that’s kind of how it felt at the Festival, like this nonstop flow of ideas and inspiration with little time to process. In that way, perhaps I’ve created a miniature sensation of being overwhelmed! :)

        I think you’d really enjoy the event, Bradley. It’s every other year, so plan ahead for 2014.

        • Shar Boerema says:

          No website yet. Actually, I’ve been blogging for a couple years and have never put it out there. I’m going to correct that. Thanks for the synopsis and general thoughts from the festival. It was exhilarating and our small group was so inspiring. Thank you for your part in reviving this spirit.

    2. BTW, I especially resonate with what you said about not everyone understanding or “getting” the writer in you. Including family. Totally. Sometimes we need that writer’s fix – that connection with those who love words, the way we do.

      • annkroeker says:

        Oh, thank you! I’m so glad I’m not the only one. My husband is super-supportive and so happy to listen as I read a draft or talk about some editing dilemma. But then I go to something like this and find that connection, that community. Yep. You know…you’re part of my ongoing community, and I’m so grateful.

    3. You met Karen and Denise! :) Sighs. That’s something to go back for…

      • annkroeker says:

        Yes! I thought of you the whole time, L.L., and several times told the story of how we met. I loved meeting both of them and hearing about their goals and projects. You tied us all together! :)

    4. We do need each other, don’t we? It sounds like you got exactly what you needed, and you were able to give, too (which is always so validating, isn’t it?).

      It’s funny–I hadn’t been interested in going because I thought it was a more conservative Christian event. But multiple faiths … sign me up!

      • annkroeker says:

        Megan, I do think you would love this particular event. And the laughing and giving was incredibly healing for me, filling up lots of echo-y spots inside. Would have loved to sit next to you during Judith’s session. You on one side, Sandra on the other. Charity two seats over. Yes, please plan to join us in 2014. Won’t you?

    5. Ann – Yes! You have captured it so well. This is why I went back too. The first time, community didn’t happen as I wanted. This year, it was my primary goal. And going with you? Priceless.

    6. Thank you! Thanks for sharing some of your experience here.

      • annkroeker says:

        Zena, I’m so happy to see you here! You are welcome–I kind of packed it all into one post, and I’m glad you enjoyed the recap. .

    7. “… they were asked about going public with one’s pain through writing or speaking. Susan answered…. 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.”

      It’s here in community, together… that we are strengthened… and freed just a little bit more. He just keeps redeeming us, every little part, doesn’t he? The simple, and gracious act of opening your door is a gift of hospitality, no excuses or explanations for what we find inside. You laid your pearls down… and I promise not to be a pig about it.

      What a joy to spend time with you… a privilege really, that’s how I see it. With your recap here, I hardly even needed my own ticket! ; )

      • annkroeker says:

        What FUN it was to have dinner with you and imagine sneaking you into the plenary session, shielding you with my obnoxious pink backpack! Thank you for being our official photographer and bringing your wacky teeth to add laughter and hilarity to our already nutty crowd. You are a joy! Thank you for being community.

    8. Thank you so much for sharing all of this Ann. I just love being in the presence of others who love words and listening to those who use them well. I confess, that sometimes I come away feeling rather inadequate (even just reading all of these amazing quotes tends to make me feel as though I can barely just hang out on the edges). I need to just sit and absorb it all a little. Thanks Ann.

      • annkroeker says:

        I’m so glad to share these bits and pieces of the Festival content. It’s easy for anyone to feel inadequate around all the intellectual and artistic types who presented at the Festival, but it was also a feast of ideas and even if I only take home a small sampling from each, I am nourished. It’s a lot to process. I’ve only barely begun to think it all through. Step one was to capture it. Step two was to chronicle it here. Step three will be to ponder it and see how it will change the way I work, write, create.

        Thank you for being here. You are a gift, and you are definitely are part of my sense of ongoing community. Yes, you are.

    9. I so deeply hope I can come next time! Every time it passes I’m sad to have missed it. Thank you so much for the recap and the GREAT twitter posts about it!

      • annkroeker says:

        Lore, for years I could not come, but finally in 2008 I was able to pull it off, and I’m so glad I did. I hope you can work it out for 2014, and I hope the lineup of speakers is spectacular!

