Friday, March 27, 2015

What to See at the Mormon Letters Conference Tomorrow

Tomorrow (Saturday, 28 March) is a special day. It is not only the day we get ready for Sunday, 1-5 pm is also the time when you can gather for free to the UVU campus library in Orem for the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Mini-Conference, "Everything you wanted to know about Mormon Literature (but were afraid to ask)."

The conference consists of two panel discussions, two live debates, a writing workshop, a poetry playoff, and an awards ceremony with readings from some of the winners.

There is one important catch, though: there are two sessions going on most of the time, so you can only catch half the program. What will you choose?

Here's the agenda:

Conference Agenda


12:30-12:50 p.m.

Registration and mingling outside library auditorium

1:00-1:50 p.m.

Room 515: What is the role of the Mormon writer in the community?
Debate: Stephen Carter vs. James Goldberg

Room 516: The Mormon Lit Scene Today
Panel: Laura Hilton Craner, Nicole Wilkes Goldberg, Katherine Morris, Boyd Peterson

2:00-2:50 p.m.

Room 515: Should Mormon writers study Mormon literature?
Debate: Gideon Burton vs. Eric Samuelsen

Room 516: Inventing Truth: The Art and Craft of the Personal Essay
Workshop Leaders: Sharlee Mullins Glenn, Cheri Shulzke, Melissa Young 

3:00-3:50 p.m.

Room 515: Poetry Slam
Competitors: Emily Harris Adams, Shawn Bailey, Laura Hilton Craner, Marianne Hales Harding, Michael Hicks, Clifton Jolley, Kevin Klein, Steven Peck, Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen, Darlene Young

Room 516: My Favorite Mormon Book and Why It Matters
Panel: Glenn Gordon, Lance Larsen, Melissa Leilani Larson, Shelah Miner, Ardis E. Parshall

4:00-5:00 p.m.

Library Auditorium
Announcement of Annual AML Award Winners
Presenter: Scott Bronson
Selected readings by award winners


And here's my advice on what to take in:

12:30:
It's worth it to come early--half the fun of conferences is the hallway discussions. I, personally, am hoping to find some people to toss around Mormon alternative history ideas with. There may or may not be a betting pool on which shortlisted titles will get awards come afternoon. And even if you're more the fly on the wall type, with enough writers around, there's always something interesting to listen to.

1:00-1:50:

Room 515: My debate with Stephen Carter should be a lot of fun. Political debates today are so much about personality and image that they're mostly unwatchable--Stephen and I have basically nothing at stake personally, so this one will be all about the ideas. That alone is probably worth the hour.
The topic is also pretty interesting. Stephen Carter, who's the editor of Sunstone, will be arguing for Mormon writers to follow the grand Western tradition of the writer as social critic, a voice of conscience within the community. While I think conscience has value, I'll argue that there are some dangers to casting oneself in that role, and argue that Mormon writers should work to engage the Mormon imagination more than to expose the weaknesses in the culture. Sort of the aesthetic of the Mormon Lit Blitz, as it happens.
The division isn't just theory. If you get into literary Mormon fiction, you'll see the same debate playing out in the way people structure their stories. And you'll probably recognize the same styles in the ways people blog and talk about Mormonism online.
I highly recommend this session to two groups: 1) those who are already heavily involved in Mormon Lit, and 2) those who don't care that much about Mormon Lit, but are at the conference 'cause it sounded fun.

Room 516: Between the two groups I recommend the debate for is another group that I hope to see well-represented Saturday: those who aren't very involved in Mormon Lit now, but who are interested. "The Mormon Lit Scene Today" is a panel designed to give you a quick survey of what's out there in terms of organizations, online resources, publishers, awards, communities, etc.--and what purpose they all serve and how they fit together. Different readers and readers want different things, and it can be hard at first to find the place within Mormon Lit that fits you best. This panel could help you figure out what exists and how to tune into what you're most interested in.


2:00-2:50:

Room 515: I could listen to Eric Samuelsen and Gideon Burton debate tooth paste brands, so this one would get my entertainment value vote. It's also the best session we have for anyone interested in the Mormon literary past: if you don't know much about the Mormon literary past the debate is over, this is probably a great session to go to.
I expect the debate will also end up touching on some thoughts that go beyond Mormon Lit into Mormon identity: how much do we gain by looking within and how much do we gain from looking without? Obviously, both are going to be beneficial, but playing the two alternatives off each other might shed some light not only on what aspiring Mormon writers should read, but on how we might think of our dual identity as members of a very distinct community living in an age of increasingly open global culture.

