Festival of Faith & Writing: Day One


Here I am in Michigan at the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing, living the life of a real writer. I had intended to craft a catchy but insightful blog post every day of the festival – you know, “reporting live, here with honest-to-God authors and editors and publishers; here I am, a literary citizen of the world sharing my exciting life with you, etc. etc.”

Except that after one day of wandering the campus of Calvin College from keynotes to panels to workshops to lecture halls, my head is about to explode, and that’s a hindrance to writing. I took copious notes for you, but it turns out that most of them are illegible or half-sentences. So I’m going to give you just a taste.

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Tobias Wolff, who wrote This Boy’s Life — a book that helped me realize what an art-form memoir can be — started off the day by warning against being too certain of ourselves as writers of faith. “You cannot write without faith,” he said. “It’s too hard. But doubt is also with us when we write, and we try to leave doubt out of the room for that little time to get our writing done.” Toby left us with a question that I think might confound many of today’s Christian writers: “Is it possible to live a life of authentic faith without the arrogant certainty that can come with it?”

Next up, Dani Shapiro, another author I’ve only recently discovered. I thought she was going to be my new hero, until I heard Zadie Smith talk this evening.

But I must digress for a moment to explain that my long-time literary hero Annie Lamott has lately fallen from grace because she can’t seem to rave about Hillary Clinton without trashing Bernie supporters, which I think is unwise because I imagine that many of her fans are Bernie people like myself. Anyway, I’m mad at her and I’ve told her so on Twitter. So there.

Back to Dani Shapiro. Like Wolff, she praised uncertainty. “When I begin writing, it is an act of faith. The only thing I’m certain of is my profound uncertainty,” she said. “I never know what I know until I’ve spent a lot of time with the page.” She writes to find the answer to her questions, and sometimes simply to clarify the questions through “inner investigative journalism.” Much of her fiction and memoir writing has the goal, she says, of “insisting that sorrow not be meaningless,” of finding patterns and connecting with others who have suffered. I get that.

Dani Shapi

Dani Shapiro

In the afternoon I attended a panel which was interesting mostly in that it was offered at all. You wouldn’t find a panel at most writing conferences entitled, “Surrendering our Need for Status.” This was a group of young women bloggers and authors who talked about their needs “to be special” or “to be admired” or to be “the most clever or the most spiritual,” and then suggested spiritual practices that had helped them battle their pride and envy. I appreciated their honesty, although I did feel I was more clever and more spiritual than they were.

One final panel at 4:30 was probably fine, but my brain had shut down. I ate dark chocolate, that’s about all I can offer — except for one wise quote from a woman author: “To learn to write a book, you have to write a book.” Sad, but true.

The final keynote was from Zadie Smith, whose name I’ve heard forever but whom I have never read. I am going to go home and get all her books. I am going to tape her picture to the wall over my computer. I might have to start stalking her. She is brilliant. Absolutely. I tried to take notes, but her discourse on creativity and the writer’s evolving role in society was so bursting with brilliance that I had to stop.

When it was over, I felt stunned. I turned to the woman next to me and said, “My God, she’s brilliant. That was awesome.”

The woman replied, and I’m not kidding: “Well, yeah, if you could remove all those big words.”

Oh. My. God.

Day one.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith – Blurred Brilliance


Writers Write

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Writers Write. That’s what they all say. They get this coy little look, and then they come out with it, time and again. When you’re looking for sage wisdom from an accomplished writer, that’s what you’re going to get. Writers Write. It’s the best they can come up with. The thing is, it’s true.

That’s one of the main reasons I decided to blog, to keep myself writing. Oh, I journal everyday, some might say obsessively. But that’s for my eyes only (and, I guess, for the eyes of some unfortunate heir to my clutter). I don’t want these pages to replace my journal. God forbid I should produce yet another navel-gazing blog. But I do want to write regularly for other eyes — to get beyond whatever it is that keeps me from launching my words into the world.

I’ll spare you all the fear and self-esteem issues. Suffice to say I’m an introvert, although you wouldn’t know it from meeting me. I shy away from the competitive, who-you-know aspects of the literary world — I got enough of that as a Washington lobbyist. That’s why I escape to my farmhouse in rural New Hampshire to write. Away from my writing group, away from the readings and workshops, away from my (beloved) classmates in the Johns Hopkins writing program in D.C.

This cozy white Cape Cod was christened “Quiet Hills” by my grandmother Beedie when she bought the place in 1940. Quiet Hills is a safe, non-threatening refuge from which to launch words, and so it’s where I’m birthing this new endeavor. You’ll hear more about the house and surrounding hills and meadows, I’m sure. It seems to slip into my writing unbidden. It is a muse.

Quiet Hills

Bestselling author Dani Shapiro has escaped the frantic writing life in New York and now writes from “the top of a hill in the country.” Check out her essay on the writing life in Psychology Today. (Thanks to writer Sue Eisenfeld http://www.sueeisenfeld.com/ for sharing it.) Dani offers a lot of wisdom, although I think she’s a bit harsh on the young writing student who was excited about David Foster Wallace’s book party. Perhaps Dani’s gotten a little jaded? Anyway, her grand conclusion about the writer’s life? We write.              Here’s the link. Enjoy!


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