The Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Arts

4.14.09 | | 30 comments

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As Motley Vision‘s newest Official Contributor, I feel an obligation to have my first post explain something of my experience within and attitude towards the Mormon arts.

Several months ago, I plotted out a post called “Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Artist” which I had intended to submit to William. I’m glad I never finished it however as further reflection has suggested to me that I was implying that that my proposed version of the hero’s journey was a necessary part of being a good Mormon artist. As if being an Orson Scott Card or a Dean Hughes is more admirable than being a Heather Moore or an Anita Stansfield (no sexism intended). And so I continued refining the idea and now I feel that it is not Mormon artists who are on a hero’s journey, but the Mormon arts entire. I will not be going into all seventeen stages of the monomyth, but I will deal with the three major groupings and hit on the secondary levels when they seem helpful.

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Departure
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Let me quickly clarify that I don’t think apostasy needs to be part of the artistic journey. Not that sort of departure.

But before we can talk about what I do mean by departure, we need to figure out from whence we are departing.

So. From whence are we departing?

Home Literature.

Eugene England defined Home Literature as “highly didactic fiction and poetry designed to defend and improve the Saints but”, as he adds, generally “of little lasting worth.” Although the official home lit period ended c. 1880, it really never stopped, as a glimpse at the recent Whitney noms demonstrates. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with Home Lit. It’s where we, as Mormons, are from. It is our home. But the hero cannot stay home. Not and still be a hero. So it is with the Mormon arts. The Mormon arts must leave home (lit) and go out into the world.

Since our president recently made an embarrassing crack about the Special Olympics, I’m going to quote a Mormon filmmaker doing the same: “If we are living up to President Kimball’s creative call to arms then Mormon Media wouldn’t be the Special Olympics, and it shouldn’t be the Special Olympics right now. “
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Specifically we were talking about why he and a friend who makes comics avoid the “Mormon” label in their professional work because, as in his case, “to most people that means I’m making the next Singles Ward.” Which is a stigma no self-respecting filmmaker would want.
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But, in monomythic terms, this is what what happens when we as a community of artists refuse The Call to Adventure. We refuse the call to make great (explicitly Mormon) art out in the world and we end up in the Special Olympics.
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Those Mormon artists who do accept the call however then must Cross the First Threshold, which, in my myopic view, seems to be the gatekeepers of Mormon culture. The buyers for Deseret Book and Seagull Book. Leave Home Lit and you’re no longer welcome at home. Take last year’s brouhaha over Angel Falling Softly (one of my posts on the subject). It wasn’t the quality of Woodbury’s book that was under debate. Its homelittiness and only its homelittiness was under debate. So it goes.
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Initiation
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For this portion of the journey I will be treating the monomyth much more loosely. Suffice it to say that this is where Mormon Arts move out into the world and accomplish great things. Where the Mormon Arts become the hero.
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Some say that those who call artists like Orson Scott Card our Greatest Artists do so only because they better respect worldly success — “worldly” in the Mormon-specific pejorative sense, “worldly” in the great-and-spacious-building-sense, “worldly” in the left-home sense. In the heroic sense, in other words.
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But this is the call. To go into all the world.
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And I want to make explicit once again that I am not talking about Mormon artists individually, but the Mormon arts collectively. There will always be a place for Home Literature. But the Mormon arts must go into the world. This is the journey we are obliged to undertake. There will be trials and setbacks and disappointments and failures and missteps and horrors and disasters, and there will be successes and triumphs and joys and hearts changed. And having moved into the world, when the gathering commences and we are called back Home, the Mormon Arts will have the Ultimate Boon Campbell spoke of. We will then be as fully prepared as we can be to serve our own people, God’s people, the Millennial people.
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Return
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The opening scene in the Return (as defined by Campbell) is the hero’s refusal to return. Having gained enlightenment/glory in the World, returning home seems like a lousy thing to do. I suspect it is this moment in the journey — the moment of from-me-remove-this-cup — that keeps much of Mormon Art from leaving home in the first place. I worry that we have an intense fear of failing to return and that it keeps us home and static. We become like that fellow trusted with one talent who then promptly buried it in the ground. And look how he turned out.
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The Return is the whole point of the story! But we can’t expect the Mormon Arts to experience a Return unless it first accepts the call and moves into the world! Lovely parts of the Journey like Atonement and Apotheosis become meaningless and selfish without the Return and vital moments like becoming the Master of Two Worlds are not even possible without the Return. There are laws irrevocably decreed in heaven. We must take more thought than merely to ask. Et cetera.
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Speaking religiously, this is the point in world history wherein the Saints are to move out into the world, be in the world, create on the world stage.
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One of the single most influential moments of my life came while reading the Ensign while eating corndogs during the waning weeks of my mission. Elder Ballard’s call to art spoke deep to my soul:
We call upon all members, those in the arts and those seeking to appreciate the message of good art, to expand their vision of what can be done. If we are going to fill the world with goodness and truth, then we must be worthy to receive inspiration so we can bless the lives of our Heavenly Father’s children.
You’ll note that the expectation is that we will fill the world with goodness and truth. We don’t have to sacrifice our identity to accept this call to journey, but we must be go into the world and sacrifice everything we now comfortably assume. We have to be willing to cross that first threshold and take the hand of deity and suffer and learn until we finally succeed.
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And then we will return, greater than ever we were, prepared to make art more Godly than we had been prepared to make before.
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Now. Me.
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As I’ve said, I see this journey being required of the Mormon arts generally, and not necessarily all Mormon artists specifically. But I feel that I, as someone who has a testimony of this need to travel into the world and create great goodness to share with the world, that I have an obligation to be part of that journey. To build on the work of the Cards and Hughses and Perrys and Hales and Allreds and Petersons and Larsens and Christensens and the others who have begun this journey for us.
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We have a long long way to go.
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And yes, I do write for my own people as well as for the world (my sole publishable novel for instance). Never would I suggest we need to neglect our own people in order to undertake this journey, but we do need to undertake this journey.
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That’s where I stand as regards the trajectory and destiny of the Mormon Arts. I wouldn’t be amiss to call it a testimony.
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But our travels have only begun. And we have far, far to go before we are worthy and prepared to Return, to hear, as He heard, that we have finished the work which He gave us to do.
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And so I have accepted the call to move into the lone and dreary world. I don’t, in fact, see how I can refuse.
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This is where I stand. This is the direction I’m headed in. This is where I feel we must go.
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Speaking of myself now as an individual, and not of our arts collectively.

