Festival Circles

The 2020 Festival of Faith & Writing will once again include Festival Circles, small groups that meet two times during the Festival (times determined by the Festival Planning Committee) to discuss a topic of common interest. Each circle is composed of no more than 20 attendees and is led by a Festival participant. Facilitators whose groups draw at least 10 attendees will be eligible for a complimentary registration, but are responsible for their own travel, lodging, and meals. 

Proposals for Festival Circles are now closed, and no late submissions will be accepted. The committee has begun the review process, and everyone who submitted a proposal will be notified of the committee's decision by February 7, 2020. Applicants who are planning to attend Festival regardless of their role as a Circle Leader should still register and pay in order to ensure a ticket to Festival, and their fees will be refunded if their proposal is selected and the group reaches minimum capacity.

Festival Circles are small groups of 12–15 people that meet two times during the Festival to discuss a topic of common interest. The circles run from 6–7 pm on Thursday and 12:45–1:45 pm on Saturday. Space is limited in each Festival Circle and pre-registration is encouraged and now open. The slate of 2018 Festival Circles is listed below. Note: Festival Circle participants are highly encouraged to to pre-purchase a boxed meal and bring it with them to their Festival Circle, though limited grab-and-go meals will also be available on campus.

2018 Festival Circles


Raising children and raising words are equally important vocations—but how do we balance the two? How do the two identities feed one another and make us deeper, stronger people? In this circle, we'll converse about the relationship between writing and parenting, and how to do both at the expense of neither.

Ashley Abramson is a hybrid stay-at-home mom/writer in Minneapolis who writes for clients and online publications between kids’ naps. Kate Watson is also a writer/mom and together with Ashley leads writers in conversation about freelancing in a Slack channel dedicated to the topic. Collectively, they’ve written for publications including Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, The Curator, Paste, Relevant, and Refinery29.


Partisanship in both churches and the public square has eroded the language we need in order discern, plan, heal, and reflect together. Writers can help: it is our work to keep unpacking, defining, retrieving root meanings, and recontextualizing words in ways that restore their usability as instruments of clarity and compassion. It's timelyeven urgentto work together on strategies of word stewardship that help preserve common ground in public discourse. We can all be helped in that effort by hearing from thoughtful wordsmiths how particularly “loaded” words are heard and felt, and how each of us finds ways to use or avoid words that have been claimed in the service of very particular agendas. This circle will focus on specific words, many of them quite ordinary “justice,” “rights,” “biblical,” “corporate,” “family,” that have become “loaded,” in recent public discourse.

Marilyn McEntyre has written fifteen books, including Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Her most recent books are Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice and Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Minds and Open Our Hearts.


In his book
Reading for Preaching, Neal Plantinga makes the case for preachers to engage in “a program of general reading” in order to glean illustrations, enrich language use, develop empathy, and gain wisdom. The Festival is the perfect event for encouraging such reading, and in this circle we’ll think together about both how reading enriches our particular vocation of writing sermons and what we’re learning at the Festival. This circle is open to active and retired preachers and seminarians.

Rebecca Jordan Heys is the pastor of Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Many of us are looking to write memories—either in the form of literary memoir or simply to record family history. This circle will help writers isolate or freeze-frame a moment and then distill it onto paper in small, bite-size pieces.

Jane Hertenstein is the author of close to 80 published stories, a combination of fiction, creative nonfiction, and blurred genre both micro and macro. She has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, and Frostwriting. She blogs at Memoirous.


Reproductive loss and grief present unique challenges: once you get on the “wrong” side of the narrative, happy stories of birth and babies can seem relentless and ever-present. This type of loss also presents unique challenges to writers: how do you craft your story without letting the event itself overshadow your telling of it? How do you tell your story to a culture that would rather not hear how many things can go wrong with a pregnancy? How do you tell your story so that people want to read it, rather than pass over it because it’s too “sad”? This circle will be co-facilitated by a poet and an essayist, so that we can explore the ways that different genres can tell different types of stories, as well accomplish the crucial work of telling stories that need to be told.

Jessica Baldanzi is an associate professor of English at Goshen College where she teaches creative writing with a focus on memoir, comics, and graphic novels, as well as American literature, critical theory, gender studies, and composition. She’s published and performed both traditional and more experimental essays about the stillbirth of her son Christopher. Susanna Childress is the author of two books of poetry, and also writes fiction and creative nonfiction. She is also one-half of the band Ordinary Neighbors, whose full-length album is based on her writing. She lives and teaches in Holland, MI.