    10. On the sidewalk at Calvin I come across the one person I have met before from The High Calling, Ann Kroeker. She gives me a big friendly hug. She is accompanied by Sandra Heska King, who also shares a smile and a hug with me. Later that day I meet Ann Voskamp in the Bookstore as she is wrapping up a book signing. I introduce myself, and yes, received another big hug. Just before our “Meet-up,” I see Ann K again at Johnny’s Cafe where my wife and I go for a quick supper. She introduces me to Charity Singleton, and yes you guessed right, a big hug.

      A short while later I am in the Meet-up room playing host to fellow digital friends meeting each other in person for the first time (at least in my case). Pat Spreng enters the room to excited hellos and hugs. By now I think I have the High Calling standard greeting down-pat.

      Because that is how it is done…

      In walks three ladies to which I quickly give a big smile and, of course, a hug. All three respond a bit awkwardly, apparently a bit taken aback by my overly friendly greeting. “Hi, I’m Bill Vriesema,” I say beaming. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

      “Hi,” one of the three respond. “We saw your sign outside the room and came in to find out what The High Calling is all about.”

      Fortunately they stuck around awhile to find out what The High Calling was about. And if you see me in any of the photos posted to blogs or Facebook about the Meet-up, you will hopefully realize my face is not always so red.

      • annkroeker says:

        Oh, Bill!! I remember that moment when you were hugging Nancy and Denise and the poor poet (I think her name was Mary) whom we overwhelmed! That was so funny, oh, man. But Nancy and Denise were fine (though the poet quietly slipped away).

        Did you hug Ed? He’s officially in The High Calling and would be comfortable with however men pull off hugs.

        You were such a great host! THANK YOU for making it possible, pulling strings, and providing us with that space to laugh and, well, hug. :)

        • Ditto thanks. And for all your pre-festival advice as well! It was great meeting you in person. And hugging your sweet wife as well. :)

        • Ed did not get a hug. (I’m fine with man hugs). But, I believe he came in just after this happened, and by then I was sufficiently confused and embarrassed enough to change my welcoming strategy to a simple handshake.

          Somewhere out there is a traumatized poet…. But isn’t some of the best poetry born out of life’s suffering, torture and upheaval? Maybe she will thank me later…

      • Hi Bill! Poor you!

        It was me who threw the wrench into your greeting scheme! Nancy and I had just been talking about work, and for me, work worries, and when we walked into the room, I hadn’t yet adjusted to “hi, my name is…” conversation.

        I don’t know about you, but when I come to the FFW, I see 12 people I knew in my 20s, a student who was just a kid the last time I looked, 20 people I need to catch up with from grad school, and the list goes on. I LOVE the festival, but I feel drained, too. Forgive my stiff greeting– it’s not like me.

        I hope you have recovered your dignity as a good greeter. Stand proud as a hugger.

    11. I love being part of The High Calling Huggers!

      Ann, reading this just prolongs the experience. I feel like I’m feasting all over again. You captured notes that I missed, so I’ll be back to add to my notebook. :) What a gift of creativity and community. To see you and Charity and Pat again. To do some life with walking, breathing, hugging avatars. To eat and laugh and hide in old wardrobes…What more could anyone ask for.

      • annkroeker says:

        Maybe I’ll need to cruise through everyone’s updates and reflections to piece together the great quotes that stood out to people. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with a lot of the speakers, but those sessions where I could pull out the computer I did much better.

        Yes, yes, yes, to all you said about us–you, Pat, Charity. Hiding in wardrobes en route to Narnia. It was all so rich.

        • I’ve been wanting to post the Charity in the wardrobe pic, but it’s not on my phone anymore. I think I accidentally dumped it into a different file… now I’m on the hunt for… Charity, Narnia, lamp posts, Mona Lisa… =)

          • annkroeker says:

            I just have a funny little snapshot. If you can’t find that, I can share mine!

          • Shar Boerema says:

            I should have had a website already, but I’ve been “blogging” in private. Unsure of myself and if anyone would read it. After this third conference, it’s time I “came out of the closet” as a writer. Thanks for these thoughts and for leading the group with Charity. Wonderful event, and great encouragement from your preparation as a team. Thank you!