30 comments: “The Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Arts

  1. Wm Morris

    Very nice, Theric. And welcome aboard.

    I’m not sure that I entirely agree, though. As I discuss in Slowly Flowering the story of Mormon arts as a whole has technically (and if you buy in to Eugene England’s Mormon literary periods) already gone through this movement. That’s the whole point of the faithful realism period — that it is both a coming home but also a flowering of talent that will be recognized nationally. As I outline in that paper, it’s a view that is ideologically motivated by those who are invested in this Faithful Realism movement (and certainly AMV, the Mormon journals and even to a certain extent some of the newer venues like Mormon Artist Magazine and the New Play Project are still invested somewhat in this concept) — that is, we’ve had our embarrassing home lit moment and the subsequent lost generation (those who go out but don’t return) and so now is the time grow out of those two adolescent approaches to Mormon culture.

    Of course, as you note individual artists make their own journeys.

    I also don’t believe in a world stage. It’s all tribal stages now. We’re all hyphenated and genre-fied.

    And what happens when Mormons take the materials to the national stage? They either have to dilute them. Or avoid them. Or obscure them. Or have some success only to find themselves scorned for their socio-religio-political beliefs (c.f. Orson Scott Card).

    Well, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to this subject so I won’t go on. But I am highly intrigued by what forms this call to move in to the world will take for you, Theric. And I am glad that you talk about suffering and about a Return.

  2. Th.

    .

    I see journey in the arts paralleling our journey as a people generally as well. That is, the arts are in the world because we as a people are in the world. When the prophet calls us to return to Zion, when we can no longer be in the world safely, when there is only Zion and Babylon and no gray area, then we are to return, fully and wholly.

    I’m really quite the mystic.

  3. Th.

    .

    (Note: I should perhaps add that I don’t think Slowly Flowering and Hero’s Journey are a dichotomy, separated by a void, a never-the-twain-shall-meet thing. Real life, in my view, is always more complex than the model.)

