Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ashamnu

It's Yom Kippur. I've written here before about the ashamnu prayer, a traditional prayer of confession for the day. Just went over it again and was struck by how much it means to me right now.

One of the challenges of life in an era where we have so much access to information, so much capacity to weigh the consequences of sin, is to be able to do so without recoiling. To protect ourselves, we so often try to separate ourselves out and put them blame for the existence of injustice on some other group we do not belong to, in a self-deceiving attempt to avoid accountability.

The ashamnu prayer calls us back: invites us to stand, instead, to account. We, as humans, sin. The religious and the irreligious. The liberal and conservative. The privileged and the marginalized. And perhaps we can only truly reckon with sin by facing it in humility together.

And so, in troubling times, I say along with generations:

Ashamnu, Bagadnu...
We have sinned. We have dealt treacherously.

Gazalnu, Dibarnu dofi, He'evinu...
We have robbed. We have spoken slander. We have acted perversely. 

V'hirshanu, Zadnu...
We have done wrong. We have acted presumptuously.

Hamasnu, Tafalnu sheker...
We have done violence. We have practiced deceit.

Yaatsnu ra, Kizavnu, Latsnu...
We have counseled evil. We have spoken falsehood. We have scoffed.

Maradnu, Niatsnu, Sararnu...
We have revolted. We have blasphemed. We have rebelled.

Avinu, Pashanu...
We have committed iniquity. We have transgressed.

Tsararnu, Kishinu oref...
We have oppressed. We have been stiff-necked.

Rashanu, Shichatnu, Tiavnu...
We have acted wickedly. We have dealt corruptly. We have committed abomination. 

Tainu...
We have gone astray.

Titanu
We have led others astray. 

And today I pray:
O God of Israel, who led our ancestors out of Egypt and showed them their own shortcomings in a promised land, have mercy on us. 

O God, teach us to acknowledge ourselves among the transgressors. Give us strength to face the persistent of our guilt.

And God of Israel, guide us: as we learn to bind up what we've broken, to gather what we've divided, to rise (step by tiny step) above the sins we've lived with for so long.   

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Dealing with Darkness (Sacrament Meeting Talk)

On the border between Montana and Idaho, there’s a scenic bike route called the Hiawatha Trail. I’ve never been there, but I read about it in a General Conference talk. (Don’t judge me for that. I don’t get out much.)

This trail is built on a former railroad line, so you follow the train tracks through the mountains and it’s supposed to be really beautiful. You ride, at times, across narrow bridges over deep canyons, giving you a view that’s either breathtaking or hyperventilation-inducing, depending on how you feel about heights. You really get to know that mountains. Other times you go through these long, dark tunnels that open up onto stunning vistas of Montana’s signature big sky. And it’s supposed to feel just great.

Elder Vern P. Stanfill of the Seventy went once. He told the story in his October 2015 General Conference talk. He admits that even though people tried to warn him, he didn’t really understand how long and dark some of the tunnels were until he was deep enough into one to realize he did not have a great bike light. I want to read you a little bit of his description of how he felt when he got deep enough in the tunnel that there was no daylight left behind him and none in sight ahead:

“Suddenly I began to feel anxious, confused, and disoriented,” he says. “I was embarrassed to admit my anxieties to my friends and family. Although an experienced cyclist, I now felt as though I had never ridden a bicycle. I struggled to stay upright as my confusion increased.”

Brothers and sisters, I think life is like the Hiawatha Trail: we’ve all been warned there are dark tunnels we have to go through, but thinking about them from the outside is different than being stuck in the middle.

And so today, as we’re speaking in this sacrament meeting on the theme of light, I’m going to spend most of my talk dealing with darkness. Because it’s a condition we all spend some time in. A few of you may be there now: I hope I get enough right in my description that you can feel a little less alone. The rest of you have been or will be stuck sometime in the middle of a long dark tunnel—and maybe something I say will stick with you a little bit next time you’re there. There are going to be things in life that shake us. Some of them are also going to shake our faith. You can’t avoid that, but you can face the feelings that being stuck in the dark brings. And learning to face the anxiety is often the first step to getting past it.

Darkness

So what is it like to feel swallowed up in the darkness?

Let’s go back again and spend some time with Elder Stanfill’s description. When something in life shakes you, it’s natural to feel “anxious, confused, and disoriented.” It sucks, but it’s natural.

When you’re in the middle of a major trial, it is also natural to doubt the very things that are supposed to get you through. For Elder Stanfill, it was that bike light: it wasn’t as strong as he thought, and so in the moment the thing he’d counted on to guide him wasn’t sufficient. In life, the times we doubt our testimony are often the times we need it most. When we’re struggling, the wattage is just not high enough.