    12. Holy smokes — What a report! I am going back to catch the second half, but liked what Ann V. said about taking time to blog. It is part of the discipline. And i would be interested to hear about what other ‘faith’ writers out there — spiritists and new agers. What are they writing about out there? Are there trends? Platforms?

      The conference sounds amazing and glad you and Charity and Bill were there as High Calling representatives

      • annkroeker says:

        The poets have such a different thing going on than the fiction authors, and they are doing such different work than essayists and other nonfiction writers. This was not the most high-tech crowd overall. And I think they still maybe don’t know what to do with those of us who blog as one of our primary writing outlets. That’s why I was particularly pleased to hear Ann speak of its value to her as a writer.

        As for the content from all those writers–there was a lot about writing as a way to explore one’s journey…about pain and honesty in our writing. In the curiosity session, Judith spoke of how her training as a journalist sent her off with an inquisitive attitude to deeply explore the topics that interested her.

    13. Well obviously, the piece of this that I’m going to pick up on is the image of you and Charity not being especially subdued ambassadors! I’m so glad you laughed a lot.

      A teacher at the local Christian school asked if I would come in on career day and talk about writing. She also asked a journalist to attend–you know, someone who gets paid for writing. You’ve pulled together some great quotes here from the festival, ones that emphasize the value of writing whether or not one is earning money.

      And so glad you got to meet Ed! Did he tell you I stalked him at the local Starbucks near my home?

      • annkroeker says:

        Nancy, you would have loved it!

        Go to that school on career day, grab whatever quotes you feel will support your message, and speak boldly. Because I guarantee you that there are many young people who love to write who are being told by counselors and parents that they need to get a real job. But they love to write! They need to know that the desire is real and good and they can indeed write, even if it is not their profession, and that they should not snuff that longing but develop it and practice. Please do!

        Ed did not tell us the stalking story…but you’d better believe I’ll be asking him about it!

    14. I’m getting in line behind Bradley, Megan, David and Nancy.

      This report is remarkable, Ann. Thank you!

      • annkroeker says:

        I’m so glad that you enjoyed the info, Sheila! I had left a lot of Ann V’s quotable quotes in a stream of Twitter tweets. That’s why they are bulleted. Her presentation flowed, so smooth, so mesmerizing. She developed several metaphors that seemed somewhat unrelated and then they flowed together, like streams converging to a wonderful moment of united vision. It was beautifully done. My choppy notes don’t do it justice.

    15. Hey, Ann. Thanks for writing such a comprehensive recap. It was almost like being there. I’m going to start saving my pennies for the next one. There is so much here, I’ll have to print out some of those quotes. Thanks again.

    16. Hi, I found my way here through Jen *points up* when she shared your post on facebook.

      All I can say is OMG how did I not know about this conference already?! I’ve just been gawking at the schedule from 2012 online for the past hour, and somehow I’m going to find a way to be there in 2014!

      So, thank you for your little review of it here, it looks like an amazing experience!

      • annkroeker says:

        So glad Jen pointed you here! Glad to meet you, Rebekah, and hope you enjoy the conference when you get there in 2014!

    17. Amy Maczuzak says:

      Hi Ann,

      Thank you for your review of FFW 2012–and for capturing some of the quotes that I wish I’d captured while I was there. Our mutual friend Sam Van Eman told me to look you up, and despite best intentions, it never happened. Maybe in 2014? (We were only separated by one degree, though, as you got to spend time with Denise, another dear friend.)

      Blessings to you!

    18. Hi Ann. Thank you so much for sharing your reflections on the FFW. There were so many talks I wish I could’ve attended, but you just can’t be in two places at once. Blessings!

    19. Hi Ann!

      Just dropped by for Food on Fridays and loved reading about the Festival! What a hoot to meet you there!

      Let’s for sure stay in touch!!! And you are right about the community thing. I sometimes really struggle about blogging, but that is probably part of why I should do it….keeps me “in the loop” and w/ others who understand what I am going through. My husband says the same thing about his writing.

      Blessings in Christ,
      – Adrienne

      • annkroeker says:

        I’m so glad we met–that was a highlight of the event! I’ll have to chat with you sometime about your husband’s writing as well as your own.

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