Monday, May 25, 2015

2015 Mormon Lit Blitz Discussion

We are currently in the middle of the fourth annual Mormon Lit Blitz. For those who don't know, the Lit Blitz is a contest Nicole and I run that features poems, stories, and essays under 1,000 words on Mormon themes. It's an opportunity for writers to play with what Mormon Lit might do, and for readers to get a sense of what Mormon Lit might be beyond their (typically negative) preconceived notions.

Some years, we've done tours where different Mormon blogs host the discussion of different pieces. This year, we'd like to see what happens when we have all the discussion on one post.

Which pieces this year linger with you in the days after you read them? What do they have you thinking about? Do any of the pieces speak to each other in interesting ways?

Here's a list of the finalists:

Monday, May 18th: Eric Jepson, “Angry Sunbeam
Tuesday, May 19th: Heather Young, “Best Wedding Advice Ever
Wednesday, May 20th: Tyler Chadwick, “Three Meditations on Fatherhood
Thursday, May 21st: Scott Hales, “Child Star
Friday, May 22nd: Emily Harris Adams, “Faded Garden
Saturday, May 23rd: Katherine Cowley, “The Five Year Journal

Monday, May 25th: Annaliese Lemmon, “Disability, Death, or Other Circumstance
Tuesday, May 26th: William Morris, “The Joys of Onsite Apartment Building Management” Wednesday, May 27th: Darlene Young, “Echo of Boy
Thursday, May 28th: Lehua Parker, “Decorating Someone Else’s Service
Friday, May 29th: Julia Jeffrey, “Should Have Prayed for a Canoe”
Saturday, May 30th: Merrijane Rice, “Mother”

Thoughts?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Make a Mormon Poet a #1 Bestseller this Saturday (23 May)

If I can get a few dozen people to buy my $3 Kindle book this weekend, I can became a #1 bestseller. Let me explain:

A little over a month ago, I released an eBook of my religious poetry.

I did it without much fanfare. I had promised myself that I would finish the collection in time for a Passover release (what can I say? I may be a Mormon, but I like releasing books on Jewish holidays). I made that goal partly by doing no promotional work whatsoever.

If I remember right, I sold 18 copies in the first three days, probably mostly to cousins. Given that the book is made up of poetry, which no one buys anymore in the first place, and about Mormon themes, which no one has bought since Eliza R. Snow died, I felt like 18 copies was pretty decent.

I had no idea how good it was by the standards of the market. As it turned out, those 18 sales took me to the #3 sales rank for religious/inspirational poetry in the Kindle store--trailing only a collection of poems by Rumi and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. 

Sales slowed down after that and I went back to the usual non-promotion. When I checked again yesterday, my eBook was at #52 in the Kindle store's religious/inspirational poetry list...on the strength of a single sale the day before.

I shared that fact on Facebook, and a funny thing happened: four people who read my status bought the book, and I leaped up to #8. Since most of the bestselling religious ePoets are dead Asian men, that made me the bestselling living religious poet on Kindle.

That was fun. But I want more. Having had a taste of charts I had never expected to climb, I have decided to fight for the top spot. I want my Mormon poems to hit #1.

I will, of course, need your help. I want you to buy Let Me Drown With Moses this Saturday. I want you to tell your friends to buy my book this Saturday. It would be lovely if you also read it, but I'm not picky. I just need a few dozen people to make sure I pass up Rumi. For $3, you can be a part of the dream. And maybe years from now, when religious poetry is wildly popular again and all the great Mormon poets are treated like rock stars, you'll be able to tell your grandchildren: I was part of the wave that carried Goldberg to #1 back in the day. And they'll look at you with big, awe-filled eyes and say "Really?" And you'll nod in a sagely, if slightly senile sort of way, and say, "Yes."

Update: Thanks to those of you who helped this happen on Saturday, May 23. As it happened, Let Me Drown With Moses also topped the somewhat-more-competitive lists of books about Mormonism. Here's a picture: 



Sunday, May 10, 2015

Dark Watch

Imagine two poets who both want to write about the moon.

