Author Archives: William Morris

Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM

3.23.15 | | 10 comments

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. With this series, I’m approaching the same topic from a different angle.

READ PART I: THE LDS CHURCH — RESTORATION/SEPARATION &ACCOMMODATION/ASSIMILATION

READ PART II: WESTERN CULTURE — STUCK IN ROMANTICISM

PART III: WESTERN CULTURE — MODERNISM/POSTMODERNISM

At the turn of the 20th century, artists from a variety of disciplines sought to break free from the grip of Romanticism. They saw that realism was as much of an artificiality as what it was reacting against, and they saw that the original things that Romanticism had reacted against—cold rationalism, industrialization—had only gotten worse. What’s more Darwin and Nietzsche had showed (in very different ways that God really was dead; Freud that everybody was all messed up inside from repressing things (and because of our parents); and popular culture that Romanticism could take on virulent, sentimental, wildly successful, lucrative forms (the penny dreadful/dime novel, light opera, advertising, Beaux-Arts architecture, etc.). more

2015 AML Conference: Everything you wanted to know about Mormon Literature (but were afraid to ask)

3.21.15 | | 4 comments

NOTE: James Goldberg has provided the following information about the AML Conference on Saturday, March 28, 2015.

AML Conference: Everything you wanted to know about Mormon Literature (but were afraid to ask)

First: get out your calendars: mark Saturday, March 28, 1-5 pm, as a time to go down to the Utah Valley University Library (rooms LI 515 and LI 516).

Now: Let me tell you why.

Since the late 1970s, the Association for Mormon Letters has been holding annual conferences. If you’ve ever been to an academic conference, you know the drill: organizers send out a call for papers, scholars try to say something specific enough to be new, and then sessions are scheduled. When the conference comes around, some speakers will hold their audiences rapt as they broaden their horizons or change the way they think about the field. Others do their best not to bore themselves to sleep.

The conference model works reasonably well for testing out new ideas in a field and spreading them to the relevant experts. But it’s less effective at introducing the big ideas: if you’re new, a conference takes you straight up to the newest leaves of knowledge without always bothering to show you which trees they’re on, let alone letting you see the forest.

This year, we want to remedy that. There are many people who get curious about Mormon Literature at some point in their lives, but “know not where to find it.” My friends: wait no longer. At this conference, we’re going to put off the long, carefully-footnoted papers for a moment and get straight to your questions. And we’re going to do it—through panels, live debates, a writing workshop, a poetry slam, and an awards ceremony—over the course of a single afternoon.

Here’s a sampling of questions the conference will respond to:

Do interesting Mormon books exist? Where can I find them?

This is the question I’ve heard most about Mormon Lit. People who’ve never tried to read a Mormon novel or play or poetry collection often ask it with a skeptical intonation. As if to say: “I’ve heard Michael McLean. Isn’t that enough?”

People who have just read a Mormon book they liked for the first time tend to ask me the same question, but with a different intonation. Like: “is there more of this stuff hiding from me somewhere?”

Whether you’re still looking for your first love connection with a Mormon book or hoping to add to a long list of must-reads, you might want to go to “My Favorite Mormon Book—And Why It Matters.” We’ll open with a panel featuring the likes of Freetown screenwriter Melissa Leilani Larson, YA critic Glenn Gordon, historian Ardis Parshall, and poet Lance Larsen giving you the personal stories behind their reading recommendations, and then take recommendations from the audience.

You might also want to stick around for the 2014 AML Awards Ceremony, where we’ll unveil which works made it off this year’s short lists and onto the pages of Mormon Lit memory as outstanding titles in their genres.

What sort of people get into Mormon Lit? And what are they trying to accomplish?

For a practical guide to the landscape, we’re offering a panel, led by Katherine Morris of Mormon Artist, called “The Mormon Lit Scene Today” with a discussion of the publishers, events, awards, interest groups, and online spaces that make up the Mormon Lit scene in 2015.

For a deeper look into what Mormon writers want, you might want to check out the debate between Stephen Carter of Sunstone and James Goldberg of the Mormon Lit Blitz over the question “What Is the Role of the Mormon Writer in the Mormon Community?”

