Well it has been quite a day – more than I ever expected. But a little background first. Every two years (i.e. the "even" years) since 1990 there has been a conference called the Festival of Faith and Writing, this is the fourth time I’ve been able to attend.
Over the years they have attracted great writers, presenters, artists, publishers, editors, etc. (e.g. Updike, L’Engle, Weisel, Dillard, Rushdie) and this year is no different. Tonight’s keynote was Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories). It was really an inspiring message, and was not at all what I expected. Tomorrow night’s speaker is Yann Martel (Life of Pi) and Saturday night is Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved). This is after a full day of shorter topical sessions that are also very good.
But why am I here? I don’t write like I used to. I previously co-wrote a few computer textbooks and labs for teachers and students in the early 90s and monthly educational technology articles for 9 years, through 2006. But really nothing now. Should I continue using two vacation days and a lot of time to attend this conference. After today, I’d have to say an enthusiastic "yes".
The reasons I am eager to attend are varied but mainly include getting out of my "comfort zone" for a short time and experiencing a culture and community in a depth that can rarely be seen in any other forum. While attending a "reading" (Shauna Niequest reading Cold Tangerines) this morning I realized that I was perhaps only one of 6-7 men in a room full of women of all ages. I decided that this may be the location of all the women who were notably absent at all the technology conferences I attend. This is not to say anything bad about men or women – in fact let me make an open invitation to any women who would like to attend our upcoming Day of .NET 2008 on May 10. Even if it is "sold out" (still free) I’ll find a way for you to get in if you want to check it out. To hear her read one of her very funny and insightful essays (that somehow included childbirth and road rage) was something special and kicked of the day rather well.
But the variety of the day was just getting started. Next Mary Gordon (Final Payments, Men and Angels) discussed "Is Fiction Moral?" which lead to a thread the rest of the day about whether art/writing/etc. is fundamentally "good". She added a long experience in writing since the 70s with a feminist and troubled Catholic background, to bring together yet another background and culture I don’t interact with much. Next Gary Schmidt shared experiences of dealing with issues of race, economic inequality, broken trust, failed leaders. How a child goes from a world of "run spot run" to one of beginning to understand issues of vocation, economics, politics, aesthetics and relationships – none of which have easy black-and-white answers.
One more main session left, then the keynote at 7:30 tonight. My mind is already buzzing in parts of my brain that get sadly little use otherwise. But next is a presentation by Jon J Muth who is an artist/illustrator of children’s books like Stone Soup, The Three Questions, Zen Shorts (NYT Best Seller, Caldecott Honor) and Zen Ties – not to mention drawing graphic novels like Niel Gaiman’s The Sandman: The Wake and J.M. DeMatteis’ Moonshadow. Muth is a very talented artist with traditional graphite ink-brush. Half of his presentation was in demonstrating his craft both drawing an intentional object (an elephant in this case) and in letting the drawing come from the strokes themselves. A practicing Zen Buddhist and artist, he explained how his beliefs, craft, and the experience of the birth of recent twins, has shaped his current work.
I’m now on experience and information overload, so I head home to have dinner and a short nap before the keynote (which I can do because I live less than a mile from the keynote location). Finishing the day with a well prepared and executed essay and talk by Michael Chabon capped off the day nicely. He recounted his personal experiences as a Jew in search of an identity, as well as being a child with an amazingly active imagination and unnatural taste for genre fiction. He led us through a winding path through a book he found almost by accident "Say it in Yiddish" which lead to an amazing amount of introspection, creativity, conflict, and ultimately his novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It was an amazingly humorous, but also touching and personal account of his experiences which have led to his numerous writings.
I have no idea how processing all of this will impact my "real job" or "real life" but to hear essays about childbirth, discussions of morality and truth, feminism, race, politics, inequality, art, Zen, and the lost Yiddish language and culture have all given me unique perspectives that I would otherwise have not had. Two more days of this, and some reflection, and we’ll see how this can be applied in my current endeavors.