And—this is an important truth we don’t always acknowledge—like Elder Stanfill, you are probably not going to want to talk to friends and family when that happens. Maybe, like him, you’re embarrassed. Or maybe you’re defensive: feeling like they can’t understand and you don’t want to hear them tell you to just get over it.

Like Elder Stanfill, you might also find yourself disconnected from your own past. When he was describing his experience, he didn’t just say it was hard to ride a bike: he said he felt like he’d never ridden a bike before. In life, I call this a spiritual or emotional eclipse. Sometimes the trouble before you is so all-encompassing that no past experience can seem to get around it. Even if you remember the facts, you can’t always remember the feelings that let you be anchored and stable. That’s a real thing. No quantity of past experience can get us through the dark passages of our life because the pain of the present can block them almost entirely out of our minds.

And when you’re in that partial or full spiritual eclipse, it’s going to be tough to stay oriented. Elder Stanfill said it was hard to keep his bike upright. And for us, there are some many voices in the world that when our anchors start to fade, it’s hard to know what to hold on to.

So what do you do? If you’re shaken in a way that’s left you feeling isolated from your loved ones and your own past, how might you react?

Common First Reactions

It’s going to be tempting, first of all, to just blame yourself. And that never helps. Taking responsibility can, but there’s a difference between responsibility and blame.

If you want to understand that difference, try two things for me. First, take a deep breath. Now punch yourself in the eye.

You may laugh, but most of us have done that. We get in trouble and our first thought is: I feel like I should be better than this. I feel like I shouldn’t be struggling like this. So we beat ourselves up, and we make it worse.

Another thing that’s tempting to do when you’re in the middle of trouble and you feel like life has never been good is to seek out people who feel the same way, who are also disoriented in the dark. And that’s totally understandable. We want to be understood. We’re going to be drawn to that. And yet at the same time, it can be really risky, because if you feel panicked on your own, having a bunch of other people freaking out around you is not going to help you calm down. But, especially in the age of the internet, that’s a tempting way to deal with darkness. We look for people who know how we feel whether they know how to guide us forward or not.

Doubting your Doubts

President Uchtdorf’s advice for what to do when it feels dark, when you feel shaken, is to doubt your doubts before your doubt your faith. One reason I think that’s good advice is because it gives you room to admit you’ve got some doubts. And that’s an important thing to do if you’re going to get through them. Think of a broken bone: if you walk around forcing yourself to act like everything is fine, it’s gonna get worse. You need to give yourself a chance to feel what’s tender and to protect that a little bit. Maybe let the rest of your body carry you while the broken part has time to heal.

For spiritual and emotional wounds that leave you anxious, you can tame your feelings a little just by naming them. It’s OK to take an inventory and figure out what exactly is injured without self-blame or shame.

So when you’re struggling, ask yourself what exactly is broken. You can often break it down and be more precise than we’re used to being. We tend to think of a testimony as just one thing, but when I’m struggling, it helps me to think about the different parts. When we bear testimony, I think we’re actually getting at four related things we want God and the gospel and the Church to be.

We want our religion to be true. We want it to be good. We want it to feel possible. And we want it to feel personal.

Let me take a few minutes to go through each of those things.

True

“I know the Church is true” is something we often hear when people bear testimony. If you think about it, it’s sort a strange turn of phrase: “Church” is not actually a true/false statement. But truth is definitely something we expect from religion. When we say we want the Church or the gospel or a specific claim to be true, we probably mean it’s something safe to hold onto. I actually think that when we say want religious truth, we want a little more than truth. Something can be true and still misleading. We want something that goes beyond that, something trustworthy.

But when you say it like that, maybe it’s easy to see why this can get tough. When someone says “the Church is true,” it’s easier to nod along. If you say, “do you believe the Church is trustworthy?”—maybe you can see why there’s times when that’s tough to feel as secure about.

I believe God is 100% trustworthy, but I hear from him through human filters—whether that’s the words of the prophets or the filter of my own mind—and those filters are not 100% reliable. And so there are going to be misunderstandings and there are going to be mistakes and times when trust is strained. Maybe it’s a time when a leader has a genuinely inspired goal, but kind of sloppy implementation. Maybe it’s a time when a teenaged way of thinking about a gospel principle doesn’t hold up to the complexity I’m starting to see in the world as I age.

Like the apostle Paul says in the scriptures, “Prophecy shall fail. Knowledge shall pass away.” Sometimes we’re going to be disappointed by the ideas we’ve held onto or the leaders we’ve looked to for guidance. And especially if we’re already struggling, that can hurt. But it’s not the only part of a testimony.

