Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Making of "Exmormon"

Exmormon was written over the space of a year, and not in chronological order. This is an article I wrote in 2006 to explain how -- and why -- I wrote it.

One day I was on a business trip, and to pass the time in the evenings alone in my hotel room, I'd brought along a stack of old New Yorker magazines to read.

I noticed one of issues I'd brought had a story about Mormon teenagers in it. Mormonism is obscure enough that it's fairly rare to find something about Mormonism in the mass media, so -- like most people raised Mormon -- I was fascinated to find this and to see what they had to say.

My reaction: Not too bad.

But it kind of rang false in a couple of places. Particularly the fact that the Mormon girl in the story tries to talk the non-member kid out of taking his prescription drugs -- on the basis that it's a sin to take drugs. Of course recreational drugs are a big-time sin for Mormons, but medications prescribed by your doctor are not. It's not even a question of "if you're really devout" or something -- the idea that standard western medicine would be a sin doesn't exist in Mormon thought. (Maybe confusing Mormons with Jehovah's Witnesses or Scientologists?)

Then there was the fact that the Mormon girl was using sex as a tactic to draw people into the church and keep them there. My reaction was, "close but no cigar."

In my experience, Mormon teens really do (deliberately or not) use flirting and unfulfilled erotic desire to attract other teenagers to join the church. And I'm not going to claim that Mormon teens never have sex. But for a Mormon girl to give a guy a complete B.J. explicitly as a missionary tactic would be extremely atypical, to say the least. The result would be exactly what happens in the story, namely that the non-Mormon guy thinks: "Thanks for getting me off, bye! (sheesh, these Mormons are weirdos)."

Basically it read as if the author had had some sort of bizarre experience with Mormons when he was younger and was trying to make sense of it.

That story inspired me to a little challenge: Let me paint you a portrait of what it's really like to be a Mormon teenager.

The result of this challenge was the four-chapter novella "Youth

Youth Conference really is fiction and not memoir -- in that the characters aren't just re-namings of real people, and the events didn't happen in quite that way or all together like that. Yet the story is very strongly reality-based and autobiographical.

I was fond of my little story when I wrote it, but it was too long to be published as a short story and too short to be a novel, so I wasn't sure what to do with it. I vaguely had the idea that I could continue the story by writing other segments of the main character's life, but I didn't want to add a bunch of junk to it just to make it longer, so I just left it sitting around on my hard drive for more than a year.

Around that time, I was a big-time regular on the Internet forum exmo-social, and the occasional discussion of Mormonism -- plus the writing practice the experience afforded me -- finally inspired me to write two more segments to the story: one where the main character (Lynn) goes to Brigham Young University (and concludes the church isn't true), and one where she's a young adult ex-Mormon dealing with her LDS (Mormon) family.

The BYU segment is less autobiographical, although it takes elements from life. I've said many times that I was already a non-believer when I started attending BYU, but that wasn't the story I wanted to tell this time. I didn't want to show BYU through the eyes of the angry young apostate, depressed about not having the opportunity to meet other young non-believers and resentful of the enforced religion. So I took my earlier attitude of believing (but just barely hanging onto it) and transposed that mindset onto a lot of the trappings and details of my real-life BYU experience.

One of the ideas I wanted to express in the BYU segment was that the problem with Mormonism isn't that it's not cool -- it's that it's not true. So I invented the character of Paige as something of a composite of a lot of people I knew who worked on the independent student publication The Student Review, who were these hip, non-conformist, liberal Mormons -- easily cooler than the shy, nerdy main character Lynn -- yet who were true believers. (see ask a Mormon Girl -- she was one of my colleagues during my Student Review days.)

To have Lynn meet the cool Mormon girl (Paige), I decided to hold a little illicit slumber party in a cabin. The Student Review actually did organize cabin slumber parties, although they were supervised (unlike the little unofficial party in my story). I remember thinking -- way back when I was attending such a sleepover with a whole bunch of young people of both genders sleeping in one big room -- that the situation had a huge amount of suppressed erotic potential. It seemed a terrible shame at the time that there was no one there at the sleepover that I wanted to share the flirty secret erotic spark with. True to form for a first novel, I opened up this box of regrets and re-wrote the scene the way it should have happened. Thus, the character of Rex Wendell was created.

When I finished the BYU segment -- even though the plot and story structure left something to be desired -- I was well-pleased.

