Saturday, June 28, 2014

Discussion of Jonathon Penny's Prologue to the Temple Poem

We discuss the final finalist in this year's Mormon Lit Blitz. Join the discussion, catch up on any of the twelve you may have missed, and go back to the Mormon Artist blog on Monday to vote for this year's Grand Prize Winner

When I was growing up, there were certain stories my father would tell us only in the winter. In the summer or fall we could beg and beg, but he would always tell us we had to wait for the first snow to fall on the ground. 

I loved those stories. And I learned to love my father, in part, by waiting for them and then by trying to guard his voice and the images it evoked in my mind for the rest of the year. 

In a number of different religions, there are stories and poems and names that are only spoken in certain times or places. Words you wait for, long for, guard in your heart and your mind through all the other seasons of your life. 

In our faith, we build temples around those words. And we love those temples with an almost passionate intensity. 

At the same time, though, we live in a culture where most people believe in discussing everything openly. When you can turn on the TV in the middle of the night and hear two people talking at once while written words scroll endlessly under their faces. So it's hard for many people to understand why we don't talk directly about the things we love, why we approach our temples only carefully, sideways, allusively. 

Jonathon takes careful, sideways, allusive words and builds a poem around the temple with them. 

And I feel like Jacob at Beth-el when I enter them. 

I don't know what to ask you about this poem. 

What lines stand out to you, perhaps? 

What does it mean to be a poet in a religious world where some words and ideas carry so much weight? 

What might a Mormon poet contribute to the range of human expression in the internet age? 

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Living Scriptures" Discussion

The Mormon Lit Blitz reaches its penultimate peril...

Today's Piece: "Living Scriptures" by Scott Hales

The Three Nephites don't get a whole lot of attention in scripture. Just a handful of verses, really, in two different places. And yet they've made their way into Mormon memory and folklore in a different way than any other story. The Three Nephites keep us wondering what sort of world we really live in, what presences might be hidden just beyond our reach.

We had three or four submissions for this year's Lit Blitz alone involving the Three Nephites. And somehow, this story moved us most of all.

What is it about the Three Nephites that keeps us coming back to them?

What works about the way this story uses the genre?

Are you concerned about the violence on television today?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Sugar Free" Discussion

The Lit blitzes on...

Today's Piece: "Sugar Free" by Emily Debenham

One thing I've loved about the Mormon Lit Blitz is the way it's built relationships between Mormon writers. I've enjoyed the insights many of these people share outside their formal creative work.

A recent thought that struck me came from Sarah Dunster, winner of the 2013 Whitney Award for General Fiction. She said she's appreciated information she's learned through the popular genre of "10 things you should never say to [person in x situation]" posts, but wishes there were more posts that started with "10 things you SHOULD say" instead. As we learn about others' diverse burdens, after all, there's always a risk that we'll be too worried about the chance of helping wrong to help at all.

"Sugar Free" seems to do exactly the kind of positive modelling Sarah has asked for. But can reading a story like this really change behavior in the real world?

Have you ever used an insight gleaned from fiction to understand someone's needs in real life?

What should you never say to Hunter? What should you say to him?

What did you think of this story in general?

Responses to Recent Events

On the AML blog yesterday, Theric Jepson asks if we "have art that responds to Recent Events." He is, not, I suspect, talking about the unfortunate elimination of Ecuador from the world cup--devastating though that may be to many. He is talking instead about the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly and the extended discussion swirling around it.

For many, the moment is uncomfortable, uncertain, and painful. As Eric Samuelsen and others have pointed out, that's true whether you were most uncomfortable with Kelly's rhetorical strategies or with the actions taken in response. This is the sort of discussion in which virtually all participants have been put on the defensive by someone. And unfortunately, the things most of us say while feeling defensive work to make someone else somewhere feel threatened as well.

Theric sees direct, emotional online discussion as a normal response to shared discomfort and pain, but also as sort of a psychic rut. He doesn't want people to just forget what they're feeling or walk away from problems, but he does hope we can rise above the cycle of mutual venting/defending/offending to engage the underlying questions about why it's so hard to be a human living among other humans.

And Theric thinks literature could be a part of that. Literature, which is almost never just about what it claims to be about, might help us escape our own defensiveness. It might give us a bridge from a moment's pain to a broader insight.

And maybe that's a pipe dream. Maybe it's just what Theric and I, as writers, get paid to say.

Or maybe literature really can get us thinking in broader ways. Maybe good works of Mormon Literature, selected more or less at random, can speak in some sideways and rut-evading way to the tensions many people are feeling right now.

In that spirit, I've made a list the Mormon Lit Blitz finalists published so far, indexed by sentiments I've seen people express. See which quote you identify with, and--in the spirit of experiment--see if the corresponding piece speaks to that feeling somehow.*

"I feel rejected and hurt."

"It shouldn't be this hard to go to Church."

"We make a serious mistake when we think of service and power in the same terms."

"Don't try to explain to me yet how this all makes sense if you look at the big picture. Right now I just need a safe place to cry."

"I can't put my finger on it, but I feel like something important is slipping away."