What’s the future of Mormon Lit? Where do things go from here to the Mormon Shakespeare? And what about flying cars? When will we get flying cars?

So…you want to see the future? Consider attending the debate between the incomparable Eric Samuelsen and the unforgettable Orson F. Whitney* over what Mormon Lit needs now to reach the next level of awesome in the near future.

You might also want to attend the conference’s poetry slam, organized by Fire in the Pasture editor Tyler Chadwick, to see the future up on its feet. Or else learn to be the future you want to see in Mormon Lit through a writing workshop from a few of the geniuses who run Segullah.

The Schedule:

12:30: Free registration opens, mingling begins

1 pm: Carter vs. Goldberg Debate / “The Mormon Lit Scene Today”

2 pm: Writing Workshop / Samuelsen vs. Whitney* Debate

3 pm: “My Favorite Mormon Book” / Poetry Slam

4 pm: Announcement of Annual AML Award Winners

*Update: It has come to the attention of the conference organizers that Orson F. Whitney died in 1931 and will thus be unable to attend the conference in corporeal form. Eric Samuelsen remains committed to a public debate, but his replacement opponent and the topic are once again TBD.

UVU Lecture, AML Conference next week

3.19.15 | | no comments

Two events  will take place next week (the week of March 23) that are of interest to Mormon literature fans who live in or can travel to the Provo-Orem area:

2015 Eugene England Memorial Lecture

WHEN: Thursday, March 26, at 7 p.m.
WHERE: the Utah Valley University Library Lecture hall (LI 120)
WHO: Robert A. Rees who will speak on “Reimagining Restoration: Why Liberalism is the Ultimate Flowering of Mormonism.”

Robert Rees currently teaches at the Graduate Theological Union and University of California at Berkeley and is co-founder of the Liahona Children’s Foundation. Dr. Rees is an scholar, author, and poet, and a voice of reason and compassion in Mormon Studies for almost fifty years. He he served as the second editor, following Eugene England, for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought from 1971-1976 and coedited with England the Reader’s Book of Mormon. He also edited Proving Contraries: A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene England.

Association for Mormon Letters Annual Conference

WHEN: Saturday, March 28, 1-5 p.m.
WHERE: Utah Valley University Library (see signage for exact rooms)
WHO: A whole bunch of people. There will be a writing workshop featuring writers/editors from Segullah; a poetry slam organized by Tyler Chadwick; possibly a debate on the topic “What Is the Role of the Mormon Writer in the Mormon Community?”; a panel on the Mormon Lit scene today, etc. And the AML award winners will be announced. The schedule is still coming together, but from what little I’ve seen of the discussion of what it will be and who will be involved, it’s going to be well worth devoting a Saturday afternoon to.

Flowers of Grace: a conversation with Teresa Hirst

3.16.15 | | no comments

Flowers of Grace, Mormon writer Teresa Hirst’s first work of fiction, was published last month. Here’s the basic pitch for it: “Set in an upscale St. Louis boutique amid a fragile economic climate when retail customers are trading brick and mortar stores for online shopping, Flowers of Grace is a story of love and loss, friendship and forgiveness.”

There is no specifically Mormon content to it, but it interested me thematically so I figured the best way to approach things was to have an email conversation with Teresa about it.

Teresa lives in Minnesota with her husband and children. She has worked for a newspaper, in public relations, and as a freelance writer and editor. Her nonfiction book Twelve Stones to Remember Him: Building Memorials of Faith from Financial Crisis was published by Walnut Springs Press in January 2014. And for a short while, she and I had LDS Public Affairs callings here in Minnesota at the same time.

My part of the conversation is in bold. You can learn more about the novel and Teresa at her author website.

As you began to outline/write the first draft of Flowers of Grace, what were the themes, images, characters that were most insistently inserting themselves into the process? Do you have any idea why they were on your mind?