The first makes her way up into the hills, where the sky is clear, and pens a few lines to describe the way the moon's soft silver glow gives depth to the night.

The second goes down to the bay and watches the water lap against the shore as the tide slowly rises. She writes about the quiet, monotonous motions of the water as it is pulled an almost imperceptible fraction of the distance toward some mysterious force above.

This second approach is the one William Morris takes in his short story collection Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. In the stories, for the most part, the mundane and even monotonous rhythms of everyday Mormon life take center stage while the calls of discipleship pull at the characters quietly but insistently, from somewhere that always feels just out of reach but still worth reaching toward.

The Contemporary Stories

Of the 16 stories in the collection, 10 are set in the present or the recent past. In the first two stories, we follow young home teachers on visits where the usual rituals of fellowship are strained by a genuine human need which no one knows quite how to handle. In the next two, we see a missionary and a recently returned missionary try to make sense of spiritual experiences that sneak up on them and then linger almost hauntingly.

In some of the later stories, the setting is less overtly religious, but the same tensions persist. The characters' feet are planted squarely in a world of schedules to keep, social roles to play, decisions to be made. At the same time, though, they feel other people's needs calling to them from beneath the surface of our protective superficiality or feel God calling to them in various subtle ways from above. Navigating those three worlds, Morris seems to feel, is what defines contemporary Mormon-American experience.

The Future Stories

When Eric James Stone came as a guest to one of the BYU creative writing classes I taught, he mentioned his lack of interest in science fiction as a form of prediction. The goal of most science fiction writers, he argued, is not to forecast the future but to use an exaggerated future as a sort of parable for a concern of the present.

If Jesus were in the business of walking down the streets of this world telling stories today, I think he'd like that kind of science fiction. A man who talks about planks of wood sticking out of your eye and camels walking through needles understands the power of the right kind of extreme image.

In this collection, Morris is interested in futures where it's impossible to openly practice Mormonism in mainstream society.  In some of the stories, a separate Zion exists somewhere where "Peculiars" can live their religion freely--but the protagonists are people who live as Crypto-Mormons, quietly keeping their faith in whatever forms they can while publicly pretending to be just like everyone else.

The stories' central interest is not what future persecution might look like. The stories are most interested, it seems to me, in the feeling of Mormonism as adding hidden layers to reality. The characters in the contemporary stories live in their own routines, with faith pulling them toward something more and something else. The characters in the future stories live in elaborate lies and half-truths built around the expectations of their societies, all balanced precariously against the secret ties of faith and a half-remembered sense of greater purpose.

The Take Home

There's not a huge demand for Mormon-themed short stories, or for serious religious fiction period, in today's market. Conversations about religion mostly happen informally among families and friends, in Church, or on blogs--not in the intricately crafted world of literature.

But I think these stories do some really interesting things that my informal conversations and my periodic scans through the blogosphere don't. They talk relatively little about the current issues in our conversation cycle or the questions we plow our way through in Sunday School from week to week. They're a rare and valuable opportunity, instead, for me to step back and think about what my religion is--not as the Church per se or as a set of things I happen to do at this stage in my people's history, but as a set of pulls that act upon me. As that distant force that still seems to move our day to day motions gradually up the sand.

Friday, March 27, 2015

What to See at the Mormon Letters Conference Tomorrow

Tomorrow (Saturday, 28 March) is a special day. It is not only the day we get ready for Sunday, 1-5 pm is also the time when you can gather for free to the UVU campus library in Orem for the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Mini-Conference, "Everything you wanted to know about Mormon Literature (but were afraid to ask)."

The conference consists of two panel discussions, two live debates, a writing workshop, a poetry playoff, and an awards ceremony with readings from some of the winners.

There is one important catch, though: there are two sessions going on most of the time, so you can only catch half the program. What will you choose?

