July 1, 2008

Another End [editor]

Silhouette version 2 is closed for the season. Thanks to all the contributors for their thoughts and creativity. Version 3 is slated for October through December. If you are interested in contributing, please email silhouette.words@gmail.com.


Faith and Writing Festival
Naomi and Justin Boyer

A few months back, Calvin College and Seminary hosted its semiannual Faith and Writing Festival with nearly 70 speakers and 2,000 participants. The festival, started in 1990, engaged writers and readers with lectures, interviews, workshops and community circles, which were focused on certain genres. The landscape of genre itself ranged from high and lofty fiction to dirt road spiritual memoir to underground graphic novels. Variety was found in the speakers as well (not all coming from a Christian worldview): Yann Martel, Rob Bell, Mary Karr, Elizabeth Berg, and Paul Mariani. Even the two concerts were diverse: Caedmons Call one night, Iron and Wine another. The opening welcome to the festival revealed the thesis of the three day event: To stretch your creative and moral mind. It definitely accomplished these goals, and more. Here are a few reflections and mindful meanderings from a husband/wife duo about the festival.

Breaking a Mold [naomi]

My senses are wholly alive. I am in a room full of authors walking around, breathing this air, sitting in that chair, eating a snickerdoodle from that plate. The energy from this first contact is absolutely riveting. Amateurs are mixed with professionals alike; we are peers here. I am studying every face, glancing at every nametag (I see Luci Shaw!), feeling my way through the crowd. As it turns out, the more I look through the crowd, I am hit with a few realizations that begin to cascade one upon the other, the first being that the majority of the crowd gathered is composed of middle-aged women, the second being that my impressions of one of my favorite living authors, Kathleen Norris (The Cloister Walk), are about to be forever disturbed. As I continue with my near crazed impulse to read nametags, I wonder—terrified and intrigued—at how I will recover from the Kathleen Norris of my mind turning into another one of those middle-aged women with frilly hair and pleated turquoise pants (no offense). Will it change the way I read her work? It would be a full day before I was to find the answer to this question.

My great discovery of this first day is the ease and tranquility latent in Luci Shaw’s reading of her poetry. I had heard Luci’s name before many a time, but her being a poet (and me having a terrible fight with poetry in a certain creative writing class) always dissuaded me from further inspection. Luci speaks and gentleness—quiet musings strung together like pearls—spills from her lips, lingers in the air and comes to rest on my ears, prying me open, summoning a response.

The next day, I find myself in a workshop of hers entitled, “How a Poem Happens”, wherein she showed us some poems at their conception—journal entries, scratchings, the scribbling out of phrases—and their journey toward maturity. “Always, always have a notebook with you and write down your perceptions immediately, before they get cold,” Luci admonishes us. “There is nothing on earth that cannot be written about… even the smallest things.” After the panoply of poems, Luci offers this advice, “Usually there are too many adjectives and modifiers in use. Allow the verbs to carry the poem. Ask yourself: ‘If stripped to the verbs and nouns, does the poem still stand?’ This allows the reader to fill in the blanks.” And finally, Ms. Shaw reveals why she loves the word “revision”: Because it literally means to see something with fresh eyes (re-vision), which, by the way, is exactly how I feel about poetry right about now. She has turned me into a believer; I will try my hand.

It is a new day, the day of reckoning between the imagined and the real Kathleen Norris. I have had my coffee, kissed my husband hello and goodbye several times already, and, bracing myself, am now heading toward the auditorium to face the truth. I arrive to find Kathleen Norris difficult to class, even to describe. She is pleasant, though not prone to smiling, often pausing mid-sentence as though a new thought had just occurred to her. She does not carry an air of wit or superior intelligence, as I have seen in other authors, and neither does she have a mysterious aura around her. But there is something. I just can’t put my finger on it. She is not what I was expecting, but certainly not what I feared.

In her next lecture, Ms. Norris discusses the topic of her new book (yet to be published), acedia, which is loosely defined as “an inability to care”, especially in regard to spirituality. She notes that this term was used often in early church writing, but was dropped from the English dictionary over time, resulting in an unfortunate occurrence of a condition with no name. “Art comes forth from acedia”, Kathleen continues, citing No Country for Old Men, wherein the anti-hero is consumed with a restless boredom with life. It is obvious that she has spent quite a bit of time studying and turning over this topic in her mind, and she admits that it has made for some dismal research, making a dry comment about almost wanting to rent The Sound of Music after watching two movies that depicted acedia… almost. While most people might find it daunting to work with such a heavy subject matter, Ms. Norris headed straight into the demon, seeking out its name and character. I think that this is the “something” that I could not figure out earlier. Kathleen Norris is not who I had in mind, but she is exactly who she needs to be for her task: Questioning, courageous, relentless, down-to-earth, and yes, a little rough around the edges.

