Sunday, June 20, 2010

festival reflections from a copious note taker....

After the Festival weekend I posted an entry on my personal blog ("little house on the circle") about the experience, so after seeing Ray's "diary" I thought it made sense to add mine here. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all ... and it's neat to see what stands out and makes an impression on different people. What I'm most amazed by is that Ray didn't take any notes and still remembers so many little details. (SMRT, I guess.)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every 2nd year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I went with four other Kingstonians: Irwin (who has gone many times in the past), Lori & Ray (who attended with Irwin in 2008), and Sue. We had a wonderful, inspiring weekend listening to well-known and lesser-known writers share their insights and experiences.

One of the writers Sue and I were particularly eager to hear was Avi, who has written many short stories and novels for kids (e.g. the Poppy series about a feisty mouse, and the Crispin series about an orphan boy in 13th-c. England). The conference started on Thursday, but that was our travelling day and we realized Avi was speaking only on Thursday, so we were quite disappointed. But as we got closer to Grand Rapids we realized that if we didn't register or check in to our hotel until later, we might be able to make Avi's 4:30 p.m. talk -- and that's exactly what happened. At 4:35 p.m. Irwin dropped us off right at the chapel where Avi was speaking, and we heard all but 5 minutes of his address. It was very interesting because Avi is not a religious person in spite of having many overtly religious themes in some of his books; in fact, he considers himself an atheist. Yet he talked about how a writer can always express truth regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof -- and how his child readers never ask about his religious beliefs; only the adults do. He also told us why he goes by "Avi": it's how his sister mispronounced his real name, Edward, when she was a baby.

On Thursday night we attended the plenary address by Wally Lamb, who wrote She's Come Undone, I Know This Much is True, and The Hour I First Believed. I love all of those books so it was great to hear him speak; he talked a lot about his work teaching creative writing to female inmates, and read one of their stories. It was also a pleasure to meet him during his book-signing: Irwin graciously waited around on campus until 10 p.m. so that Sue and I could get our books signed.

We also got to hear Kate di Camillo, who wrote The Tale of Despereaux (about a brave mouse who saves a princess), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Because of Winn-Dixie, among other children's books. Allison and I love Despereaux (in both the book and movie versions) so I was again glad to be able to meet the author at her signing and have her address 2 books to Allison. She is a very modest, humorous speaker and (in my opinion) actually looks a bit like a mouse with her silvery-blonde hair and tiny face.

Another speaker all five of us had on our must-hear list was Parker Palmer, who has written books about finding one's vocation, about education and teaching, etc. (I discovered his little book Let Your Life Speak in the library a few years ago and it became a 'classic' in our book study group.) Palmer is 71 years old and a funny, kind, wise person who has so much experience and wisdom to share. One of the most striking things he said was how the concept of "earthen vessels" includes our religious institutions, and if the vessel starts to hide or corrupt or distort the treasure within, it must be smashed and a new vessel created. He also spoke about the importance of listening to one's inner voice as well as to others, and how that might play out within his own faith tradition, Quakerism.

Lori & Ray & I attended a talk by Hugh Cook, a writer and writing teacher from Hamilton who has edited some of both Lori's and my work, and who spoke on the importance of concrete detail in writing. His talk was entitled "All Good Writers are From Missouri" -- the idea being that Missouri is the show-me state and that good writers try to show, not tell.

Hugh Cook's excellent presentation was a contrast to what was maybe my least satisfying experience at the Festival: the 2-hour fiction workshop by Laurence Dorr. Prospective participants had to submit a writing sample for this workshop so when I sent mine in and got accepted I was quite excited. But it didn't meet my expectations at all. Mr. Dorr did not ask the 20 of us sitting around the table to introduce ourselves or tell anything about why we were there etc. He started by reading a short story of his own; then he went around the table and got each person to read 2-3 paragraphs of their work and then he made somewhat random comments about them. He told me to remove the phrase "oh well" from my piece. That was it. So I didn't really get much from it -- although I enjoyed hearing what little others read of their work and I sensed that there were some excellent writers in the room. But really? I should've gone to hear Eugene Peterson instead. REALLY.

One especially wonderful moment at the Festival was a concert entitled Poetry Spoken and Sung, held in the college chapel. Various people came up and read poems, some of which were also presented in musical form by Capella, one of the Calvin College choirs. The first song was an arrangement of a short poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

silence my soul
these trees are prayers
I asked a tree tell me about God
then it blossomed

The choir stood in a circle around the outside of the chapel, and when the song began they were just whispering the words "silence my soul" so that it was like a soft breeze through leaves. It was incredibly beautiful. I don't always find myself spiritually moved by nature, but the combination of words and musical arrangement was really like a taste of heaven on earth.

Besides all the wonderful things we saw and heard at the Festival itself, it was just a great weekend trip. The five of us had a great time doing things together and separately; we would drive to the college and then go to whatever talks we felt like attending, then rendezvous later for meals or for a presentation all five of us wanted to go to. On the Friday night, Irwin was going out with a friend and Ray & Lori were visiting Ray's sister, so Sue and I went out to dinner and enjoyed a delicious seafood meal, a bottle of wine, and a good conversation.

All in all, it was an amazing weekend. I was glad to get back and see Rich and the kids, but I will treasure the memories of this trip and hope maybe to go to another Festival in the future.