Category Archives: Literature

“If it be a true seed, or a good seed”: A Brief Note on Narrative Ethics

7.8.15 | | 2 comments

(My thoughts in this post may not break new ground in narrative studies or be foreign to readers of AMV. I share them, however, as part of my continued project to elaborate a uniquely Mormon vision of language by exploring what uniquely Mormon texts—LDS scripture, in particular—can teach about the value and work of words.)

In Alma’s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: “we will compare the word unto a seed.” He continues by outlining some criteria for the seed’s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.

My focus in this brief note is on Alma’s statement about the seed’s health—“if it be a true seed, or a good seed”—and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics. 

The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes “good” over “true,” a priority supported by the fact that he uses “good” not “true” through the rest of the discourse. Alma’s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truth—their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative aren’t “Is it true?” or “How true is it?” but “Is it good?” or “What good does it do or encourage its audience to do?”

The prioritization of a narrative’s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (including—maybe especially—Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.

Thoughts?

A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!

7.2.15 | | 3 comments

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When Taylor’s novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier’s (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day’s drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the “improved” title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it “the best Mormon comic novel to date” and he says that it’s still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor‘s The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton’s Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who’s grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop’s daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist’s success just got greater and greater. And somehow—comedy!—it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Church hierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.

On the Possible in Mormon Styles

6.19.15 | | 10 comments
Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve gotten into the, perhaps bad, habit of looking for a Mormon parallel to interesting works I come across. I know I’m not alone in doing this—after the first online dating site how long did it take before we had a Mormon one?

My most recent foray into potential Mormon parallels came when I purchased a copy of Raymond Queneau’s fascinating book Exercises in Style, which consists of 99 versions of the same mundane story told in a stunning variety of ways. For me this book has highlighted the similarity of much of today’s literature, especially so-called genre fiction. Contemporary fiction seems focused on a narrow range of styles—either first person or third person omniscient, narrative told in chronological order. [There are, of course, plenty of exceptions. But elements like this seem to dominate.]

Cover of "Exercises in Style"

Cover of Exercises in Style

In his book, Queneau doesn’t really invent new styles. Instead, the styles reflect what already exists; the way people talk or write or portray stories. Styles in the book include things like Metaphorically, Retrograde, Dream, Word Game, Narrative, Anagrams, Onomatopoeia, Logical Analysis, Official Letter, Past, Present, Reported Speech etc.

For example, the “Notation” style (first in the book) is told this way:

On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

To me this concept is brilliant. For authors and readers alike it breaks down the customary approach to literature and promotes creativity. It also simply helps us to understand what style is and the breadth of its possibilities.

So, would it be possible to produce a Mormon Exercises in Style? I know many of our fellow Church members who would say no — that Mormons have no style, or that all of Mormon writing and discourse uses the same style. But this seems demonstrably false to me. If nothing else we see stylistic differences in different situations: testimonies have stylistic differences when compared to lessons or talks or interviews. And different authors have their own styles—who doubts that President Monson’s familiar use of a kind of passive past tense near the emotional and spiritual climax of his stories (“Hugs were shared; tears were shed…”) constitutes an important element of the Monsonian style?

I don’t know if there are enough identifiable Mormon styles for a book like Queneau’s. But I think the effort of telling the same story in a series of Mormon styles would at least help those who wrote the stories, and likely would enlighten readers about the customary ways Mormons communicate with each other.

Since I’m not at all confident about my own ability to mimic a variety of Mormon styles (I’m not even sure I have the ability to do just one!), I’d like to suggest open this idea up to the online Mormon world (the bloggernacle or whatever you would like to call it) and ask for submissions, which would then be published here on AMV and perhaps improved by the suggestions of our readers and visitors.

In order to do this, we will need a couple of things:

First, we need a mundane story. Make that a mundane Mormon story. I hope to write a post in the next week asking for suggestions about what should be included in this story. Somehow, without being dramatic, I think it will need to include elements of a typical Mormon life — perhaps what happens in Church, at least in part. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

Second, we will need a list of possible styles in which the story can be rendered. I’ve mentioned some possibilities above, and I’m including those and a few more below.

[Note that some of these could be subdivided — travelog testimonies may be stylistically different, for example — while others may not actually be clear styles, and still others may not work to tell a story at all. To get started, lets list possibilities regardless of these issues.]:

  • testimony
  • church lesson (as delivered)
  • sacrament meeting talk
  • priesthood leader interview
  • Monsonian
  • lesson manual
  • handbook
  • bloggernacle post
  • mormon.org profile

I don’t know if this will work or not. To me it seems like it might be fun and perhaps useful. What do you think?

Dark Watch and other Mormon-American stories is available for pre-order

5.7.15 | | 6 comments

Cover of William Morris collection Dark Watch and other Mormon-American stories

6/1/15 Note: it’s now available on all four platforms:

PURCHASE: Amazon | Kobo | Nook | iBooks

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I’m delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of my short story collection Dark Watch and other Mormon-American stories. It’s available for pre-order right now at: Amazon (Kindle) | Kobo (epub files). It’ll also soon be available at Barnes & Noble (Nook) and iBooks (iPad/iPhone). It’ll officially go live on Saturday, May 16 (which is when pre-orders will be delivered).