I was a little worried about starting on the family segment (later called Temple Wedding) because I didn't want it to end up as some junk tacked on to the other two pieces, dragging them down. so I spent a lot of time planning what should be included.

First of all, I was fond of the character Rex and of his relationship with Lynn, so I wanted to bring him back. Yet I didn't want it to be that they'd gotten together very young and consequently had grown up with little relationship experience and would eventually start wondering about all the erotic exploration they'd missed out on. I didn't want them to have that kind of relationship. So I decided to have their initial relationship be brief -- as they were attending different universities -- and have them get together again on a permanent basis years later.

Aside from that, I had an easy time thinking of all of the things the LDS (Mormon) family members could do to irritate the exmo (apostate) characters ;^) but I was unhappy with the list because I felt it came off as whiny, and it wasn't interesting, and it wasn't a story. I had to find a way to balance it out so that I wasn't one-sidedly presenting the Mormons as the only bad guys.

Then I came up with the idea of having Rex buy beer for his sixteen-year-old younger brother. That was when I finally felt like "Okay, I can do this." That was the perfect scenario for this story because it was something I could easily see a young adult apostate doing -- and seeing as funny and no big deal -- that would make the Mormon parents completely flip out. (Thus illustrating their difference in perspective.)

The whole scene -- the dreadful dinner scene -- came to me all at once like a lightning bolt. That scene was really the turning point for me that changed this whole project from "look at me -- aren't I clever? I'm writing stories!" to "I have to publish this story and make a connection with people through it."

The funny thing is that for more than a year after writing that scene, I was patting myself on the back for writing such a thing from pure imagination since our family never had an explosive fight over the kids' apostasy like that. Since all of the circumstances and superficial trappings of the argument in the story were invented, I saw the scene as being wholly fictional.

It was only by reading my journal later that I realized how closely this scene portrayed (caricatured) a series of fights (and one in particular) that I had with my own parents. Again, like a proper first novel, it's all about exploring wounds that were smoothed over and forgotten but never healed; exorcising demons by reliving the bad parts and correcting them. In the fictional version (unlike reality), when Rex went off in disgrace, he had Lynn to tell him that everything would be okay.

The rest of the Temple Wedding section was just the icing on the cake. I was deliberately trying to cover a lot of details about Mormonism, and the story structure suffered for it. the funny thing, though, is that by throwing so many random things into the story blender, this segment ended up being kind of a seminal section, creating various character dynamics that I decided I wanted to explore further.

The part of "Temple Wedding" that I had the most fun with was the interaction between the Hobbs and the Wendells -- the one Mormon family with all of the signs of piety and righteousness (garden, uber-homemaker-SAHM, lots of kids on missions), and the other Mormon family with none of that but a lot more money. As both advantages are important for status in the LDS community, each family ends up jealous of the other.

When Lynn's three-part story was done, I gave it to my husband to read.

One his comments was that instead of being intimidated by Sister Hobbs' kids' (religious) accomplishments, Sister Wendell should have stood up for her (apostate) son and should have been willing to proudly recount his (non-religious) accomplishments to Sister Hobbs. I told him he was right, but that that wouldn't fit this story. I decided to go with his suggestion and write it up as a separate short story. Here I shifted voice for the first time, and instead of telling the story from Lynn's perspective, I told it from the perspective of Rex's younger brother Jared.

My plan was then to tack this story on to the little novel as an epilogue, but my husband caught me and told me not to. He pointed out that even though it has the same characters, it really doesn't follow as an epilogue -- it's completely separate.

I agreed, and decided that instead of using it as an epilogue, I'd use it as a starting point for a new story. I'd had fun with the Sam-Joe-Jared dynamic in "Temple Wedding" (which was an extension of the Wendells vs. the Hobbs), and I felt like I wanted to continue their adventures.

One of the million aspects of Mormonism I'd portrayed in the "Temple Wedding" segment was the connection between the mainstream Mormons and the (polygamist) Mormon fundamentalists. I'd gotten an email from a former Mormon fundamentalist (whom I'd met through exmo-social) full of details on the subject that he said I could use in my story if I liked.

One particularly dramatic incident the former fundamentalist had recounted (on exmo-social as well as in this email and his online autobiography) was that he had been allowed to attend a mainstream high school (despite being a fundamentalist), and there he fell in love with a mainstream Mormon girl. Naturally he explained his own beliefs to her -- what he'd been taught as true -- and when her parents got wind of it, they were horrified and forbade her from ever seeing him again. He wound up heartbroken (and maybe thinking it would have been better not to have gone out of his way to tell her about the fact that the mainstream LDS church is obviously in apostasy for giving up polygamy, among other things...).

