Diary of a Festival: Day 1
It was about 5:30 pm when someone recommended something for me “to think about as you go into the Festival”—and I thought, if this thing is only just beginning, I’m going to reach saturation by the end of the first day! Yes, today was the start of the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College, and I’m already exhausted. It was a glorious 70 degrees, there’s a lot of walking, and I’m experiencing idea-induced vertigo.
My first-time Festival experience began with a reading from Olga Grushin’s novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov. Unfortunately, Grushin had to cancel her appearance due to illness; fortunately, Dr. Chad Engbers is teaching her novel in his Russian Lit class at Calvin and so was well prepared to present on her behalf. I had purchased the book this morning as I went in to Registration, and after Chad’s animated reading of several shimmering passages, I am anxious to sit down with it.
Mary Gordon (author of numerous novels and stories, including Pearl, which I’m currently reading) then formally opened the Festival with a lecture, “Is Fiction Moral?” She described herself as a person not of faith, but of hope, echoing the words of Mark 9, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” The vocation of a writer is connected to beauty and form, she said, and those who write fiction are “drastically marginal.” If good fiction created good morals, English departments would be utopias; instead, some are terrible and others are wonderful, “just like the rest of the world,” a world that is spinning out of control. And we must be careful not to render judgment too quickly—when in a boat that is swamped, “I’m less inclined to attack my fellow oarsmen.” Still, in what sense is fiction moral? Gordon describes moral fiction as that which aspires to art in directly the opposite way of pornography, that is, it is complex and multi-faceted and spurs varied responses, rather than designed simply to initiate a single physical response. And the novel form is particularly qualified to combat the sound byte. The truth of human beings is often more complicated than initially obvious, and only through literature can we put ourselves in another’s shoes. Fiction contains the seeds of possibility, of hope. It calls: follow me into the woods; yes, it is dangerous; yes, it is dark; but you are not alone.
Then I went to a reading by Luci Shaw, thinking the whole time of my friend Rachel who regularly recommends her poetry and essays. She was wonderful! She read a number of new poems, a selection from her Breath for the Bones collection, demonstrated a Nepalese Singing Bell, and ALMOST showed us her tattoo. Yep, Luci Shaw has a tattoo and the sense of humor to go with it. I was delighted to purchase a copy of her The Crime of Living Cautiously.
Afterwards, I stopped in to the bookstore to get Mischa Berlinski to sign a copy of his novel Fieldwork, which I loved (and I promise to review for you in the near future). I almost followed that with a session on the Saint John’s Bible (I have the gorgeous Gospels and Acts volume), but decided instead to take in the matinee of The Women of Lockerbie by playwright Deborah Brevoort and produced by the Calvin Theatre Company. Loosely based on the aftermath of the crash of Pan Am flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland, it raises questions of love, hatred, and grief in community. It was simply staged and movingly acted with a few exceptions (though the Calvin students just couldn’t bring themselves to curse with feeling!).
After a boxed dinner (a dry sandwich but tasty potato salad and refreshing orange wedges), I connected with my Festival Circle group. These groups are apparently a new offering this year, and I signed up to participate in the “Fiction: Characterization” group. It seemed the lot of us are either published or aspiring writers, so the discussion focused around plot-driven vs. character-driven novels, character’s voice vs. author’s voice, and how to turn off the inner editor. We’ll be meeting up again on Saturday to discuss what we’ve learned throughout the weekend.
The final event of the day was the plenary by Michael Chabon. I must be one of the last people who haven’t read his books, but after his session, I have determined to add The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to my TBR list. Much of his talk focused on the background to developing that novel, which boiled down to his search for belonging and home. After false starts writing what he had been taught to write “as a good Jewish boy,” and caught up in “my pain as an object of the world’s attention,” he realized that no matter what he wrote, he would never please everyone—and he finally made his own home “in the lands found only in the imagination.” Humor, boldness, and a strong presence made his presentation an energetic end to the first long day.
And I still got back to my hotel in time to watch Scrubs!
[Cross-posted at I’ve Only Been Wrong Twice, where a team of bloggers are recording our Festival experiences for your reading enjoyment!]