I’ve published it myself under the aegis of A Motley Vision. The main reason for that is that I want as much of the proceeds from sales as possible to go to support AMV and related projects. I go into more detail below about that decision and a lot of other things.

Oh, and here’s the pitch for the collection:

In Dark Watch and other Mormon-American Stories, William Morris explores how Latter-day Saints navigate the challenges of living in the modern U.S. and participating in the modern Church. Spanning from the early 1980s to the present and into the next century, these 16 stories portray moments that are uniquely, thoroughly and sometimes bittersweetly Mormon-American.

Now on to the gory details…

ON THE STORIES
The book collects 16 stories that take place from the early 1980s through the 22nd century — 6 take place in the future (they’re science fiction! [of sorts]).

9 of the stories are less than 2,000 words in length; Dark Watch is just over 8,000 words. The rest are between those two numbers. The total collection comes in at 40,000 words, which is about 120 print pages.

A big chunk of the stories were published in either Dialogue, Irreantum or the Mormon Lit Blitz. The rest are unique to the collection.

The stories were all written 2006-2013 and coincide with the bulk of my non-fiction writing about Mormon literature and culture. All of the stories are very Mormon and are about the current Mormon-American experience and range from the almost devotional to the almost heretical. That almost is important for me to accomplish (see: my series on the radical middle).

A couple of the stories that were previously published have been slightly edited from their previous state. I don’t think I did anything major, but there are differences.

ON PRICING & PROCEEDS
At $4.99, the collection is deliberately priced on the high end of the (very few) comparable ebook volumes of Mormon short stories out there. I figured $1 for each 10,000 words plus another buck for more than a decade of free literary criticism here at AMV and elsewhere. Plus, it feels to me like an EP and EP’s are/used to be $5.

Proceeds from sales of the collection will go to fund Mormon literature projects. Specifically, I hope to bank enough to cover the bulk of the costs for the Mormon alternate history mini-anthology I plan to edit. And by costs I mean token payments (at least $15, hopefully more like $25) to contributors. I hope to also subsidize some of the web hosting costs for AMV and its sister blogs.

Anyone who can’t justify the spend right now but really would like to read the collection should email me at william at motleyvision dot org. Be sure to indicate if you’d like a .pdf, .epub (for Nook, Kobo, Sony Ereader, etc.), or .mobi (Kindle) file. I know what’s it like to not have the funds to buy books even though you’d really like to support the author. It’s more important to me that you experience my writing. I’m not going to just make it free on Amazon or whatever, but email me, and I’ll shoot you back the format of your choice no questions, no judgement.

ON THE COVER
I created it myself in Adobe InDesign. I thought about using a striking black and white photo like one does with short story collections, but I also wanted to tie it into the A Motley Vision branding. Plus I like minimalist book covers. In fact, my preference would be to have no words on the cover at all, but in the end I bowed to convention.

The maroon color is the exact same color as the one I’ve used for AMV since moving it to WordPress many years ago. That would be #3d0807 or R=61, B=8, G=7. The typeface is Avenir. I’ll let you figure out what the squares represent.

ON SELF-PUBLISHING
The calculus is simple: the only publishing house that would potentially be willing to take this on is Zarahemla Books. I’d be happy to be part of that list. It’s great company. But a) there’s no guarantee that Chris Bigelow would want it; b) since proceeds would be split with ZB, that’d dilute the net income from sales; and, c) it just seemed like this project was an AMV one. Future projects might not be.

My sister Katherine and father-in-law Tim provided editorial work. I did everything else.

ON A PRINT VERSION
Probably won’t happen—at least not anytime soon. Yes, I have friends who I could convince to do the layout for free or at a reduced price. Or I could take the time to up my InDesign skills enough to do it myself, but at the moment I’m not inclined to spend that time or good will. Sorry. If a print version does happen, it won’t be until after the alternate history anthology, which means late 2016 at the earliest.

So those are all the details. I’m happy to answer questions in the comments. Stay tuned for more here (and elsewhere) on the stories, my future projects, etc. And thanks, as always, for your support of me and everybody else involved with A Motley Vision and the MormonLit community.

“Woman of Another World, I Am with You”:
Reading the Divine Feminine in Mormonism

5.5.15 | | 2 comments

(Cross-posted here.)

It’s May, which means it’s time to celebrate (among other things) loyalty, Star Wars, nurses, Sally Ride, the end of the Middle Ages, and, of course, Mom.

“A Mother’s Love” by Lynde Mott
First Place, A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest

To that latter end, I’ve put myself to the task of reading and commenting on the poems featured in 2014’s A Mother Here Contest. You can read more about the contest via that link, but here’s how I see my project working: as an attempt (alongside and in conversation with the contest artworks) to “express the nearness of our Heavenly Mother” and to witness her presence in the cosmos (as coeval with Father) and in the intimate details of our lives.

