Category Archives: Literature

On Writing and Permission: Drafting My New Life

7.8.14 | | 9 comments

Almost exactly two years ago I wrote this post for AMV. It is all about seeking permission— from the commenters, contributors, and readers of AMV, from God, and from myself—to start reclaiming things I had given up or lost. I framed it all in the context of writing and mother-guilt but, reading it now, I can see I wasn’t actually asking for permission to write. I was asking for something much, much larger.

Two years ago, my life was a mess and I wasn’t sure I was going to live much longer to fix it. My marriage was a destructive one and it was slowly killing me. I was having increasing amounts of suicidal ideations and my children were acting out in more and more ways. The things I was working so hard to fix (read: change, hide, or cover-up) weren’t getting fixed and I was finding myself under more and more stress trying to compensate for all the things that happened behind closed doors.  The gory details of my marriage don’t belong on the Internet—they are private experiences and I intend to keep them that way—but here’s what I’m willing to say about it: it wasn’t tabloid-bad but it was bad.

Two years ago, I was waiting for someone—the commenters, contributors, and readers of AMV, God, or myself—to give me permission to stop living half a life, to be a full person, to get out of my marriage.

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I was so scared when I wrote that post. Trying to keep myself and my kids afloat inside the context of my marriage was fairly all-consuming and confusing and, in June 2012, the parts of myself that I had given up listening to were telling me quite loudly that it was make-it-or-break-it time. These were the parts that urged me to write, the parts that urged me to keep praying and trusting God. They were also the same parts that told me my marriage was ruining my life. At thirty years old  with four small children, so much of my life was a pile of things I didn’t want and it was time to make it into something else or let it break me down, maybe permanently.

Over the course of my marriage I had found that the more time I spent writing the more cognitive dissonance increased. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Joan Didion echoed that when she wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” Whenever I sat down to write the things that kept cropping up were loss and fear and darkness and surrender. The differences between what I presented, that far too common Sunday Face we all know so well, and my reality were strangulating.

Dropping into writing, committing to it, meant hearing all my parts and honoring the truth that was waiting for me there. There was so, so, so much pain and no matter how hard I worked and prayed and wished my marriage was still a mess and I was failing. Big time. Failing at being a present, engaged mother; at fulfilling the Mormon cultural ideals I held at my core; at being a writer; at being a whole human.  There were so many things I had to keep hidden I couldn’t engage in any form of honesty and, turns out, honesty is where a hell of a lot of success, both in writing and life, starts.

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It took almost an entire year for the pieces to fall into place, but in May of 2013 God told me it was time to get out. In June of 2013 I moved my husband out of our family home and watched my children’s hearts simultaneously break and start to beat easier. In July of 2013 I filed my divorce papers and finally took an honest look at the seven million broken pieces that were my heart and spirit. In August of 2013 I put my kids in daycare and went back to work. In October of 2013 the divorce was finalized. In March of 2014 our marital house sold and I moved to a new stake, where I could build a life for just my kids and I with a clean slate.

It’s been a year of horribly hard things.

But it’s also been a year of honesty and a year of realizing that not all the failures are mine. My husband failed me. My marriage failed me.  In fact, when it comes right down to it, looking back at all the things I failed at while I was trying to fix my marriage I don’t see so much failure. I see someone doing the best she could in an impossible situation and maybe she wasn’t perfect but maybe being perfect, keeping up with all the things she thought she was supposed to be, was never the point.

Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  Like pretty much every person ever, failure, my own and those of the people around me, were (are!) a massive part of my truth. I had (have!) to accept them in order to be set free.

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Freedom, it turns out, is trickier than I thought it was going to be.

When I imagined being out of my marriage. . .well, actually, I never could fill that in. It was a giant blank space. It felt exactly the same as sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper. Throat tightening. Heart pounding. Expectations rising.  Mind racing. No clue what on earth was supposed to go there.

So I’m doing with my life what I do with blank pages: I’m folding it in half and then in half again because filling small bits of blankness is less overwhelming.

Just like novels get written one word at a time, new lives get written one day at a time. The key is the doing of it.

I get up every morning and I don’t think about the vast expanse known as The Rest of My Life That Isn’t What I Thought it Would Be. Yes, I still say things to myself like, “This is not what I signed up for.” Being a single mom to four kids isn’t easy. Trying to figure out how to make enough money to provide for four kids when my heart is yearning to just get an MFA and dream up novels and poems and teach for the rest of my life isn’t easy. Dealing with being young and divorced in a family-oriented Church isn’t easy. Waiting on God to reveal promised blessings and relying on the strength of my covenants isn’t easy.

But I can rewrite my thinking now. My life might not be what I expected but it is something that, with God’s help and guidance, I can shape. Filling it in, shaping it, writing my own life might not be easy but it’s something I can do. One word, one day, one draft at a time.