  4. Tyler

    Great post, Th. And, as Wm. said, it’s good to have you on board officially.

    When I was first “called” into the world of Mormon arts and letters, I was very homelitty; I was by and large convinced that Mormon arts needed to be orthodox, by which I mean they should be by and for “active” Mormons and should adhere strictly to Mormon doctrine in order to convert or reactivate souls.

    And while I still believe that art, in its deepest sense, is meant to facilitate change in its artist and its audience, I’ve become more liberal in my view of what Mormon art should constitute, perhaps because I’ve been engaged in an effort to create meaningful art of my own. I think this represents my own journey into the world, my engagement with ideas that I hadn’t confronted in my own upbringing.

    Whatever the case, I agree that the Mormon arts needn’t be insular. We don’t have to hide from the world; we can and should engage it on its own terms, all the while (as Neal A. Maxwell was fond of saying) staying true to our citizenship in Zion. In my mind, this is a journey down the higher road, one in which we take the best of both worlds (because, let’s face it, there are a lot of things about Mormon culture that aren’t necessarily the best just as there are a lot of things in the world that could do our culture good) and forge new understandings of ourselves, our culture, and our God.

    To deny that is to become very (dare I say it?) Wasatch Front in our views of the world outside the Intermountain West. We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this world and our responsibilities to and within it. And we shouldn’t be damn doctrinaire when it comes to making and talking about art.

  5. Wm Morris

    The funny thing, Theric, is that lately I’ve been thinking about writing some posts for AMV and elsewhere that call for more of a return. Not the same Return you are talking about, which, of course, will come from seers and prophets, but a retrenchment or reorientation or repositioning of sorts — a way to become more cohesive and vital as a people out in the world.

  6. Th.

    .

    I think that’s actually one of our responsibilities during our journey, William. Part of the reason things like Miss Misery happen is because Mormon artists aren’t sufficiently in the world and citizens of Zion simultaneously. Artists should not be expected to teach discussions, but we do have an obligations to introduce our millions of friends to the missionaries. So to speak.

    Tyler—

    It’s funny because my journey has been quite opposite. I find myself being more and more a part of the Mormon scene as I go along. I think because it’s comfortable and because I better understand the rules of the game. In other words, I treat it as a crutch rather than fulfilling my responsibilities to be the best I can be on the world stage. I worry about that. Saints should never do what is easy or comfortable. We were born to toil and suffer. And I need to get on that.

  7. Jonathan Langford

    Reading the comments, my problem here is that I’m not sure the people writing home lit are, by and large, the same people who are called on the heroic (artistic) journey.

    I was very struck with something that BYU professor Marion Smith said once when we were debating which was harder to write, science fiction or fantasy. I’d expected him to say science fiction, since he was more an sf fan than a fantasy fan. Instead, he said (paraphrasing) that in his experience the question was irrelevant, since people write what they feel drawn to write.

    In short, just because someone called a writer produces (a), and someone else called a writer produces (b), I don’t think we can talk about individual writers and the choices they have to make (or the progression they undergo) from (a) to (b).

  8. Theric Jepson Post author

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    I agree. Which is why I’m trying to look at this more from the macro level — the largescale general trends rather than the lives and work of individuals.

    To clarify my above comment to Tyler in that light, I’m surprised to find myself writing very Mormon work, but I have no problem with me doing that. What I have a problem with is then bringing that work to a solely Mormon audience. Which I see as a light-under-the-bushel-type sin.

  9. William Morris

    Yeah, I wonder how I would approach this if I had gone to BYU as planned (up until my senior year of high school). I think it’s obvious that much of my approach is shaped by being a product of the California higher education system (I attended a community college, UC and CSU) and discovering Mormon literature on the side rather than being steeped in Mormon culture.

  10. Jonathan Langford

    Responding to Theric’s latest–

    I think that different stories are written to different audiences. If you find yourself drawn to stories that are told most naturally to a Mormon audience, why resist that? Unless it’s simply because that’s not a big enough audience to pay the bills…

    I’ve had several people question why my current novel is being written to a Mormon audience–why I’m not looking at a national publisher for it. I don’t think anyone has asked that question who’s actually read it, though. It might be possible to rewrite it for a national audience, but I don’t think it would be as good a story that way.

