#46: Season 2 Review: Stories As Service

Season 2 Review: Stories As Service, October 5, 2020

Episode 46 of Rewrite Radio features a collection of excerpts from our second season of the podcast, curated and edited by CCFW media producer Jon Brown and program coordinator Natalie Rowland. Join us as we journey through past Festival sessions in an exploration of stories as service.





CCFW Team: [0:00:02] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.

Natalie Rowland: [0:00:31] Hello. I'm Natalie Rowland, Program Coordinator at the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing. And, since we're in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're recording this episode of Rewrite Radio on my porch. So that means that in the audience today, you're probably going to hear some cicadas, some birds. We are in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, so you'll probably hear a car or two, maybe some dogs barking. But pandemic limitations aside, we're glad you're here. Today, we're looking at a theme that came through this past season of the podcast, and that theme is stories as service.

[theme music]


Gene Luen Yang: [00:01:34] Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Artists must be sacrificed to their art. Like bees, they must put their lives into the sting that they give.” Is it okay for you to sacrifice your life to your art when you have people who are dependent on you for their own lives?

Richard Rodriguez: [00:01:55] My greatest disappointment in this digital age, and the reason I probably would not have become a writer if I were now 20 years old, is because we live in an age of more, and more is filled with chatter and messaging and social organizations based upon fictions. Digital technology, I think, has created this immediate connection to anybody in the world, but more and more we have nothing to say to each other.

Natalie Rowland: [00:02:24] Festival speakers Gene Luen Yang and Richard Rodriguez voice hesitations that many of us have. Is art selfish? Can storytellers serve more than themselves? Writers, artists, and creators are plagued by questions of selfishness and emptiness. In this episode, we want to also explore the inverse. We're focused on stories as service and art as service, as we navigate words from past Festival of Faith and Writing speakers. 

Let's begin with some poets. This first voice is Nick Samaras followed by Li-Young Lee speaking at the 2004 Festival of Faith and Writing.

Nick Samaras: [00:03:09] What is our motive for expressing ourselves? What is our motive for writing something? Isn’t ego, isn't writing wrapped up in motivation? So in a sense an ego can be a good thing if you’re using the right motive and it could be a negative thing if you are writing or making a choice based upon your self needs or needs of the community. So that’s what I’m saying: it’s, how do you know whether it’s good or bad? I would say that we investigate our motivation.

Li-Young Lee: [00:03:46] I think it’s complicated though, Nick, because part of it for me, the process of writing, a lot of it is giving up motivation, you know, so that’s a complicated issue for me. And the issue of community is complicated for me too, because my sense is that writing poems is a kind of triaxial condition, you know. There’s the poet, then there’s their demon, and there’s the audience, the community or whatever. And part of the service of poetry is to enact that demonization so that the audience or the community gets to witness a fuller definition of the human. 

Natalie: [00:04:32] Poet Marie Howe: Festival 2018.

Marie Howe: [00:04:38] To be heroic is not the job of the poet...constantly, to implicate ourselves so that the process of having a poem come through you, implicating yourself, refusing to be the exception or heroic in any way. But to be vulnerable, to be the voice of vulnerability I think is a great service to the world. 

Natalie: [00:05:03] Nate Marshall followed by Kwame Alexander at Festival 2018.

Nate Marshall: [00:05:08] Alright, I’ll read this. This poem is called “Finna”. Finna is my favorite word and I’m finna read you this poem:

[Audience laughs]

So this one time I was finna say finna in a academic context and a voice in my head said, “Shouldn’t you be worried about using a word that ain’t a word? And I was like...word.” 

[Audience laughs]

And for a long time that was how I let my life happen. I let my mind tell me a million nos that the world had implanted in me before I even formed questions. I let my power be dulled by mah fear of fitting. But I [pause] remember a million finnas I avoided to get here. Like the day them dudes jumped me off the bus and I was finna get stomped out like a loose square. Or [pause] the day they got to shooting at the park, and I was finna catch one like an alleyoop. Or, [pause] the day my grandma died and my grades dropped and I was finna not finish high school, except I had a praying momma and good teachers and poems to write. I’m thankful for all these finnas that never were, and when I remind myself of who I’ve always been, I remember why my finna is so necessary. 