Room 516: Eugene England and other giants in the Mormon literary past have made strong arguments for the essay as a form Mormons are culturally equipped to get a lot out of. And the team at Segullah have a growing track record behind them of using well-crafted essays to shape a vibrant online community capable of talking about more than the issue of the week.
Whether you are an experienced writer or not, the essay workshop would be a great choice if you feel like you have a story to tell. Words have always mattered, and probably matter more than ever in today's new media world, and we need people willing to do the hard work of turning experience into usable story. Maybe one of them can be you.

3:00-3:50:

Room 515: Stay here if you're a fan of spectacle. Poetry has a reputation for being bookish, hard to connect to, and self-important. But that's only come because live audiences largely abandoned it. There have been plenty of cultures where poetry gathering were and are electric and exciting. So come: vote out what you don't love. Vote on what you do. And watch the ranks of poets whittle down until we crown a champion of the hour.

Room 516: This is the room where you should go if you've always figured Mormon Literature is stupid. Write down the titles of the books people recommend, make a goodwill effort to read them, and if you still don't like anything, you will join the elite ranks of those whose sweeping condemnations of Mormon Literature are supported by any meaningful kind of experience.
This is also a great session to attend if you love Mormon literature. I will be extremely surprised if anyone who attends the session will have read all five books the panels recommend: it's a great place to find new treasures and expand your reading list with books that have touched people in an unusual way.
A bonus for this session is that we'll open up at the end for audience members to share their own recommendations--and their stories of why a certain book affected them the way it did. So if you're planning on it, feel free to bring your own story.

4:00-5:00:

I realize that we're ending just an hour before the General Women's Meeting and that young fathers may want to rush home to cook dinner for their kids. But we're going to pack an awful lot of awesome into this final hour. This is the first year the Association for Mormon Letters has released short lists for its awards, so there's more than the usual suspense about which titles will be announced as we get started. And we're anticipating that a lot of shortlisted writers will be there, so there will be quick readings from a wide range of the interesting voices in Mormon Lit today.


In any case: if you're along the Wasatch front and free, I'd love to see you sometime tomorrow afternoon. Be sure to introduce yourself if it's the first time we're meeting. If you live far away, I hope you at least enjoy knowing this sort of thing is happening. We do hope to get recordings posted online fairly soon after the conference so you can listen from a distance. And another year, maybe we'll be organized enough to broadcast events live and take questions on Facebook.

Whether you're going or not, I'd also love to hear your feedback on what sounds interesting. It's a lot of work to corral together this amount of talent, and we'd love to come up with the most compelling ways to use it at future events. So let me know how these sessions sound. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Thought about Jesus--Luke 12:13

"And one of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me." Luke 12:13 

Our family's been reading the gospel of Luke lately, moving kind of slowly because we stop a lot to draw attention to things we think our kids might be in a position to benefit from grappling with.

Like: tonight we got to the verse above, where someone asks Jesus to get involved in an inheritance dispute (which, at the time, would have been covered under religious law and therefore a reasonable thing to ask Jesus about). This felt like the kind of passage that would probably go over the kids' heads if we just read it, but that they might be able to relate to if we slowed down.

"What's an inheritance?" I asked.

They had no idea, so I explained that they'll get our stuff when we die. Simple enough.

I turned to Kira to get it to the next step of relatability. "Let's say that after Mama and I die," I said, "Elijah tells you he gets the upstairs of this house--because his room used to be there--and you get the downstairs, because your room used to be there. What do you think of that?"

This would mean, Nicole pointed out, that Kira would get the laundry room while Elijah would get the kitchen.

Kira grasped the significance of this. "That's not fair!" she said.

I figured that would be enough to help Kira sympathize with the man in the story. She'd see why he wanted Jesus to intervene on his behalf. "So let's say you went to Jesus and told him about the problem," I said. "What would he tell you to do?"

Kira didn't even hesitate. "He would tell us to work it out," she said.  

Those of you who know this story know that is, in essence, what Jesus said. He refused to get involved, and taught about the underlying dangers of envy instead of offering a ruling. Kira was right--I had just hoped to surprise her with Jesus' teachings the same way the people at the time were so often surprised by him. The same way that I, as an adult who has heard stories of Jesus countless times, continue to be surprised by him.

But a ruined lesson plan isn't a ruined lesson. Maybe I could learn something from Kira and something about Kira from the exchange. "How did you know that?" I asked.

