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Archive for April, 2009

Much as I enjoyed my first LDStorytellers Writing Conference (too much of which I missed, due to family circumstances) and the Whitney Awards Gala Banquet (made all the more enjoyable by such fine table company as Stephanie Fowers, Crystal Liechty, and fellow finalist, Shannon Guymon), I came away with more questions than answers about Mormon Literature, in general, and my own writing, in particular:

1) Can there be a “Mormon Literature” which is recognized by the national and international market?

I know Mormon Lit has been discussed ad infinitum on blogs and in chat rooms all over the internet but, putting aside for now the appropriate definition, can it be embraced by the big publishing guys in NY the way Jewish Lit is, given its current distribution? And should it be?

Taking into account the 3-fold mission of the Church, I believe it should be. But the way it is currently being published and distributed (for the most part), I don’t see it having a real chance. LDS writers are encouraged to go with LDS publishers (many of the biggest of whom are owned by Deseret Book) and, thus, their work is marketed mostly to LDS bookstores (also, to a large extent, controlled by DB). Only the youth, science fiction, and speculative genres have made any inroads nationally. Those of us who write historical, romance, and general fiction must be content with the insular LDS market. And that market seems to have very little taste for literary fiction, if you judge by what gets placed on the shelves in LDS bookstores (though Angela Hallstrom’s “Bound on Earth” may be making some room there).

Of course, I know better. There are many, many men and women in the Church who, like me, enjoy “literary” fiction… we simply don’t buy it at LDS bookstores. But, if LDS bookstores won’t stock Mormon literary fiction (and they won’t as long as Deseret Book-owned LDS publishers don’t publish it), then does it have a shot at the national market? I’m talking about a good literary novel that throws a truthful, positive light on the Church. I’m not sure, but I’m hoping it does have a chance.

2) What is Mormon Literature?

Is ML made up of stories about Mormons? Or is it stories by Mormons, reflecting their world view as seen through the prism of the Church? Or does true ML deal solely with the restoration of the Church and its legacy? I have no clear answer here.

If it is the first–stories about Mormons, then does it have to be about Utah Mormons? What if it’s a story about a Mormon who grew up far away from Utah, who has little in common with the Utah Mormon experience? Does that make it less marketable in Utah, where most of the LDS bookstores are?

If a Mormon writer is living in “faithful adherence to the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ” (as Elder M. Russell Ballard put it in “Filling the World with Goodness and Truth,” Ensign, July 1996, p. 10), then I believe his/her faith cannot help but be reflected in his/her work. But does that make it “Mormon Literature?”

Must Mormon Literature deal solely with the Restoration of the Church and its Legacy (as implied by Elder Boyd K. Packer in “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord,” Ensign, August 1976, p. 60), or are there other ways to help advance the Kingdom of God (such as inspiring a reader to repent and better perfect him/herself)?

3) What exactly is the purpose of LDS publishing companies? Should there be any changes?

If you read all of the mission statements of those companies owned by Deseret Book (Deseret Book, Covenant Communications, Bookcraft, and Shadow Mountain), there is very little difference with regard to their interests in fiction. They are looking for good, clean, marketable fiction that uplifts and inspires. Parables Publishing seems to be open to work that is a bit more discomfiting (though still inspiring) and Zarahemla Publishing makes no bones about being different and wanting edgier work.

So there does appear to be a range, but that range is deceptive on closer examination. The huge majority of LDS titles published belongs to the imprint of DB or one of its affiliates. And I’ve been given to understand that LDS bookstores won’t stock anything from Zarahemla. I imagine they will stock “Bound on Earth” (published by Parables), as it won a Whitney for Best Novel by a New Author. But Parables only has a handful of other titles.

So long as one company essentially has a monopoly on the kind of Mormon literature published for the LDS market, writers aiming for that market are hobbled in their creativity. I believe it would be better to have a variety of independent publishers geared to the LDS market.

4) Is the LDS market driving LDS publishers, or are they driving the market?

This question is important because, like it or not, since Deseret Book is Church-owned, members of the Church tend to see any of their products as Church-approved… and any books not published by them or their affiliates as “iffy,” at best. Some members might even assume that if a writer’s book wasn’t published by a DB imprint, then it must not have been “moral enough.”

And how do we judge the morality of a book? Again, as I pointed out in a comment on Emily’s blog, Orson Scott Card made a very thoughtful argument for the place of evil in literature. As long as it is depicted for what it is, and not advocated or enacted, then it is necessary and useful for the sake of truthfully reflecting on life.

Brigham Young said, “Upon the stage of theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it…” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church–Brigham Young, Chapter 26, p. 188) I would imagine his reflections on the theater would extend to literature, in general.