As I mention, the project (which I’m hosting on FireinthePasture.org) will be two-fold:

1. I’ll post a recording of me reading one of the featured contest poems.

2. Alongside that reading, I’ll post a short audio comment (likely no more than four minutes long) in which I respond to the poem and explore what it says about the Mormon Divine Feminine.

My hope in taking this on is to expand the rich discourse that’s emerging re: Mother in Heaven and, in the process, to explore my own relationship with her. I’ve posted elsewhere about my experience talking about the Eternal Mother in a short sacrament meeting sermon. What I didn’t mention was how nervous I was when I stood to speak. I knew there was no silence officially mandated on the topic, but the cultural silence hung heavy in my ears and on my mind. As a result, just before I began speaking about her, my heart rapped hard on my sternum. When I introduced the idea that Mother stands beside Father as they carry out the work of eternity, though, I felt her presence and peace in a way I’ve never felt them before.

I’ve sensed that again as I’ve spent time the past week or so with the contest poems.

So: here goes—my first reading/commentary combo. A caveat, though: since May has 31 days and the contest only features 30 poems, what to do with the extra day? Rather than cut the month short, I found another poem to highlight: Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You.” I think it provides a fruitful beginning to this month-long engagement with the “A Mother Here” poems.


Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You”

Post 1/31 in my A Mother Here reading series. (I’m four days into the project now. Check out all posts in the series via the link embedded in the previous sentence.)

(Click/tap here to read the poem.)

Poem:


(Direct link to audio file.)

Commentary:


(Direct link to audio file.)


Millstone City of Brick and Shadow

1.20.15 | | 2 comments

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The remarkable thing comparing my reviews of Millstone City (by S.P. Bailey, 2012) and City of Brick and Shadow (by Tim Wirkus, 2014) is how differently directed my attention was and yet how many similarities the reviews (and their books) still share.

citiesinbrazilLet’s start with the obvious. Both novels have “city” in the title. Both novels take place in Brazil’s slums. Both novels feature horrific criminal activity. Both novels incorporate missionaries breaking rules, though managing to keep their deviance remarkably nontransgressive. Both sets of missionaries maintain an interest in fulfilling their call to preach even in the least agreeable of situations. Both adventures begin thanks to a link to the criminal world via a local convert. Both novels address the reality of evil and fail to provide a purely pat ending.

Thematically however, the novels are quite different. more

On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: <br />An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 2)

1.15.15 | | 7 comments

ICYMI: In part one of this letter, I address BYU-Idaho’s mission as a Church-sponsored university and place learning and reading within a gospel context; in the second half I walk through a reading of an essay titled “Medical Student” using the principles I outline in my opening discussion. (To encourage engagement with “Medical Student,” . The link will die at the end of this week. If you find this post after 1.17.2015 and would like to read the essay, email me at tyler [at] motleyvision [dot] org.)


I’ve shared this statement especially because it addresses the concern some students have that despite the fact that active Latter-day Saints try not to profane the Lord’s name or to otherwise use foul language, they felt they had compromised their moral standing by reading essays that contain profanity. I hope Pres. Young’s words clarify the idea that the inclusion of such stories in BYU-Idaho’s curriculum isn’t intended to condone the behavior in those stories or to force students into compromising their standards for the sake of a grade. To paraphrase him: “Shall BYU-Idaho practice evil? No; neither has BYU-Idaho told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.” more

On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: <br />An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)

1.13.15 | | 7 comments

I’ve taught first-year writing at BYU-Idaho since 2010. The curriculum for the course I teach includes a student essay titled “Medical Student” by Margaret Parker. The essay is a well-written, day-in-the-life narrative profiling one aspect of the intense life lived by a med student named JD; this intensity is conveyed through the narrative’s fast-pacing and through some mild profanity. Because this life experience is likely completely foreign to BYU-Idaho’s student base, “Medical Student” appears on the reading list as part of a course unit called “Thinking about the Other.” The unit claims the following objectives:

This unit invites you to reflect on the question—who are they?—insofar as it can be answered by examining the beliefs, values, and experiences of other individuals whose perceptions of “reality” differ from your own. The assumption underlying this unit is that before you can engage in constructive communication about academic, social, and political issues, you must be able to understand and accurately report the experiences and positions of others.

At the end of this unit, you should be able to conduct effective primary research, such as observing and interviewing, to understand and accurately communicate the experiences and positions of someone whose perceptions differ from your own.

Within this context, “Medical Student” is meant to stretch students’ thinking about the people with whom we share this world, especially those who don’t share Latter-day Saint values. Some students (not a lot) struggle to get past the essay’s profanity and have approached me with their concerns. Which is fair enough: if they don’t want to read the essay, that’s their prerogative. One semester, though, a student had major concerns about it, which prompted her/him to worry about the school’s spiritual standing. The response escalated beyond anything I had previously experienced (I won’t go into details) and it prompted me to pray and think deeply about such concerns and how I might best address them with future students to encourage them to look at their education within the context of gospel values. The following letter grew out of that experience. I’m sharing it here because it explores a way of looking through the lens of Mormonism when we read texts that come from outside the Mormon literary tradition. more