Mormon storytelling and enduring to the end

5.30.12 | | 42 comments

The classic ending for a comedy is marriage, for a tragedy is death. Another standard story set up is leaving home on a quest and coming home changed (or finding a new home).

In Mormon fiction, we have some additional milestones (and these aren’t unique, of course, to Mormonism in how they function). We have mission stories (which are also quest stories). We have rite of passage stories: baptism/confirmation, ordination, engagement, marriage, becoming parents. All worth telling.

We also have conversion stories (or deconversion stories) — and I’m speaking of conversions on a major scale here: gaining a testimony or joining the LDS Church (and vice versa).

All of those are fine. But often those stories are the province of childhood through one’s twenties. In some ways, the overall culture of Mormonism has that problem: you get baptized at eight, ordained at 12 (if you are male), go on a mission at 19, take out your endowment (either pre-mission or sometime in your late teens through mid-twenties), marry in the temple sometime between 19 and 26, and have your first child (usually before age 30). So what next? Enduring to the end. Yawn.

What a wretched phrase. First of all, it makes the bulk of life sound pretty lame and boring. Second, it means that once you’ve hit all those other milestones, you’re pretty much done . And third, I’m not sure what it really means — or rather that it means what we hope to mean. I mean, if all we’re doing is enduring, just gritting and hanging on, then I don’t know that we’re really living up to the measure of our creation or magnifying our callings and talents, etc.

I’m thinking a better term would be: progress to the end.

But whether we call it endure or progress (and, of course, it’s both), I think that dealing with how this plays out in the lives of active Latter-day Saints is ripe ground for Mormon narrative art. It’s more difficult to tell these stories — you don’t have the easy hooks of mission or marriage or death. But I think that it’s worthwhile, and it’s an area where we can really help each other understand bits and pieces of the modern Mormon experience.

And, of course, there are Mormon writers who have tackled this part of the journey. But not as many as I would like. Looking at my bookshelf, there are a lot of comedies and tragedies and missions and courtships and deaths and conversions there.

Am I crazy here? What’s your favorite piece of Mormon narrative art that deals with “enduring to the end”? What issues or moments or situations have you been hoping someone would write about?

42 comments: “Mormon storytelling and enduring to the end

  1. Christopher Bigelow

    Yeah, this post hits exactly on the head the struggles I’m having with a current memoir project. Agents I’ve shown the proposal to talk a lot about story arc, and how mine doesn’t have enough of one. But I’m only interested in writing up through, basically, my conversion. I don’t want to write about my life as a practicing Mormon, because I think it’s boring. For me, all it basically boils down to is: “Once I found the church was true, I tried to do good stuff and not do bad stuff. The former is harder than the latter, because it’s so boring.”

    In fact, I think one main reason I want to write is to relive the more exciting, adventurous times of big changes.

  2. William Morris Post author

    That’s interesting, Chris. The advantage of fiction is that we can pick and choose and heighten some of these moments.

    This is why I don’t write memoir/creative nonfiction.

    On the other hand, there’s a lot bound up in the try (and successes and failures of the try) to do good stuff and not do bad stuff. These may be more miniaturist, domestic or simple internal struggles, but in the right hands I think they can be very compelling. Or at least they are to me. Which is why I continue to stick with (both in terms of reading and writing) with Mormon faithful realism even though the majority of what I read and write is speculative fiction (and literary fiction with fantastical elements).

    My story that will run in the next issue of Irreantum tries to do this in a more sustained, longer way than the brief glimpses found in “Gentle Persuasions.” Like many literary fiction works, it’s fairly mundane: a female Mormon graduate student attends the MLA Conference in San Francisco. She has to decide what to do for dinner her first night there. She chickens out (kind of) by not going out with a group, but then that leads to an interesting moment that helps her understand herself and some of her relationships better and mixes both being in the world and not in the world in a mundane, but hopefully recognizable way.