Finna [pauses] comes from the southern phrase, “fixing to.” Like I come from my southern grandmothers. And finna is this word that reminds me about everything next, even when I’ve been a broken boy, I know I'm fixing to get fixed. I’m finna be better. Every dream I have is a finna away from achievement. Each new love I uncover is a finna I unfold. Every challenge I choose to meet and not let defeat me is a finna I fight for. My hope is like my language is like my people. It’s black and it's brown and it’s alive and it’s laughing and it’s growing, and it’s alive. And it’s learning and it’s alive, and it’s fighting, and it’s alive, and it’s finna [pause] take on this wide world with a whole slang for optimism.


Kwame Alexander: [00:07:38] So the deal is with that poem, is that is a clear [pauses] representation of why poetry works and why it matters. You’re talking about maybe two hundred, three hundred words and you get a feeling for who this guy is, and what he’s made of and where he’s come from. But you also have a connection that you're able to make maybe through one of those words, or one of those scenes or one of the lines. And that’s what brings us all together, it’s what makes us more human because it connects us. Whether you agree with someone and their politics and who they are, you feel something, and you can’t get a better way to become more human without feeling something. So kudos to you on that poem. 


Natalie: [00:08:42] So after listening to these speakers, what do you think? Can art be an act of ego? When was the last time writing made you feel vulnerable? And, how do you ensure that your story, or your poem, or your painting, shows someone how to be human?

Okay, if you need to rewind, you're not alone. Tap the 15-second rewind button on your phone, and give all of that another listen. If you're ready to keep moving, let's continue with more from Gene Luen Yang session. This time looking at the idea of how stories serve us in another way—in the tradition of remembering.


Gene: [00:09:32] Even if we are trying to express something new, even if we're trying to be creative, we have to remember the most radical of our ideas are still built on top of stories that have been told by communities that preceded us. We are still part of a tradition. And if we're lucky, the stories that we tell now will be used as fodder for future stories told by future communities.

Natalie: [00:10:00]  On that same notion of the stories that precede us, this is novelist Jacqueline Woodson at the 2004 Festival.

Jacqueline Woodson: [00:10:10]  Somewhere between my tenth and fifteenth year my life, the life of an African-American girl from Brooklyn in South Carolina, became legitimized. 

Legitimacy, that's what literature brought to me. A sense of myself and the bigger world as seen through the eyes of others like me. Myself and the world, alive and moving through it. And most of all mattering. Jacqueline as Candy, a way of saying, “I am, I matter, see me.” And often I wonder what would have happened if I had not discovered these authors. This afternoon I wonder if I'd be standing here. Maybe I would, maybe I would have believed the teachers who told me I had a gift. Maybe I would have learned the things I learned from black writers somewhere else. Maybe I would have found the courage to try to get a book published, but I don't think so. I think so much of turning my silence into action and that action into language has been because of the African-American writers who came before me, because Lorde said my silence won't protect me, because Baldwin wrote If Beale Street Could Talk, and Guy wrote Ruby and The Friends and Edith Jackson, because Hamilton wrote Zeely, because these writers through their words said, “Go tell your stories, too, they matter.”

And coming from the history I come from, of being an activist and a person committed to change, this desire to change—or more than to change—to offer the reader a glimpse of the world through a differently-angled gaze has led me to write the books I've written.

Natalie: And here's author Madeleine L'Engle speaking at Festival 1996:

Madeleine L'Engle: [00:11:42] Books come out of what is happening to us. No matter how wildly they seem to be fiction—A Wrinkle in Time came out of my questions about the universe which the theologians were not answering. Story is much better.


Natalie: At Festival 2018, Dorothy Fortenberry also talked about how history and the stories of real people were key in her research as she wrote the screenplay for the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.

Dorothy Fortenberry: [00:12:20]  So I got to talk to the head of the human rights division at Human Rights Watch and just be like, “Tell me the worst things people are doing to women right now.” And that was not a fun phone call, but it was really useful and I came away with a lot of information that I was able to bring back to the room and share with the writers. 

And I think looking at history and looking at reality are the best tools we have even if we're doing imaginative and speculative work to make sure that our work is real and messy and human. Something I think about all the time is the places that Margaret Atwood was [in] when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale: half of it was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and half of it was in Berlin.

And I think you can read the book and you can see that. Absorbing the world around you absorbing the histories of the places that you're in, really paying attention. I think it comes through and I think then actually doing something that's so based in reality has the experience by the viewer of then feeling new. 

It feels like it's from out of the blue; it feels like it's from nowhere. It feels not like anything else and actually it's just because we tried to take the time and do the research and we weren't just going on like, “Oh, what'd they do to that woman in that other movie? That was messed up. Maybe we could do that.” 


