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The Wonder of Words

by Phill deHaan

Calvin's Literary Festival Among the Best in the World

There may have been no finer place in the literary world this year than the campus of Calvin College for three astonishing days in April.

Prior to Conference 98 -- billed as A Festival of Faith & Writing -- Calvin professor of English Dale Brown had described the biennial event as "the truck pull of literary studies." The reasons for his vivid description became clear when Conference 98 finally arrived.

For three days the Calvin campus was awash in writers, publishers, teachers, pastors, students, retirees and more. For three days that eclectic group bathed in an ocean of workshops, seminars, keynote lectures, open mic poetry and fiction readings and informal coffee conversations. From the Fine Arts Center Auditorium to the Meeter Center to the Lab Theatre -- and at many other locations in between -- groups gathered to discuss and debate, listen and learn, reflect and respond.

What brought them to Grand Rapids was an event that included keynote addresses by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, National Book Award winner Katherine Paterson and Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike as well as a host of "lesser" names -- authors such as Hugh Cook, John Hassler, Joy Kogawa, James Schaap and David James Duncan and songwriters such as Jan Krist, Charlie Peacock and Bruce Cockburn.

What excited them was a diverse array of opportunities.

There were, of course, the keynote lectures. Wiesel led off and captivated a Fieldhouse crowd of 2,800 with a tender remembering of his Holocaust experience and the heroes of the Bible who give him comfort and hope. Wiesel, who was just 15 when he entered the death camps, where he lost his parents and a sister, told of his life as a writer. "The writer," he said, "is a witness. We give testimony. We saw it. We remember it." He spoke of Job and recalled that when news was brought to Job of each disaster the messengers all carried with them one line: "I alone survived to tell the tale." There was horror there, said Wiesel, but also comfort. One did survive to be a witness. Wiesel noted that "Night," his Holocaust account, was over 850 pages long in its first draft. When it finally appeared he had pared it down to just over 100 pages. "I didn't want to use the wrong words," he told the hushed audience.

The next night Paterson, author of a variety of acclaimed books for children and young adults, took the Fieldhouse stage to speak on "Image and Imagination." Paterson, who was born in China, the daughter of missionaries, and later in life married a Presbyterian minister, immersed herself in Conference 98, arriving early and staying to the end. In her talk she spoke of how the image of God affects her as a writer, pulling specific images of God from Scripture to talk about different aspects of the writing life.

Updike concluded the keynoters. He both engaged in a one-hour Q&A on Saturday afternoon with Christianity Today editor-at-large and author Philip Yancey, he also spun a web of observation and fiction during his one-hour keynote address. "Religion," he said at one point, "enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the job of life." He resisted questions of whether or not he's a Christian writer, saying he has some reservations about that label. "It's very hard to talk about your own religion," he said in his keynote address. "It's an intimate realm."

While the keynote lectures filled the evenings, the daytime events also proved satisfying. On the second day alone the almost 1,400 conference registrants (whose numbers could have swelled to over 2,000 had there been room) had to choose from such fare as "Didacticism and the Christian Writer," "Publishers and that Vision Thing," "Peter De Vries and the Need for Christian Disbelief," "Writing for the Religious Journal," "Empowering Students to Tell the Truth in the Composition Classroom," "How Barnes and Noble Has Changed Religious Publishing," and "Is David James Duncan A Christian?" On the third day such sessions as "The Short Story," "How to Sell Your Writing," "Writing Your Memoirs," and "Publishing Children's and Young Adult Literature" were on tap.

That same day, just about 12 hours after delivering a powerful 120-minute show to an appreciate and sometimes adoring full house in the FAC, Canadian singer and songwriter Bruce Cockburn did an approximately two-hour songwriting workshop for some 300 registrants.

It was a first for the Toronto-based artist who very rarely speaks even briefly about the creative processes which lead to his music. He admitted to being nervous about the experience, but by the end of the session he played a new song, tentatively titled "Look How Far," which was written on the drive from Toronto to Grand Rapids.