  3. BarefootMike

    I’ve been a long-distance runner for much of my life, so the phrase “endure to the end” always made sense to me. Life is a race, and I would only finish after overcoming much pain and struggling against the other competitors. But I like the idea of “progress to the end,” which feels more positive and aligns better with the reason of our mortal probation.

    I recently finished Todd Petersen’s novel Rift, which focuses on that stage of life after all the normal Mormon milestones have been met.

  4. Inari

    Interestingly, the enduring to the end bit seems to be something that LDS visual artists do quite well. Scenes from lives of saints, of people, spiritual moments and every-day moments (I’m rather tired right now so the only names that come to mind are Brian Kershisnik and James Christensen, but I’m thinking of other ones too I promise).

    Maybe there is space here for the visual arts to help the literary arts get a spark?

  5. Scott Hinrichs

    Interesting post. I have seen some material that focuses on a significant calling or a major event. There are probably too many bishop stories and not enough everybody else stories. I suppose that the church’s family focus might also lend itself well to emphasizing some of the milestones of one’s children. A good story needs a climax of some sort. The middle adult stage of life is more of a continuous flow filled with many ups and downs. Major capstones are rare.

  6. William Morris Post author

    Rift is a good example., Mike, Although Jens is a little too close to the end to capture everything that I find interesting. And maybe because I’ve lived through my thirties now and want to see what that 25-60 period is like for my fellow LDS.

    Inari: excellent point.

    Scott: I somewhat agree, but I think that we can scale things down and still find interesting climaxes. Or at least they’re interesting to me.

    And certainly some of Doug Thayer’s stories fit what I’m talking about.

  7. Th.

    .

    I find myself writing about courtship and new widowers with more frequency than I’m proud of. I’m afraid I might be getting predictable.

  8. William Morris Post author

    I outlined it, but I haven’t written anything on it. There’s not a lot of incentive to do so in comparison to other projects. I mean: what does one do with a Mormon novella?

  9. Mahonri Stewart

    I wonder if short stories are a good medium for this type of story. They don’t need this overarching plot structure to build towards, but can focus on these little slivers of our lives. I’ve been enjoying _Dispensation_ a lot for that very reason.

  10. Moriah Jovan

    I have a couple of observations.

    1. The milestones aren’t done at thirty once you’ve had the heir and perhaps the spare. The following list is hypothetically age-agnostic, but in some wards, it’s more agnostic than others, but definitely based on prestige. You have (in no particular order, and some may be optional):

    a. Elder’s Quorum President
    b. High Priest Group
    c. High Priest Group Leader
    d. Young Men President
    e. Counselor in the bishopric
    f. Bishop / stake position
    g. Stake muckety-muck.

    You may either add in or substitute Scouting and its progression for the above.

    After all, in my neck of the woods, the only thing more prestigious than being, oh, bishop, is to be a muckety-muck in the Tribe of Mic-O-Say,.

    (Of course, women have very few counterpart rites/milestones by comparison.)

    2. Notwithstanding the above, “enduring to the end” mostly means “serving to the end.” Personal hobbies aren’t really encouraged–or at least, not to the extent that one could become a master at anything. Or even a jack. One’s free time, during which one could acquire a skill or seven, is booked with service.

    How many of you would rather sit down and write than go move ANOTHER family in or out of the ward? (Or feel you SHOULD be writing?) Which do you choose?

  11. William Morris Post author

    I see most of those as variation on the same thing rather than major milestones, but, yes, something to deal with in narrative, for sure.

    If it’s a Saturday morning, I generally choose to write and occasionally choose to serve. If it’s Saturday evening or Sunday, then it varies.

  12. Sarah Dunster

    Uh oh. I am on the home stretch woth a story kind of about couryship (more about grieving) and a newish widow, in the context.of mormon culture/doctrine. I didn’t copy you guys on purposr, I promise.

  13. William Morris Post author

    Let’s race!

    Wait. No. Let me finish some other stories first and then race!

    (See: this is why I haven’t written it yet).

  14. Lee Allred

    Jewish literature is likewise hampered by lack of mid-life milestones. After a character’s Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah, life’s pretty much over; not much to write about. Thus the dearth of Jewish literature.