I believe the only way to judge is by the Spirit. And the closer we heed the Spirit, the more refined our tastes will become. I’ll have to admit, it was not easy to research and write The Reckoning. In fact, during the research phase, there were some days in which I felt such darkness. By the time I finished, I felt as if I had lived through that kind of imprisonment and torture. Perhaps I overdid it. I’m not sure. I do know that it was truthful and it showed evil for what it is. I can’t imagine I will ever write another book with that level or kind of violence again. Indeed, it is interesting that my very next novel has absolutely no violence. It was almost as if I needed to flee to a more peaceful place.

5) Why are LDS publishing personnel and Whitney Finalists allowed to vote in the final phase of the Whitney Awards?

They should be recused, as should finalists, since they are hardly objective. They will naturally vote for their own work, so what good is their vote? I have a sincere appreciation for the Whitney Awards and all the work that has gone into developing them. But I feel it would be much more conducive to rewarding the best work among LDS writers (thereby inspiring even more excellence) if a panel of non-partial (perhaps even non-LDS) expert judges were to select the winners from among the finalists. In this way, if these expert judges are chosen carefully, the national market may begin to get wind of the terrific writing by so many in our Church.

6) Why are self-published books allowed in the Whitney competition when they have no access to the LDS market and, thus, no real shot at winning?

The Whitney Academy should either go all in (i.e., let self-published books take part and make sure they, along with other traditionally published books, are read by the final judges), or deny them access to the competition. Of course, I would prefer the former option, particularly since self-published works are increasing in both number and quality.

And in conclusion:

7) What did I learn most from this conference and the Whitney Awards?

I learned that the LDS writing community is welcoming, but insular, and if I want to market my work to the LDS community I will need to play by the rules of LDS publishers. I learned that self-publishing is no longer the way to go for me. It would be better to find a small publisher, even if I continue to aim for the national market. And, most importantly, I learned that there are some terrific LDS writers with real talent. Despite all my questions, my hopes for Mormon Literature (however you want to define it) are greatly encouraged!

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More on Thayer

I finished The Tree House by Doug Thayer last night. Very strong, sweet, and powerful. The further I got into the book, the more I saw his writing change, ever so subtly. It was almost as if the narrator was the inner voice of the protagonist (named Harris, by the way). As Harris faced new challenges, and the Korean War, in particular, this voice seemed to gradually age, using more textured language later on.

Yes, there were still a lot of short, punchy declarative sentences, but not as many as early on. I can’t help wondering if this was intended by Thayer.

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In my scripture reading yesterday, I came upon that well-known sentence in 1st Nephi, Chapter 16:29–“And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.” Cross references led me to another less familiar Biblical scripture: James 3:4–“Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.”

What does all this have to do with writing? Plenty, I believe. That latter scripture brought to mind an excellent book on writing, “Steering the Craft,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book evolved from a workshop she gave at a writers conference back in 1996. As she put it in the Introduction:

“The course description said we would work on punctuation, sentence length, verb person and tense, POV, voice, and other such technical aspects of narrative prose. I offered the course because I’d been meeting a good many workshop writers who were afraid of semicolons and didn’t know a Point of View from a Scenic Vista. It was supposed to be a workshop for people who needed to work on their navigational skills before they took the boat out across the Pacific.”

As it turned out, the workshop became something much more, and I highly recommend her book to all writers. Indeed, it’s a perfect text for a small group of writers to follow in honing their craft, as it contains discussion topics and exercises essential to any dedicated writer. (I may even try to form such a group if there is sufficient interest.)

My point remains this: any work of fiction can sail freely or get caught in the shoals based on a slight turn here and there, whether that turn is a seemingly small plot development, a weakness in grammar, the wrong POV, etc.

As taught in the scriptures, by the great Author of our faith, by small means are great things accomplished.

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While I have always loved reading and writing, I somehow managed to get through my BYU years without ever taking a class from Doug Thayer, the so-called “Mormon Hemingway,” or even reading one of his short stories. I probably would have, had Brother Cracroft’s withering critique of my feeble creative writing attempts not entirely cowed me. Instead, I chickened out and went the Journalism route.

I am now in the middle of Thayer’s novel, The Tree House, and I have to say I am both puzzled and intrigued. His writing is so simple and declarative that I’m afraid it wouldn’t score well in my son’s Freshman Honors English class. Almost every sentence is a short, flat punch. Even after 10 pages in, I found myself unsure how or why this man could have ever received the laurels he has.

Nevertheless, I plowed on and, somewhere in the third chapter, I suddenly realized I had been drawn into the story. The plot had finally begun to show signs of life, but it was something more: I had entered this boy’s mind. As I considered just when and how, the secret of Thayer’s style came to me: He writes in thoughts. And thoughts are not usually long and involved; they are short, staccato bursts… declarative in every way.

