Category Archives: Memoir

On Writing and Permission: Drafting My New Life

7.8.14 | | 10 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.

Book Review: Global Mom

9.24.13 | | 5 comments

Melissa Dalton-Bradford and I are like two circles on a Venn diagram that don’t quite touch. She was a missionary companion of one of my best friends. She commuted into New York City to perform in a Broadway musical at the same time that my family and I lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And the Dalton-Bradfords now live minutes away from my husband’s family in Switzerland. It seems like we should have met by now, but we haven’t.

I didn’t know any of the above when I volunteered to review her newly published memoir, Global Mom. All I knew was that she and her husband had raised their children all over the world, something I had hoped my husband and I would do when he graduated from law school. Alas, that was not our trajectory, so reading Global Mom was for me an exercise in vicarious living.

Dalton-Bradford retells her expat adventures with vivid detail and funny, self-deprecating anecdotes. She and her husband work hard to embrace the language and culture wherever they find themselves. Their children have an easier time of it, learning Norwegian at the local barnepark in Norway; French at school in Versailles and Paris; German in Munich; and Mandarin in Singapore. At the end of the book, the family finds itself living in Geneva; who knows where future job transfers might take them next?

Since she is writing to a general audience, Dalton-Bradford discusses the church only in passing. Wherever she lives, she mentions finding comfort and support in her ward, and she and her family serve in a variety of capacities. Later in the book, for reasons that will become apparent, she is more overt in mentioning prayer and the way her faith sustains her.

The Norway and France chapters take up two-thirds of the book and are light, warm, and exuberant in tone. But then, just as the family is about to move to Germany, tragedy strikes. The Bradford’s oldest son, Parker, heads to Idaho as a college freshman; days later, he dies in a water accident. The family’s struggle to come to terms with devastating loss colors its life in the years that follow; the reader sees Munich and Singapore only through the hazy lens of grief. In describing her ordeal, Dalton-Bradford writes with courage, painful honesty, and hope.

I have a small wish list of things I think could have improved the mostly excellent memoir. The very first chapters are a bit overwritten, their self-conscious prose distracting from the stories they are telling. Throughout the book, I felt somewhat removed from Dalton-Bradford’s husband and children, seeing them only from her perspective. She often employs dialogue, but it is almost always used to illustrate a difficulty with language or culture, and doesn’t otherwise offer the immediacy that I enjoy in a memoir. Finally, I wish I could give a stern lecture to the book’s publisher, Familius. Significant typos can be found throughout, and a line editor worth his or her salt should have caught them all.

But these complaints are minor. I find myself recommending Global Mom to just about anyone: other parents; anyone living “in the mission field”; people who dream of living abroad; and those who love to travel, if only via the pages of a book.

Chris Bigelow kickstarts memoir LSD to LDS: 4 days to hit goal

3.12.13 | | 2 comments

Zarahemla Books owner and Irreantum founder Chris Bigelow has until this Saturday at 8 pm MDT to reach the Kickstarter goal for his memoir Mormon Punk: From LSD to LDS. Here’s his description of it:

As a sixth-generation Mormon and the oldest of ten siblings, I was ordained to the priesthood at age twelve. By then, however, I was utterly bored with the LDS religion—my true inner religion had become Dungeons & Dragons and the rock group Rush. As soon as I left home at age seventeen, I escaped into Salt Lake City’s mid-1980s underground punk and New Wave scene, my generation’s version of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Rather than finding a workable new life, however, I ended up—possibly as a result of taking hallucinogenic drugs—encountering the devil in a harrowing midnight ordeal. My encounter was not unlike the demonic experiences of some early Mormons, including Joseph Smith and my own ancestor, the polygamous apostle Heber C. Kimball. Wanting to protect myself against such malevolent forces, I did a 180 and dove back into the religion of my youth.

$15 gets you an ebook version; $25 the trade paperback. Because of Zarahemla Books, we know Chris can deliver on getting the thing produced — he just needs some incentive to get the thing written and revised, especially now that his work circumstances have changed and he is a freelancer. I haven’t read this part of his story (if you click through there are sample chapters), but I have read some of what he is written about his mission experience, and in my opinion memoir is Chris’s most natural mode of writing. Click through and if you’re intrigued by what you read and want more, back the project.

Big Table Mormonism: A Response to Joanna Brooks’ _The Book of Mormon Girl_

2.18.13 | | 11 comments

Note: My talented wife, Anne Marie Ogden Stewart, previously wrote an insightful review  about The Book of Mormon Girl. This piece is meant to be a companion piece to that one, so I recommend you read Anne’s post as well.

Whether it was the “Pantspocalypse,” the bloggers at Feminist Mormon Housewives/ Exponent ,or faithful Mormon feminist Judy Dushku’s pointed critique of Mitt Romney, Mormon Feminists have been very prominent as of late. Call it a revival, call it a resurgence, call it what you will, but the advent of the internet and the increasing dialogue about the roles of women in American and world society has brought Mormon feminists out of their hiding places and rhetorical bomb shelters. Mormon Feminists have searched for each other and banded together. They have clamored for an equal voice in a society that has often tried to silence them and they have implored to their fellow Latter-day Saints to see them as fellow-pilgrims and not as antagonists of the faith. At the forefront of this effort has been the courageous Joanna Brooks,  a professor of Comparative Literature at San Diego State University; a prominent blogger at Ask Mormon Girl and Religion Dispatches; a high profile resource about Mormonism for CNN, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and NBC Rock Center; as well as the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of American Faith.

 Having loved Brooks’ blog posts, watched/read many of the interviews she was involved in, and learned to appreciate her compassionate and thoughtful approach to Mormonism, I bought a copy of The Book of Mormon Girl for my wife Anne for Christmas. Anne and I consider ourselves devout Mormons. We connect deeply with and believe in Mormon scripture and theology; we love the heritage of having Mormon pioneer ancestors; I love to study the intimate details of Mormon history (which I often write plays and screenplays about), while Anne has a deep passion for Old Testament studies; as lovers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, we’re passionate believers in Jesus Christ, and gratefully claim him as our Redeemer and Savior; we believe in the core tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and strive to find a place in our faith community. Despite that heartfelt and abiding faith, however, there have been times when we have felt like we were foreigners in our own religion.

This occasional alienation we have felt may have been a cultural quality that we thought had been overemphasized, a Pharisee-like pattern we find in certain elements and sub-groups of the membership, or a coldness we have received (or we have seen others receive) because of this or that circumstance. These, of course, are exceptions rather than the rule. I personally have found that Mormonism makes people better, if it is lived in the way it has been outlined by the scriptures and the tenets of the faith. And, of course, it is so much better to concern oneself with the beam in one’s own eye, than the mote that is in our neighbor’s eye.

Yet there are still those moments of alienation, of loneliness, of feeling like we don’t quite fit in, despite our best efforts (which are often still insufficient) to keep peace and show love. Discipleship will always have its strains, and standing up for what you believe in, whether it is to the secular world, or even to those who share many points of common faith, is designed to be a lonesome ordeal. If there is a “mold” for the “typical” Mormons, there have been times where we felt like we didn’t fit it.            

It is here that works like Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl have given me and my wife hope. more