The Voice: Spring 2003

The Voice

“The Writer In and From Community”: The English department hosts a conference for writers, readers, teachers, and students

By: Andrew De Jong

Jean Janzen's Mennonite background plays prominently in her writing.

Inviting writers to campus is not unusual at Dordt College. In February, however, not one writer, but three came to campus. They participated in a conference sponsored by the English department called “The Writer In and From Community.” The three-day event, which was held from February 6-8, invited the writers to explore the complex relationship of a writer to his or her community through a series of readings and discussions.

“To write poetry is to give new names to familiar things, and we do some of our best naming in community,” said Jean Janzen, a conference guest from Fresno Pacific University, who got the conference off to a good start with a poetry reading. Janzen, whose works include Words for the Silence and Snake in the Parsonage, said that her poems are partially influenced by the Mennonite community in which she grew up.

“Certain things are not talked about in communities,” she said during her reading, which was held during the first evening of the conference. “Writing in community sometimes means breaking the silence.”

One way that Janzen has done this in her own poetry is to write about her grandmother, who had committed suicide. Suicide, Janzen said, is one of the things that the people in her community just didn’t talk about.

“I wrote a poem about my grandmother because she had been unnamed—she didn’t exist because no one talked about her,” she said to an audience of Dordt College students, faculty, and alumni. “Ultimately the responsibility of the writer in community is to tell the truth, preserve and challenge the heritage, and expose the lies.”

In the second day of the conference Dordt’s own James Schaap gave a different take on what it means to write in a commun-ity. He read an essay that told a story about his own community—a community of Dutch Reformed folks in Northwest Iowa—and also helped to explain why it is that a writer writes about his or her community.

Schaap’s essay told the story of his mother-in-law, who was crowned Tulip Queen in Orange City in the late 40s.
James Heynen grew up near Sioux Center and writes about rural Iowa communities.

“I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in the story,” he said, “but I really wanted to write it.” According to Schaap, he writes about a specific community in part because he just can’t help it, using a quote from fiction writer Flannery O’Connor as an example: “We can choose what we write, but we can’t choose what we write well.”

“In the end,” Schaap told the audience, “I could do a lot worse than to tell her story, and mine, and yours.”

Later that day Neil Nakadate, a professor from Iowa State University, helped explore this theme further by reading his writings. In many of his classes, Nakadate helps his students realize the significance of their communities by having them fill out a survey.

“The survey’s called ‘Who do you think you are?’” he said. “Students often find that answering that question means answering another question—‘What community are you a part of?’”

Nakadate has found this question to be important in his own poetry, which draws from his background in the Japanese-American community. One event that has influenced him is the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

“Everyone I knew was shaped by that in one way or another, whether they were willing to admit it or not,” he said. “Writing about it is bearing witness.” He is currently working on a novel that draws on his family’s World War II experiences.

The last guest writer to read his work was Jim Heynen, a Dordt College graduate who now teaches at St. Olaf College. Heynen, although he lives in Minnesota, once called Northwest Iowa home, and writes stories about growing up in Iowa’s rural community. His latest book is The Boys House: New and Selected Stories.

“A community isn’t a comfortable place to be if you’re doing something that comments on other people’s lives,” said Heynen. Although he draws heavily on his community experience in his writing, he says he finds it helpful to get away from the community to do his writing.

But despite the title of the conference, discussions and readings about community made up a small percentage of the planned events. The rest of the time was devoted to giving Dordt College English majors an opportunity to hear career advice from professionals in the field.
Niel Nakadate writes from his place in the Japanese American community.

Carol Van Klompenburg, a 1970 graduate of Dordt, led a workshop called “The Ins and Outs of Publication—Finding an Audience.” A resident of Pella, Iowa, Van Klompenburg owns a writing and graphic arts service called “The Write Place.” Van Klompenburg shared the story of how her writing career has changed over the years, and fielded questions about the business of freelance writing.

A panel of Dordt people led a question and answer session called “What am I going to do with an English Major?” All shared their stories of life after college, and told students how they had come to benefit from their English major in unexpected ways.

The last day of the conference, James Vanden Bosch, a 1968 graduate, led a workshop called “The Journey from English Major to Filmmaker.” Vanden Bosch works with Terra Nova Films, an organization that primarily produces documentaries about growing older. During the workshop, Vanden Bosch showed clips of his documentaries and led a discussion about methods of filmmaking.

Other sectionals focused on the teaching of English, the business of writing, and what grad school is like. Lively and informative roundtables and question and answer sessions with the guest writers happened every day.

Many members of the English department gave their classes the day off to attend conference events, or required their students to attend a certain number of workshops. But these professors point out that this wasn’t just a break from classroom time—it was a valuable opportunity for English majors and students of other disciplines.

According to Mary Dengler, professor of English, “It allowed professors and students to be together as colleagues, discussing books, reading poetry, gaining insights. I found it rewarding at every level. Those opportunities are priceless.”

A response from a conference attendee:

For me, Leah (Schreurs, ’96) Zuidema’s session on teaching writing was the most thought-provoking part of the conference. Using a small-group activity, Leah convinced us that “to teach writing is to argue for a version of reality.”

It’s easy for teachers to be eclectic in our pedagogical choices, she said, but we need to use strategies that fit coherently with our version of reality. This means articulating, from a biblical perspective, the purpose of writing, the role of writer and audience, and the character of knowledge, truth, and language. But it also means conversing with writing teachers at large, to whom God has given valuable insights, too.

We had little time to grapple with these issues during the session. Weeks later, however, I am still challenged by Leah’s question, “What version of reality are you going to argue for in your teaching?”
Cara (Miedema, ’99) DeHaan