"Because I know Jesus," she said.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Remembering Olivas Aoy

At my work, writing for history.lds.org, I get to help script about two short videos a year. Just after I got hired, we did a telling of the Dutch Potato Project story that's been used widely in welfare settings over the past year. Next, we did a piece on how sister missionary work got started which they now play in the MTC.

And then, two days ago, we released "Unto the Least of These: Olivas Aoy's School."

Olivas Aoy reached a population others had overlooked.
Like the others, it is fundamentally a pioneer story: Aoy makes significant personal sacrifices to start something important and new. In his case, though, the most striking project is not something inside the Church. It's founding the first school for Spanish-speaking students in El Paso, Texas, at a time when he's the only Latter-day Saint there.

It's a kind of pioneer story I wish we told more often. Latter-day Saints are famously willing to pitch in and help on projects our wards organize, but we could do better at learning to see needs and step up on our own.

And we could do better at developing and following our own visions of what the gospel means. At a time when many people saw Mormons as strange and backward, Olivas Aoy saw "the Christ of progress" in the restored gospel and committed his life the rest of his life to that vision. At a time when the Church was too occupied by its conflict with the U.S. government to start new programs, Aoy was willing to go out on his own trying to be an instrument in realizing God's promises as he understood them.

I don't know how widely this video will be seen. It doesn't have the same easy-to-categorize Church use as last year's videos on welfare and missionary work, or our upcoming video about temple. But maybe in the age of the internet, individual people will be able to find, share, and spread the story of this one individual's work to serve his Lord.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Explanation, Justification, Sanctification

My daughter, Kira, is 10 years old. That is old enough to engage with fairly sophisticated ideas and young enough to to still care what your parents think about them. I don't know how long this window lasts. 

I hope, of course, that Kira will continue to be interested in the insights Nicole and I have to share for many years to come. But no matter how open she remains, there's a rapid expansion from age 10 to 20 in the size of her world. Kira will, sooner than later, be dealing with a much wider range of problems and integrating a much wider range of voices into her responses. That is good and exciting, but also somewhere between humbling and terrifying. I accept and respect her fundamental independence now and in the years to come, but also feel a God-given obligation to give her the best foundation I can to build on. And the years are getting so short lately. So terribly short. 

Most of what I will give my daughter is not conscious. Things like my belief in the strengthening and healing potential of humor aren't talks or lessons, they just leak out of me in my day to day responses to the world. As do lessons I don't want to give at all, like "when you are feeling frustrated anyway, it might help to lash out at people you love." 

There are a few, valuable times, though--like when I tuck Kira in for bed or when we're having Family Home Evening or sometimes when we're driving together in a car--when I can try to consciously teach something. And for the most part, I've chosen to focus those times not a specific subject, but on giving her an underlying vocabulary for how to think things through. 

My latest emphasis came to me a few days ago after the kids had a fight. For all the inventiveness of children, there's still a grinding repetition that comes with being a parent, and as their narratives of events (with all the usual complaints, accusations, and excuses) washed over me, I found myself thinking about the genre of children's post-fight storytelling. Why do we tell the stories we do about conflicts? 

And as Kira told me why she hit her brother, I realized it would be well worth my time to focus on the difference between an explanation and a justification

An explanation, I told Kira, is about why you did something. What motivated you? Your explanation for why you hit your brother usually has to do with something he did. Elijah did x or y, which made you upset and then motivated you to hit. 

But an explanation is not necessarily a justification. A justification has to do with whether something is wrong or right. Understanding how your brother's actions made you want to hit him is not the same as making it right for you to hit him. 

Don't treat an explanation as if it were a justification, I told her. There will be a quiz, I said. 

That night, I asked her to tell me the difference between explanation and justification, as we'd defined the terms. It wasn't easy for her to do--and led, actually, to a discussion of circular definitions. But after a little while, she did pretty well at coming up with examples of each and correctly identifying examples I would come up with. She started to really see the difference. She's even been able to talk about tough cases of justification: when is it right to do a lesser wrong to prevent a greater one? The terms have opened up a way for us to start talking together about different problems. 

So last night, I added a third term, sanctification, and gave an example from the chapters she is about to read in Alma in the Book of Mormon. 

There's a king named Lamoni coming up, I told her, who sometimes kills his servants. This usually happens when the servants get sent out to guard his stuff and come back empty-handed. He gets mad, and so he kills them. 

Kira correctly identified this as an explanation. It's a story about why the king does what he does, but not about whether it's right. 

Then I pointed out that the king can attempt a justification: he can explain that his stuff is very important, and that doing your job is very important, and that when his servants run away instead of doing their job to protect his stuff, he has a right to have them killed. 

