I didn't exercise this morning, but I was awakened by an earthquake. I didn't know it at the time of course, but I sleepily noted the time of 5:39 a.m. on my bedside clock, filed it away and rolled over and back to sleep, and later, finding out about the quake in southern Illinois, realized that I had been gently rocked awake by a readjusting earth. It brought to mind one other time, in the late Sixties. I was sitting with my family in our small country church at Wednesday night prayer meeting when the lights began shaking, the pews vibrating, and awe came over us. I thought it was the rapture. I thought it was our ticket home. But not yet.
There's been a bit of rapture here in Grand Rapids, here at the Festival of Faith and Writing. There's been the gentle nudge from God's hand, a tremulous awakening. To what? To the idea that I can actually write, might actually write something worth reading, that people do it all the time, and yet to the hard, cold truth that it's not sexy, not grand, but just plain hard work or, as Rob Bell said tonight, just "pure, undiluted slog." It requires "constant, pragmatic attention" someone said. I'd have to say that after 23 years of practice that being an attorney is a lot, lot easier than being a writer. The only reason to do it is because you love words, or because there's something you have to say that you must say or you think you'll go crazy, or maybe something you just find so interesting that you have to think that maybe someone else should be interested in it as well.
This morning Mischa Berlinski, a journalist turned novelist, author of Fieldwork, told us a fascinating tale of a zombie in Haiti, an absolutely true story and one so compelling that he is writing about it. Brian Doyle, in an engaging talk in which he made us deliberatively laugh as loud as we could and later sing Amazing Grace, whose "small, true stories" made us laugh and cry, drew us into the genre of the personal essayist, telling us that "there are an ocean of stories all around you." You just have to listen.
Just before lunch, Yale historian Carlos Eire told us of his memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, a story of his childhood in Cuba just before Castro came to power and just before and after the 14,000 children were airlifted out of Cuba to the United States. He wrote for four months, unedited, from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00-3:00 a.m., and sometimes all night, until it was completed. He is a soft-spoken man who never saw his father again after the airlift, who was seared by injustice but spoke of it with grace. I bought his book. He signed it. It's like blood on the page.
After lunch we listening to a dialogue between two essayists, Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian, and Robert Finch, who wrote The Iambics of Newfoundland, a book I did read and admire but which I had a hard time staying awake for. This was a different take on essaying than that of Brian Doyle, saying that it's not the place to tell your story (like memoir) but a place to communicate about a shared interest, that there is "a displacement of the personal in the service of the essay." They said the essay is the antidote to the soundbyte; it cultivates the habit of mindfulness. You write in essay not to tell about yourself but to tell about something you are interested in and think others must be too. That all sounds too dispassionate to me.
Did I say that it was a beautiful, sunny day of 75 degrees here in Michigan? We walked to the chapel talking about architecture, me from ignorance, Andy from knowledge. We want to write a book on faith and architecture and place, or something like that, and we talk this way every now and then. Maybe we'll do something about it one day but. . . I don't know, it's more fun to talk about doing it.
In the chapel is a special service of music by the Calvin College concert choir, Capella, singing the words of poets, interspersed with the readings of poets. I think they were burning incense for the experience. Could that be? Or was it just the overwrought perfume of the woman in front of me? Never mind. It was effective. The voices were amazing, the poems musical though not often immediately accessible (except for George Herbert), and the visual images projected on the screens useful for contemplation.
In the evening we drove out to the mega Sunshine Community Church for a lecture by Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, a Canadian from Quebec, a uber-secular place. Martel wrote his novel in India about a character who seemed to be Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. He moved from being a believer in reason alone to being fascinated by faith, and yet we concluded that it was an immature faith, one that could say things like "how could all these Hindus be wrong?" and "the word 'truth' should not be used when referring to things that are not empirically verifiable." You have to hope that he will grow in his understanding of the important, exclusive claims of faith in Christ and not forever live in some kind of syncretistic limbo.
At 9:15 I begin listening to a very engaging Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, a pastor of the emerging church. By this time my tank is full and I slip out, realizing that I can't hold another thought. But this I took out, a quote from Theolonius Monk: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
Enough talk about writing. Just do it. Just write something. Feel the quake? Feel that gentle nudge? My surface is being realigned.