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Festival of Faith and Writing brings together a variety of voices

 

The goal each time around for the Festival of Faith & Writing is to bring together a variety of voices.

Says conference director and Calvin professor of English Dale Brown: "We have academics, writers, students, publishers -- lots and lots of people under a very big tent. 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."

Each year the tent seems to get a little bigger and the voices become a little more diverse.

But criteria for selecting Festival participants are pretty simple.

"We're interested," Brown says, "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. I guess we're somewhere . . . 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."

And so it went with the 2000 edition of the Festival, held March 30 to April 1 across the Calvin campus.

Three keynote lectures, by Chaim Potok, Anne Lamott and Maya Angelou, provided the Festival entrees and attracted some 2,500 people to the Calvin Fieldhouse each evening for a celebration of ideas and words. But a host of workshops, lectures, poetry readings, concerts and films helped feed the literary appetites of the 1,600 conference registrants who sought satiation during three days at Calvin.

Conference 2000 was dedicated to the memory of Lionel Basney, a former professor of English at Calvin who died last summer. Basney had been a key cog in past Festivals, including, joked colleagues, his willingness to host the late-night poetry readings that nobody else seemed to have the energy for. On the Conference 2000 folder were these simple words of tribute: "His vision did much to help us shape these conferences as we have. Thankfully, then, as we have worked on Festival 2000, we have been aware of his presence as well. We dedicate Festival 2000 to the memory."

One suspects Basney, whose daughter was a conference registrant, would have been pleased by the 2000 model. For the Festival added several new twists this year, including the screening of seven Paul Schrader films -- three on Thursday, four on Friday and three on Saturday. One film was followed by a discussion group, while another included commentary by Schrader.

And an interview with the Calvin graduate, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Gary Wills (a Northwestern University professor of history), brought some 500-plus people to Gezon Auditorium, where the audience literally lined the walls, and filled an overflow area outside the Auditorium.

In many ways the Schrader interview was a microcosm of the three-day Festival. Schrader described a religious upbringing that "never goes away." And he spoke of the many religious themes in both the films he has written and those that have felt from his director's touch over a 25-year career in the film industry.

He began the interview by acknowledging that he now calls himself Episcopalian, adding that having been raised in the CRC, "where it was all guilt and no ritual," he now finds himself in a denomination "that's all ritual and no guilt." And he admitted that he finds cinema inherently anti-spiritual. But, over the next 75 minutes, he spoke, again and again, of the many ways in which spirituality creeps into the films he directs and the novels he adapts. Sometimes, he noted, even the actors get into the act.

He also spoke of the art of making movies.

"Everything is a decision," he said. "The door is a color for a reason. If a person puts his hand here instead of there there's a reason for that. You might make 2,000 to 3,000 decisions a day when you're making a movie, maybe it's 5,000 decisions." In the end Schrader noted, all of those split-second decisions, which arise from the director's personality, upbringing and education, make for a movie that "is really you." He said: "The secret attributes of a person seep into the work."

Conference 2000 saw faith and writing not just seeping into but washing over the conference registrants.

Here was a book signing by Lamott. There was a workshop on revising fiction. In one building an editor spoke on "what editors look for." In another an author talked about "writing to nurture the spiritual imagination of children." Literary agents told writers about their jobs, writers talked to publishers and publishers talked to everybody. In all some 120 people participated as either presenters, interviewers or moderators during the three days of sessions.

The participant list was extensive, extending, literally from A (literary critic and Biblical translator Robert Alter) to Z (novelist Irene Zabytko). In between were such folks as Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner Ashley Bryan; Clarion children's book editor Virginia Buckley; novelist Betty Smartt Carter; writer Hugh Cook; Tennessee Senator and non-fiction writer Roy Herron; CRC pastor and author Scott Hoezee; Rabbi Lawrence Kushner; writer, composer and jazz musician James McBride; journalist Chris Meehan; novelist, poet and essayist Virgina Stem Owens; Eerdmans editor Jan Pott; writer James Schaap; poet Luci Shaw; author and pastor Walter Wangerin Jr.; Books and Culture editor John Wilson; and novelist Jane Yolen, author of over 200 books.

Each day featured tracks on writing, publishing, critics, children's works and films as well as readings and workshops. And at night were concerts, open mic poetry and more.

Conference participants rejoiced in the experience.

The Thursday morning check-in in the Fine Arts Center was packed as registrants filled the FAC foyer, waiting to register and get their conference materials. But there were no angry faces. This was not the mood one might find at an airport check-in. Rather, everywhere one looked there were conversations, smiles and faces eager and excited to begin three days of waltzing with words.

As each registrant grabbed a packet the first move was to meander outdoors to look over the schedule. There attendees began to plan a three-day excursion through the literary buffet.

Said one registrant to another, while simultaneously walking out of the FAC and pouring through the schedule: "I can't believe this list of workshops. Oh wow, Potok's signing right now in the Library. Let's go. This is going to be great."

All around him were others equally eager to begin.

Small wonder then that Brown says of the bi-ennial Festival: "There's really nothing like this in the literary world."

Or, as a registrant said after the Angelou lecture put an exclamation point on the proceeedings: "Only 730 days until Conference 2002."

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