Good

We also want God and the Church and the gospel to be good. But that, too, can be tough to believe sometimes when things are difficult.

I remember one night in the hospital during my cancer treatment. I had neutropenic fever, which is how your body responds to an infection when you’ve got a severely compromised immune system, at the same time I had a bunch of other uncomfortable chronic symptoms. I felt like my body was falling apart and I remember thinking, “OK, Lord. I know and I’ve accepted that life is supposed to be difficult, but how difficult?” I can accept some eggs have to get broken to bake a cake, but it’s getting hot in here and I’m pretty sure you’re gonna burn this one. And I remember the scripture coming to mind where God says he’s going to refine us as gold in a fire, and I thought. “Oh shoot. That’s a little bit hotter than I was counting on.” I can still believe that this is good, but it’s a strain.

There are going to be times in life when we wonder if God is really good. And there are going to be plenty of times when we wonder if the Church is good. And the pure gospel is good, though the garbled form in which it exists in my head at any given time might not always be good without some refining.

So there are things that can shake us. This happens all the time. Maybe it’s a political thing you have strong feelings about and it shakes you to wonder whether a Church stance is good. Maybe a past mistake, something in the Church’s history, that wasn’t good, quite frankly. And you wonder: is this Church as whole still good? Maybe it’s something dysfunctional in your own ward or family and it’s hard to see that the Church is good somewhere out there when you’re not feeling it close to you.

I think it’s interesting, though: I’ve watched people, who in their struggles, are able to play their connection to the true and the good off each other. In times of struggle, they’re able to hold on to one aspect of testimony long enough to reconnect with another. I’ve got an uncle who used to say, “I go to the Church for the Lord, not the ward.” And that was his way of saying that he couldn’t always see how the ward, the Church around him, was good, but he knew it was true and could hold on to that. Sometimes for me, I’ve got to admit, it’s the opposite: it’s hard for me to track what is true and what I can hold onto—I’m philosophical and I run in circles in my head—but if a ward member walks up to me and talks for a few minutes, my eyes are opened to recognize the good in them. And I trust that the source that got them there can work for me, too.

Possible

That trust—that something which works in theory or in another person’s life can also be accessible in my own—is its own aspect of testimony. It’s one we often undervalue, but it’s vital. Our religion is not just a series of observations about the divine: it’s fundamentally about our relationships with God and each other. And so it’s not just a clean list of eternal facts: it’s an intensely personal day to day discipline. We all need to believe not only that the gospel is true and good but also that we can do it.

That we can rise when we fall—or at least let ourselves be lifted. That we search and ponder and go and do and mourn and comfort and repent and be refined. And we need to be able, in the midst of everything else, to look forward and imagine ourselves doing the daily work of discipleship for the rest of our lives.

And there are going to be times in your life when you’re not sure that you can anymore. When your ability to imagine yourself putting one foot in front of the other is strained almost to the breaking point. Earlier in this meeting, Sister Carvalho spoke about times when as a parent there’s a lot going on and you haven’t slept enough and you just wonder if you can make it. And the doubt isn’t about the ideal and whether it’s valuable or correct—it’s just about what it feels like it will take to reach the finish line.

I think all of us have been a person or known a person where that was the part of a testimony that shook. That part about whether I, individually, can make it. And there are times when that’s the struggle, that’s the darkness we’re dealing with.

Personal

In a religion centered on relationships, wondering whether the demands of the gospel are possible is not the only concern our own sense of self plays a role in. At a fundamental level, we also need to feel connected to God and the gospel and the Church on a deeply personal level.

We have a need to feel like we belong, like we can be ourselves and disciples at the same time.

And it can be tough when that gets shaken. We sometimes dismiss concerns about belonging when they happen to others and say, in effect, “if you feel like you don’t fit in, suck it up and get over it” or worse, “if you don’t feel like you fit in, go somewhere else.” We sometimes assume that if you believe the Church is true—whatever that means—you can set aside your need for belonging for the sake of belief. But trying to keep the faith without finding a way to own your place in it is about as practical as dealing with an allergy by fasting for the rest of your life. In some ways, identity-level questions about how and whether we belong can be the most challenging of all.

I think of the prophet Elijah, who knew what was true more firmly than any of us do, who knew God is good, who knew that he had been totally personally faithful in the face of intense opposition—and yet he still told God, at one point on a mountain, that he felt so alone he just wanted to die.

And if Elijah the prophet could get there, then brothers and sisters, we can too. It’s hard to feel cut off, hard to hold on long enough to find a new way to think about how we fit. God’s kingdom has a place for each of us, but it takes real work to find it. We might, at times, have to make it through some dark passages to get there and I can only hope that acknowledging that the struggle to find your place matters helps ease the panic you might feel as you work your way forward toward the light.