If resonant writing stems from a rich inner life, how can writers cultivate and protect this in our digital, constant-content culture? This circle will explore how writers can edit their input sources to enrich their creative life, pilot through the tensions of growing your platform while growing your craft, and practice soul care in a screen culture. Writers deeply feel the tensions of craft vs. platform, and the pressures of “keeping up” in the digital content stream which conversely leads to creative burn-out. This circle will provide opportunity to compare notes, swap ideas and practices, and encourage writers who want to produce soulful work with staying power.

Stephanie Smith is an acquisitions editor at Zondervan, seminarian at Western Theological Seminary, and aficionado of lipstick, liturgy, and em-dashes. You can connect with her and join her email newsletter for writers at www.slantletter.com.


Writing memoir can be a daunting, soul-transforming task. For the Christian writer, the work of digging into one’s past, filtering through faded and vivid memories, choosing to sit in both heartache and joy, deciding which stories merit inclusion—each of these steps requires grit, grace, and wisdom from above. To subject one’s story to the critical eyes of an editor and to humble oneself enough to accept change is like burning down the forest to promote new growth. This circle will discuss the discipline of slowing down to see God at work, and what it looks like to write into our doubts and step away with more faith.

Kate Motaung is the author of A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging. She has had more than 100 articles published in over 20 publications, and enjoys hosting Five Minute Friday, an online Christian writing community.


Once you’ve completed an apprenticeship you become a plumber, once you pass the bar exam you are a lawyer, but how do you become a poet? Getting an MFA is an obvious route, but it doesn't guarantee the destination; many of today's best poets did not complete a graduate degree. This circle will discuss what success as a poet looks like, the various paths to get there, and the pros and cons of different routes.

D.S. Martin is poet-in-residence at McMaster Divinity College, the series editor for the Poiema Poetry Series from Cascade Books, and the editor of two recent poetry anthologies—The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse. His newest poetry collection is & (ampersand).


This circle will facilitate discussion among middle and high school teachers attending the Festival of Faith & Writing who also are also themselves creative writers. Reflection will center around our own growth as writers, alongside our development as writing instructors. The goal is to connect the experiences of secondary English teachers attending the festival, and to deepen the connections between growing and working as writers and as teachers of writing.

Mary Juzwik is a scholar and writer working in the departments of teacher education and English at Michigan State University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in writing, literature, and English Education.


Led by two women with PhDs who have traded the classroom for writing general market books, this circle will help writers engage their work as whole people—both heart and mind. This circle will explore how writers can act as compassionate critics (regardless of their degree); techniques that allow writers to engage critically as well as graciously, including ways to “warm up” writing; and how to use research well in your writing.

Ashley Hales is a pastor’s wife, mom to four, and the author of the forthcoming book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs. Christie Purifoy traded her classroom for a Pennsylvania farmhouse, and is mother to four; she’s authored Roots & Sky and the forthcoming Placemakers.


This circle is for misfits: fantasists drawn to crime fiction, novel writing musicians, and other serious weirdos who face the challenge of trying to write the wacky bits of their own offbeat lives, including writers of faith whose work is too religious for secular readers and too the secular for religious readers. Writers who bend (or seek to transcend) genres often face two main questions:  How can I describe this story? And who will publish and read it? This circle will provide a space for writers working on hard-to-classify, genre-bending fiction space to explore answers to these questions with like-minded writers. We’ll also work on concise and compelling pitches, discuss comparable works, and reflect on insights and challenges raised in other Festival sessions.

Samuel Martin is the author of the novel A Blessed Snarl, nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the story collection This Ramshackle Tabernacle, and other work featured in Image, Relief, and The Belmont Review. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern College. Luke Hawley is the author of The Northwoods Hymnal, which won the Nebraska Book Award. He’s also a singer-songwriter and front-man for the Feedback-Folk band The Ruralists. He teaches creative writing at Dordt College.


As writers, how do we choose our subject matter? How do we find a life-giving project? How do we continue to choose that project, day by day, even as challenges and demands confront us and our work? Together, we will explore methods for claiming and maintaining a creative focus, as well as techniques for dealing with change, should a work-in-progress need to evolve.

Karen Schreck is the author of the historical novels Broken Ground and Sing for Me, as well as two novels for young adults and a book for children. Her short stories, essays, and interviews have been published in various journals, including Consequence, Hypertext, Belt, The Rumpus, and Image, and have received various awards, including a Pushcart Prize.


In this circle group, we will discuss slow writing—what it is, where we see it, and the role it plays in our current cultural moment. Using thoughts gleaned from the Festival's speakers and sessions, we will explore what might emerge if we approach the craft of writing with an insistent slowness. Annie Dillard wrote, “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.” Slow writing is certainly not the only act of resistance to the onslaught of words we give and receive, but it marks a good place to start.

Elizabeth Dark is the associate director of programs at the Kenyon Review. Her essays have been published in journals including Ruminate, Curator, Blue Bear Review, and Riverteeth.