Your question took me to a gray three-inch binder which houses the early workings of Flowers of Grace. In this crush of papers (they are not all neatly tucked into the three rings) I discovered several clues to answer your question including one of the first pages from my writing process. On this paper, I have the names of three women characters at three stages of life with a collection of words surrounding them that describe their personality, goals, weaknesses. The pencil marks, different colors of ink and stains on the page show that I collected these over time. The second clue was a handful of cards with names of secondary characters with similar character development. These reveal to me, as they most likely propelled me forward then, that this work would be a character-driven novel with the plot developing out of their relationships. All but one were women. As I began to put them together, I could sense the tangle of divisiveness that often occurs in a setting of women as well as the strength that can also develop. These opposing love/hate relationships among women pressed upon my own story. I also found clues to another theme that was inserting itself into the process. My main character’s name, Grace, was different in these original scribbles. Although my intent was not to introduce a spiritual theme, somewhere along the way, in this collection of dynamic personalities, I had added a copy of words to a song written by Patricia Holland called “A Woman of Grace”. There is a phrase in the song, “A woman of grace knowing God compensates.” Before I knew how this mesh of both internal struggles and external conflict would end for the main character, I knew I would change her name to Grace. more

Artists of the Restoration Part II: Stuck in Romanticism

3.5.15 | | 3 comments

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle.

I sometimes rant against the main aesthetic and sociopolitical -isms of our age. I do so knowing full well that I am as caught in them as we all are and that the only way out is to build a substrate of faith and good works, protected by a continual renewing of covenants so that there’s something there when all else gets stripped away by the tragedies of mortality or the tumults of doubt or the relentless winds of daily life. But that knowledge does not stop me from squirming around in the grasp of the dominant discourses. What follows is a tentative bit of thinking resulting from such squirming in relation to some thoughts on what it might mean to be a restorationist artist.

I began with a reductive history of the LDS Church. Now I do the same to Western culture.

READ PART I: THE LDS CHURCH — RESTORATION/SEPARATION &ACCOMMODATION/ASSIMILATION

PART II: WESTERN CULTURE

ROMANTICISM

Previous and then parallel to the Restoration/Separation and Accommodation/Assimilation history of the Church runs a different process: the aesthetic response of artist to the ideas of the Enlightenment. Romanticism and its offspring modernism and postmodernism (more on them later) are the only dominant aesthetic discourses that Mormons have ever known. To understand them is to understand how the particulars of Mormon art play out.

Thousands of pages have been written on Romanticism so this is going to be an incredibly reductive summary, but the narrative goes something like this: more

Artists of the Restoration Part I: A Brief, Culture-Centric History of the LDS Church

3.2.15 | | 10 comments

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle.

I sometimes rant against the main aesthetic and sociopolitical -isms of our age. I do so knowing full well that I am as caught in them as we all are and that the only way out is to build a substrate of faith and good works, protected by a continual renewing of covenants so that there’s something there when all else gets stripped away by the tragedies of mortality or the tumults of doubt or the relentless winds of daily life. But that knowledge does not stop me from squirming around in the grasp of the dominant discourses. What follows is a tentative bit of thinking resulting from such squirming in relation to some thoughts on what it might mean to be a restorationist artist. To begin: two (necessarily) reductive histories of cultural currents — one of the Church and the other of Western aesthetics.

PART I: THE LDS CHURCH

RESTORATION/SEPARATION

The restorationist era of the Church obviously begins with Joseph Smith. I think we can acknowledge that much of the thinking that goes into Joseph’s restorationist project was to be found elsewhere in the world while still believing that divine revelation was involved. We don’t believe in creation ex nihilo — why should we believe in it when it comes to metaphysics? In addition, if the Restoration as an idea was going to get any purchase at all, it would need to be different enough to be compelling but not so alien as to be incomprehensible. And, of course, it would need to happen in stages, in continuing revelation. Restoration brings with it the sense of something new that was old. A refreshing. A renewal. All the best from the past and the present and whatever our prophet can see of the future.  more

I find active LDS artists more interesting

2.17.15 | | 13 comments

I generally believe in big tent Mormon culture (how that relates to the LDS Church is complicated and outside the scope of this post, but you can find hints of it in many of my other writing over the years). To me being part of the radical middle includes being willing to engage with work by artists who are no longer Mormon, or never were Mormon but are writing about Mormons. I’m also interested in Mormon artists who don’t actively engage with their Mormonism in their work. I’m a homer like that.