Here's the agenda:

Conference Agenda


12:30-12:50 p.m.

Registration and mingling outside library auditorium

1:00-1:50 p.m.

Room 515: What is the role of the Mormon writer in the community?
Debate: Stephen Carter vs. James Goldberg

Room 516: The Mormon Lit Scene Today
Panel: Laura Hilton Craner, Nicole Wilkes Goldberg, Katherine Morris, Boyd Peterson

2:00-2:50 p.m.

Room 515: Should Mormon writers study Mormon literature?
Debate: Gideon Burton vs. Eric Samuelsen

Room 516: Inventing Truth: The Art and Craft of the Personal Essay
Workshop Leaders: Sharlee Mullins Glenn, Cheri Shulzke, Melissa Young 

3:00-3:50 p.m.

Room 515: Poetry Slam
Competitors: Emily Harris Adams, Shawn Bailey, Laura Hilton Craner, Marianne Hales Harding, Michael Hicks, Clifton Jolley, Kevin Klein, Steven Peck, Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen, Darlene Young

Room 516: My Favorite Mormon Book and Why It Matters
Panel: Glenn Gordon, Lance Larsen, Melissa Leilani Larson, Shelah Miner, Ardis E. Parshall

4:00-5:00 p.m.

Library Auditorium
Announcement of Annual AML Award Winners
Presenter: Scott Bronson
Selected readings by award winners


And here's my advice on what to take in:

12:30:
It's worth it to come early--half the fun of conferences is the hallway discussions. I, personally, am hoping to find some people to toss around Mormon alternative history ideas with. There may or may not be a betting pool on which shortlisted titles will get awards come afternoon. And even if you're more the fly on the wall type, with enough writers around, there's always something interesting to listen to.

1:00-1:50:

Room 515: My debate with Stephen Carter should be a lot of fun. Political debates today are so much about personality and image that they're mostly unwatchable--Stephen and I have basically nothing at stake personally, so this one will be all about the ideas. That alone is probably worth the hour.
The topic is also pretty interesting. Stephen Carter, who's the editor of Sunstone, will be arguing for Mormon writers to follow the grand Western tradition of the writer as social critic, a voice of conscience within the community. While I think conscience has value, I'll argue that there are some dangers to casting oneself in that role, and argue that Mormon writers should work to engage the Mormon imagination more than to expose the weaknesses in the culture. Sort of the aesthetic of the Mormon Lit Blitz, as it happens.
The division isn't just theory. If you get into literary Mormon fiction, you'll see the same debate playing out in the way people structure their stories. And you'll probably recognize the same styles in the ways people blog and talk about Mormonism online.
I highly recommend this session to two groups: 1) those who are already heavily involved in Mormon Lit, and 2) those who don't care that much about Mormon Lit, but are at the conference 'cause it sounded fun.

Room 516: Between the two groups I recommend the debate for is another group that I hope to see well-represented Saturday: those who aren't very involved in Mormon Lit now, but who are interested. "The Mormon Lit Scene Today" is a panel designed to give you a quick survey of what's out there in terms of organizations, online resources, publishers, awards, communities, etc.--and what purpose they all serve and how they fit together. Different readers and readers want different things, and it can be hard at first to find the place within Mormon Lit that fits you best. This panel could help you figure out what exists and how to tune into what you're most interested in.


2:00-2:50:

Room 515: I could listen to Eric Samuelsen and Gideon Burton debate tooth paste brands, so this one would get my entertainment value vote. It's also the best session we have for anyone interested in the Mormon literary past: if you don't know much about the Mormon literary past the debate is over, this is probably a great session to go to.
I expect the debate will also end up touching on some thoughts that go beyond Mormon Lit into Mormon identity: how much do we gain by looking within and how much do we gain from looking without? Obviously, both are going to be beneficial, but playing the two alternatives off each other might shed some light not only on what aspiring Mormon writers should read, but on how we might think of our dual identity as members of a very distinct community living in an age of increasingly open global culture.

