Filed under Trying to say God

Trying to Say God—Saturday and it’s over

The Matthew Boudway, Greg Wolfe, Heidi Saxton, Joe Durepos, Jonathan Ryanday started with “The future of Catholic publishing” which was tied up closely with the future of publishing in general. It was observed that the devotional and catechetical sides of the business (for the publishers associated with religious orders) are doing well, but the trade side of the business is diminishing. 

Greg Wolfe’s observation is “There is no Catholic publishing, only protestant publishing… Catholic publishing apes protestant publishing.”

I skipped theJessica Wilson, Mary Ann Miller, Angela Cybulski next session to take a nap and finished the morning with “Imagining the editor as artist” which featured the editor of Presence, a new Catholic poetry journal, an editor for Wiseblood books and a professor editing an unfinished novel by Flannery O’Connor. 

After lunch, my next session was Dave Griffith, Kathleen Tarr, Gordon Oyer, Cassidy Hall Notes from a contemplative: Thomas Merton on the art of writing as resistance and protest.” which, after some recounting of the last decade of Merton’s life went into how Merton’s contemplative life and writing were employed as the spiritual roots of protest.

My Karl Persson, David Russell Mosley, Kevin M. Johnson, Jessica Mesman Griffithfinal panel session, “Rendering the world strange: Folk piety and imagination,” was, I think, my favorite, perhaps because everyone was a little punchy as the conference wound to its conclusion. 

Jessica Mesman Griffith, after stating that she was not actually a witch (a reference to the description of the panel from the conference booklet), talked about how her upbringing in Louisiana with its folk religion incorporating faith healers and the occult helped shape her worldview.

Kevin Johnson talked about how in the early days of Catholicism, Catholicism, was practice, what you did at home, but both the protestants and the Catholics were affected by the reformation and belief became about ideas instead of praxis and discussed the distinction between encounter (“we”) and experience (“I”).

The evening’sTim Powers final keynote was Tim Powers who gave a wonderfully humorous talk before sitting down for a discussion about science fiction and fantasy with Jonathan Ryan and Br Guy Consolmagno.

Guy Consolmagno, Jonathan Ryan, Tim Powers

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Trying to say God—Friday afternoon and evening

After lunch, I heardValerie Sayers Valerie Sayers talking about the genesis of her novel, The Powers, talking about the use of photographs, not only in the research for the book but in the final novel itself.

When asked about her timeline for her books, she said that she spends more time on them now, but when she first started out she had a two year timeline: the first year was dedicated to anxiety, research and procrastination; the second year was write write write.

The second session of the afternoon was “The future of Catholic literature in a secular age.” 
Dave Griffiths, Randy Boyagoda, Joshua Hren, Kaya Oakes, Lisa Ampleman

This is, along with a similarly titled talk tomorrow morning, to me the centerpiece of the conference.

I did find myself wishing that there had been a working definition of “Catholic literature” offered. Back in the ‘90s, I attended a talk by a Fordham University Jesuit at the New York Catholic Worker on Catholic literature where he defined it as literature which deals specifically with some point of Catholic doctrine and he considered a fair amount of what was considered in the popular imagination as Catholic literature as being instead just supplied with “Catholic furniture.”

There were some interesting observations made. Kaya Oakes’s “Pope Francis keeps telling us to take our faith to the margins. Why don’t we take our literature there too?” Randy Boyagoda’s observation that Roman Catholic (as opposed to merely Catholic) carries with it the implication of a mixture of sacred and secular; and later his suggestion that maybe we need to direct young Catholic serious about literature into internships in publishing/agenting so that they might be in a position to start influencing the direction of literature down the line.

Asked for their suggestions as to who represents the future of Catholic literature now, they offered the following:

  • Lisa Ampleman: Natalie Díaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec.
  • Kaya Oakes: Rebecca Brown, American Romances.
  • Joshua Hren: Glenn Arberry, Bearings and Distances
    Lee Oser, The Oracles Fell Silent
  • Randy Boyagoda: Elena Ferrante, Neapolitan Quartet.

After a wine andJessica Messman Griffith, Jonathan Ryan hors d’oeuvres reception, we had the launch from Loyola University Press of Jessica Mesman Griffith’s and Jonathan Ryan’s Strange Journey from which both Ryan and Griffith read excerpts.

This was followed byHeather King Heather King speaking and then a concert of sacred music from the Notre Dame Vocale and then after a bit of wandering to find a suitable venue, the open mic night which ran past midnight.

