On October 17, 2017, my teacher, my mentor, and my friend, Doug Thayer, passed away. In the area of Mormon literature—literature by, for, and about Mormons—Doug was a big deal. Mormon literary critics call him the “Mormon Hemingway” for his spare style of declarative sentences building the story period by period, as well as his interest in the natural world around him and a Mormon’s place in it. He was a master of the coming-of-age story. One of his main themes was that of innocence being cast out into the world and of necessity facing the realities of everyday existence. Many times, a young man who had grown up in the sheltered life of Utah Valley, and who was thus rather innocent and naive, would be forced to confront the evil, pain, and suffering of the World for the first time, and would have to learn to deal with it with what faith and light he had. If you have ever wondered what Mormon Literature has to offer, then Doug’s work is among the best.
I met Doug for the first time as a creative writing student back in the early 90s at BYU. Taking the creation of fiction seriously, he had settled opinions about what it was supposed to be. At the time, I was enamored of James Joyce’s fiction and his verbal gymnastics, as well as that of the postmodernists, and of one in particular who made an art of obscurity, but Doug would have none of it. He believed that a fictional work should have all the traditional elements of character, conflict, plot, setting, point of view, theme, and so forth, in some degree or another that made the story “interesting” and “work.” He chided me for focusing too much on “using big words,” and taught me that the words you use should feel natural, not stilted. I look back at my work at the time and cringe. I can only think that when Doug read it, he must have sighed, rolled his eyes heavenward, and prayed for patience. (He had a wonderfully wry sense of humor.)
For all the time I knew him, his method of critiquing a draft was to scribble questions or comments in the margin. The annotations were brief and in some cases almost indecipherable, but their intent was to spur his students toward self-reliance as writers, to think like writers. He would then print out a half-sheet of paper with his remarks about the draft. What I appreciated most, although tough to swallow at times, was his honesty. If a story wasn’t working, he told you. But he didn’t just sweep you aside either. He would work with you to help you find out what you were trying to say, which is really what going through draft after draft is all about. He would also give suggestions. He never made me feel like I lacked potential.
Upon my graduation, life happened, and I lost touch with Doug for over a decade. It was in the last year that the old JKHB was the Humanities building when I met him again. I was teaching a Hmong class for return missionaries at BYU. I was also becoming attracted to Mormon literature again. So I hovered around the hallways of the JKHB hoping that I would run into Doug. (I kept missing the times he was in the office.) I wanted him to look at my fiction and give me some guidance. I had no idea whether he would remember me, or whether he would even have to time to help me. Even though I hadn’t had a negative experience with him as a student, for some reason, I was intimidated by him and very nervous about approaching him again after so long.
One fateful day, I met him in the skyway bridge connecting the two buildings that made up the JKHB. I passed him without saying anything, then turning, I mustered up the courage to call out, “Professor Thayer.” He looked back and we struck up a conversation. It turned out that he did remember me, and what ensued was a friendship with a mentor who would help me occasionally with my writing over the next decade. He was very gracious to encourage me and to be patient with my drafts. He even shared with me how he worked too. And just like when I was taking his class long ago, he would mark my drafts up with scribbles in the margins and then staple that half-page of typewritten critique to the front of the story.
Doug taught me that writing is hard work. He often said that most of his students lack the discipline that makes a successful writer. He taught me that Mormon life and ideas do have enough substance to supply a rich fiction. He believe in that. He called it “serious Mormon fiction,” and even wrote an essay about what he meant by that for the AML once. He acknowledged that most of his students went on to pursue careers in Science Fiction or Fantasy—if they pursued a career in fiction at all—but he believed in the possibility of talking about Mormon life as it is lived. He understood the appeal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, even Hyperrealism, but for him, most believing Mormons live without apparent objective evidence of the supernatural directly intervening in their lives. Most Mormons are required to have faith without seeing visions or other manifestations that validate their faith. He also taught me the importance of learning the craft of writing. He said that for a story to work, it had to be “interesting.” And one of the things that made it interesting for him was excellence in execution.
But perhaps one of his greatest lessons on writing for me was when he shared why he wrote. He told me that early on as he explored what he wanted to do with his life, he had a strong feeling that he wanted to write. He needed to write. He said that if he didn’t write, then he would fail to fulfill a task that God wanted him to do. He would be wasting a talent. I am grateful he didn’t keep his talent to himself, but magnified it exponentially.
Writing aside, in our talks over lunch and in his fiction, Doug taught me the value of work, hard work. A father myself, he inspired me to find ways to get my children to work and appreciate doing a task well. He taught me about parenting, and inspired me to be a little more patient and to lose my temper a little less when dealing with my children. And he taught me about faith. Around the time I rekindled our connection, I was full of questions and struggling a bit with my faith. Over the decade or so that I got to know him better, I opened up to him. What was so wonderful is that he listened. He didn’t judge. He didn’t dismiss my concerns. He didn’t quote scripture. He listened, understood, and then through his example and kind encouragement, he taught me the value of holding on, exercising belief, and enduring. Staying. I am grateful for that.
I sincerely mourn Doug’s passing. I will miss him. Among the many other rewards he will receive for his exceptional life, I want to believe that he has also taken his place now among the Muses who inspire Mormon fiction. Let us who are writers stand on his shoulders and do what we can to ensure that his legacy will endure eternally.
Thank you, Doug. Auf wiedersehen.
Michael Andrew Ellis writes literary fiction at the confluence of Mormonism, Hmong culture, and the human condition.