His story was a poignant one. However, since my novel is fiction and not a retelling of some real person's life, I figured I'd take some details and piece together a different story. So I had my former-fundamentalist character Joe attending a normal high school (in my story it was because he had run away from his polygamist family), and had him fall in love with a girl from a mainstream LDS family, and had her family freak out when they discover she's frequenting a guy who was raised in polygamy, and have them forbid her from ever seeing him again.

But then instead of having her be a docile, obedient LDS girl who submits to her parents' wishes, I figured it would be more fun to have her be an ex-Mormon atheist girl who defies her parents and sees the guy anyway. I know I'm just being silly of course, but I liked that scenario much better. ;^)

Of course, to me it seems like a proper teen romance has to have a poignant, heartbreaking quality to it. It's a part of growing, learning, and gaining experience. So when I wrote Joe's romance, I kept the focus on Jared (Rex's younger brother), who loses out as he falls in love with the same girl. In the long run, however, he gains valuable experience.

And fortunately for Jared, he gets a great party scene. The party
sequence up through his chat about it with his brother Rex the next day is one of my favorite segments in the whole novel, including the parts that were written later.

At that point, I'd decided that I had two novels: Lynn's story and the sequel, Jared's story (eventually titled "Orem High"). My husband told me that novels don't really come in twos, and that I needed another to make it a trilogy. I was inclined to agree because I'd had fun so far and wanted to keep going.

(Despite this constructive advice, my husband hated Jared's story -- he apparently didn't like the idea that some dumb kid from Utah should get to have his own car and go to parties with girls, etc. -- and so he refused to read any more of my novel after that.)

I decided that next I wanted to explore a theme I'd alluded to back in the Youth Conference segment, namely the fear (as a chaste-not-entirely-by-choice Mormon teen) of things getting out of hand and getting pregnant as a result.

Looking around for a spot in my fictional universe to situate this story, I hit upon an off-hand comment I'd put in the BYU segment. In order to help illustrate the relationship between Jake and his jack-Mormon mom, I'd recounted how she'd laughed it off when Jake's uncle had made a disapproving comment about Jake going on a road trip to Las Vegas to gamble. I took that as a starting point, fleshing out that tiny anecdote as being a trip where Jake takes Rex and Jared's sister Jill to Las Vegas to get an abortion.

When I wrote this segment (eventually titled Saturday's Warrior), I had just re-read my teenage journals, so I wrote the whole thing in that voice and mindset. This prospect -- and this fear -- was clearly another big demon that had haunted my adolescence that I wanted to get out. I wrote the whole segment practically all at once, like a fever dream.

One nice thing about this part was that by this time I'd gotten over the idea that I needed to cover a list of particular details about Mormonism, so I could just write it as a free-flowing, reasonably-structured story. I ended up portraying additional aspects of Mormonism as they came up naturally in the story rather than bending and stretching the story to fit them.

Once I'd written Jill's story, I decided it was a prequel to Lynn's story and that I had a trilogy on my hands.

There were a few problems with this trilogy plan though. First of all, both Jill's story (Saturday's Warrior) and Jared's story (Orem High) were too short to be complete novels, even young adult novels. Then there was the fact that the Youth Conference segment of Lynn's story naturally came before Jill's story both chronologically and thematically. I felt like Jill's story really ought to be read between the first two parts of Lynn's story.

For a long time, I had a bunch of ideas on the back-burner for other stories to turn my "trilogy" into a "series" (called Exmormon) that could one day be published all together in a single volume. Eventually I realized that that single volume was where I really wanted to go with this work, so I selected a set of related stories I wanted to write up and include.

First of this new batch was the little interlude: Gratuitous Love Scene. I called it that as a joke because of the fact that Mormons always say things like "it was a good movie overall, but why did they have to include that one scene?" You know what scene they're always talking about. It doesn't matter if the love/sex scene is important to story, to Mormons if it's a sex scene, it's a priori superfluous and should be cut out.

In the case of the Gratuitous Love Scene, I added it because it was necessary for the overall story structure. It develops the relationship of Rex and Lynn, it's an important step for Lynn in terms of dealing with her conditioning, and I needed to include a sweet and romantic sex scene to counterbalance the more questionable sex scenes in Jill's story and Jared's story.

