Surprised by Oxford – review

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Surprised by OxfordSurprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In her beautifully written spiritual memoir Surprised by Oxford, Carolyn Weber makes us privy to three romances.

She takes us with her as she falls in love with Oxford—the city and the school.

We experience the ups and downs of her relationship with TDH (tall, dark and handsome) which begins when he patiently answers the many questions of this atheistic Canadian scholarship student. Along the way he poses a few questions of his own.

Finally, we follow “Caro’s” meandering journey toward Jesus, from sneaking into the back of a cathedral to read a pew Bible, to a public baptism in the Thames River.

Weber’s literary background makes this a book rich in quotes and allusions to literature classics like John Donne and George Herbert. But she’s no cultural recluse and so pop culture wisdom, like U2 lyrics, find a place as well.

Her keen intelligence combined with feminist leanings informs and directs the apologetic narrative as she grapples with questions she needs to have answered before she will put her faith in any dogma or deity.

Her authenticity and warm spirit shine through all over the place as she recounts memories of life in her Canadian home and Oxford dorm conversations, pub nights, and outings with fellow students and professors.

I found Surprised by Oxford an altogether enjoyable read and am thrilled that it won the Grace Irwin Prize as the best Canadian Christian book published in 2013.

Surprised by Oxford is part of my own Kindle collection

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Write! Canada 2013 – 2

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In my last post, I talked about Write! Canada, describing the continuing class I took as well as the three workshops I attended. There was more!

Keynotes

We had three Keynotes, with a different speaker for each:

Stained glass windows from Church of St. John Evangelist - Elora, ON

Stained glass windows from Church of St. John Evangelist – Elora, ON

Keynote 1 – singer, songwriter Ali Matthews

Matthews spoke of inspiration. She said:

  • Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. Own it. Own the gift. God will not anoint who you want to be but who you already are.
  • You don’t need to apologize for the gifts you’ve been given, only apologize for not using them.
  • When you humbly and intentionally reach out with your gift, you are glorifying God.
  • Our calling is to be an inspiration, to be life and breath, salt and light.

Keynote 2 –  Carolyn Weber (professor and author of the memoir Surprised by Oxford)  

Here are a few snippets of her wisdom, shared before she read a segment of her writing.

  • There is nothing naive about cultivating an innocent heart.
  • The only real success is faithfulness.
  • Once you’ve heard the gospel, you can never unhear it.
  • Five golden rules for memoir writing:

1. Pay attention to your life. Look at its intricacies. Cultivate discipline about journaling.

2. Treat others as you would want to be treated.

3. Never write from anger or unresolved issues. Write through the deep feelings to the other side but no one ever has to see that draft.

4. Put the first draft into a golden chest. It’s a cathartic draft that takes you to a place of grace about others.

5. With a spiritual memoir, ask for five distinct points of view: two professionals (formal editor, professor, fellow writer etc.) to look at theology, references, actual function of the writing; three personal—including someone from your family for feedback, to ensure that you have written with respect, to corroborate details;  a spouse or close friend;  and an unbelieving friend or spouse to know how the work resounds beyond the faith community.

Keynote 3 – Dennis Hassel (playwright and actor of Dennis Hassel Productions)

Dennis delivered the final keynote–the last event of the conference. He was in fine dramatic form, taking on the persona of various characters and their viewpoints. He said:

  • Art should teach us.
  • There is message and theme in good fiction.
  • Bits from life are quilted into a realistic design, warm and able to keep people in stitches. Live your ordinary life fully and at the same time see it as material.
  • It’s impossible to know what of your experience will become part of your story. What are you breathing in? What literature are you reading?
  • All you have to decide is “What are you going to do with the time that is left you?”
  • It’s easier to talk about prayer than to pray… easier to talk about writing than to write.
  • A writer is not called to successfulness but faithfulness

Friends

Of course the lectures, workshops, and keynotes were only a part of the rich conference experience. A another highlight was meeting friends in the flesh that I have only ever met online. Whoever I talked to, there was an immediate common bond. “What do you write?” was bound to start a stimulating conversation.

"Birds of a Feather" - Sculpture by various artists - Elora On.

“Birds of a Feather” – Sculpture by various artists – Elora ON

I am truly thankful for The Word Guild and the knowledge that there is a network of writers, editors, and publishers across Canada who are Christian. The conference organizers and army of volunteers deserve huge kudos for again putting together a chock-full and worthwhile weekend.

Now to get back to the work of writing (even though it sometimes feels like building castles in the air)!

Aerial shot of earth & clouds.

Scene from my window on the flight home