Room 516: Eugene England and other giants in the Mormon literary past have made strong arguments for the essay as a form Mormons are culturally equipped to get a lot out of. And the team at Segullah have a growing track record behind them of using well-crafted essays to shape a vibrant online community capable of talking about more than the issue of the week.
Whether you are an experienced writer or not, the essay workshop would be a great choice if you feel like you have a story to tell. Words have always mattered, and probably matter more than ever in today's new media world, and we need people willing to do the hard work of turning experience into usable story. Maybe one of them can be you.

3:00-3:50:

Room 515: Stay here if you're a fan of spectacle. Poetry has a reputation for being bookish, hard to connect to, and self-important. But that's only come because live audiences largely abandoned it. There have been plenty of cultures where poetry gathering were and are electric and exciting. So come: vote out what you don't love. Vote on what you do. And watch the ranks of poets whittle down until we crown a champion of the hour.

Room 516: This is the room where you should go if you've always figured Mormon Literature is stupid. Write down the titles of the books people recommend, make a goodwill effort to read them, and if you still don't like anything, you will join the elite ranks of those whose sweeping condemnations of Mormon Literature are supported by any meaningful kind of experience.
This is also a great session to attend if you love Mormon literature. I will be extremely surprised if anyone who attends the session will have read all five books the panels recommend: it's a great place to find new treasures and expand your reading list with books that have touched people in an unusual way.
A bonus for this session is that we'll open up at the end for audience members to share their own recommendations--and their stories of why a certain book affected them the way it did. So if you're planning on it, feel free to bring your own story.

4:00-5:00:

I realize that we're ending just an hour before the General Women's Meeting and that young fathers may want to rush home to cook dinner for their kids. But we're going to pack an awful lot of awesome into this final hour. This is the first year the Association for Mormon Letters has released short lists for its awards, so there's more than the usual suspense about which titles will be announced as we get started. And we're anticipating that a lot of shortlisted writers will be there, so there will be quick readings from a wide range of the interesting voices in Mormon Lit today.


In any case: if you're along the Wasatch front and free, I'd love to see you sometime tomorrow afternoon. Be sure to introduce yourself if it's the first time we're meeting. If you live far away, I hope you at least enjoy knowing this sort of thing is happening. We do hope to get recordings posted online fairly soon after the conference so you can listen from a distance. And another year, maybe we'll be organized enough to broadcast events live and take questions on Facebook.

Whether you're going or not, I'd also love to hear your feedback on what sounds interesting. It's a lot of work to corral together this amount of talent, and we'd love to come up with the most compelling ways to use it at future events. So let me know how these sessions sound. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Thought about Jesus--Luke 12:13

"And one of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me." Luke 12:13 

Our family's been reading the gospel of Luke lately, moving kind of slowly because we stop a lot to draw attention to things we think our kids might be in a position to benefit from grappling with.

Like: tonight we got to the verse above, where someone asks Jesus to get involved in an inheritance dispute (which, at the time, would have been covered under religious law and therefore a reasonable thing to ask Jesus about). This felt like the kind of passage that would probably go over the kids' heads if we just read it, but that they might be able to relate to if we slowed down.

"What's an inheritance?" I asked.

They had no idea, so I explained that they'll get our stuff when we die. Simple enough.

I turned to Kira to get it to the next step of relatability. "Let's say that after Mama and I die," I said, "Elijah tells you he gets the upstairs of this house--because his room used to be there--and you get the downstairs, because your room used to be there. What do you think of that?"

This would mean, Nicole pointed out, that Kira would get the laundry room while Elijah would get the kitchen.

Kira grasped the significance of this. "That's not fair!" she said.

I figured that would be enough to help Kira sympathize with the man in the story. She'd see why he wanted Jesus to intervene on his behalf. "So let's say you went to Jesus and told him about the problem," I said. "What would he tell you to do?"