Reaching Out

At different times in my life, I have wondered whether the Church or the gospel or God himself was trustworthy or good, when I’ve wondered whether my religion was possible or whether I personally belonged. Fortunately, I don’t usually doubt all four of those things with equal force at the same time and I can hold on to one while I work through another.

That’s how I doubt my doubts. I feel my way to the things I can hold on to while I sort through the things I’m struggling with. I might rely on the goodness of another person or go back to one treasured truth. I might depend on my own confidence if I’ve got it or remind myself that I belong no matter what—that I’m always a Mormon even if I’m not always great at it.

And during that process of sorting and rebuilding and healing, I allow myself some frustration and pain.

It’s OK to be scared or worried or angry. It’s OK to let the people we love be scared and worried and angry when they’re struggling. It’s OK to be shaken.

But my promise to you today, brothers and sisters, is that if we can still reach out through the darkness, in our pain, the Lord will be there for us.

I’d like to close with a poem. It’s one I wrote about Peter the apostle and what I’d like to ask him about making it through disorientation and anxiety when you don’t know where to stand. This poem’s called “How You Knew”:

Tell me if you remember
when the ground beneath your feet
still seemed solid

Tell me if you remember
when the things you knew
still seemed sure
and sound

Tell me
if you remember
what it felt like the very moment
when you looked down
and saw the words you’d trusted swirl
and churn

Tell me
if you remember
how the wind had just whipped up
how the breath caught in your throat
how your muscles all tensed and spasmed
how your body prepared to drown

Tell me
how you walked on water
Tell me how you knew
though soaked with terror
to cling to the Master’s hand

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Poem: "The Fundamental Unit"


Some brief introduction to the writing process first: feel free to skip straight to the poem below.

During May, Darlene Young--one of my favorite Mormon poets--organized an event she called Mormon Poetry Writing Month (MoPoWriMo), modeled loosely on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Basically, a bunch of us committed to try to write a Mormon poem every day for a month. Many of us also shared our drafts with each other at the time. I really love seeing people engaging with our faith with their full imaginations and I love what can happen when you take ideas you care about and put them in a poetic register: it was great to have a reason to write and constant inspiration from what other writers were playing with. 

I missed a few days--which meant that I finished the month with, I think, 27 poems. To put that in perspective, that's about as many poems as I'd written in the entire previous year. Thanks to Darlene, I've got enough now for a second collection to follow up my 2015 set Let Me Drown with Moses. This weekend, Nicole and I printed out all the possible material to include on 1/4 size pages and shuffled them around to find an order and a title. I've got some revisions to do, need a cover, etc., but I'm anticipating that Phoenix Song will be ready to release by the end of the year.

To give you a short glimpse at my MoPoWriMo work: here's a poem I wrote during May and later posted on a Facebook thread by the ever engaging Michael Haycock. Today, Walker Frahm asked if I could post it in a more share-friendly place. Here you go: 

The Fundamental Unit

Before we were a Church
that strengthened families
we were a Church
that built cities.
Back then

Zion
was the
fundamental unit
of society.

And in that
dreamed of city
it wouldn’t matter
if a quiet kitchen
happened to be yours
alone, because
even the streets
would be holy
to the Lord. 

They took
that away
from us, like
a child tearing
the legs, one
by one, off an
insect.

So maybe the pain
you feel is not from
God. Not some Saraic
trial. Maybe what you
feel is the phantom
pain of a kingdom
that has lost
its limbs.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

James Goldberg Q&A on the Mormon Lit Blitz and Mormon Lit Lab

Today is the last day for people to vote in 2018 Mormon Lit Blitz (though honestly, since Nicole and I will both be at ward council followed by 9 am church tomorrow, you could sneak in a late vote most of tomorrow). It's the seventh year we've held the contest and we're really proud of this year's work: we hope you'll take a look.

We're also at the beginning of the process to sign up regular patrons for a project called the Mormon Lit Lab. Basically, we're invited people to make a monthly pledge to support expanded contests, workshops, and publication opportunities in Mormon Literature.

Since we had so much fun hosting Q&As with this year's Mormon Lit Blitz finalist authors on the blog, we thought we'd finish the contest out with one more post where they asked us questions about the contest and the new Mormon Lit Lab. It's been fun answering. Take a look:

Mormon Lit Blitz


Lee Allred: How did you come up with the idea for the Mormon Lit Blitz? What's its history? Its "secret origin" -- did a metaphorical bat fly through your window, did it rocket to Earth as an infant to escape a doomed planet, etc.? 

