I just got back from the best writing conference I’ve ever attended — the Calvin Conference on Faith and Writing. It took place at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, and featured bestselling authors such as Haven Kimmel, Kathleen Norris, Yann Martel, Phyllis Tickle, Rob Bell, Francine Rivers, and T. Davis Bunn. Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Chabon and Edward P. Jones spoke, as did Pulitzer nominee Robert Finch, and National Book Award winner Katherine Paterson. And (probably due to a clerical error) me.
There were fascinating presentations, all done by smart people with really big titles. Mary Louise Bringle spoke on "From Despair to Healing: Theological Insights from Fiction," and others did things like "Graphalogia" and "Writing as Catechesis" and "How I Learned to Draw God." Meanwhile, I did my usual "the right way to sharpen a pencil." I also gave people tips on saving money by using toilet paper instead of kleenex. In case there were charismatics in the audience, I pretended to speak in tongues and heal somebody.
Anyway, they do this every other year at Calvin. One of the reasons I like it so much is because of the quality of writer they get. Haven Kimmel is one of my heroes, so the fact that we got a chance to sit down and yack was special. (Her most recent book, She Got Up Off the Couch, is about her mother, who rose from poor roots to become an English professor. So when I got to sit and have a conversation with her mom, I was thrilled. And charmed.) Davis Bunn proved once again to be the nicest Southern Gentleman still living. Phyllis Tickle is always nice to me, though I have no idea why. So is the poet Luci Shaw, even though I’m never smart enough to figure out what she’s saying. Being able to chat up very smart people is always nice, though they generally just stand there and wonder how I wrangled an invitation. This year I took my wife’s advice and wore a clean shirt.
Being able to listen to great writers is a gift. I got to go to dinner with three novelists I admire — Lisa Samson (whose novel Quaker Summer was just named novel of the year by Christianity Today), Claudia Mair Burney (an up-and-coming Simon & Schuster writer), and Mark Bertrand (who just signed a multi-book deal with Bethany House). Now that was fun. They seem to speak naturally using great images. Someday, when I’m old, I’d like to be as smart as them.
Many of the writers’ conferences may not be able to afford to bring in quite so many famous writers, but there are a couple things they could emulate: Have more public conversations with writers. Don’t feel you’ve got to ask a novelist to give a workshop — many of us would prefer the chance to just sit and listen to them talk, so ask a good interviewer to chat them up in front of an audience. Have more public readings. One of the time-tested events at writing conferences is to have an author show up and read passages from his or her novel or nonfiction book. Why so many contemporary conferences have moved away from this practice is a mystery. Ask academics to participate. There were a number of English professors at this conference, and it raises the level of discussion at a conference. I’ve been teaching a couple classes in the Professional Writing Program at Taylor University this year, and I’ve been reminded that profs love the chance to share their materials with someone besides colleagues and students. Use films and music to supplement the lectures. The Calvin conference filled their evenings with four films, three open-mike poetry gatherings, two concerts, a jazz verspers service, and a worship service led by a pastor/author. They also presented a play one afternoon. It wouldn’t be too hard to schedule a variety of these types of things at a writing conference that takes place at a college or in a larger city.
Okay, I’ve got a bunch of publishing questions to catch up on — which I’ll do tomorrow, as soon as I’ve reviewed my notes from the conference so as to sound smarter than I am.