I know those who have read the "Gratuitous Love Scene" probably think I'm crazy to call this scene "sweet and romantic," but seriously I'm not at all a romantic person, so from my crazy perspective this is romance. ;)

After that, I decided exactly which additional stories I wanted to include. I wanted to add April's story (Young Women's) to flesh out her character a little better so that when her situation comes up in the BYU segment it doesn't seem like it's coming out of nowhere.

Additionally, I wanted to open with her story in order to illustrate what it's like for a young teenager dealing with church and trying to believe.

April's story was pretty easy to write since I wrote it mostly from my own journals and memories. The only tricky part was guessing what it would be like for a young lesbian to deal with all of the romance-and-temple-marriage indoctrination that the young women get. Basically I did my research by reading Queer 13 and The Indelible Allison Bechdel and did my best to extrapolate.

I wrote the wrap-up chapter next (Exmo Conference) which is just a fun little "what happened to everyone" conclusion.

Next I wrote Bordeaux Mission. I wanted to write that one because I've always been fascinated by LDS missionary stories, and all through my novel people talk about missions (with young Mormons, somebody's always setting off on one, or on one, or just back), so I wanted to include the actual experience. Additionally, in Jared's story I'd introduced the character Tanya -- who wasn't originally intended as a sympathetic character, but who ended up stealing the show in a lot of ways. So I wanted to explore her character further by giving her a new boyfriend -- someone with a little more self-confidence than Jared -- who wouldn't be intimidated by a woman who takes the lead. Thus the character of Spencer Hobbs was created.

I had a great time writing Spencer's story, largely because I got lots of fantastic mission details and inspiration from another person I met on exmo-social. With his help, I had an easier time writing Spencer as a clever jock, to balance out my character spectrum which had been hopelessly weighted a little too heavily towards scrawny math/science nerds (i.e. my own familiar social circle).

I was so pleased with the Spencer character that I had him play a leading role in the last segment I wrote (Polygamist, part 5 of the novel), which I added in order to introduce Joe's character and explain how it came to be that he was living with his uncle's family.

Writing a story in such a haphazard manner makes for kind of a random and confusing narrative structure. Yet the story is actually fairly well organized if you look at it thematically as a portrait of growing up Mormon and leaving the church as a young person:

1. Young Women's: Trying to be a good Mormon and live up to the church's expectations for you as a young teen.
2. Youth Conference: More serious indoctrination and the beginnings of cognitive dissonance.
3. Saturday's Warrior: The dark side of the resulting mindset.
4. BYU: The epiphany; realizing that it's not real or true.
5. Polygamist: Breaking free of the mindset.
6. Temple Wedding: Dealing with the family fallout.
7. Orem High: A second adolescence while exploring your new-found freedom.
8. Bordeaux Mission: Reflecting on your life, your choices, your feelings about the church.
9. Exmo Conference: wrap-up.

It's very clear that this is a first novel -- between the autobiography, the coming-of-age aspect, and the purging of those fantasies and demons that are closest to the surface. That's why I don't want to try to re-write some subset of this material into a more-reasonably-structured different novel. For the future, I'd rather start over with all new material and a plan. ;-)

Still, I think this one has a lot of potential interest and value as it is, which is why I'm posting it online, in hopes of making a connection with people who might relate to some of the characters and situations I've portrayed.

Don't forget -- the conclusion will be posted online this Tuesday!!


Aerin said...

I've heard the advice "Write as if everyone you know is dead". So I think it's thoughtful of you to detail your process and inspiration for your work.

C. L. Hanson said...

lol, and my parents even know about this blog!

But, seriously, it's not a secret, and it's not a "novel a clef". I obviously used details from life, but I want my family to understand that no character is supposed to be any real person.

Nathaniel said...

(Despite this constructive advice, my husband hated Jared's story -- he apparently didn't like the idea that some dumb kid from Utah should get to have his own car and go to parties with girls, etc. -- and so he refused to read any more of my novel after that.)

I must admit, this criticism of your husband really confused me. I don't get what's he's objecting to.

Also, thanks for the thought process behind these fantastic pieces of writing.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Nathaniel!!!

You're right -- I didn't explain that very clearly. I just mean that he didn't like it because he really didn't like the protagonist. He's OK with reading stories where the protagonist isn't sympathetic -- but sometimes it can be grating when you find the protagonist to be kind of a jerk. ;^)