Things I Learned — Recap of the Festival of Faith and Writing (especially for my friends who couldn’t attend)

Last week (Thursday through Saturday) I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College  in Grand Rapids. The Festival concluded last night. So, for some reason, this morning seemed like a good time to write down things I learned.

Sorry for the departure from fiction today.


The day started off well. Coffee and registering for the Festival. I ran into a few friends (that I only see every other year…and only at this event). Found my dear Jessie Heninger, Amelia Rhodes and met new friends Heather Briscoe and Lisa Littlewood. I could drop some other REALLY big names…but these four are big enough for me. I love these girls.

(From here on out, most name dropping will be the writers that I heard speak. 🙂 )

Our first stop was to sit and bask in the greatness that is Gary D. Schmidt (if you haven’t read his books…well…get on it). Here are two quotes from his talk. Oh. So beautiful.

“Story makes us humane and more human.”

“How do I live in this messy world now?” (the question writers need to ask and seek to answer)

The writer, Schmidt said, needs to ask his/her question “what ails thee?”. Therein lies the story.

Next I attended a session called “Ours and Not Ours: Writing the Immigrant Experience”. Full disclosure; I went to see Hugh Cook. But I was honored to listen to the experiences of Kristen den Hartog, Cornelia Hoogland and John Terpstra. Each of these writers spoke of their parents’ or grandparents’ lives after immigrating from The Netherlands to Canada. Hugh Cook was the only one who had actually immigrated as a child. They discussed the feeling of being “in between”, being “without a language” and reclaiming the lost history of their families.

After a coffee break (that may or may not have involved cookies), I headed over to hear Kathryn Erskine present a talked titled “Be Careful or You’ll End Up In My Novel”. Right. Yup. It was THAT good of a session. Lots of fun stories. Lots of discussion about observing those around us. Here are a few bullet points from that talk…

~Become your character: do what your character does. For example; walk in the rain, drink what they would drink (within reason, of course), eat what they would eat.

~Be aware of personality traits you can harvest from people around you; facial expressions, vocal inflection, quirks (you know how much I love quirks). Also, research those who are not around you. Read books, listen to music, watch movies.

~Write character sketches and interview y our character. Ask your character “What do you REALLY want?”.

I hiked a good distance to attend a session called “Telling the Truth in Love”. It was really about writing Memior…but I was tired and hungry and didn’t know what else I should find. As with all things Memior, the room was PACKED! And mostly with women. It really wasn’t the session for me. However, I did get to hear the experiences of Amy Julia Becker, Jennifer Grant and Margot Starbuck.

That evening I heard Jonathan Safran Foer (who must not have a website…but he HAS been on The Colbert Report a few times). He spoke of life and mentors and love. He spoke of religion and fatherhood and writing. He is clearly a VERY smart person (think Zooey Glass from “Franny and Zooey”). But he is a smart man who said “I was completely out of my elephant…elephant? No. Element.” But, trust me, that wasn’t all I got out of his talk.

Friday started early. But it also started with a fantastic session titled “Beautiful Souls and Interesting People”. The presenter had my utmost respect before he even began to speak. Daniel Nayeri wore pink Converse All-Stars. But then he did begin to speak. And I was even more intrigued! He discussed that nearly everything is art…and a form of worship. It is one of the things that makes us human. Let me share a few quotes from the session…

“All art is directive.” (this was actually from Gary D. Schmidt)

“In the land of ‘Do-As-You-Please: Art loses context…but not the proposition. Art still presents a set of desirable traits in ‘the good life’.”

“To be interesting, art must instruct the conversation of our age by laying bare its worshipful fascination with a god, and by giving us a compelling reason to sit at the foot of that god and worship.”

 Second session of the day was called “The Word Needs Flesh”. I…uh…thought it was something different. I guess it was an alright discussion of the “sex” dialogue. And I may or may not have giggled like an uncomfortable 13 year old throughout most of it. And I was in the front row. (The presenters were John Estes and Amy Frykholm.)

After the blush mostly drained from my face, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ann Byle. She’s a literary agent here in Grand Rapids and has been in the publishing business for years. She knows what it’s all about. I got to pick her brain for a few minutes. She’s great.

The next session I chose was “Divine Madness” with Debra Dean and Luis Alberto Urrea. They talked about how they found inspiration for the unlikely novels they’ve written. The acknowledged how crazy and mystical the experience can feel. And the two of them were hilarious. Here are two quotes from the session (both from Luis). The second one really encouraged me in what I write…

“There’s something to be said for the voices, both pro and con…”

“Make it funky…if you can find God in the funk and the mud, then you got it.”

I filled my mug with hot coffee and headed off to a session with Daniel Nayeri, Gary D. Schmidt and David Diaz. The three told the story of the making of  “Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert”, a picture book that will be released later this year. It was interesting to hear how the process works. Someday I would like to write a story book. I think it would be great fun.

The evening plenary speaker was Marilynne Robinson (another author for whom I could not for a website. Strangely enough, she has appeared on The Daily Show). She spoke about “Casting Out Fear”. We have nothing to fear. And, yet, so many are striving to MAKE us afraid. Cast that out!

Friday began with a session titled “Writing What We Don’t Know” with Debra Dean. She discussed the importance of fiction (which I concur) and the possibility of writing, not what we know, but what we WANT to know. Her novel “The Madonnas of Leningrad” is on my “to read” list.

I climbed into a van and was whisked away to hear Shane Claiborne. He spoke about peace and Jesus and using our art to change the world. Not for our gain. But for love and justice and mercy. He told stories of working with homeless in Philadelphia, serving with Mother Teresa and travels to Iraq (without a gun). A few things he said resonated with me. These aren’t direct quotes…but they are great concepts.

~Violence has no imagination. Just shooting a gun or starting a war is the result of a lack of creativity.

~When we become so focused on our goals and/or ministry and what we want to do for others, we destroy community. But when we focus on loving people around us community is built.

~Take time to sit and sip tea.

I also sat through an interview with Shane. It was great.

The rest of the day is a swirl of good-byes and eating dinner with some great people (Amelia, Jessie, Heather, Lisa, Allison Hodgson, Lorilee Craker, Ann Byle and Cindy Bultema …I know I said I wouldn’t name drop anymore. Sorry).

Last night I got home and was absolutely exhausted. But I was also fully nourished and ready to keep writing.

If you’re a writer…well…you need to be going to conferences. It makes all the difference. There is a GREAT one in October called The Breathe Conference. It’s fantastic and intimate and a wonderful place to meet other writers.

Thanks for indulging me in my Festival wrap up. And, for those of you who wanted to attend, I hope this was at least a tiny bit helpful.



9 Comments on “Things I Learned — Recap of the Festival of Faith and Writing (especially for my friends who couldn’t attend)

  1. Thanks heaps Suze, this is great. Maybe from now on instead of going to Writer’s Conferences myself I can just send you : )
    Seriously though, I’m writing notes from your notes. Awesome!


  2. Fun wrap-up, Susie! I haven’t managed to process it yet, but will try to capture some of my experience. We attended different sessions–it was so hard to choose. As conference attendees do this, write and post summaries, perhaps we can get a glimpse of those sessions we missed?


  3. Thanks for giving me a window into Grand Rapids! You are very generous to share like this. I am enriched.


  4. Just reading your post inspires me to want to be a writer! LOL…great info Susie! =-) Glad you had a great time!


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