    In other words, I’m not sure I buy the main premise of this discussion. True, fiction tends to focus on liminal moments, but there are scheduled liminal moments (baptism, mission, and most of the “milestones” cited in discussion above) and unscheduled liminal moments (death, divorce, war, plague, famine, etc.).

    There are major unscheduled liminal moments and minor ones; the focus of this discussion seems to be on the minor boring ones (I express shock, shock at the notion that boring liminal moments might produce boring fiction!), but unscheduled liminal moments have been far more dramatic in my life than my scheduled ones, and I suspect unscheduled moments have the greatest ficitonal potential.

    I cite in support of this “Clothing Esther.” Or “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made.”

  15. William Morris Post author

    To me the major liminal moments can tend to be boring, Lee, because I already know quite a bit about those.

    But my tastes are not representative of much of anything.

  16. Moriah Jovan

    I told Wm on Twitter that I think an LDS man having a midlife crisis in the context of church would be a rich field to plow.

  17. Patricia K

    An interesting question, Wm–one I’ve been mulling for other reasons.

    I dislike “endure to the end” because it suggests holding ground to the end,perhaps to the point of turning a deaf ear to the call to those adventures that can jar us out of place and ignite progress.

    I’m not well versed in Mormon literature, but I wonder if there might be two narrative strains in Mo-lit that struggle mightily with one another: The “prayed for” storyline and the “prayed against” storyline.

    Prayed for storyline: Mormons spend a lot of time praying for protection from frightening circumstances and for personal and spiritual safety, praying to succeed at the liminal events mentioned above, etc. In prayed for storylines, the tension seems to stretch thinly between “will the prayer be answered or won’t it?” Of course, the prayed for outcome is the end game.

    Prayed against storyline: This is the story where the thing that people pray for protection against and delivery from happens, much to everyone’s consternation. For some people, reading a story about a family member developing mental illness or the onset of any other really difficult set of circumstances is like reading a horror story because it presses to hard against their “ask and receive” narrative comforts. In “prayed against” storylines, the endgame is change itself. Possibilities materialize from seeming impossibilities, so on and so forth.

    I’d like to see more “prayed against” storylines where the writer tackles plots involving those “Lord protect me from this” events, with the plot hinging on how the main character’s spirituality evolves to enable him or her (or him and her, etc.) to live in new spiritual niches.

  18. William Morris Post author

    I don’t know that there are many “Prayed for” storylines in the Mormon faithful realism stream of LDS fiction, but there is certainly room for more iterations and explorations of your “Prayed against” formulation, which I like very much.

  19. Jack

    I’m not a word smith. I do music — and I enjoy story. That said, it seems to me that after the “fireworks” (conversion and the miracles attendant to it) what follows ought to deconstruct the beginning in such a way that the whole premise (or seeming premise) is challenged.

    Nephi is a good example. He is converted. His loyalty is challenged to the “inth” degree when he kills Laban. This guy has been thoroughly proved — or so it would seem. But then his father has a strange dream about the Love of God and how it is the ultimate goal of the faithful. “Aha”, the middle of the story is now ripe for the telling — especially with the lovely irony of Nephi’s older brothers wanting to murder him.

  20. Mark Penny

    I don’t have time to read the above before putting in my two penneth, but I must say I like the issue this post raises. It’s one I’ve been thinking about myself as I consider the problem of writing about Mormons and Mormonism.

    I’m pushing fifty, after which life is rumoured to be nifty, and I have to say enduring to the end is an adventure of its own. Among other things, there’s the challenge of parenting, which includes figuring out how to train your child up in the way he should go without installing psychological blinders to other people’s realities or failing to equip him or her to choose for him- or herself when choices are placed before him or her. We really need a gender-neutral third-person-singular subject pronoun.

    I’ve gotta go now, but I’m looking forward to catching up on this thread.

