The Voice: Spring 2003
The Writer In and From Community: The English department hosts a conference for writers, readers, teachers, and students
By: Andrew De Jong
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 didnt talk about.
I wrote a poem about my grandmother because she had been unnamedshe didnt
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
In the second day of the conference Dordts 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 communitya community of Dutch
Reformed folks in Northwest Iowaand also helped to explain why it is that
a writer writes about his or her community.
Schaaps essay told the story of his mother-in-law, who was crowned Tulip Queen
in Orange City in the late 40s.
I wasnt 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 cant help it, using a quote from fiction
writer Flannery OConnor as an example: We can choose what we write, but
we cant 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 surveys called Who do you think you are? he said. Students often
find that answering that question means answering another questionWhat community are you a
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 familys 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 Iowas rural community. His latest book is The Boys House: New and
A community isnt a comfortable place to be if youre doing something that
comments on other peoples 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.
Carol Van Klompenburg, a 1970 graduate of Dordt, led a workshop called The
Ins and Outs of PublicationFinding 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 wasnt just a break from classroom
timeit 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) Zuidemas 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.
Its 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 Leahs question, What version of reality
are you going to argue for in your teaching?
Cara (Miedema, 99) DeHaan