Kira didn't even hesitate. "He would tell us to work it out," she said.  

Those of you who know this story know that is, in essence, what Jesus said. He refused to get involved, and taught about the underlying dangers of envy instead of offering a ruling. Kira was right--I had just hoped to surprise her with Jesus' teachings the same way the people at the time were so often surprised by him. The same way that I, as an adult who has heard stories of Jesus countless times, continue to be surprised by him.

But a ruined lesson plan isn't a ruined lesson. Maybe I could learn something from Kira and something about Kira from the exchange. "How did you know that?" I asked.

"Because I know Jesus," she said.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Remembering Olivas Aoy

At my work, writing for history.lds.org, I get to help script about two short videos a year. Just after I got hired, we did a telling of the Dutch Potato Project story that's been used widely in welfare settings over the past year. Next, we did a piece on how sister missionary work got started which they now play in the MTC.

And then, two days ago, we released "Unto the Least of These: Olivas Aoy's School."

Olivas Aoy reached a population others had overlooked.
Like the others, it is fundamentally a pioneer story: Aoy makes significant personal sacrifices to start something important and new. In his case, though, the most striking project is not something inside the Church. It's founding the first school for Spanish-speaking students in El Paso, Texas, at a time when he's the only Latter-day Saint there.

It's a kind of pioneer story I wish we told more often. Latter-day Saints are famously willing to pitch in and help on projects our wards organize, but we could do better at learning to see needs and step up on our own.

And we could do better at developing and following our own visions of what the gospel means. At a time when many people saw Mormons as strange and backward, Olivas Aoy saw "the Christ of progress" in the restored gospel and committed his life the rest of his life to that vision. At a time when the Church was too occupied by its conflict with the U.S. government to start new programs, Aoy was willing to go out on his own trying to be an instrument in realizing God's promises as he understood them.

I don't know how widely this video will be seen. It doesn't have the same easy-to-categorize Church use as last year's videos on welfare and missionary work, or our upcoming video about temple. But maybe in the age of the internet, individual people will be able to find, share, and spread the story of this one individual's work to serve his Lord.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Explanation, Justification, Sanctification

My daughter, Kira, is 10 years old. That is old enough to engage with fairly sophisticated ideas and young enough to to still care what your parents think about them. I don't know how long this window lasts. 

I hope, of course, that Kira will continue to be interested in the insights Nicole and I have to share for many years to come. But no matter how open she remains, there's a rapid expansion from age 10 to 20 in the size of her world. Kira will, sooner than later, be dealing with a much wider range of problems and integrating a much wider range of voices into her responses. That is good and exciting, but also somewhere between humbling and terrifying. I accept and respect her fundamental independence now and in the years to come, but also feel a God-given obligation to give her the best foundation I can to build on. And the years are getting so short lately. So terribly short. 

Most of what I will give my daughter is not conscious. Things like my belief in the strengthening and healing potential of humor aren't talks or lessons, they just leak out of me in my day to day responses to the world. As do lessons I don't want to give at all, like "when you are feeling frustrated anyway, it might help to lash out at people you love." 

There are a few, valuable times, though--like when I tuck Kira in for bed or when we're having Family Home Evening or sometimes when we're driving together in a car--when I can try to consciously teach something. And for the most part, I've chosen to focus those times not a specific subject, but on giving her an underlying vocabulary for how to think things through. 

My latest emphasis came to me a few days ago after the kids had a fight. For all the inventiveness of children, there's still a grinding repetition that comes with being a parent, and as their narratives of events (with all the usual complaints, accusations, and excuses) washed over me, I found myself thinking about the genre of children's post-fight storytelling. Why do we tell the stories we do about conflicts? 

And as Kira told me why she hit her brother, I realized it would be well worth my time to focus on the difference between an explanation and a justification

An explanation, I told Kira, is about why you did something. What motivated you? Your explanation for why you hit your brother usually has to do with something he did. Elijah did x or y, which made you upset and then motivated you to hit. 