Kira agreed that this was an attempt at justification, but rejected it on the grounds that life is more important than property (as we'd previously discussed when considering the justification offered by a certain Jean Valjean). 

I complimented Kira on her analysis and then told her more of the story. King Lamoni, I said, later learned about the gospel and realized his own justification hadn't been enough. He felt terrible about what he'd done. What do you think he did then? I asked Kira. 

He repented? she said. 

Yes, I said. He repented. And he decided not to do those things anymore. But there were other people who didn't like the changes he was making. Who thought he was showing weaknesses. So they attacked his kingdom. 

At that point, I asked, would King Lamoni and his people be justified in killing the people who attacked them? 

Not necessarily, Kira said. Are the people who attack trying to kill them or just take their stuff? And is there a way to fight them off without killing them? Killing is very serious. 

That's true, I said. But assuming that the attackers are trying to kill them, Lamoni and his people would be justified in fighting back, even if they had to kill, I said.Think of soldiers in war. Think of the cartoon Justice League. 

Yes, Kira agreed, in certain cases of self-defense, killing would be justified. 

I believe that's true, I said. And I think Lamoni and his people believed it was true. But they didn't fight back because they wanted something more than justification. They were worried about sanctification. Explanation is about why you did something, justification is about whether it's right, and sanctification is about whether it makes you holy. 

Lamoni's people knew what it was like to kill out of anger. They knew how tempting it could be, how powerful it could make them feel. And they didn't want that any more. They wanted to be holy. They were willing to turn down something they had a justification to continue their sanctification. They were willing to die for it. 

 There will be a quiz, I said. 

I'm looking forward to talking quite a bit more with Kira about explanation, justification, and sanctification. Maybe we should talk about how sometimes your actions have no justification, but it's important to figure out the true explanation of why you did them so you can figure out how to change. Maybe we should spend more time on the complexities of justification and all the dilemmas it creates. And maybe 10 is not too young to get more detailed about how Jesus fits into all three kinds of stories and to start working together on figuring out what the scriptures have to say. 

And for now, maybe all this will be good for is slowing down the next post-fight discussion and separating why she acted the way she did from the question of whether it was right. Though I suspect I'll also be seizing opportunities to go through what explains some of my bad behavior and why those explanations also fail to justify it--and maybe in the process undo some of the inevitable bad teachings my example leaves behind. 

And I hope the concepts, abstract as they are, will start to have power for her. So that in a few too-short years when friends and loves and factions loom larger in her world, she'll have tools for understanding herself and others, tools to sift out the different parts of difficult relationships. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Advice for My Daughter

Sometimes things are not your fault, but they are your responsibility.

I know this seemed like a hard truth to you tonight, in the moment when you looked around your room at the chaos two much-younger brothers created. It will also seem like a hard truth to you years from now, as you come of age and inherit problems past generations created and couldn't solve.

Believe me: I understand how overwhelming messes can feel. I know what it's like not to know where to begin, and I know how strong the temptation can be to release the pressure you feel into blame.

But I also know how sweet it is to resist that temptation.

Let me tell you something real: the moment when you willingly accept responsibility for a problem you did not create, you transcend your own self-interest and become like God. Even if it's only a matter of gathering toys you did not scatter, you will feel the anchoring divinity in the center of your soul grow firmer.

Do not hide from this.

Every time life offers you an opportunity to draw borders around the edges of your heart, and you choose instead to walk straight past them and lay claim to a new burden of love, eternity nods in recognition.

It belongs to those who make room to receive it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Three Meditations on a Child's Prayer

1.

I have a 10-year-old daughter, a 4-year-old son, and a 2-year-old son.

It's an interesting time to listen to their prayers.

Leif, my youngest, still doesn't talk much--probably because he spent so much of his first 18 months of his life sick and in hospitals. Even before he started repeating words, though, the nightly rhythm of prayer helped him relax and accept sleep (we found that out the hard way when we tried to tuck him in without scriptures and prayers one night when his siblings were gone). Now, prayers are his most verbal  time of day. Often we can get him to repeat a word or two when he's asking for food, but more often than not at night, he'll take his best shot at repeating the words and short phrases of the prayer Nicole or I or one of the other kids helps him with.

Elijah often wanders and sometimes picks fights during prayers. Some nights, he kind of shouts his prayers or says them in his monster voice. Other nights, he's very thoughtful and helpful. He has one stock phrase that comes up almost every night--he likes to thank Heavenly Father "that we could have good fun." After a while, Nicole figured out that "good fun" meant the fun that comes with good choices: it was his way of asking for help behaving in a way that allowed him to have more fun than conflict with others.