Now, my son’s English teacher may want to see several sentences in a story or essay begin with participial phrases, but that is not the way we think. Let’s say I have just come from a physical therapy session (which I have) and I’m tired, so the first thing I notice upon entering the house is the living room couch. My thought, upon seeing the sofa, would not be: “Having come from therapy, worn out and tired, I see a good place to rest.” It would more likely be: “There’s the couch. I’m going to hoist my feet up for a while.”

In writing, as with most things in life, the simple and subtle can be most powerful. Now that I have an appreciation for Thayer’s style, I’m hoping it doesn’t get in the way during the rest of the book. I don’t think it will.

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I have spent much of the past year in physical therapy.

First, I had to regain the use of my right arm after breaking it just under the rotator cuff in March of 2008 (a definite interruption to my writing routine). But after a good deal of painful therapy, I was able to attack the keyboard once again. And by December, I was finally beginning to feel 95% of my normal self. That meant I had time to indulge myself with Christmas goodies and then try to start losing the weight I had gained.

As part of my effort to get back in shape, I decided to join the women at my church in playing volleyball on Thursday evenings. Yes, you guessed it. On January 29th of this year, I ruptured my right Achilles tendon during a game, had to have surgery, followed by a non-weight-bearing cast for 4 weeks… and now I’m back in therapy (a definite interruption to my weight-loss routine).

I’ve had a lot of time to think about my writing as the therapist kneads my muscles like bread dough, applies ultrasound to the most sensitive parts behind my ankle, just above my heel, and pulls and pushes to get my tendon to flex as it once did.

It occurred to me last night, as I anticipated this morning’s therapy appointment, that physical therapy is not unlike writing… at least, for me.

I know that many, if not most, writers actually prefer the rewriting phase of their creative endeavor. Not me. A perfectionist to the core, I tend to engage in rewriting as soon as a paragraph is complete. So there really is no first draft phase for me. My first drafts are probably equal to another writer’s second or third draft.

I knead a sentence thoroughly before finally letting it go, stretching it out to the proper length. I focus on a word in the way my therapist aims her ultrasound device, testing it again and again until it is warm and at one with the body of its sentence. I move sentences around until the paragraph flexes in the way it should. And, when I think my writing is as it should be, I read it aloud, over and over, much in the same way as I test my foot on the bicycle, going round and round until the entire movement is simple and natural and the writing, like my foot, is strengthened.

Perhaps, once I’m healed enough to walk firmly again, I can apply the lessons of therapy to more than my writing… say, for example, my fitness routine.

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In a fascinating report on Northwest Public Radio today, an Assistant Psychology Professor at Stanford, Lera Boroditsky, demonstrated how the grammar we learn from our parents can often unconsciously affect the way we experience the world.

Using something as simple as a bridge as an example, participants in her study were asked to study a picture of a bridge and come up with three descriptive words. She found that those cultures whose languages treat the word for “bridge” as a feminine noun (such as German), will tend to describe it as “fragile, elegant, beautiful, peaceful, slender, and pretty.” On the other hand, where cultures treat it as a masculine noun (such as Spanish), the word for “bridge” connotes “strong, dangerous, long, sturdy, big, and towering.”

She even went so far as to create her own language, making her own list of male and female nouns, and then drilled volunteers in the language before testing them in a similar manner. The results proved similar.

My question is, how does that work with English where there is very little masculine and feminine assignment for nouns? My own immediate response to the word “bridge” aligned with the masculine view, but is that true for most English-speaking people, and, if so, why?

This presents one more difficulty for the writer to overcome when trying to communicate to so many cultures.

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In listening to a General Conference talk by Elder Robert D. Hales on Saturday, I was particularly struck by a comparison he made between “craving” and “hunger,” when speaking of addiction.

To paraphrase, he said that addiction is a craving of the natural man and can never be satisfied… but, as children of God, our deepest hunger can be met through the Lord. It can be satisfied by his love, his security, his sense of our worth… all the things that will bring us eternal joy.

That led me to recall the biblical scripture in John 6:35–“And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”

What struck me about these two words were their oppositional approaches to the self and the world.

Craving is all about the self and, with that thrust, is almost beyond the powers of human reason. The person overtaken by a craving for anything will stoop to his or her lowest level (the “natural man”) in order to satisfy that craving, unconcerned, even unaware, of how it might affect another individual. Craving is also all about this world, where there is no lasting satisfaction, because of its imperfection. The man or woman who craves cannot look beyond their self or this world.

Hunger, on the other hand, can be satisfied, and in ways that go beyond the self. Often, it is satisfied by others. Even more, we often turn outward to satisfy the hunger of others. Consider the mother feeding her baby, for example. And the most critical kind of hunger, spiritual hunger, requires us to look beyond our self to our God. That kind of hunger leads us to another realm of existence where there is no hunger.

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” — Matthew 5:6 (The Bible)

“And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.” — Alma 32:42 (The Book of Mormon)

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