"I see my faith and community in a different way now than I once did."

"I don't know who to talk to about what I'm feeling. I don't expect everyone to understand, but it would be nice to find someone who can get where I am and who I can trust enough to get fresh perspective from."

"I can't afford for the feeling of sisterhood to fall victim to political differences."

"These kind of debates make me feel like a tiny little person being crushed between big forces I can't control. I want to get back to the basics."

"I don't have strong feelings about this issue, but all the bad feelings around it bother me. I wish I could just hop on a curelom and get away from it all."

*Disclaimers: No refunds of time or mental energy will be given to those who don't appreciate the story they choose. The index quotes have been generated without consultation with the authors and may not represent their personal reactions to said events in any way. Some stories may related to the index quotes in perverse or tongue-in-cheek ways. No animals were harmed in the writing of this post, but evidence suggests that animals may be harmed by excessive levels of online reading. Media outlets should not that these publications do not represent the Mormon Church, which doesn't like being called the Mormon Church, in any official capacity. Some stories contain violence, may remind the reader of specific swear words (though without actually saying them), and can involve immodestly dressed characters if the reader happens to use his/her imagination to mentally create them dressed immodestly. Some of these stories may take readers down the proverbial rabbit hole, and management is not responsible for any proverbial rabbit droppings reading may encounter along their way. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Platinum Tears" Discussion

Closing out the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz's third quarter....

Today's Piece: "Platinum Tears" by Marianne Hales Harding

This poetic essay, or essayistic poem, jumps right in to a major recurring dilemma in Mormonism.

On the one hand, we believe that meaning comes through commitment. On the other, we know that in this world, serious commitment can cause serious pain.

What do you do with that?

What is the role of grief in the healing process? What are its limits?

Is Walmart acting in some way as a sacred space here? What is it doing and how is it like or unlike other places?

"Thick and Thin" Discussion

The Mormon Lit Blitz Continues....

Today's Piece: "Thick and Thin" by Vilo Westwood

In an era when people are extremely mobile, often moving vast distances multiple times in the course of their lives, Mormon wards--especially in major educational and economic centers--face certain challenges and make certain contributions as communities where many members have little long-term tie to the area. This piece looks at the way one character and one ward are managing these challenges.

What do you think of the piece?

What have you seen wards do to help new members connect to the ward? To the area?

What else could wards reasonably do to strengthen a sense of community in an era of migration?

Monday, June 23, 2014

"And Through the Woods" Discussion

Starting off at a hard run in the second week of the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz... 

I would ordinarily call a piece like this post-apocalyptic fiction, though in Mormon Lit we probably need another term for social crashes that don't involve the Second Coming. 

What do you think of the main character? 

What are your thoughts on the setting? 

What other stories do you know that involve a post-civilization-collapse attempt to build Zion? Which would you recommend to someone who liked this story? 

If civilization is we know it collapsed tomorrow, what would you do? 

What do you see as the most likely causes of the next collapse of civilization as we know it? How might Mormons respond? 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

On Attention and Art -- 2 Nephi 2: 13

"O that ye would awake, awake from a deep sleep..." (2 Nephi 2: 13)

Reflections on the Mormon Lit Blitz, Week One 

Viktor Shklovsky's 1917 essay "Art as Technique"  begins with a simple observation: that as things become habitual, our minds tend to make them automatic and unconscious. Maybe you've noticed this while driving a car along a route you take all the time or while listening to a child bless the food during a bedtime prayer. There are certain tasks, we joke, that we could do in our sleep--and that we tend to perform with as much attention as if we were sleeping.

In many ways, this automation of the habitual is necessary and helpful. By not thinking about things we constantly repeat, our minds are able to apply more attention and energy to dealing with unfamiliar and new problems.

At times, though, our minds' insistence on automation comes at a steep cost. We can take familiar things for granted to the point that they disappear almost completely from our awareness. I can still remember my professor, Kim Abunuwara, reading out Shklovsky's counting of the costs: "And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habituation devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife..."

On my mission in Germany, I once found myself translating a stake conference talk for an English-speaking visitor. By the middle of the talk, I found the ideas expressed to be so familiar I could finish translating a sentence before the speaker finishing saying it. By the end of the talk, the man I was translating for recognized the patterns of speech so well he'd only need a few words of each sentence to follow.

There have been moments in my life, I suppose, when I was glad my faith had reached the level of automatic, unconscious reaction. But I am frightened by the danger of habit devouring my faith instead. There have been times in my life when it eats up even the words of God, when I look up at the end of a page to realize I've glossed over everything. Do we reach a point when all the once-startling truths that should transform us become little more than vain repetitions? Can we come to take for granted even the idea that we are intended to become Gods?

We all fall, again and again, into the sleepwalk of habit. But perhaps, Viktor Shklovsky suggests, we can be awoken by art. Art that interrupts our habits, jars us out of our rote perceptions, and makes the familiar unfamiliar enough for us to see it once again.

I've felt blessed this week by art like that.

Art that invites me to look at exaltation as something that can happen when a shell breaks.

Art that takes an ancient warning and gives it fresh force.