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Trying to Say God—Friday morning

The morning Randy Boyagoda egan with Randy Boyagoda’s talk, “Trying to say God without sounding like Marilynne Robinson.” Boyagoda’s thesis was that the first and primary purpose of literature i to increase charity and towards that end he did a dive into a novel by Mary McCarthy, The Group and a story by David Constantin, “The Loss.” This was followed by a reading from his upcoming novel, Original Prin, which sadly is to be published by a small Canadian publisher which means that it will be a challenge for me to get a hold of a copy when it comes out in the fall of 2018 (although I suppose it will be for sale when TTSG19 takes place in Toronto). One of my favorite moments from the reading was when Boyagoda read a line from his novel, “Anglicans are bashing you on Good Friday” and followed it with the comment, “That’s probable the best line I’ve written in my life.”

My second talk of the morning was Paula Huston’s “Lectio Divina: How an ancient monastic practice can Paula Hustonrevitalize literature.”

Huston proposed as a problem the idea that we are losing our ability to read deeply and well, citing as causes the internet, TV & movies and self-referntial reading, i.e., the idea that reading exists to make a personal connection with the material and being quick to dismiss work that seems unrelatable on the surface (I’m a bit ashamed to realize how much of myself I see in this latter category, although I think I’m getting better).

Her cure: simplify, practice solitude and silence and develop focus, this last being where the lectio divina comes into play. She proposes as a mode for reading to eliminate distractions, avoid making personal demands on the text, develop the ability to listen and proceed with anticipation. She also described how she applied the principles of the lectio to her writing practice where she would write blog posts inspired by photographs of nature. In this practice her guidelines were to confine herself to a tight framework, don’t think up a topic ahead of time, look at photos until one begins to “speak,” give the work total attention and don’t stop until she gets a surprise. 

The final talk of the morning was my first proper panel, with John Farrell, Rebecca Bratten Weiss and Jonathan Ryan on “Finding the sacred in the profane: The role of vulgarity in religious art.”

John Farrell, Rebecca Bratten Weiss, Jonathan Ryan

This was structured the way that I wish more panels were, as more of an onstage conversation than as a series of independent talks, although it felt like they might have benefitted from each member of the panel having his or her own mic since the passing of the microphone took away from some of the potential for spontaneity in the conversation. The discussion was wide ranging from Hieronymous Bosch to Thirteen Reasons Why. Jonathan Ryan pointed out that there are a number of “not suitable for church” passages in the Bible itself in defense of vulgarity and the essential earthiness of the incarnational reality of Jesus.

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Opening day of the Trying to Say God conference

After a two hour trip on the South Shore Railroad (“The most uncomfortable seats on rails”™), I ended up at the South Bend Airport (“both taxis in South Bend are already here”™) and made my way to A selection of books from presenters at the Notre Dame bookstore otre Dame University for the “Trying to Say God” conference. This is a conference whose animating spirit is “revitalizing Catholic literature.” As a Catholic writer who has some works that could reasonably be termed “Catholic literature” this is something of interest to me and since the conference was relatively inexpensive ($75), I decided to go and see what they had to say.

The conference was apparently begun out of some envy at the fact that the evangelicalsJonathan Ryan (L), Ken Garcia (R) have been beating the Catholics at the literary festival thing for quite some time now. This is meant to be the first in a biennial series of conferences with the conference to return in 2019 in Toronto.

The opening talk came from Bishop Daniel Flores who spoke on the role of artists in the church and was one of those rare statements by a bishop that referenced both Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings.

Bishop Flores later presided over the conference mass at the Basilica of the IMG 2207Sacred Heart which aside from its beautiful architecture also had a heated holy water font, something I’d never encountered before. I can see that being really nice for baptisms.

The eveMary Karrning keynote was Mary Karr who appeared via teleconference thanks to a back injury. Despite being in so much pain she couldn’t walk, she was still an engaging speaker (plus we got a peek at her office complete with cross and bust of Beethoven).

She told those gathered to read stuff by great authors who’ve written about God, giving as examples, Rumi, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy Day, C. S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner. “The secret to writing about God is the same as the secret to finding God—reaching those broken parts within ourselves.”

Karr went on to say that she prays before she writes, “just give me one good sentence,” and revealed a bit of advice she was given, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” which she hates because now she has to ask it of herself all the time.

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