My days are now shaped by work and filling in the gaps with things I love: gardening, playing with my kids, exercise, reading, and writing. I still don’t have a novel to hold up as validation or proof of success. Kinda like I don’t have a marriage to hold up as validation for my life choices or as proof of success both as a functional adult and a Mormon. (And believe me, I want that validation so deeply!) But every day I put words on the page and while thousands and thousands of them get edited out and the ones that stay might not ever add up to any great work they fill the empty space, both on the page and in my life. And, sometimes, I even enter that charmed space of inspiration and unexpected moments of musicality and profundity and discovery occur.

It is incredibly satisfying.

Word by word, day by day, the pieces of my broken heart and spirit are being forged into something new, something bigger with nooks and crannies that are healing and filling out. There really is an art to being a whole human and it’s one that I figure, like writing, I’ll spend the rest of my life practicing.

The best part, though? I’m no longer asking for permission because, it turns out, I never actually needed permission. I only needed to write enough to be able to hear myself think.

Alex Caldiero’s Performative Poesis:
Making, the Makar, and Mormonism

4.28.14 | | 9 comments

Earlier this month, I presented some of my research on Alex Caldiero’s sonosophy at the AML Conference. After I posted my presentation proposal here, Scott also posted his, and Th. expressed his hope that we would record our papers “for the internet since that’s the only way nonattendees can be assured of hearing them later.” Th.’s request solidified my intention to record my presentation and post it online. So I packed my Samson Go Mic (love that thing!) and my laptop and sound-captured my presentation using Audacity (in case you were wondering). When I listened to the presentation later, I realized I had left some stuff out the day of and made a few additions to the audio to make up for my neglect; I also made some minor cuts where there was too much empty air or where I commented on how slow the classroom’s computer was (O, so slow!). Then I combined the audio with my Prezi, screen-captured the presentation using Open Broadcaster Software, and uploaded the file to YouTube.

I mention my post-conference presentation-revision process and the digital tools I used to create the video I’m sharing because I wanted to show one way in which those tools can potentially augment (and disrupt) the historical modes of critical discussion that are favored in the humanities (i.e., sustained arguments made in writing). In his introduction to the BYU student-produced anthology, Writing about Literature in the Digital Age, Gideon Burton argues that we ought to welcome such disruptions because they can awaken us to the “ongoing vitality of literature as ‘equipment for living’ in the digital age.” They can help us see and experience and share and discuss literature differently, opening the mode of literary conversations to something (potentially) more dynamic and engaging than a monograph published in a print journal with a necessarily limited base of subscribers.

My thoughts on the state of academic publishing aside, I was both excited and disheartened to learn at the AML Conference that next year’s meeting might be held in Hawaii. The move excites me because it’s an attempt to break the Jell-O Belt’s hold on the Association (and the Association’s favor for the Jell-O Belt), to move its focus beyond the continental U.S. I just hope the attempt doesn’t, Humpty Dumpty-like break the Association. Which leads me to why the move disheartens me: as I mentioned in the post where I shared my AML proposal, my wife and I look forward to our annual pilgrimage to the AML Conference; but with the conference in Hawaii next year, we can’t afford to attend. Chalk it up to student loans coming due, a pending move, a mortgage, four kids, and so on. Whatever the case, I’m sad I won’t be able to be there. Yet, our impending conference-nonattendance has had me thinking about alternatives to the time- and geography-bound conference, about ways to approximate or augment the knowledge- and community-building aspects of such conferences, to potentially include more people on the program and in the conference discussions, to move MoLit’s critical culture beyond the ways critics have traditionally made their work public. Sharing my conference presentation online (in video and audio formats) is a gesture toward those alternatives, which I hope to address more later.

Your thoughts on such alternatives and on the content and form of my presentation (which at ~43 minutes is, I know, fairly long) are welcome in the comments.


Follow this link for the audio version.

(Cross-posted here.)

Theric (and Monsters & Mormons) at SLC Comic Con Fan X

4.16.14 | | one comment

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I’ll be in Salt lake City this weekend for Fan Experience. I’ll be giving an updated version of my Mormons and comics discussion from the first SLC Comic Con which will, among other changes, mention Nathan Shumate’s Cheap Caffeine, incorporate information from a couple AML presentations (James Goldberg on The Garden of Enid, Stephen Carter on Book of Mormon comics), and the Kickstarter campaigns for iPlates and From the Dust. Mike Homer will give his presentation on representations of Mormons and Utah in comics over time. (240 seats)

Fifteen minutes before that rerun, a panel of Monsters & Mormons participants will be publicly talking about their work and what’s become of it. I’m a bit confused over the final makeup of the panel (this story is personally embarrassing, but that’s a story for another day), but expect at least seven people you definitely want to hear from. (220 seats)

Then fifteen minutes after the comics rerun, I’ll be on a Sherlock Holmes panel which I really really hope has no Mormon tie-ins. (400 seats)

Based on the numbers here, I think I should be able to take 10.75 days off teaching and still reach the same number of people. Sweet.