Natalie: Twenty years before Fortenberry shared these words in her session, Elie Wiesel spoke at the 1998 Festival of Faith and Writing. He, too, emphasized the way a writer can serve their readers by remembering and remembering well.

Elie Wiesel: [00:14:08] You, in order to write, must remember. Not only remember what happened to you, but what happened to others who are your contemporaries or your peers, or even those who lived centuries and centuries before you. The other word for it is simply the envelopment of memory. Memory must be inclusive rather than exclusive. But it's not easy.

The envelopment of memory. Memory must be inclusive rather than exclusive. But it's not easy.

Natalie: Gene Luen Yang Festival 2014:

Gene: [00:14:58] Think of art as an act of service. Now, human beings are a religious species. And I think one way we can think of religion is as a collection of stories that bind a community together. Now, as a religious person myself, I think religion is more than that, but it certainly isn't less. Religion is not less than stories.

Now it makes sense to me why story is so important to us. Story actually gives us a map. Art in general gives us a map so that we can figure out who we are and where we fit in the world. Art and story tell us how to organize our lives. In fact, that's why I think my parents told my brother and me stories. That's why they raised us within a faith tradition. 

They wanted to unconsciously, maybe, or maybe consciously, but they wanted to equip us with these stories that we could use to find our place in the world. To navigate through life and organize ourselves.

Given this, having kids is not a reason to stop making art. It's not a reason to stop telling stories. It is actually a reason to start because just like we did the next generation is going to need those maps. They're going to need some help to find their way through this world. They're going to need some help to figure out who they are.

Pope John Paul II—towards the end of his papacy—wrote a letter to artists, where he actually examined the relationship between faith and art and society. And in this letter he had this to say. He said, “There is, therefore, an ethic. Even a spirituality of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and the renewal of a people. So art is a service that renews a people.”

Art is a service. [pause] That renews a people.

Natalie: This quote, “Art is a service that renews a people,” was really the starting point for this entire episode.

Gene: Art is a service that renews a people.

Natalie: We want to share a brief story that exemplifies this renewal. We hope it inspires you as you think about how your own art might serve others.


Natalie: In Elie Wiesel's talk in 1998, he told a story—a true story—about the writer Boris Pasternak. Boris Pasternak was a Russian poet, novelist, and translator. Among a lot of other projects, he wrote the novel Doctor Zhivago. In this next clip, Wiesel mentions that Pasternak wrote for the Samizdat. The Samizdat was clandestine, dissident literature and generally banned by the state. So when Wiesel tells this story, keep in mind that Pasternak’s writing had been circulating in secret.


Elie Wiesel: [00:18:12] Pasternak was a great translator, that's how he made his living, but he also wrote poetry, but in Samizdat, clandestinely. And the story is a true story again, that once he had a public reading and he read from the stage his own poetry. And at one point he had to blink. He forgot a line. At which point, three thousand people whispered the line. 


Natalie: Three thousand people whispering a line back to him. A line that was written and published in secret. A line that had quietly reached an audience of people who remembered it better than its writer. This next clip is again journalist Richard Rodriguez from Festival 2010.

Richard: [00:19:09] Observation for young writers in this auditorium: if you are a writer, look to your audience, find your audience, find people who can understand what you're doing because without them you cannot write. Writing does not belong to you. They finish the sentence.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Tis the good reader who makes the good book.” There is a reciprocal relationship between the writer and the reader, and if you don't get what I'm talking about now, I'm not making any sense. You understand. It works both ways. You recreate the book that I've written and when you can't, then the book doesn't exist.


Natalie: We think there is a mutual service happening when artists offer stories. Your story may serve someone else. It might strengthen, refresh, or inspire them, and sharing it might serve you. Maybe that's one service of the audience. We bring the story into existence.

As we close out our episode, we may have unearthed more questions than answers. And there are definitely questions we'd like to leave you with. Are you working on a story, a painting, a film? Is your own life story, or your art, something you can share with another? How? We’ll let Gene Luen Yang have the last word.


Gene: [00:20:54] I would encourage all of us at this Festival and beyond to continue doing what we're doing—to continue making art, to continue telling stories, and to continue to bring a renewal to our people. Thank you very much for this time. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.


Natalie: A very big thank you to all the speakers featured in Season 2. If you'd like to hear more from someone or listen to sessions from past Festivals of Faith and Writing for free, head to our website at CCFW.calvin.edu.


CCFW Team: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.

You can find more information about the Center and its signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and festival.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to Rewrite Radio for more of our over 30 years of Festivals. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more from our archives.