Poet Luci Shaw began the day with readings of her newest work in the Calvin College chapel. Bushy-tailed Festival attendants with white nametags hanging around their necks, notebooks and pens at the ready and eagerness in their eyes outnumbered the young Calvin students, who looked (characteristically for college students) bleary-eyed and somewhat confused. What is going on? their faces seemed to be asking. Who are these people?
We visitors are, as Ms. Shaw stated in her off-the-cuff greeting, “kindred souls,” gathered in the service of great writing. She has attended the past 20 biannual Festivals and has formed many friendships and collegial relationships throughout the years. Although this is my first Festival to attend, I smiled at her comment and felt warmly included in her description of the 1,900 or so writers in attendance.
Indeed, there is something about the make-up of a writer that seems to connect her to other writers. My unofficial and small sample-sized “research,” (aka conversations) today yielded a precursory conclusion that writers are a generous lot. Each exchange in which I engaged today was most pleasant, whether with participant or presenter. People are genuinely interested in hearing one another’s stories. They listen with steady eye contact, non-verbal communication that indicates sincere interest and probing questions. Those more experienced (read: published) gladly share tips and lessons with nascent and newbie authors. I overhear encouragement in the halls and empathetic groans (and giggles) of book purchasing compulsion at the book table. Quick friendships are formed at deeper-than-usual levels because writers are deep people. Even some who are weary of sharing are self-aware enough to name their fear.
Gary Schmidt said in the opening plenary that writers bring our love of words and story into the messiness of life because somehow they help heal the pain. Perhaps we writers connect so quickly and so well because we need each other. We need other creatures like ourselves to buoy us when we cannonball into said messiness. (Dipping one’s toe in does not do writers, writing or readers justice.) We need kindred spirits who get why we do what we do; why stories absolutely must be told; why difficult topics haunt us until we address them; and why locking ourselves away “on retreat” to dig in and finish a project is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.
Such precipitous and profound connection may sound like a social nightmare for some. I have loved ones in my life who are not interested in making instant BBFFs and sharing so freely their deepest pain. I understand and respect that. I, on the other hand, enjoy the sense of belonging and connection. It’s a pleasure to float in a sea of other logophiles and be on the same wavelength; and the fact that I just met them makes it all the more sweet.