As one Conference 98 participant said: "This is like Christmas in April."

That, conference organizers replied, has been the idea all along.

This now nationally renowned Festival of Faith & Writing has its roots in Dale Brown's arrival on the Calvin campus in 1987. Brown came to Calvin's campus having done his dissertation on Frederick Buechner. That dissertation work was done, he said, "because of a long interest in writers between the cracks -- writers who struggle with and deal honestly with the challenges of human experience, while writing with skill and poise and quality. These are not people who are easy believers, but that is part of what makes reading such authors worthwhile. We can learn a lot from these folks and their honest portrayals of the human experience."

When Brown arrived at Calvin he discovered colleagues who had similar interest in the often hard questions of faith and the writers who address those questions. People such as Henry Baron, Don Hettinga and Gary Schmidt, who have worked on all the conferences, had also been thinking about faith and writing. Also, Calvin's Wiersma Literary Lecture Series (named after now deceased Calvin English professor Stanley Wiersma), said Brown, has "a stated intention which is very close to the aims of the festival," the intention being "to encourage Christian authors and to promote a Christian understanding of literature and language."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Frank Perretti exploded on the publishing scene and, said Brown, "a lot of us were pulled into the debate about that." Brown also was doing research and interviews for his 1997 book Of Fiction and Faith, a series of Q&A interviews with folks such as Buechner. During those interviews he often would invite people to come, at some point, to Calvin to speak.

"All of these things kind of came together after a while," he said, "and we decided to start the festival."

The first effort saw about 100 registrants gather in the spring of 1991. Will Campbell was the big draw. His evening session in Gezon Auditorium drew about 300 people. In 1994 the second festival took place and about 350 registrants were on hand with Kaye Gibbons and Doris Betts headlining.

The ante was raised -- considerably -- in 1996. Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle and Donald Hall formed a powerful trio and about 1,000 registrants came to Calvin's campus.

And then came Conference 98 with its combination of keynote speeches by Wiesel, Paterson and Updike. That trio took Calvin's event to a new level.

And, said Brown, they will help the college sell Conference 2000.

"We now have," he said, "authors and publishers who call us and want to be part of this event. We have no trouble attracting registrants. Our problem is the opposite; we're turning people away. We have quickly created a reputation for this festival that is growing by leaps and bounds."

Brown noted that despite the burgeoning numbers, the Festival is a break-even event for Calvin. "We're not doing this to make money," he says. At $125 the conference fee is a bargain. And students pay just $60, while Calvin students pay just $30. In fact, about 350 students were part of the 1,400 registrants for this year's event, including about 200 Calvin students. Students also play a key role in shaping the Festival. This year Brown worked with a student committee of 26, a group he said was "critical" in putting the Festival together.

Brown said it's important to note that Calvin calls this event a "festival." He added: "That's a key word for us. There's really nothing like this in the literary world. We have academics, writers, students, publishers -- lots and lots of people under a very big tent. This is the truck pull of literary studies. We intentionally say `let's celebrate words from all kinds of directions.' Let's get everybody that has anything to do with this (writing) under one tent."

Criteria for selecting Festival participants are pretty simple. "We're interested," Brown said, "in writers that show respect for and understanding of a faith tradition. Some of them (the writers) may, in fact, have left that tradition, but they're still reacting to it, they're aware of it and they're respectful of it."

Brown added that the Festival seeks writers who "take us to places we've not been before." He said: "Much of Christian literature leaves us where we are. Writers we bring to the Festival do not do that."

Yet Brown is quick to note that the Festival is not intended to "be some wild-eyed thing where we bring in just any famous writer. We're not trying to be the People magazine of literary conferences." He said that there's lots of literature written with literally no regard to faith and that sort of writing also does not fit into the Festival's mandate. "I guess," he concluded, "we're somewhere in the middle of that spectrum -- somewhere in between the easy-answer Christian literature and the writing that pays no mind to the role of faith in one's life. It's not an easy place to be, but it's where we at Calvin feel we should be."

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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 6/17/98.