The secret origin version is that Scott Hales and I were called on a mission to evangelize Mormon Literature. We never did figure out what had happened earlier in the place where we were sent, but we think something must have gone wrong with a prior set of missionaries. No one would give us the time of day to teach a full-scale discussion. The local priests or professors or whatever warned young people against our message. Those were dark times.

A lot of the rumors we'd heard put the blame on people for being hard-hearted or close-minded. You can't reach people you resent, though, so we figured it was better to assume they had good reasons for being cautious. One day I said to Scott, "What if six hours of discussions is just too much to ask? Could we give them a message worth considering in one minute?" And Scott said, "That sounds so crazy it just might work. Let's make like Nephi and go and do."

And that's how the Mormon Lit Blitz started... 

If you want the slightly less mythologized version, pieces of it are still floating around online. I had to do some research to find it, but it looks like the seed comes in the comments after Josh Allen's November 1, 2011 blog post "AML and Student Participation." In that post, Josh talked about the value of Mormon Literature in general and the Association for Mormon Letters in particular, then asked, "Why aren’t there more of us? With so many virtues, why is it that AML’s membership is relatively small and has been for years?"

In the comments and a follow-up blog post of my own, I tried to answer that question. Essentially, I argued that there's a very small group of people who want to study Mormon (or any) literature for its own sake, and that most people look to stories to give them something in their lives. I talked about why many avid readers who are also Mormons might feel turned off by stories that seem to be attacking them on the one hand and of stories that feel too simplistic on the other. I argued that if you want to build an audience for Mormon Lit, you need to give people a short, easy-to-access way to try it out--and you need to make sure their effort pays off.

And then Scott came up with the name and concept. For the early Mormon Lit Blitzes, he'd make memes for Facebook and we'd do tours around several Mormon culture blogs talking up the contest. Nicole came on board to give editorial notes: she's a really capable and effective editor. Some Mormon Lit regulars submitted to the first contest: but also a lot of writers we didn't know and came to love.

As with many missions, we succeeded at least in converting ourselves: the Mormon Lit Blitz has showed me personally a lot about the value in Mormon Lit, especially as I've watched friends and relatives react to pieces they connect with.

Eric Jepson: Once you've created the longlist, what criteria do you use to whittle down to the final few? How do you balance, say "objective" criteria with subjective criteria with variety?

There are no 100% objective criteria for what makes compelling writing, so we’ve got to trust our own subjectivity and assume the audience we’re trying to serve shares a lot of those tastes. I’ll try to pull back the curtain a little, though, on what those tastes are.

We average 100-200 submissions per Lit Blitz, so a piece only makes the longlist if it stood out to us for some reason. It’s not just competent craft: there also has to be a concept or character or image that grabs our attention. We need to laugh or gasp or find ourselves talking about the piece after we’ve walked away from the computer.

If a piece has made that first cut, our second step is to weed out a few pieces that fall short of that best moment, idea, or image. You get into the longlist by the strongest moment: you stay there by having a text that is consistent. Typically, though, that cut doesn’t quite get us down where we need to be.

The third cut is typically to think about the contest purpose again and ask ourselves which pieces are going to contribute the most for our audience: in terms of the cultural work they do or how they stretch the range of tools writers following the contest will have to draw on. In many cases, even that cut doesn’t quite get us there and concerns about variety within the contest are how we weed out the last few pieces. Some of those calls get really tough to make and there are pieces I still think about that didn't make our final cut.

Lehua Parker: As LDS writers who write stories, poems, and essays that delve into the “messy” reality of being human, do you believe we have a responsibility to write ultimately uplifting works? 

I would not use the word "uplifting." The last two poems I shared on my blogs are serious downers, but lament as a genre can play an important spiritual role. Stephen Carter's "Slippery" comes to mind as a Lit Blitz example of a similar thing: a piece that warns rather than reaching catharsis.

So if "uplifting" may be too narrow a word for the types of spiritual contributions Mormon writers can or should make, what would I recommend instead? A phrase from D&C 121: 42, comes to mind, when it talks about "pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile." Maybe whether something enlarges the soul--whether in joy, aspiration, awe, trepidation, insight, mirth--maybe that's a test of whether things are being presented in a way rich enough to count as pure knowledge. 

Lee Allred: I thought this year's formal Q&A worked rather nicely. Informative for readers, a chance to discuss MoLit story and storytelling in more depth for writers. How did it look from the point of view of the questioner? Did writers answer what you were really wanting to know or did they veer off into tangents (possibly very interesting tangents but tangents nevertheless)? Do you feel it somewhat ironic that the discussions of the stories were longer than the stories themselves? 

I loved the Q&As. Sometimes even flippant questions yielded great answers, like Luisa Perkins' thoughts on cats.

