Bill Vande Kopple, Co-Chair of Calvin’s English Department, began the Wiersma Memorial lecture with a tribute to Stanley Wiersma, a former Calvin professor and poet (Calvinist Farming), followed by an introduction of his colleague, featured speaker and Newberry Award-winning author, Gary D. Schmidt.
After his initial remarks, Schmidt set forth on an appreciation of stories: they offer wisdom, beauty, assurance that we are not alone, proportion, and delight. They teach us our place, help us to be both more human and more humane. They give us more to be human with.
“Anything worth saying is unsayable, and that is why we tell stories.” Kevin Moffett.
He read the Old Testament story of Naaman’s search for a cure to his leprosy, giving special attention to the mediating words of the servants in the account: promises of healing, of knowing, a greeting--encouragement when Naaman resists plunging into the river, taking up the mud. The world is complex, messy. Begin with Naaman’s humble question. (II Kings 5:1-19)
“Man He made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” Robert Bolton, A Man for All Seasons.
Stories are not about the right answers; they are about the right questions. All art, in its deepest purpose, is directive. “Go, throw yourself in the river.” “Can I still worship with the king of Rimmon?” “Go home in peace.”
Stories with quick easy answers often give answers that lie.
Stanley Wiersma poem, “What Is Home?”
“You will never love art well, till you love what she mirrors better. . . .the beginning of all my own right art work in life, depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and the sea.” Ruskin
Don’t bring anger, bitterness, hurt, cynicism, dismissiveness toward the world. Love the world.
“Pay attention” [to the world]. Beuchner.
A writer serves by loving, paying attention, asking questions. Love the craft.
Schmidt illustrated his point about attentiveness by telling Barry Moser’s story of drawing an apple on the classroom board. He asked his students, “What’s on the board?” It took them awhile to get past the generic apple, the more specific MacIntosh; eventually the response he wanted was revealed to be “chalk.”
Love words. Love their ability to make people weep. For the writer, very little is just given. Work little by little with stubborn discipline. Annie Dillard says that dazzling is not enough. Meaning comes when art is in service of an idea.
Schmidt is interested in a number of questions:
How does a kid turn from childhood to adulthood with so little support from culture? Culture often works against it.
How does a kid move to adult affirmations of beliefs, especially within the crucible of loss? Loss brings potential for either withdrawal or growth.
We are all wounded and battered creatures in a wounded and battered world. Many children don’t feel empathy for themselves. When you receive empathy, you are inevitably called upon to give it.
“Anything worth saying is unsayable.”
Schmidt sometimes travels north to work with Ojibwe students at a school in Sioux Ste Marie, where the suicide rate among male adults is above average. He tries to teach them the power of naming. To a student who has suffered deep loss and become withdrawn, he says, “I think you may have stories to tell, and you may have the gifts to tell them.”
In closing, Schmidt urged members of the audience to explore what we may do. Go down to the river. Maybe we will be made whole.
Bill Vande Kopple closed with a Writer’s Prayer. (Coming soon: Acceptable Words: Prayers for the Writer, by Gary Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney.)
Gary Schmidt's published writing includes:
Okay for Now
The Wednesday Wars
In God's Hands
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
Mara's Stories: Glimmers in the Darkness
Ciaran: The Tale of a Saint of Ireland
Straw Into Gold
Pilgrim's Progress (with Barry Moser)
The Blessing of the Lord: Stories from the Old and New Testaments
William Bradford: Plymouth's Faithful Pilgrim
The Sin Eater
The Great Stone Face (with Bill Farnsworth)
The Wonders of Donal O'Donnell (with Loren Long)
Hugh Lofting (Twayne's English Authors Series)
Robert McCloskey (Twayne's United States Authors Series)
Katherine Paterson (Twayne's United States Authors Series)
Robert Lawson (Twayne's United States Authors Series)
The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell: Eighth-Century Britain to the Fifteenth Century
A Passionate Usefulness: The Life and Literary Labors of Hannah Adams
What Came from the Stars (coming this fall)