  11. Tyler

    Jonathan:

    Your comment (#9) made me think of this scripture, wherein Alma realizes that different people are given responsible for different communities, which in turn helped me see this heroic/artistic quest in a different light. Within Mormon culture and beyond, there are such a diverse range of communities that are worthy of our attention, that no one person can really reach them all. Hence, the Home Lit-ters, the faithful realists (though I prefer the term spiritual realist), etc. And the real challenge, I think, is finding which community most needs your voice (not “your” specifically, but “your” generally) and speaking there.

    Of course, there can be significant overlap between the communities and we should learn to speak as many different “languages” as possible, but I think the wide range of writerly “callings” is an important point to consider. Thanks for giving me the means to turn my understanding just a bit (another reason I [heart] AMV…)

  12. MoJo

    I know what Hanukkah, seder, Yom Kippur, the Torah, and bar mitzvah are.

    I know what a rosary, a novena, a priest, confession, Vulgate, mass, and communion are.

    I’ll be happy when the rest of the world is as conversant with Word of Wisdom, law of chastity, going to THE temple (v “going to temple”), stake, ward, sacrament meeting, D&C (erm, not dilatation and curettage), and dry–erm, HIGH councilman as we are.

    That’s what the hero’s journey for Mormon arts is, in my opinion. The quest is to demystify ourselves by demystifying our customs, our culture, and our jargon–and open it up for inspection so that others can see, “Oh. Hmm. They’re on the same spiritual path other people of faith are and they struggle with their issues, too.”

    It’s not my goal to help bring that to fruition, but if I can help inch that along a little bit…

  13. Th.

    .

    As an artist, I am not a missionary. HOWEVER. I do do missionary work.

    People who already accept Christ are more likely to become Mormons. People with Mormon friends are more likely to convert. People with Mormon family are the most likely. People with no knowledge of our faith remain least likely.

    So I may not be a missionary, but I am still doing missionary work.

    ———

    Also, I think it’s fine to tell a story to a purely Mormon audience. But I do think many more stories can be told nationally than we think. We need to give those readers some credit.

  14. Katya

    Theric, you appear to be mixing your definitions of “Home Literature.” Your main post gives only Eugene England’s definition which stipulates that Home Literature is “highly didactic” but “of little lasting worth,” while, in comments, you and other posters seem to be contrasting literature written for a Mormon audience and literature intended for a wider audience (but presumably still with Mormon themes or roots).

    I have other comments I’d like to make, but they’ll be misinterpreted if I don’t point out this conflation, first.

  15. Katya

    (I.e., I don’t think that all literature written for a Mormon audience has to be overly moralistic and of little literary value.)

  16. William Morris

    I fully agree, Katya. And the literature I’m most interested is that that’s speaking to a Mormon audience and has literary value (and also genre value) and esp. that which resists/critiques/plays with “worldly” notions of literariness and genre-ness.

  17. Th.

    .

    Katya—

    I was aware of it and uncomfortable with doing it for the reasons you state. The of-little-literary-worth caveat is, I think, not necessarily part of Home Lit (although, let’s face it, it often is). I personally define Home Lit as for Mormons, by Mormons. And I think that is inherently limiting and not really the best road, although I don’t deny that some feel called to it and I don’t wish to denigrate it. I feel that even Home Lit as per that definition should still be offered to and applicable to the world at large. Making it not purely Home Lit. I think there’s something inherently unMormon about being that cliquish.

    So yes, I’m engaging in a lot of doubletalk here. I just hope not offensively so.

  18. Wm Morris

    I’m not offended, but I think you have a much more positive view of literary discourse than I do. I, admittedly, take a much more “minor/ethnic literature” approach to the issue of what Mormons should be writing and to whom.

  19. Th.

    .

    My feeling is that being specifically ourselves does not negate our potential within or obligation to the world. I really don’t see the two as being separate arts, but separate attitudes toward audience.

  20. Jonathan Langford

    MoJo,

    Not necessarily. I think what you were getting at in your earlier post is part of what Theric was writing about.