  21. Mark Penny

    The other sabbath, I was pointing out to a roomful of Taiwanese that there are four steps to progression: desire, hope, faith and love (i.e. charity, aka the love of Christ). By desire I meant the desire to obtain or achieve something good. By hope, I meant the sense that the good thing can be obtained or achieved. By faith, I meant taking action on the assumption that action will lead to obtaining or achieving the desired thing. By love, I meant the alpha and omega state which prompts us to seek after good things and eventually makes the immortality and eternal life of man our aim in eternal life. Surely there are stories in there.

  22. Jonathan Langford

    Our culture — American culture in general perhaps, but certainly Mormon culture in particular — makes much of the “key” choices of the late teens and early twenties. It came as a rather significant surprise to me when I realized that change and choices continued past thirty, and prior to the struggles of old age (which also had made it onto my mental landscape).

    One of my all-time favorite stories is Random Harvest, by James Hilton. I think that what I liked best about it was the sense of a really dramatic story in personal terms — and then realizing that it was the kind of story that could happen without anyone outside of a very small circle even being aware that anything at all had changed. Revealing the extraordinary in the heart of the ordinary. I’d enjoy seeing more Mormon versions of that.

    I’d also like to see more stories about ordinary life and the challenges that come with trying to make the most of positive life circumstances: a family, good job, etc. I think,though, that there are inherent difficulties in writing stories about that type of situation, because they don’t easily fit common narrative structures. I also think there’s not as much of an appetite for that type of story, for reasons that have to do with (a) who in our culture reads, and (b) their reasons for reading. By the time people have the life experience that makes such stories potentially relevant to them, they mostly aren’t reading or are reading for other reasons (e.g., pure entertainment or learning more about Church history, among Mormons). Or so I sense.

  23. William Morris Post author

    I sense the same thing, Jonathan.

    I sometimes wonder why there isn’t more hunger in our culture for stories that help us understand ourselves, especially among the middle-aged.

    I don’t think that that hunger doesn’t exist. Based on conversations at Church, it very much seems like it does. Rather, I think we as artists haven’t done a good enough job of feeding that hunger, and that, as you note, our culture hasn’t done a good job of validating literature as a form for exploring that attempt to understand.

  24. Moriah Jovan

    Moriah: The Secret Life of Bishop Mitty?

    *snortle* Kinda, maybe.

    I have a hypothesis: LDS males who are of the A-type and perhaps the thrill-seeking type who don’t feel they have any other acceptable outlet for those qualities (because they make their decisions so young in life or, as my dad always put it, when they were least equipped to make the hardest choices) very often become high-stakes litigators.

    I can point to four examples in my stake of men like that who are really uncivilized at their core (um, but I LIKE that, so clearly I’m whacked), but the church civilizes them and then they unleash it in a courtroom.

    Or church basketball.

    The first one that comes to mind was a bishop-then-stake-president I had whom I loved. He, with his family, scaled the Berlin wall when he was 10. HE made it to safety with a couple of his brothers. Some of the rest of his family was not so lucky.

  25. Katya

    [T]here are inherent difficulties in writing stories about that type of situation, because they don’t easily fit common narrative structures.

    Bingo. Ending a story with a “change of state” (single -> married, alive -> dead, non-Mormon -> Mormon) makes for a particularly satisfying narrative, which means that narratives that fit those structures are more likely to achieve a wider spread and a deeper impact.

    There are absolutely narrative structures that work for more introspective, less event-driven stories, but if those stories don’t captivate the general populace to the same degree, then they won’t achieve the same cultural impact.

  26. Luisa

    Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls is about an Orthodox Jewish wife and mother of five children. Reading it was a revelation to me. We need stories like it in our culture, too.

  27. Sarah ter

    I would love to read some stories of LDS men and midlife crises. I love the idea of “yes answer” and “no answer” mythology as well. We have a lot of both in scripture, so it should naturally follow we have a lot of it in LDS literature. The no answer would be an easier one to make literary. It would be challenging for the yes answer to be considered literary simply because it’s hard to make any happy ending literary. Happy endings are, I feel, almost always flagged as pandering to an audience by the literary world. Maybe that’s too cynical, I don’t know.

