Diary of a Festival: Day 2
A second day of literary immersion has drawn to a close. More sunshine. More handshaking. More exercising of body and mind as I sprint to the next session while ruminating on the last one. At some point on the meandering path between the college and the seminary, I told my husband that I could do this one day a week—and I really could! Any more and I’d get no writing done, but the regular doses of clarity and encouragement would do wonders for any writer.
If yesterday’s focus was exploring works of new-to-me writers, today’s focus was theory of craft. First up was “Creating a Novelist’s Voice” with Mischa Berlinski, a session which was originally supposed to feature Olga Grushin as well, but as reported yesterday, she was too ill to participate. Rather than dialogue with himself about the topic, Berlinksi (author of the remarkable novel Fieldwork) opened his journalist’s notebook and revealed to us the current story he’s tracking down: what has become of a particular Haitian zombie. Really. Even if the subject matter hadn’t been so sad and bizarre, his lively personal style would have kept us riveted to our seats. After walking us through the details he’s gathered so far, he discussed possible approaches to writing the story and invited our responses to help him look for gaps in his research. I’m going to be following his writing very closely in the coming years. (And I’ll never think of zombies the same way again!)
My second session was “Many Mansions” with Ingrid Hill, author of the complex, encompassing novel Ursula, Under, which I am currently reading. Besides my interest in her novel, I wanted to sit at the feet, even for a moment, of an accomplished writer who happens to have a PhD and 12 children! When she said she used to be “afraid to plot,” I knew this was a kindred spirit. Her focus was the interior space of the soul—putting ourselves as writers into it, living with it, seeing it, touching it. “Successful literature is both knitting and architecture,” she said, and “the more particular a writer gets with details, the more universal is the reader’s response.” From what I’ve read of her novel, I think I understand what she’s getting at. I’ll be buying Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space based on her strong recommendation.
The “Can Christians Tell the Truth?” session was interesting because it offered three perspectives. Debra Rienstra talked about her attempts to honestly chronicle difficult personal events; we can “write our way into truth,” she said, but “if we’re humble” we’ll recognize that we aren’t capable of complete truthfulness. Vinita Hampton Wright read a passage from one of her novels, in which the protagonist has an affair, to demonstrate her belief that writers of faith must not shy away from portraying the realities of life even when they are tainted with sin. “Expect to scare people, but be gentle and don’t do it on purpose,” she warned. Leslie Leyland Fields—who is a commercial salmon fisherman in her “regular” life—discussed the theology of confession as a mourning over sin and loss and a longing for what is true. “There will be blood when you’re honest,” she said, but in speaking honestly we move toward revelation.
Fields was also a presenter at the following session, in collaboration with Paul Willis. Their topic was “Light at the End of the Tunnel: Thinking About Metaphors and the Writing Process.” Willis and Fields talked about how metaphors can both free and limit, both give and take away. Willis spoke of writing as rock climbing, a sport he enjoys; Fields got into the theology of metaphor. They wondered aloud if we can change our metaphors of writing by act of will, and steered us in the direction of recognizing our metaphors and/or developing new ones. Participants offered metaphors of moving households, of ceramics, of spelunking. I was heartened by Willis’ broad classification of writers as either those that write first and edit later or those that edit along the way; many books on writing insist that writers work along the former lines, and this frustrates me as I am certainly of the latter stripe, more of a “stylist,” as Willis described himself. So, many bits of encouragement and useful theory were gleaned here.
Writer and editor Hugh Cook gave a workshop called “’None of Them Knew the Color of the Sky’: Point of View in Fiction.” Determining the most appropriate POV for my novel has been a recent challenge, so I had high hopes for this session. It turned out to be a bit more basic than I expected, but afterwards I realized that the review of terms and classic examples helped to crystallize some of my particular challenges, and I may have actually solved a few of them. So it was ultimately quite helpful. Cook is a good teacher and I can see why new and aspiring writers turn to him for editorial consults.
The final lecture of the day deserves far, far more attention than I can possibly give it tonight. Yann Martel’s plenary was thought provoking, delving into far more than its limited title, “On Faith and Writing.” He discussed his self-described “secular” background in Canada, his philosophical training, and his unexpected exposure to the multiplicity of religious expressions while in India, an experience out of which his novel Life of Pi germinated. I read this book several years ago, but haven’t forgotten wrangling with it, and his comments “as one reader of the book” were illuminating. Not only are the two alternate stories in the book meant to make the reader ask the question, “which is the better story?”; but his talk clarified for me that he is, in fact, deliberately pushing readers to choose the implausible one over the reasonable one, to take a “leap of faith” (epitomized by “the island”!) and believe it despite the lack of evidence, and, further, be better for that choice. “Life is an interpretation,” was his summary, “a choice of stories we can believe.” He didn’t dodge the issues he knew an auditorium of Christians would raise, but he was honest and respectful, and what I initially took to be slightly patronizing might really have more to do with discomfort in taking on certain topics about which he could reasonably expect this audience to feel strongly. I hope to analyze his comments further with the aid of sleep!
So, six opportunities in one day to wrestle with big ideas. And between all these sessions I had the privilege of meeting Luci Shaw and Mary Gordon; of meeting Ann, a reading friend known only via Facebook; and of catching up briefly with my favorite college professor, whom I haven’t seen in over a decade. I also sat in on a brief presentation by an editor at Paraclete Press, having grown in my appreciation for their catalog in recent months.
Can it be two-thirds over already? I can’t wait to discover what the final day will bring tomorrow—but first, I have an urgent need for sleep!
[Cross-posted at I’ve Only Been Wrong Twice, where a team of bloggers are recording our Festival experiences for your reading enjoyment!]