    ######

    I’m under the impression that the classic definition of “home literature” is not just literature written by and for Mormons, but also written for a retrenchment-type purpose: that is, to reinforce our devotion to the standards of Mormonism, as opposed to those of the encroaching world. Assuming that this is the case, it explains why home literature isn’t likely to get much play in the broader literary world–issues of quality aside

    I’m going to spew for a while here…

    It occurred to me, as I was writing this response, that home literature can be thought of as literature that perfects the saints, while the kind of literature that Theric is arguing for is literature that preaches the gospel. Both legitimate, worthwhile aims–and this way of considering them frees us from either a critical hierarchy (home literature = literature that isn’t good) or a temporal hierarchy (home literature = the literature we write before embarking on the heroic journey: that is to say, before we grow up).

    And literature that redeems the dead would be–what? Literature that shows the world to us? That makes familiar to us those from other backgrounds aside from our own? Literature that shows us the other and helps us expand our understanding of the gospel to encompass him/her?

    It’s noteworthy, in this connection, that redeeming the dead is the one part of the threefold mission of the Church that has been taken up in large part by non-members. Similarly, it doesn’t take a particularly Mormon author to show Mormon readers the divinity within those who live lives different from ours. Indeed, that’s a big part of the goal of literature in general.

    ######

    Back in graduate school, I fell under the influence of rhetorical critics and went through a period when I believed that creative writers compose with one eye (at least) firmly on their audience.

    It took some time, and several experiences on AML-List, to persuade me that this wasn’t the case. The fact is that far too many actual writers talk about being absorbed in the story itself and viewing writing as an expressive act for me to think of it as primarily an act of audience-driven communication.

    What I decided was true instead was that people speak out of, to, and within communities that help define themselves. In many cases, they may not even be aware of “audience” as such–but writing is not simply constrained by also motivated, generated, and shaped according to forms and reasons learned and shared within communities.

    What sparked this whole post was reading Theric’s latest comment: “My feeling is that being specifically ourselves does not negate our potential within or obligation to the world. I really don’t see the two as being separate arts, but separate attitudes toward audience.” I guess that the way I see it, the process is a little messier than that. Writing *from* a Mormon perspective *to* a non-Mormon perspective is always going to come across as a bit artificial–because it’s writing that seeks to cross community boundaries, rather than communicating within a community.

    This doesn’t mean that Mormons can’t write (and write effectively) for non-Mormons. But I think it does mean that in order to write effectively for non-Mormons, we have to stop writing (for the moment) as Mormons. Instead, we have to be writing as members of some other community which we share with those to whom we’re writing, Mormon or not.

    Case in point: Orson Scott Card. Some of his stories are written for Mormons. Some are written for science fiction and fantasy readers. But Card is both: a Mormon and a science fiction and fantasy reader/fan. When he’s writing to Mormons, he writes as a Mormon–with that part of himself that belongs to the Mormon community. When he’s writing sf&f, he writes as Card-the-sf&f-fan. Both types of writing arise out of a sense of identity–out of who he is–but different aspects of that identity that are shared with different communities. (Or so I postulate for the purpose of this post.)

    ######

    Like most of the rest of you, I suppose, I’ve sat in ward and stake meetings feeling guilty about not doing more missionary work. For me at least, one of the challenges is simply that I don’t *have* that many friends who aren’t Mormons.

    And so for me as a missionary, the first step to sharing the gospel has to be to get out there and join other groups. Other communities.

    And so, I postulate, it must be for myself as a writer. I can’t write effectively to/from a community unless I’m a member of that community.

    All of which involves–and here we come back to Theric’s idea–going out into the world. Risking myself with people who might not understand me. Trying things out in the world.

    So yeah, I guess I kind of agree with Theric after all. Even if I disagree too.

    (Sorry. Done for now…)

  21. William Morris

    “It occurred to me, as I was writing this response, that home literature can be thought of as literature that perfects the saints, while the kind of literature that Theric is arguing for is literature that preaches the gospel.”

    Benson Parkinson talked about the Deseret School and the Missionary School in the very first issue of Irreantum. It’s an excellent essay that, unfortunately, appears to no longer be on the AML website (or perhaps never was — maybe it was only the three kinds of appropriateness, which was also excellent).

  22. Jonathan Langford

    I think I’ve just come up with a term for what I did a few minutes ago: drive-by bloggery…

  23. Th.

    .

    Jonathan:

    I think your comments regarding communities are right on. I do want to add one caveat though.

