Thursday, December 22, 2005

Mormon Lit Misfit: Trying to write like one of them when you no longer are

The editor of the LDS literary journal Irreantum is quoted in the latest issue as saying "The animosity I sense in Utah, at least, toward Mormonism, from both within and outside of the culture, is potent."

I know you're going to tell me that I need to cut out the solopsistic paranoia when I tell you this, but my first reaction on reading the above quote was "Uh-oh, I hope she's not talking about me."

To any reasonable person it should be obvious that she can't be talking about me -- I'm not even in Utah. And just because I submitted some not-terribly-faith-promoting stories set in Utah to her magazine doesn't necessarily mean that I've pissed her off.

Any guilt about possibly having pissed her off didn't really set in until I read further and got to the quote where she talked about the difficulties of juggling family responsibilities plus a regular job while trying to do good work on her literary pursuits on the side. That's something I can totally relate to as a programmer-mom-"humorist/novelist." (I put that last one in quotes because that's the one of my titles that's imaginary.)

So as my penance for possibly having annoyed Laraine Wilkins (editor of Irreantum), I'll risk wearing out my welcome with the Utah Valley Monitor's readers by asking you all very nicely to consider a gift subscription to Irreantum for that Mormon-Lit-fan-who-has-everything-(exept-a-subscription-to-Irreantum) on your Christmas list.

I'd get a subscription myself except that (a) I'm barely making ends meet as it is, and (b) it's probably really expensive to get such a subscription with shipping all the way to France included, see (a). So I had to lift the above quotes from the blog A Motley Vision and just hope I can trust the bloggers over there not to have misquoted Laraine Wilkins or anything.

I've seen the magazine Irreantum in real life, even though I don't subscribe. At my parents' house, my mom had a big stack of copies of it on her nightstand. I wanted to read it, but I didn't because I had just had a story re-jayed by the magazine, so I couldn't bring myself to look at it.

I know that was a totally irrational reaction. A rational reaction would be to say, "I should take this opportunity to read the magazine so I might get an idea of what kinds of stories they print in order to have a better chance of sending something appropriate in the future" instead of saying, "Ouch! Painful reminder of rejection! Must look away!"

It was doubly irrational since -- facing reality -- the story I sent in wasn't all that great, and in fact the editor (same editor as quoted above) sent me back a very nice email full of perfectly good suggestions. Of course, I'm just barely rational enough to recognize the difference between rational and irrational behavior -- not quite rational enough to act on this knowledge and actually behave in a rational manner.

My other irrational response to the above rejection was to write another story that was at once 10 times better and 10 times worse -- and then enter the new story in the Sunstone fiction contest. Ten times better in terms of story structure, characters, dialogue, and stuff like that. Ten times worse in terms of content.

The story I entered in the contest is a really good story that would for sure merit at least an honorable mention if the subject matter weren't so questionable. Seriously, that's my honest opinion. Of course I also think my own kids are the cutest kids on the entire planet, so you might take it with a grain of salt.

The trouble is that the story is really racy. The whole thing is "adult themes" plus one bad word. When I sent it in I was saying to myself, "It's Sunstone. Everybody knows those guys are practically apostates anyway. They'll love this."

Then in a more lucid moment (after dropping it in the mail) I thought to myself, "I've got to be off my nut to imagine that any practicing Mormon at all would be anything but offended by this story."

After that I thought to myself, "You know, I'm really making a nuisance of myself here."

Now, I'm not trying to make a nuisance of myself on purpose. Please allow me to explain how I ended up thinking it might be a good idea to send stories to LDS publications.

My mom is a writer (professionally full-time now, freelance when I was a teen), and she always used to say, "Write what you know." I'm pretty sure it was my mom who said that. Well, anyway, some writer said that, and it seems like good advice.

So, digging around in my little brain for entertaining stories to jot down, naturally in a dusty old trunk near the back I found a bunch of great, hilarious material about Mormons.

Some may say that by writing stories about Mormons from an apostate perspective, I'm being one of those people who "can leave the church but can't leave it alone."

I ask, whose childhood am I supposed to write about? I didn't ask to be raised in this religion.

I know some of you who believe in the pre-existence will say that in fact I did ask to be raised in this religion, before I was born and everything. But I know myself pretty well, and I'm sure that if I did ask to be raised Mormon back in the pre-existence, I was just kidding.

Of course even if you grant that it's not evil for me to want to write stories about Mormons, that still doesn't explain how I got it into my head that it was a good idea to send such stories to publications by and for faithful LDS. That is a story in and of itself.

What happened was that I sent a collection of my stories to a novelist friend of mine (the author of The Grasshopper King), and as part of his response, he sent the URL for the blog "A Motley Vision" which leads to resources on the web for LDS authors (which, in fact, led me to Irreantum).

I laughed at my novelist friend's naiveté about how LDS culture works, thinking that I might get help from mainstream Mormon Lit resources. My friend is Jewish, and he was probably foolishly assuming that Mormon lit works like Jewish lit, where merely having Jewish characters and themes is sufficient for a story to be Jewish interest (without necessarily having any spiritual/supernatural content at all).

My impression is that that's not the way it works in LDS society. You see, if (like me!) you write a story in which most of the characters just happen to be Mormons (some more righteous, some less), throw in a bunch of borderline-inappropriate sex jokes, and top it off by accidentally forgetting to mention how inspiring General Conference is, that's not Mormon literature. That's anti-Mormon literature.

Then I thought that maybe I wasn't giving these LDS literature resources enough credit. For all I know, maybe some LDS publications (the ones that aren't directly sponsored by the church, at least) are actually interested in getting a complete narrative portrait of Mormon culture from all different perspectives.

After all, in the blog "A Motley Vision" there's a whole article about "Fiddler Envy," i.e. the fact that the Mormons would like to have an LDS work that is as popular in mainstream society as Fiddler on the Roof. Well, one thing that jumps out about Fiddler on the Roof is that it's just a story about ordinary people who happen to be Jewish -- it doesn't try to demonstrate that Jews are necessarily happier or more enlightened than anyone else. So maybe the Mormon lit community would be open to neutral stories in which the characters happen to be LDS.

Irreantum's editor writes: "Of the handful of texts I think of as foundational for Mormonsim, spiritual autobiography is embedded in the very narrative structures and rhetoric that church members use to understand and articulate their own search for truth and connection to the divine."

I translate that to mean that they like spiritual stuff, particularly the kind that portrays the LDS Church as being true. That's not the perspective I write from, but maybe there's no harm in trying....

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 8, 2005.


Lessie said...

Hi Chanson. I've never posted before, but I lurk a lot. I'm LDS, currently agnostic, so I don't go to church anymore, and I've appreciated your blog as a way to kind of explore life without God. So thanks for your help that way. Anyway, just wondering if you knew that Laraine Wilkins was killed in a car accident last year (the editor of Irreantum)? It was really a sad deal. But for future reference, Irreantum is more faith promoting. You might try Dialogue, though. They take stories and essays from members, ex-members, and Community of Christ members and ex-members as well. I don't know their URL, but you might be able to google them.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lessie!!!

Thanks for the suggestion -- you're right, Dialogue would be a good choice. Since I've been blogging, I've gotten a better feel for the various publishers of Mormon literature. Unfortunately it hasn't helped me since I haven't written any new fiction since then: blogging seems to take up all of my creative juices, or at least all my creative time...

I read about Laraine Wilkins' death over on A Motley Vision. True, it was a sad loss. I didn't know her except for exchanging a couple emails with her as described in this post, but she seemed like a nice person.