Divine Rights of Writers

I’ve been making my difficult and sometimes dreary way through Clyde Forsberg’s ninety-eight-dollar tome Divine Rite of Kings (review arriving shortly), wishing I could see the good. His thesis is generally nasty: Mormonism, like its parent organization the Masons, is racist, sexist, empire-building and xenophobic, and no good can come out of Joseph Smith or his minions. He quotes sources without establishing their ethos — so many it makes my head spin, just taunting me to say this is exhaustively-researched and thoroughly cited — but mostly the book tastes bad, an eight-course meal in a foreign country whose ingredients don’t agree with my stomach and whose spices and oils never smelled right from the start. I’m almost done, and I haven’t found a way to recommend any of it.

Details will come later, in the review. Significantly, some other things have been going on this month that deserve attention. The election – yeah, that. (I hereby vow not to write about the nasty there. You’ve already heard too much.) But another thing going on right now is Nanowrimo.

NOT nasty.

Pretty nice, in fact.

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On Writing, Mom-ing and Critics: An interview with Danette Hansen

What do you write? Tell me about your published fiction, and your current work-in-progress (if you don’t mind.)

CoincidenceI have two historical novels published; one under the title Coincidence. With a strong Christian tone, the past and the present resemble each other in my tender WWII mystery where Annaliese risks her future career in her search for answers. It has a deep family history theme. Here is a quote taken from the story, “It’s the legacy our loved ones leave behind that is important, not how many years they actually lived on the earth.” The book is set in the Netherlands where my husband’s grandfather is from which gave it a personal feel as I wrote. Continue Reading →

New Voices: Cynthia Whitney discusses the need for diversity in LDS fiction

When I was asked to blog here on AML, I struggled to decide how I could best contribute to discussions. I landed on the idea of voices: we have a lot of discussion here on AML about the state of Mormon Literature, but (I believe) not enough voices in our community. With this in mind, I will be interviewing a different LDS author each month about the LDS writing communities they belong to. I’ll be asking about their experiences working with LDS publishers, as indie authors, or as writers working toward publication. I’ll also be collecting opinions about what they feel is working well in LDS literature, and what they feel could change for the better.

I am hoping that, in bringing fresh voices to the discussion, we will gain ideas about how to broaden AML’s reach, meet some unmet needs in the LDS writing community, and cultivate more diversity in AML.

To that end, I chose for my first interview Lucinda Whitney, an independent author of LDS romance. Continue Reading →

Moving Culture

At this year’s Association for Mormon Letters conference I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on teaching Mormon literature with Margaret Blair Young, Shelah Miner, and Boyd Petersen. Among the items we discussed at length was the challenge of finding an audience for Mormon literature—particularly among actual living, breathing Latter-day Saints. I don’t remember every point we raised during the discussion, but the idea that has remained with me is that we need to do a better job of moving culture.

Currently, Mormon culture—at least in the United States—is not a great incubator for readers of the kind of Mormon literature I usually write about (i.e. “literary” Mormon literature, “realistic” Mormon literature, “serious” Mormon literature, “fringe” Mormon literature, etc.). Generally, a few Mormons will read what Deseret and Cedar Fort publish, but far fewer will pick up something by Zarahemla and Signature Books. We can debate reasons for why this is the case, but I think it probably comes down to the fact that most Mormons a) don’t have access to these books and b) would probably be put off by their realistic (or surrealistic) portrayals of flawed Mormons anyway.

This is where the idea of “moving culture” comes in. For the Mormon literature audience to grow, we need to be able to move culture physically to the potential reader and move the culture (that is, change it) in a way that helps potential readers better contextualize and appreciate what they see on the page.

Obviously, both types of moving will take monumental effort and probably centuries of dedicated service. In the meantime, here are three things I think we can start doing today:

Be Open

Talk about Mormon literature online. Share your experiences with good works of Mormon literature. Link to free works of Mormon literature online. Don’t shy away from endorsing good Mormon literature because you worry that its content might offend your Mormon friends and family. Lend out your Mormon literature and even (gasp!) make some of it available for free online.

Change the Conversation

Too often, the first thing we talk about when we talk about art and media in the church is “questionable” content: bad words, sex scenes, decapitations, etc. Unfortunately, doing so often distracts from the weightier matters of these works—and establishes critical standards that can prove spiritually harmful if applied to fallible Church leaders, incidents in Church history, and people and situations in general. (If it is unfair to judge people by the cockroach rule, why should we judge media by that standard?) I think doing what we can to shift the conversation from content to context will help move culture to a place more open to varieties of Mormon literature. I also think it will make us a more charitable people.

Embrace the Radical Middle

Cultural movers should not expect change overnight. Indeed, if Mormon history has taught us anything, it is that Mormons take change sluggishly and do not wear extremism well. As we talk about and write Mormon literature, let’s eschew the usual extreme approaches and radically shoot for the center, inviting our extremist friends and neighbors to meet us in the middle. Besides, as several people pointed out during the conference, the Church at present seems interested in moving the culture away from past extremisms, yet it continues to move slowly on this interest because of the apparent reluctance of many members to move with it. Perhaps our current cultural moment needs a new Home Literature that works in tandem with those messages from the Church that encourage a more open-minded, thoughtful, and charitable membership.

Thoughts? What else can be done to move culture?