    I think a well written book for one community can be loved and enjoyed by members of a disconnected community as well. Otherwise no one would read Antigone. I have nothing against writing to our own community. Frankly, it’s hard not to. But I do think it’s a mistake to think that such writing is so insular that it can never appeal outside the community.

    Maybe it is an issue of writing as a representative of more than one community. I don’t know. But I am loathe to close doors. I feel my job as an artist is to open doors.

  24. Katya

    So, how do you (Th. or anyone else) advocate going out into the world as a Mormon artist? I can think of a few methods, but they all seem to have drawbacks, as well.

    1. Write to a mainstream audience without addressing specifically Mormon topics.

    This seems to be Orson Scott Card’s tactic in works such as Ender’s Game, which touches ever so briefly on Mormonism (Ender’s mother is or was Mormon), but otherwise doesn’t really treat traditional Mormon issues at all.

    The upside of this is that it shouldn’t present any additional challenges to getting your work published, because there’s nothing in the subject matter that should limit it to a Mormon audience.

    The downside of this is that the work itself doesn’t do much to promote an understanding of Mormon culture or values. (Caveat: If one writes for a variety of audiences or on a variety of themes, as Card does, it’s possible that the success of one mainstream work may spill over into other works, as well.)

    2. Write to a Mormon audience, but write well enough that others will want to read it your work, too.

    I can’t think of any Mormon authors who have done this, but this is basically the “Antigone” effect, where an author writes for a particular culture and is later read by members of a completely different culture.

    Pros: You get to say what you want to say about your own culture, without having to worry about how to explain yourself to those outside the culture.

    Cons: Readers outside the culture will have to read an edited or annotated edition of your work, or risk missing out on key references and themes.

    3. Write on Mormon themes, but pick themes that are broad enough that others will still identify with the story.

    I’m specifically thinking of the movie “Saints and Soldiers,” here, because it’s easy for members of various Christian denominations to identify with Cpl. Greer. (Granted, I don’t know how many denominations were sending missionaries to first world countries just prior to WWII.) Now that I think about it, Card’s books based on the BoM and the life of Joseph Smith may also fit here.

    Pros: You get to tell a compelling story with strong cultural resonance to a large audience.

    Cons: Not every type of story lends itself to this treatment. Plus, there may be a backlash from anti-Mormon groups if it seems that the creators have been coy about the story’s Mormon roots. (See, for example, the reaction of evangelical Christians against Glenn Beck’s interview with James Dobson, although Beck doesn’t write fiction.)

    4. Naturally introduce Mormon themes in the course of the story, and explain references as they come up.

    “New York Doll” and Lee Martin’s Deb Ralston series both fit into this category, because they feature a person / character who converts to Mormonism, and so they can naturally present Mormon culture and beliefs through their words, without seeming artificial or stilted.

    Pros: Probably one of the most natural ways of presenting Mormon culture to non-Mormons, since it parallels the audience’s own journey of discovery and understanding.

    Cons: It’s great to tell stories about Mormon converts, but there are other stories out there, too. Also, these stories risk turning into insubstantially didactic Home Lit, if the conversion is portrayed as the solution to all problems.

  25. Th.

    .

    Katya—if you keep bringing up good yet difficult points I may have to stop talking to you.

    Generally, I don’t believe in choosing. I think all four of your options are fitting and appropriate and to be pursued. I personally lean to a melding of the first three.

    A side issue I haven’t dealt with is this: How do we define success? One this question I don’t really have any good answers. Primarily because I think it’s foolish because futile to plot personal success in the arts. But some notion of a definition for success might help up determine which of your 4 options may be most fruitful.

  26. Katya

    “How do we define success?”

    Interesting question. In #27, I was implicitly taking publication to be . . . not the definition of success, but a useful benchmark in the quest for reaching an audience.

    If you don’t care about reaching an audience, then I suppose you can do whatever you like in your artistic development. If you do, however, want to reach an audience, then there are additional, outside factors which come into play and which must shape your work.

  27. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    Without an audience, art cannot be art, IMHO. Art is a communion of souls. Ergo, art that drives others away (or simply fails to draw them in) is a failure.

    I’m not arguing for bland populism or trying to please all people all the time, but art that never moves beyond the artist ultimately has no worth.

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