But an explanation is not necessarily a justification. A justification has to do with whether something is wrong or right. Understanding how your brother's actions made you want to hit him is not the same as making it right for you to hit him. 

Don't treat an explanation as if it were a justification, I told her. There will be a quiz, I said. 

That night, I asked her to tell me the difference between explanation and justification, as we'd defined the terms. It wasn't easy for her to do--and led, actually, to a discussion of circular definitions. But after a little while, she did pretty well at coming up with examples of each and correctly identifying examples I would come up with. She started to really see the difference. She's even been able to talk about tough cases of justification: when is it right to do a lesser wrong to prevent a greater one? The terms have opened up a way for us to start talking together about different problems. 

So last night, I added a third term, sanctification, and gave an example from the chapters she is about to read in Alma in the Book of Mormon. 

There's a king named Lamoni coming up, I told her, who sometimes kills his servants. This usually happens when the servants get sent out to guard his stuff and come back empty-handed. He gets mad, and so he kills them. 

Kira correctly identified this as an explanation. It's a story about why the king does what he does, but not about whether it's right. 

Then I pointed out that the king can attempt a justification: he can explain that his stuff is very important, and that doing your job is very important, and that when his servants run away instead of doing their job to protect his stuff, he has a right to have them killed. 

Kira agreed that this was an attempt at justification, but rejected it on the grounds that life is more important than property (as we'd previously discussed when considering the justification offered by a certain Jean Valjean). 

I complimented Kira on her analysis and then told her more of the story. King Lamoni, I said, later learned about the gospel and realized his own justification hadn't been enough. He felt terrible about what he'd done. What do you think he did then? I asked Kira. 

He repented? she said. 

Yes, I said. He repented. And he decided not to do those things anymore. But there were other people who didn't like the changes he was making. Who thought he was showing weaknesses. So they attacked his kingdom. 

At that point, I asked, would King Lamoni and his people be justified in killing the people who attacked them? 

Not necessarily, Kira said. Are the people who attack trying to kill them or just take their stuff? And is there a way to fight them off without killing them? Killing is very serious. 

That's true, I said. But assuming that the attackers are trying to kill them, Lamoni and his people would be justified in fighting back, even if they had to kill, I said.Think of soldiers in war. Think of the cartoon Justice League. 

Yes, Kira agreed, in certain cases of self-defense, killing would be justified. 

I believe that's true, I said. And I think Lamoni and his people believed it was true. But they didn't fight back because they wanted something more than justification. They were worried about sanctification. Explanation is about why you did something, justification is about whether it's right, and sanctification is about whether it makes you holy. 

Lamoni's people knew what it was like to kill out of anger. They knew how tempting it could be, how powerful it could make them feel. And they didn't want that any more. They wanted to be holy. They were willing to turn down something they had a justification to continue their sanctification. They were willing to die for it. 

 There will be a quiz, I said. 

I'm looking forward to talking quite a bit more with Kira about explanation, justification, and sanctification. Maybe we should talk about how sometimes your actions have no justification, but it's important to figure out the true explanation of why you did them so you can figure out how to change. Maybe we should spend more time on the complexities of justification and all the dilemmas it creates. And maybe 10 is not too young to get more detailed about how Jesus fits into all three kinds of stories and to start working together on figuring out what the scriptures have to say. 

And for now, maybe all this will be good for is slowing down the next post-fight discussion and separating why she acted the way she did from the question of whether it was right. Though I suspect I'll also be seizing opportunities to go through what explains some of my bad behavior and why those explanations also fail to justify it--and maybe in the process undo some of the inevitable bad teachings my example leaves behind. 

And I hope the concepts, abstract as they are, will start to have power for her. So that in a few too-short years when friends and loves and factions loom larger in her world, she'll have tools for understanding herself and others, tools to sift out the different parts of difficult relationships. 

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