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Of two minds regarding Smurthwaite’s Road to Bountiful

4.9.14 | | 9 comments

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In this round of Reading the Whitney Finalists, we come to the only author I have read previously. Shortly after my mission—whether a couple months or a couple years, I’m not sure—my youngest brother recommended to me Donald S. Smurthwaite’s Do You Like Me, Julie Sloan? I don’t remember why, exactly, but it was a book he liked and he thought it would meet certain requirements I had and I don’t remember exactly what I thought, but I certainly didn’t hate it like the book I had hated the book I had previously read and for which my brother had offered Julie Sloan as a healing salve.

What I do remember is that Julie Sloan largely rose and fell on the strength of its narrative voice, and the same is true of Road to Bountiful times two. more

Three posts on The House at Rose Creek by Jenny Proctor

4.4.14 | | 4 comments

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In recent years, as a higher percentage of my reading has become decidedly “Mormon,” I have read very little published by Deseret or Covenant. I’m ashamed of my reluctance. In part I’ve been hesitant because although I hear that quality at these houses has grown vastly over the past years, I also once heard wide acclaim for Baptists at Our Barbecue by Robert Farrell Smith. And hoo boy but was that an unfunny disaster. (Sadly, this was before I started blogging every book I read, so I can’t get more specific than that.)

But as recent discussions attest (eg), coming into a genre without knowing its rules can lead to expectations failing to be met and a disappointment which might not be fair to the work under consideration (consider the recent Deseret News review I discussed here).

Why is why the first of these three posts will be: more

Notes on How to Read a Poem

4.3.14 | | 3 comments

National Poetry Month 2014
(Poster design: Chip Kidd)
Click image for PDF copy of the poster.

I’m of two minds about National Poetry Month.

In one sense, I appreciate the effort (initiated by the Academy of American Poets and institutionalized in April 1996 by President Clinton’s administration) “to highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets; [to] introduce Americans to the pleasures and benefits of reading poetry; [to] bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways; [and to] make poetry an important part of our children’s education” (ref). Even if this official celebration of poets and poetry only happens one month out of twelve and even if people binge on poems during that month but never read another poem all year, at least poetry is being celebrated, right? I can’t complain about that.

In another sense, though, I see poetry as something worth engaging every day. If America can set aside one month a year to advocate for poetry as something that can enhance and enrich “the lives of all Americans” and that “affects every aspect of life in America today, including education, the economy, and community pride and development” (ref), we should be able to make a place (no matter how small) for poetry in our everyday lives, shouldn’t we? Of course, I say this as someone deeply invested in reading and writing and writing about and advocating for poetry. So I may be a little biased.

Whatever the case, and whatever your mind is about poetry and National Poetry Month (prominent poet and critic Richard Howard once called it “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” two contraptions that distanced us from the beauty and rhythms of the earth), I thought I’d share some reflections on how to read a poem, whenever and however often you read one.

The following essay appears as the prologue in my book, Field Notes on Language on Kinship. My ideas (in the essay and in the book) are informed to a great degree by Patricia’s thinking on language and were sparked by her gorgeous poem “Introduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem).” (Listen to Laura’s stunning performance of Patricia’s poem here.)

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Notes on How to Read a Poem

Some years ago during an undergraduate literature course, a classmate confessed the first time our reading assignment included some poems that “Interpreting poetry is not my forte.” The student’s confession still catches my ear. I hear her/him repeating it poetically in my mind, giving it a lyric ring that comes out more when I write the sentence as if writing a poem, splitting the line after syllable seven:

    Interpreting poetry
    is not my forte.

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The First Course in Mormon Literature?

3.27.14 | | 4 comments

Howard R. DriggsAs I understand it, university-level Mormon literature courses have been taught since the late 1970s, mainly at BYU thanks to the efforts of Eugene England. In recent years the number of courses have increased, and currently exist at least at BYU, LDS Business College and Utah Valley University. And there have been courses with Mormon literature components taught elsewhere as well.

But the university level isn’t the only place where Mormon literature courses could be taught, and as I’ve already noted, the idea of using Mormon writing to teach children, at least, occurred to Parley P. Pratt quite early. Now, I’ve come across another course, this one aimed at Relief Society sisters in 1948. And this course was apparently taught—at least in some Relief Societies. Still better, its author was a recently retired English professor who had taught for 19 years at New York University.

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Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist
your marriage . . . your death . . . you

3.19.14 | | 15 comments

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I was on Amazon reading about this book, no idea it was by a Mormon author, and darn near bought it. Then I remembered there’s a moratorium on Theric buying new books and since I wasn’t up to the free-shipping level I closed the tab before I could get into trouble. Then, later that day, I bounced into an email lounging in my inbox offering a free digital copy to AMV for review. And, now, here we are.

In this review, I’ll be worrying less about a holistic look at the novel (though if that happens , great; if not, just know it’s terrific) and more about looking at the striking artistic choices Quist has made. Or, in other words, we’ll be discussing passages I highlighted during my reading.

But enough about me. more