  28. William Morris Post author

    I think most readers will accept happy endings if they aren’t saccharine and are earned. Which means most good endings that are happy are actually bittersweet. But that’s true to life.

  29. Sarah Dunster

    Yes. You are right. Bittersweet happy endings. They have to be bittersweet if anything of real depth happens during the story, because none of us are perfectly happy at any one point in real life, because we *live.* Maybe that is why perfectly happy endings, where anything sad or distressing is completely forgotten in the bliss of the resolution, are so easy to sell–commercial fiction is about escape, not necessarily reality.

  30. Mark Penny

    Back in 1997 I decided to knuckle down and actually finish a novel. Up to that point, I’d start one, not like the first chapter, archive the attempt, and start again. You can imagine how productive that was. You’ve probably experienced it. This time, I resolved to get going and keep going until I got to the end. Call it enduring or progressing, the goal was to get there without stopping or turning around to look back. I wrote a sentence a day for seven years (sometimes a whole paragraph, when I had time) and reached a point beyond which I did not know what came next.

    While I was writing this story (a sci-fi western about a starfaring cowboy who exhibits unexpected martial prowess), I read a lot of Covey—and lost my taste for violence as an element of fiction. I started thinking it would be a worthy challenge to try and write stories that showed people seeking first to understand and all that. In that same era, I read a couple of Goldratt novels which, though hardly high literature or even great storytelling, seemed to me to show the way toward what I was thinking of doing. I fear I’ve lost sight of that objective lately (violence seems to be creeping back in in one guise or another), but I still think it’s a worthy challenge. It’s the final frontier, isn’t it? The gripping tale of happiness.

  31. Jonathan Langford

    Mark,

    I like your conclusion: “It’s the final frontier, isn’t it? The gripping tale of happiness.”

    Which suggests the question: When we’re truly happy, will we need literature anymore? Perhaps not. However, I’m inclined to think that this would be true only of a postmortal happiness I have yet to achieve. If it comes in the eternities, then it will come — and we can write essays about it there.

    An alternative possibility: Literature exists to give us what we don’t have sufficient experience with. Which may suggest that it’s the happy among us who need stories about sadness, and the sad among us who yearn for narratives of comfort. Actually, that seems all the more plausible, as I consider it…

  32. Mark Penny

    I’m sure they’ll be doing lit in the two lower kingdoms. Up in the top one, we’ll be busy working with physics. So bone up.

    I was just recalling to myself that some of my favourite stories include: Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Railway Children, Heidi, Little Women, Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm, and A Little Princess, all stories in which no one is destroyed (too badly) and the sweet and innocent remain so (more or less).

  33. Mark Penny

    Back before my mission, I started work on a story (which will eventually become a classic of Mormon post-Millenial sci-fi) in which the main character’s grandfather, a resurrect (resurrected mortal), was having trouble sustaining a mental simulation of a star system—and kept popping up all over the house trying to give his still mortal wife a heart attack so she could join him in the resurrection. That was some fun writing. Anyway, for us sci-fi types, the thousand years following the Millemium could be fertile ground for religio-critical speculation.

  34. James Goldberg

    I like the idea of “serving to the end.” It seems to me that we do have a fair number of non-bishop, everyday service stories. These can happen at any point in life because the stakes and change are in a relationship the protagonist has.

    Take, for example, Darin Cozzens’ “Reap in Mercy” where the primary stakes are the complicated lifelong relationship between two men. There’s a Jack Harrell story with a name I can’t recall where it seemed like a central tension was “Will the protagonist be able to forge a meaningful mentor relationship with this teen in church?”

  35. Mark Penny

    This article in the April 2012 Ensign contains they phrase “endure to the end”. Reading it reminded me that endurance actually is part of the process. Exaltation is achieved through a “wilderness experience” and a “Golgotha experience”—or several at intervals. To have our calling and election made sure, we must choose to follow the Lord when he appears to have led us into the desert and forsaken us. It comes down to desire. What do we desire and what are we willing to endure to obtain it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>