The Festival of Faith and Writing is held every two years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For those three days, “faith” encompasses pretty much anyone who believes there is a world “beyond the veil”: spiritualists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.- basically all the people Richard Dawkins makes fun of. We share that thin but strong thread that ties us to one another – belief.
The entire time I was there, I had Cee Lo Green’s infamous song stuck in my head- albeit the PG version. I think I heard it playing in Wendy’s.
I didn’t take as many notes as I meant to. I’m a terrible note taker. My spiral pages are full of names of authors mentioned and short statements like, “Fiction is the art of lying! Huzzah!” and “I am trapped in the prison of my own dignity.” There are some pithy quotes: “Story is a country where you can both stand for a while,” and “Violence is a failure of the imagination.” And then, in flamboyant, swirly letters, I wrote the words of the great poet Cee Lo: “Yeah I’m sorry I can’t afford a Ferrari.”
I went to get inspired, or rather, like Billy Crystal in City Slickers, to “find my smile.” The love of my life all but pushed me out the door with the hopes that getting away would be just the thing I needed. So I left him with heaps of laundry and a teary goodbye and two brand new gel pens to listen to the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Kevin Brockmeier, and Marilynne Robinson discuss the writing process, the realm of imagination, and how, exactly, they become “inspired.” Inspiration, I’ve found, is a tricky business. It’s one of those nebulous things that I’m sure there must be some secret, probably discovered by Oprah, to attaining.
There isn’t, or if there is, it’s different for everyone.
One novelist shared that she writes early in the morning and late at night because that’s when she’s closest to dreaming.
Ann Voskamp’s husband built her a cabin at the edge of their corn field for inspiration. Good grief.
Kevin Brockmeier printed us a list of his 100 favorite books, his top ten favorites highlighted, that inspire him.
As for the sessions themselves, some writers give brilliant speeches; some do not. The lovable and brilliant Brian Doyle spoke passionately and fluently yet his hands shook the entire time. The session ended and I just wanted to give him a hug and say thank you.
Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel Incredibly Dangerous and Extremely Smelly (or something like that) I didn’t particularly love, was a brilliant speaker. Tall, dark, handsome, funny, and handsome and tall.
Marilynne Robinson, who won the Pulitzer for her novel Gilead, ended at least half of her spoken sentences with, “Ya know?” Alas, she didn’t tell a story, but gave a rather vague talk about politics and fear and how certain news conglomerates seems to despise liberal college professors, ya know? I later read that her most recent book, a series of essays, is based on speeches she has given to conservative groups. She seems to blame Fox News for the fact that people carry guns. She did not once mention the creators of that show The Walking Dead, which would give anyone reason to want to own a gun, or at least a crossbow.
Adam Schutema, author of the short story collection Freshwater Boys, gave an informational talk about fiction and place. A lot of what he said resonated with me: he compared writing without giving your fiction a strong sense of place to watching actors talk in front of a plain white screen. Thankfully, if there’s one truly good thing I carried home with me from this conference, it’s that it’s okay to scribble out a story and then go back and fill in the trees and busses in the background and birds tweeting outside the window. Everyone has their own process.
Other highlights from the festival: Jana Riess’s controversial memoir session, where she insisted that our children’s stories are not our stories to tell, and that we should leave them out of our memoirs. Or our blogs. Or our Christmas letters. A later session had three other memoir writers defending their reasons for writing about their children. I asked Caleb what he thought, and he said, “You write about me? Where? Is it embarrassing?”
Gary Schmidt, who won the Newbury twice, read letters from his incorrigible young fans. He was the festival’s first, and perhaps most poignant, plenary speaker.
Bethany Pierce, whose novel I purchased at the festival, reduced all plots to six biblical stories:
• Satan falling
• Paul on the road to Damascus
• The first and second coming of Christ
• David and Goliath
She challenged us to think of another plot line, and I couldn’t.
The most discouraging discussion was the one on building a writer’s platform, which entails building Twitter followers and getting speaking engagements BEFORE you get your novel published. I swear, I felt the whole room participate in a collective sigh.
I came home to sleet and rain and snow and wind. Any hopes of retaining a modicum of inspiration were dashed when I stood, this morning, in the freezing rain, encouraging Kiah to not play “chase me around the yard, you human fool!” I had a smile, but perhaps I left it in that McDonald’s outside of St. Catherine’s. I’m sure it will catch up to me.
In the meantime, I am still processing what it was like to spend so many days with people who are far more creative and accomplished I will ever be. My favorite moments of the festival were when I was read to: whether it was from a novel, a group of poems, a memoir, or a short story. Scrawled in one corner of my spiral notebook is the question: Do you like sentences? I do. I like sentences. I like stories. I like being read to, because it’s true, a story really is a country where I can stand with people I don’t know, will possibly never see again, for a while.
It’s a beautiful while.