I appreciated the craft discussions. One positive of the Mormon Lit Blitz is that it can help lower the barriers between readers and writers: it's a manageable enough size that some careful readers have tried their hand writing, and I'm glad the Q&As can give new as well as established writers new techniques to consider.

I also liked the discussions of themes. A lot of Mormon Lit Blitz pieces manage to be extremely thought-provoking within their tight space constraints, and I loved getting the chance to talk about that.

As far as the length of discussion: I grew up talking about scriptures at far greater length than what's on the page. I like a piece that starts a conversation rather than trying to finish it.

Lee Allred: And last but not least -- Does the Postum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?

Sherry Work: Lee - Postum has very little flavour to actually lose. James and Nicole --would you consider dividing up the categories between poetry, stories, and personal essays?

Of all the ways we could categorize literature, whether something has line breaks doesn't seem like the most important distinction to us. We publish in those three categories because people tend to submit them the most, but we're also open to other forms. We've had very short plays submitted. Comics. Which tools writers use is up to them.

If we bring back the specialty fall contests we've done twice before, we may use genre distinctions in some of those. But we like mixing them together in the Lit Blitz.

Sherry Work: Could you explain how the ranked voting works? Is it a point system or highest number of first place votes?
A first place vote counts as four points, second place three points, third two, and fourth one. The piece with the highest point total wins.

We haven't yet had a piece that could win on the power of first place votes alone. The winners tend to be pieces that appealed a wide range of voters and showed up a lot at two, three, and four as well as one.


Mormon Lit Lab


Faith : What the what is Patreon?

Glad you asked! We should have explained that better early. Basically, Patreon is an online system that allows people to make a monthly payment to an artist or artistic organization they support. It's sort of like Kickstarter, if you've seen that, but for ongoing projects rather than one-time ones. It's also sort of like the Medicis funding painters and sculptors to make the Italian Renaissance possible, but with a lot less murder and political intrigue.

Patrons receive something in exchange for pledging. For the Mormon Lit Lab, the main rewards are being able to weigh in and vote on the projects we prioritize. Anyone who donates get to see and comment on the "drawing board." Higher level contributors get to vote. 

William Morris: Most Patreon offerings are about what contributors receive from the artist and behind the scenes peeks into the artistic process. Why are you pitching this more as a lab where contributors become part of the process rather than just "help us fund more of the Mormon Lit Blitz"?

I love art. I strongly dislike the common image of the solitary artistic genius. To me, art is fundamentally about conversation and connection. So I've always been drawn to much more collective models for artistic production, ones where the lines between audience and creator are narrower and where relationships between people involved in the featured and supporters roles in developing and organizing an artistic experience are both closer and better acknowledged than is often the case. To use a basketball metaphor, I believe teams will produce better when they value assists than when they focus only on points scored.

The Mormon Lit Blitz, to begin with, was not about what Nicole and I do individually as artists, but what we can help others achieve. And so a more collective, collaborative approach as we expand feels right.

Mattathias Westwood: Besides the stated rewards, what benefits do you see donors receiving from participation in the Mormon Lit Lab?

At the end of the day, I hope it will be a great sense of satisfaction and a lot of good memories. Culturally, we have a very consumer exchange mindset about money...we're hoping that supporting the Mormon Lit Lab will feel less like buying something and more like being part of something. We hope everyone involved is able to feel like they did small and simple things to lay the foundation for a great and important work. 

Mattathias Westwood: What do you feel the Mormon Lit Lab would provide that's distinct from other Mormon Literature organizations and presses?

There are a lot of other organizations and presses I  like, but for purposes of this question I'm going to focus on two that are pretty close fits.

The closest analog to what we do is probably Segullah, which is a literary website and community for Mormon women. The most obvious  difference is that we publish men and that what women develop with us is not necessarily going to be read as being part of a dialogue about Mormon women's experience the way the very same piece might be read on Segullah. Both can be valuable: just different.

Peculiar Pages is the closest press. Eight out of their nine titles have been anthologies, which reflects a similar focus on broadening the field and reaching out to a wide range of writers. Their mission is broader than ours: they try to be open to a wide range of culturally Mormon voices, while we focus on things we think would be of specific value to practicing Latter-day Saints.

OK, there's a third organization I don't know as well that's worth mentioning, the Mormon Theology Seminar. As its title suggests, it's not a Mormon Lit organization, but is a structure to bring together people interested in expanding the types and tonal range of discussions we have as Latter-day Saints. Like the Mormon Theology Seminar, we're interested in honoring our heritage by fostering deeper engagement with it. The main difference is that their works will share a technical vocabulary with other people studying theology; our work shares a set of conventions available to anyone who reads fiction, poetry, etc.