Art that lets me see a familiar setting from the sky for the first time.

That gives pain new names.

That finds holiness through simple juxtapositions.

That straight-up offers me different eyes with which to see.

I've felt blessed this week by art that allows me to re-engage with parts of the rich heritage I've been given. And I've felt privileged to be able to share it.

"In a Nutshell" Discussion

We close out the first week of the Mormon Lit Blitz with an explosion...

Today's Piece: "In a Nutshell" by Doug Staker

This is not the way we usually talk about exaltation.

Shortly after my mission, I was called to teach Sunday School for a large class of 14-16 year-olds. One week, the lesson was on the plan of salvation, and after going through the standard diagram with circles for pre-existence, earth life, the spirit world, and the kingdoms beyond, I handed out paper and a big bucket of crayons and colored pencils and asked them each to think of a different way to draw that same journey.

I would love to see Doug Staker's plan of salvation diagram.

What do you think of this poetic piece of it?

How might you describe the relationship between mortality and eternity?

What role can literature play in studying the gospel?

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Slippery" Discussion

The Mormon Lit Blitz presses on, though with somewhat more trepidation than yesterday...

Today's Piece: "Slippery" by Stephen Carter

What did you think of this piece? 

On one level, I'm interested in the warning it seems to contain for us. On another, I'm just haunted by the closing images and the overall feeling of a weirdness that seems just barely beyond the realm of everyday experience. 

I'm also fascinated by the use of Helaman 13: 30-31 in this piece. The passage is never directly mentioned, but it shapes the plot and explains the main character's pivotal realization and decision. Is the not-telling part of what gives the piece its eerie, haunting feeling? Or does it work just as well for readers who don't know that scripture, making the allusion more of a wink at those in the audience who know it? 

What were your reactions?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Curelom Riders" Discussion

On Day Four, the Lit Blitz takes a majestic dive into the unknown...

Today's piece: "Curelom Riders" by Annaliese Lemmon

No piece of writing starts from scratch: writing necessarily builds off things readers already know. One advantage writers of Mormon Lit have is that their audience has a lot of specialized pre-existing knowledge that can be drawn on.

In her short piece, Annaliese Lemmon draws not only on this specialized Mormon knowledge in her use of the book of Ether, but also on a broad cultural awareness of the tropes of epic fantasy. The success of the alternative history/ epic fantasy Temeraire books, which Lemmon has cited as an inspiration for this piece, shows that many readers today are happy to let writers draw on traditionally distinct genres simultaneously. Does anything change, though, when one of those genres is scripture?

What do you think of the cross-genre work this piece does with the Book of Mormon?

What other interesting experiments with cross-genre work involving scripture have you seen? What might be the next cool experiment for a Mormon writer?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"In Remembrance" Discussion

Day Three of discussion about the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz

Today's Piece: "In Remembrance" by Merrijane Rice

Intellectually, it seems reasonable to me to suppose that most people feel their failures like a bayonet wound at times. And yet there are moments when that stab of regret is so overpowering that I'm pretty sure it must be abnormal, that I must have some undiagnosed ailment to be feeling such pain.

Our religion, like most, acknowledges the diverse presence of pain in the world and invites us to move toward healing and meaning. And we often do--though our memories do typically remain, sometimes accompanied by startling flare-ups of old wounds.

Why does God allow that?

Is it somehow good for us, or is it something we'd be better off finding a way around?

What did you think of the poem as a way of speaking to your experience?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"The Primary Temple Trip" Discussion

Day two of discussion from the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz. 

Today's Piece: "The Primary Temple Trip" by Laura Hilton Craner

Service is a central part of Mormon culture. In order to highlight the value of service, the stories we tell often tend to emphasize how good service feels.

In many cases, though, important service does not neatly fit into our standard narrative models for how service ought to go.

What do you think about the depiction of service in this piece?

Have you had any experiences with service this piece reminds you of?

What words does your mother say all the time?

What other reactions did you have to this piece?

Monday, June 16, 2014

20/20 Discussion

We just kicked off the third annual Mormon Lit Blitz and hope you'll hop aboard your curelom and join us for the journey through twelve short pieces of Mormon Lit ("short" meaning less than 1000 words, which is about three minutes of reading time). From June 30th - July 5th, you, dear readers, will have the chance to vote for your favorite pieces and choose a winner for the $100 Lit Blitz prize. In the meantime, we hope you'll join us for daily discussions of the finalists on this blog.  

On a literal level, this is a piece about a girl who gets glasses, grows up, and then occasionally takes those glasses off. 

But literature does not tend to be purely literal. Much of the power of literature, in fact, is in its ability to serve as open metaphor: to provide images that don't mean any one exact thing, but that we can apply to a wide range of different concerns or experiences. 

It's sort of amazing, actually, that a story about the biological problem with one girl's eyesight and the technological solution our society offers her can be turned so easily into a spiritual question for its readers. 

How often do you distinguish between the way the world is and the way you see it? 

What does it mean to become as little children? 

Is the very real, objectively extant God partly to be found in the blurred edges of our perceptions? 

What other sorts of things did this piece get you thinking about? 


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