Mormon LitCrit: From Imitation to Innovation; or, Why Mormon Writers Should Move Out of the Basement

Cultural texts do not exist independent of one another, but in an interdependent relationship we call the tradition. New texts rely on the tradition of older texts, and older texts depend on new texts to keep the tradition vibrant and relevant. The text that leaves no inheritance—or makes no case for its place in one—damns itself to obscurity. We read Hamlet today not because of what it is, but because of what it sustained and made possible. The same is true about watching the television series Lost, the presence of which we now feel whenever we hear the Gilligan’s Isle theme, read Joseph Hilton’s Lost Horizon or Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or watch the latest episode of Once Upon a Time or Revolution. We also catch the scent of it in the most episodic of television shows—past and present—and their refusal to conform to the serial format Lost reinvigorated.  

Closely associated with tradition is imitation. For beginning artists, imitation is a useful way to learn necessary skills while learning the tradition. When I was a senior in high school, for example, my creative writing professor had us write poetry that imitated famous poems like “Dover Beach” and e. e. cummings’ “in just—.” Later, as an art major at Ricks College, I kept a “Masters Journal” of sketches done of in imitation of the Old Masters of the Renaissance. The theory behind these exercises—and that’s precisely what they were: exercises—was that imitation offered some insight into the style and technique of successful artists. Through them I was supposed to find my own artistic sense. Imitation was never meant to be the end of the line.

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Writing and Community Building

For the last several months I have been the editor of my ward’s monthly newsletter. This experience has been interesting in many ways and I wanted to share a few thoughts about it in this setting. First of all, I fully acknowledge that the existence of a ward newsletter is a luxury of being in a large, fairly active, geographically close ward. Although I have come to see many benefits from having a well-written ward newsletter, I still think it should be low on the list of priorities for any church unit. I live in Utah County and our ward boundaries are fairly small. This is one of the only wards I’ve lived in during my lifetime that has teachers come around to each home to collect fast offerings each month, and as part of their duties they distribute the newsletter to each household (I know that they also distribute it to everyone who lives in ward boundaries as well). If printing and distribution of the newsletter were more difficult I’m not sure it would be worth it, but from what I’ve seen thus far it is one of the tools we have available to us to foster better unity among our ward family and in our ward it seems to be working. Continue Reading →

The Mormon Ibsen: A Tribute to Eric Samuelsen

When I discovered that Eric Samuelsen was retiring from BYU as the playwriting professor, I have to admit a little bit of my heart broke. In many ways it may the best decision. From what I understand, Eric’s battle with polymyositis, a degenerative auto-immune disease, has been tough and painful and has limited his freedom to do what he would like to do. So retiring from BYU may have been inevitable. Yet the good he has done there, the good he has done Mormon Letters, the lives he has impacted along the way–I had hoped that he would still be forging the way for Mormon Drama at BYU for many years to come. He is not only one of Mormon Drama’s best representatives and talented pens, but also a man fierce intelligence, warm hearted kindness, and integrity. It is a great loss for BYU not to have him on their active staff anymore. Continue Reading →

How did I get here? An Introduction

If you had asked me about Mormon literature a decade ago, I probably would have said “what’s that?”. My mom had a few books of poetry by Carol Lynn Pearson and I sometimes enjoyed the fiction in the Ensign or New Era, but growing up I was largely unaware of most Mormon cultural baggage. I was raised primarily in Southern California, and my dad has been inactive for most of my life. My mom took us to church every week and we sporadically had scripture study and Family Home Evening, but I don’t remember much emphasis being placed on cultural Mormonism in my home. While other Mormon families were listening to the Osmonds, my parents preferred The Rolling Stones (I was a little dismayed in seminary to learn that some people thought the Stones were evil).

I did grow up in a home filled with books; my dad favors science fiction, thrillers, nonfiction and horror. My mom prefers historical fiction and “classics”. I was an early, voracious, and indiscriminate reader. I went through phases of infatuation with things like Sweet Valley High,The Babysitters Club, and Nancy Drew but by the time I reached high school I mostly read historical fiction and ‘deeper’ (i.e. serious and depressing) authors like Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Thomas Hardy. I consistently cultivated a dislike of fantasy, science fiction, and most contemporary teen fiction. Continue Reading →

From the Writer’s Desk: Be Weird, Mormon Writers!

The presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have been good for Mormonism because they’ve brought Mormons and the Church into the national discussion. It’s been gratifying to see pundits correctly clarifying Church positions while debating evangelical critics. And it’s been good for the public to compare Romney and Huntsman. One is a Mormon who served as a stake president and has been faithful to the Church all his life. The other has not attended church since his youth, but comes from a prominent Mormon family and still calls himself a Mormon. This helps people to see that the Church isn’t a cult in the business of creating single-minded robots.

The Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign also has done a good job at showing diversity among us. (And if you haven’t seen The Colbert Report spoof on this, you should check it out: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/394360/august-10-2011/yaweh-or-no-way—-mormons—god-s-poll-numbers ) We are making strides toward healthily complicating our own image.

Why am I talking about politics in a blog on Mormon creative writing? Because we need a complex view of ourselves if we are to create meaningful Mormon literature.

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The Beauty of (Church) Pageants

by Scott Hales

Last summer my family took a trip to Palmyra to attend the Hill Cumorah Pageant. I had not been to the pageant since 1987–when I was still too young to get much out of it.[1] In fact, there’s not much that I really remember about that first time around. I only have vague memories of my parents waking me up to put me in the station wagon, so I must have fallen asleep (obviously) sometime between Lehi’s Dream and and that scene where Moroni buries the plates. Of course, I hear that the pageant was much longer then than it is now, so my experience with it must have been pretty typical.[2]

My second time around with the pageant was much more successful—and not just because I stayed awake the whole time. We had good seats. The kids behaved. The weather was nice. And no one was kidnapped by rogue priests of King Noah.

No one I knew, at least.[3]

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