Luci encourages me to pick up a pen and capture a moment, no matter how small. Kathleen tells me that no other writer can do my job. The two couldn’t have planned their lesson more effectively for this pupil to step out of her comfort zone.

Ink and Soul [justin]

Derek Webb enters the room wearing a brown-and-orange striped Dr. Seuss looking scarf. He has a water bottle in hand. It seems whenever I’ve seen Derek perform or heard him speak, his voice was raspy and on the verge of filing for divorce. This time is no exception.

The crowd is surprisingly small – only about thirty, mostly college-aged, people have come for the interactive interview. The first part of the session deals mostly with Derek’s worldview and how he is more of an Aaron than a Moses – regurgitating what has already been said in the past on issues dealing with theology and social justice. He confesses, however, that along with singing and songwriting, agitating is one of his talents. The crowd chuckles. In balance, he says there is a need for discernment, which often comes in the form of a female voice (his wife, Sandra MaCracken), in questioning, “What are the right things to rebel about?”

The latter part of the talk focuses on artistry. It is 88% preparation, with the craft of songwriting, Derek says, but the remaining 12% is more mysterious and can’t be forced; it just comes. The whole of a well-written song should be like that of a Trojan Horse; good music and melody gets you through the door and then you “attack” the listener lyrically. When asked about what Derek has been listening to and what the sound of the next album is going to be like, the answers are the same: Gnarles Barkley. We chuckle again from an unexpected left field fly ball, but Derek is straight laced about it, which will make his next solo project very interesting.

Brian Doyle, essayist and editor of Portland magazine, is a pleasant surprise. The room is overcrowded and the air-conditioning has decided to take a step outside. I capture a seat on the floor and take in Brian for the first time. He and the host joke about the heating problem; this is a dry campus, but there is no rule about lack of clothing.

Scrapping the microphone and podium, he engages us as is. He is a very emotional and dynamic man. The crowd laughs at his retelling of an awkward four-minute argument with the Dalai Lama one moment and in the next the room is filled with watery eyes as he reads an essay about a time he regretfully hit his son. Men, fathers, responded to that work in multitudes, connecting with Brian in a unique way saying that they too have been “that man in the hallway.”

Brian encourages all the writers in the room to observe life, ask questions, listen and then write. Writing is not only informative and communal, but therapeutic as well. Writers are carpenters – we write to see what we think, what we have inside us. Write well, Brian says, but don’t be bogged down with systematic journalism. Instead, simply reach out for another. He concludes the session by asking all of us to sing his mom her favorite hymn for her birthday that day. Together, in a room of strangers with more than a few things in common, we sing Amazing Grace.

On the last day of the festival, I get to my first seminar a few minutes late; it is standing room only in the seminary chapel. Jeffrey Overstreet, another unbeknownst speaker, is sharing part of his spiritual journey, intermingling faith and film. He stands at the foot of the cross, banners of light hanging from either side. He is not as dynamic as Mr. Doyle was, but there is something in his tone and his wit and his content that draws you in and keeps you attentive. Of all the speakers, Overstreet is the one I appreciate the most as an intertwining of the Gospel, the message we are to proclaim, and culture, messages we should listen to, takes place over the next hour.

Eternity is written on the hearts of men and women (Ecc. 3:11). Overstreet reminds everyone that this common grace includes both saints, whose art can be terrible, and fools, whose art can be beautiful. Culture, as an artistic metaphysical idea, is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. One thing it is however is a representation of worldview and beliefs, a tool that can often be used to expose darkness (Ephesians 5:11).

Frequently when culture and art is used or reacted to, it is either in the religious form of picketing and book burning, or in the worldly form of amusement, which is originally meant to divert attention away from serious matters or simply to not think. Overstreet suggests neither of these should be the case with Christians. Rather we should test all things, holding fast to what is good, and use dialogue about the art to buy back the time. The way friendships tend to go with our non-believing friends is that they need to ask questions before we can give them answers. The movie Closer is his example. Christian reviewers condemned that film, and while Overstreet could not necessarily recommend it to others, it displayed the depravity and brokenness of human relationships and did not try to hide it. If used in a redemptive way, one could shed light on another’s thoughts about sexuality and identity that resulted from viewing the film. This requires engaging a person, however, with kindness, patience, knowledge and gentleness of truth (2Ti 2:22-26), a far harder thing than yelling at a corporate building holding a sign.

Overstreet challenged me to be holy and relevant; Doyle encouraged me simply to write; Webb was just fun to listen to again. I am still trying to sort out everything from the ten or so speakers I heard while at the Faith and Writing Festival. There are some ideas to keep and some to toss. One has been haunting me for some time now and has not quieted its voice: Little children, let us not love [only] in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

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