But I’m most interested in active LDS artists who are focused on settings, characters and/or thematics that are overtly or strongly thematically Mormon.

Let me be clear: I do not think there should be a litmus test on membership. And I respect the decision of artists who wish to remain quiet about their status in relation to the LDS Church (and acknowledge that there could be many reasons for that quiet). But my interest level goes up when an artist signals (publicly or privately) that they are actively engaged with their local congregation, actively working under assumptions of belief, and are struggling with the demands of consecration.

Why is this?

In part, it’s selfishness on my part. I know what I struggle with and delight in, and I want to feel like there are others like me out there in the world. I’m curious about how artists navigate the strange pathways of being an active LDS artist who engages with Mormon elements. I’m not a big believer in Mormon exceptionalism or, for that matter, artists’ exceptionalism. At the same time, I feel like it’s a unique experience that shares similarities with all the ongoing issues related to artists, faith communities, etc., but has some particularities that aren’t found in quite the same alloy elsewhere. That interests me.

But there’s another part: I feel like I know the narratives, preoccupations, arcs of the artists who leave their community to embrace the dominant modes of modern artistic discourse, who “go cosmopolitan”. I also know the paths of the parochial Saint who either stays in the mode that is pleasing to the Mormon market or goes national/international by downplaying their Mormonism. Again: I have and will continue to engage with all of those types of artists. But I’m also losing patience with them. They engage but don’t satisfy. And while they don’t always quite get it right (for me — responses to art are subjective), there’s nothing more satisfying than an artist who has craft, belief, humility and brings that all to bear on work that’s directly engaged with Mormonism. There’s new ground to be explored here. New things to discover.

And finally there’s this — and the more I’m engaged in this, the more it becomes the big reason: I’m interested in building Zion. I’m interested in building Zion in cooperation with the LDS Church and all those who are willing to live in covenant. I recognize the potential (and historical and present) pitfalls and tensions and failings. I recognize where I fall short in so many ways as well as where giving up on that would make some things a lot easier and my art maybe even “better” (or more acceptable). I also recognize where my/our potential audience falls short.

And yet given all that: I don’t care. I’m past feeling self-conscious about all that. I’m looking for Zion moments, Zion movements, Zion people, Zion artists. Where are the artists who are trying to hone their devotion and their craft and their service and their vision and their Mormonism into something that they can place on the altar, into something that will build Zion? I think they’re fascinating. And I want to be among them.

Notes from a 2015 Whitney Awards finalists judge

2.11.15 | | 12 comments

The book covers for the 2015 finalists in the historical fiction category of the Whitney AwardsThe finalists for the 2015 Whitney Awards were announced on Monday. I had a particular interest in the announcement this year because I was a finalists judge. My last participation with the Whitney Awards was back in 2009 when I was a member of the voting academy. For that, you try and read the finalists for each category and you can vote for each category that you complete (there were a lot less categories back then). Being a finalists judge is different. You read every book that was nominated (and remember that it only takes 5 nominations to be part of the nomination pool). It was an interesting process. I’m not sure that I want to repeat it. Then again, I’m not sure if I’ll be asked back. And then again, a few days ago, I would have said never again, and I’ve already warmed back up to “not sure”.

I was asked to be a judge in the historical fiction category. The organizers ask what categories you’d be willing to judge. I told them any of them (yes, even romance). And I meant it. I’m fairly widely read in all of the genres, especially a lot of the foundational texts of the various genre categories. Because I’m not sure if I’m going to do it again, and because even if I do, there’s no telling what category I might get (and because I’m not going to spill all the beans), I feel comfortable sharing a few things about the process.

On the Historical Fiction Finalists

I read every page of all of the nominees, finished the final title 48 (or so) hours before the deadline to submit the ballot and completed my voting more than 24 hours before deadline. Of the five finalists, three overlap with my top five. I’d say that’s pretty good. After the winners are announced, I will post my top 5 and which one I’d pick as the winner. more