Last week, I packed my bags and headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan to the Festival of Faith and Writing. When my friend, Kristen, casually mentioned this event in the Fall, it immediately caught my interest. Like a small seed that took hold, over time, the idea grew and I felt compelled to go. I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t have a book proposal. I wasn’t there with hopes to charm my way into the hands of an editor. But, questions around faith and writing are continuously stirring for me and I sensed this Festival would give me some guidance. Some fuel. And, an opportunity to face one of my fears.
What is this fear? It’s rather simple. Quite plainly, the fear is not being heard. Never having a voice. Melting into everyone around me. If you’re familiar with the Spiritual tool, the Enneagram (a spiritual self-reflection tool for inner growth), I am dominated by the number 4. Fours love to be special, unique and altogether different. Now, anyone who knows me, can already see this. I’ve always been the person with colored hair and a pre-meditated style (“Oh! This outfit? I just threw it together.” LIE.). I enjoy being up front, leading, ever struggling with taking direction from others. Or, on the edges, silently watching, creatively brooding. When I first realized that everyone else could plainly see this in me, I was mortified. Over time, my mortification is turning to laughter, but the road is long. So, what happens when you throw a person who wants to be seen around hundreds of other people who want to be seen?
Upon arriving, it seemed Kristen and I were destined for this trip when we got the keys to a Kia Soul to drive around. It didn’t take long for us to drop our bags at the hotel and head to the central hub to register. In a long line of individuals, I immediately felt small. I was incredibly grateful to have Kristen standing next to me. While she was assessing the long line of registration (and how it could be more efficient), I was overhearing snippets of the woman behind me share how she is a book publicist. It seemed like she went out of her way to say hello to every Tom, Dick and Sherry who walked by. Clearly, she was SEEN. She was KNOWN. And, I continued to breathe deep.
In short time, it seemed my fear of not being seen was coming true. In one of my first sessions, I listened to an editor discuss the improbability of having a book published. He began the talk with letting hopeful writers in the room know that 90% of book proposals are turned away. He proceeded to share the magical “keys” of having a book published. Nuggets of (little-t) truth were shared of books needing a “hook”, a fresh perspective, and an existing large platform of possible consumers. In this moment, I only saw a big business of dollar signs. It completely turned me off. Later, in a gathering of people who met to discuss feedback for our work, I vulnerably explained to a small circle of people how one of my doubts about getting feedback is that I don’t have a “journalism” or “English” degree. In effect, I don’t know the “rules” of writing. Immediately, I was met with great resistance from the one English teacher in the room who firmly told me an editor will NOT take seriously someone who doesn’t know the proper “rules” to writing. This abrupt statement took my breath away and pushed me further into my own shame. I left this gathering to peruse the room where publisher booths were located. As tables upon tables of books lined the room, I wondered, “Do we even need any more reading material? Aren’t we already saturated with enough blogs, news articles, magazines and books?”
But, in the midst of my fear, the spark of light deep in my gut wouldn’t extinguish. As I plowed from one demanding session to another, I was met with incredible stories, broad ideas and intense depth. When Dani Shapiro delicately shared the tragedy that revived her life, I better understood how writing is a source of healing for me. When I heard four published authors of moderate book sales share their thoughts on status and faith, I saw myself in their story. Zadie Smith awoke my artist’s soul as she boldly told her listeners that creating a “brand” goes against being creative. She dared me to create new, not pleasing. George Saunders spoke a short story that made me laugh so hard I cried. And, cried more. This laughter was remedy. Marilyn McEntyre taught me the importance of using words for clarity and civility; I was inspired to write more of my truth in creative fashion. Chris Hoke’s incredible prison ministry provoked me to follow Jesus into difficult places. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s graceful, raw honesty about her own shortcomings spurred me on to share my most authentic self. The spark of light within grew.
It was Sarah Bessey’s words which grew the small spark within to a flame. She had her own tale of long ago being an unknown girl walking around this very same Festival. Unseen. Unknown. Feeling small. She shared her story of a continuous path of writing, not to become “known”, but because writing was the place where she spent time with God. A daily altar of sorts. Writing was the place that helped engage her with God into relationship. She asked the question, “What qualifies a person to talk about God? Does a seminary degree? Does our skin color? Does our status? Does our church denomination?” She reminded a room full of eager listeners that all our stories count. Each one of us can talk about God. We are all qualified and unqualified. We don’t get to decide who qualifies to teach and preach the gospel because we do or don’t have an English/Seminary/Doctorate degree. I felt as if she was speaking directly to me. I was deeply encouraged to keep writing. Not to be “known” by people, to be known by God.
Initially, I was overwhelmed by the success of the authors and theologians present. Our culture screams success will make us more fulfilled and power will give us high status. It is incredibly easy to get swept into this thinking. But, when I fix my gaze on Christ, He is the exact opposite of success and power. His message is quietly subversive, questioning oppressive systems with humble action. Christ is about compassion not success, love not power. His message tells us to be in relationship with him. To talk with him. To rest with him. To work with him. To play with him. I saw these Christlike traits exhibited in the many authors I had the privilege of hearing. These authors weren’t about book business; they were about love, mercy and truth.
Upon leaving, I had the thought, “So, what shall I do now?” As I quieted myself to listen, I heard affirmation to keep hanging out with the Spirit of Christ doing what I ordinarily do: Spending time with family and friends, writing, creating, idea making, baking, pursuing silence, pondering the current state of the church and reaching out where I can. I may never have a book deal because I use bad punctuation. But, that’s okay. I still have a circle of community to share the irreverent/reverent life. And you do too. I’m not sure what path you are on, however, I’m sure words are part of your day. Therefore, let all of us be inspired to keep plowing on, using our voices for love, justice and mercy. Let our actions be quietly bold in the name of Christ, letting all else fall away. Amen.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
Some of the amazing books I encountered at the Festival:
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey
Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life by Makoto Fujimaro
Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jails, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders by Chris Hoke
Caring For Words in A Culture of Lies by Marilyn McEntyre
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro
Thumbprint in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace by Luci Shaw
Kristen’s viewpoint of the Festival is over here, with her recommendations of more awesome reads!
Lovely Ally, Thanks so much for this. A Festival I would just love to participate in one day- and through your honest, humble description of your experience there was like being brought in to have a close-up view and feel through you imaginatively. And I am so grateful for that. Keep writing and “Ms. School Marm” will have to eat her words! Thank you too for all these references – I will look forward to looking up each one in due course. Blessings, gratitude and greetings. Judith
Thank you Judith for the encouragement! Yes, I will keep writing. I hope you get to the Festival one day. You will not regret it. The level of authors and speakers was phenomenal!
Why would I need to write anything about the Festival? Of course, I’m directing friends to your beautiful post! How funny to read it from your perspective because during our time together, everything I encountered was from MY perspective. Ha! Who knew others even have opinions? [PS…the registration line was inexcusably long.] Your dear friend, forever a 7.
Loved your account of our time. And, I totally agree… our debrief at the end of the day was the BEST! I thought you might mention Mallory Ortberg in your post. Haha.