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”


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.


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