Lehua Parker: In addition to the scriptures, which books, essays, podcasts, etc., have helped frame your personal idea of what it means to be LDS and a follower of Christ? 

A true but sort of evasive-sounding answer first: almost anything I read helps me frame those ideas. Being a disciple is of fundamental, anchoring importance to me and so I'm looking for insight and different ways to frame the gospel whether I'm reading about science, sociology, other religions, or just swapping stories with friends. For all time classic, I'd put Elie Wiesel's Souls on Fire pretty high. I return and return to the poets Ghalib and Faiz. The last book to blow my mind was Andrus Kivir√§hk's The Man Who Spoke Snakish. And all of them have influenced the way I frame my own faith and discipleship in some way. 

As far as my favorite LDS Lit: loved Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth. Melissa Leilani Larson's play Little Happy Secrets is really valuable; I also liked Pilot Program--the two make up her recently published collection Third Wheel. The themes in William Morris's Darkwatch stories really resonate with me. A ton of the images from Scott Hales' The Garden of Enid still stand out in my mind. Eric Samuelsen's play The Plan is excellent. I could go on, but I should probably just sit down someday soon and make a reading list.

William Morris: What's your overall philosophy about genre fiction and literary fiction (Mormon faithful realism) both generally and in relation to what you plan on doing with the Mormon Lit Lab?


I care about the work literature does way more than I care about the tools people use to do it. Both Nicole and I ask first how a piece opens us ways to us to think and feel and talk about Mormon ideas and experience: that trumps style every time.

And honestly, a lot of pieces blow stylistic distinctions out of the water. Lee Allred's "Beneath the Visiting Moon," in the contest this year, read a straight up literary realistic fiction to some readers and as genre fiction to others--either way, it was a great look into how we deal with our own demons and what it means to stand with each other through the tough times. 

Tanya Hanamaikai: Why does supporting Mormon Literature excite you?
Mormonism excites me. Years of trying have yet to get me to the point where I can do justice to it in explaining why. Our faith speaks so richly to so many aspects of human existence. It's so simple and grounding on the one hand and so open to imaginative flights to divine heights at the same time.

We take it so much for granted. That's human nature: we turn on autopilot whenever something is routine, we forget the dazzling wonder to keep from being blinded.

Literature is a register that is particularly effective for me at creating an imaginative novelty that allows me regular, renewed access to that foundational wonder and lets me wrestle on ground that may be genuinely new at the same time. Really good Mormon Lit doesn't just impress me in the moment I'm reading it: it sticks with me, it increases my own capacity for imaginative engagement with the world around at both its visible and spiritual levels.

Why wouldn't I want more of that? 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Questions I Beg My Bible to Answer: June 2018

Why are the Egyptians
afraid of the Hebrews?
What moves Pharaoh’s gaze
out the palace window
from the glory of the
pyramids to the hunched
backs of foreign-looking
workers (their brows
bleeding sweat, their
hands caked in mud):
why does the strength
in their aching arms
trouble his dreams
each night? 

Why are the Egyptians
afraid of the Hebrews?
What makes the general 
in his chariot stop and
shiver at the distant
echo of a birthing scream
rising from the hovel
where the great-granddaughter
of a half-starved refugee
is delivering a son?

Oh God, please just
help me understand:
why are the Egyptians
afraid of the Hebrews?
What makes an aging
civilization, haunted
by mirages of its own
bygone youth, turn away
from its treasure cities
and toward the straining
figures of desperate families
determined only to choose
life—what makes them give
the order to tear children
from their mothers’ arms?

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Mattathias Westwood Q&A

"Missionary Weekly Report for 28 March-3 April, Mumbai 1st Branch, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" by Mattathias Westwood, the final finalist in this year's Mormon Lit Blitz, is up today. Check out the story, and then come back for the Q&A:
This piece explores an Indian Mormon experience specifically. How do you feel like the national context shapes the story? Would the same tensions play out differently somewhere else?
The only Mormon experiences I can speak to convincingly are American Mormon experience and Indian Mormon experience. I do think that in India, the pressure of missionary work is heightened by the fact that there are just so many people around to teach. And because religion is such a major and public part of most people's lives, there's not even the excuse that exists in some parts of the world that most people probably just aren't interested in religion of any kind, and that's why they don't want to listen and we maybe don't need to bother them. In India, almost everyone takes religion very seriously, and most people are very open to talking about it. But that doesn't mean that they're going to take Mormonism seriously or decide to join the Church, because conversion is hard and the truthfulness of Mormonism isn't obvious or self-evident at first glance (or second or third).

For me, this led to a state of constant discouragement, where I felt like because people were so ready to listen, if people were not interested in joining the church, it was because I wasn't good enough at teaching the gospel for them to recognize it. At some point, I realized that I was absolutely right-- I wasn't good at teaching it at all, but there were people who understood it anyway, who figured out all the things I couldn't teach them, because it wasn't me they were learning from. I was just there to give them a human point of contact and directions towards the church building.

What role do you think literature could play in increasing our multicultural awareness and imagination in the Church?

The scriptures say that God speaks to people in a language they can understand. I don't know what the future holds, but I hope that as more Mormons from around the world share their own experiences, share how the gospel feels and tastes to them, share what pulled them into this life and keeps pulling them back even when things are hard, that it will help us to be one, in the way that the scriptures say we should.

I think when we hear how the gospel sounds to other people's ears, it will become even more beautiful, and maybe some of the things that cause us worry or pain will be eased as we see them through other eyes, or as we see different ways of doing things, as we learn from each other. I don't think it's fully possible to separate gospel and culture, because they blend together and it can be hard to tell which is which, and stories that show how the gospel weaves itself into different cultures can give us possibilities we didn't think of before or help us see our own mistakes. And all of it hopefully gives us more types of language, so that God has more ways to reach us.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature? 

Honestly, I would be happy just to have more of it, from more people, in more places, thinking through Mormonism in their own experience and writing what it feels like and means for them. I am much more of a reader than a writer, and I read pretty much whatever I can get my hands on and I'm grateful if it helps me think through my own experience or think outside my own experience, and the details of where it comes from or what it says don't matter much to me as long as they are genuine and thoughtful. "Let a thousand flowers bloom."


Where can we read more of your work? 
As I said, I'm more of a reader than a writer. I have lots of stories that float in my head but usually I'm too busy finding new stories to add to the mix and break down into raw materials for living a good life for me to write stories of my own. You could try breaking into my parent's house and sorting through the boxes they keep in the spare bedroom for the notebooks I wrote in when I was in high school. But there are a lot of boxes, and most of them are just my dad's books, so you'd probably get tired of looking, and if you found those old buried stories they might not be worth it.  If you're interested in listening to me ramble on about other people's stories, you can find me at http://mattathiasingh.blogspot.com/ continuing to occasionally write a blog long after it stopped being cool, or you can see what I'm reading and what I've read at https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/14527427-mattathias (My name is Mattathias, king of readers, look upon my works, ye mighty, and get really excited because you've never heard of that book before but it looks really interesting and now it's time to go to the library and check out a bunch of books...)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Eric Jepson Q&A

This year's Mormon Lit Blitz is winding down--just one more story left after today's excellent poem, Eric Jepson's "Joseph and Emma Grow Old Together." Here's a Q&A with the author: 
In your introduction to States of Deseret, you speculated about an alternate history where the wild success of Joseph Smith Sr.'s ginseng venture allows him to send Joseph and Hyrum to study with Ralph Waldo Emerson--and go on to found a college, not a religion. What draws you to alternate history where the restoration as we know it doesn't happen?
In the case of Joseph Smith, his greatness is inextricably tied to the pain and tragedy he endures. We all want to be Christlike, but none of us want to wander the dusty plains of Galilee only to be hung on a cross. I don't know, if given the option, that I wouldn't take the easily understood pleasures of studying with Emerson or growing old with my wife over the recurring stress and sadness and horror of Ohio and Missouri and Illinois. Martin asked to take the translation three times. What if Emma had been as insistent on a peaceful life with her husband?

I don't think I could blame them if she had.

This poem seems to deal with the tension between contentedness on the own hand and intense spiritual quest on the other. How do we deal with a spiritually intense founder in an era when simple, contented life has become such a central value for us?

This is exactly what worries me. I'm teaching seminary now and this year we covered the Book of Mormon. In just a few hundred pages, Mormon lets us stand back and see the shape of one thousand years of human history as a series of mountains and valleys. And times of simple contentment don't often last.

I'm a firm believer that the general thrust of human history is towards goodness and peace---but that doesn't happen on the small scale. That's on the centuries scale. We want to believe our comforts will last forever. I'm not sure scripture smiles at that attitude.
But hey. Life is safer and more predictable without ten new sections added to the D&C every April and October.

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Literature?
Everything. I want more voices from more countries and regions and languages. Which is an honest answer I'm working toward. The now answer is more of what I already love. But please, worldwide Mormonism! Convince me to love you all!

Where can we read more of your work?   


Well, buying stuff on Amazon is good for me.


Unfortunately, my website is down, but a complete bibliography as of seven months ago sits on my blog. (A good place to start might be my previous appearances on the Mormon Lit Blitz, one and two.)

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