Kira's prayers have recently turned from a narrower focus on our family's home life to our local community. She listens at church and then remembers to pray for specific struggling neighbors and their families. She's more and more likely to think of extended family members and friends. It's gratifying as a parent to watch her awareness mature.

My children's prayers give a pretty decent overview of some key roles religion plays in many lives today. It provides comfort and order. It helps focus us on our personal moral development and master ourselves. And it helps us reach out in compassion toward others, farther than we would likely manage on our own.

2.

Last night, Kira prayed again for the Henley family, whose basement apartment we lived in for four years. Last Sunday, Alice Henley--who'd been like an extra grandmother to the kids--passed away. We've had a few talks about it since, and it was nice to know Kira was thinking of Alice's husband, children, and grandchildren.

Next it was Lijah's turn to pray. I can't remember exactly how his prayer started, but I definitely remember the part where he said, "Thank thee that Daddy will die. Thank thee that Leif won't die."

As soon as his prayer was over, Kira asked him what on earth he was thinking. Why would he even mention Daddy dying? And Lijah repeated some variation on a theme we've discussed several times, especially since Sister Henley's death--death is part of life. It's OK.

And so I find it strangely noble of my young son to thank God for my future death. If he takes the time to bless the name of God again on the day I die, I will be content and proud.

I understand, though, if that turns out to be hard. He's seen Leif stop breathing, seen ambulances rush him to the hospital. And so I'm not surprised that at the same time he prepares himself for my eventual death, he pleads in the guise of thanks for his brother to have a long, perhaps in his mind an endless, earthly life.

And oh my son, when you and I have loved and fought for years, when you've watched me grow frail and spend my own time in hospitals, you may want me to live forever on earth, too. It may be hard to remember on the day I go that death is part of life.

3.

My great-grandmother, Basant Kaur, died when I was in elementary school. Afterward, I used to wonder sometimes if she was spending her time, invisible, somewhere close to me. That thought used to help me when I was tempted to do something I knew I wouldn't be caught for. No living person might know, but I hated the idea of disappointing Beiji.

I'd been home from my mission for about a year when my Grandpa Art died. My dad was able to fly right out when Art went in to the hospital, was able to hold his hand a last time. I was in Utah at the time, and drove out toward California to help move Art to a care center, or else to help clean out his apartment. He died while I was on the road.

It's been a while since that happened, but I still think about Art all the time. Every little while something will come up that reminds me how much I wish my wife and kids could have met him.

I feel like he's somewhere not so far away, but since I knew him so much longer than I did my great-grandma, it's also easier to see him in myself. I like to think that when my kids do finally meet their great-grandfather, they'll recognize him, in part, through the way I was--they'll know that even though he died too early for them, he was still in the way I talked and laughed and looked at the world. They'll recognize the ways they knew him.

I do believe, on an emotional and spiritual level as well as on an intellectual one, that what I tell my children about death is true. It's part of life, though the fear of bereavement and death are certainly part of life, too. We will always wrestle, I think, to find the proper balance between accepting death and working to delay it.

But I hope we remember it doesn't need to be something that severs our closest relationships, in time or eternity.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Meeting of the Myths" Contest Discussion

For our past literary contests, Nicole and I have tried different approaches to holding online discussions of the pieces. Sometimes we've gone on blog tours, holding discussions for different pieces in different places. Other times, we've had discussions posts for each piece here. Sometimes there's been more discussion on social media; other times we've actively encouraged people to take the extra steps you need to comment outside the gated portions of the internet so that the discussions can be more widely accessible and easier to find in the future.

For the current "Meeting of the Myths" contest, we'd like to try something a little different. In addition to the many conversations we've seen on Facebook and Twitter about individual stories, we'd like to have a single conversation thread to discuss all the stories on this blog. That way, it will be easier to talk about how the stories speak to each other and what we get out of the contest as a whole in addition to discussing our reactions to pieces on their own.

The seven finalists are:

"Spring Hill" by Luisa Perkins
"A Voice Not Crying in the Wilderness" by Jonathon Penny
"The Trail" by Stephen Carter
"Where Nothing Lives But Crosses" by Lee Allred
"Harmony's Victory" by Hillary Stirling
"Eyelight" by Mark Penny
"Daughter of a Boto" by Katherine Cowley (coming Sunday)

Feel free to comment on any aspect of a story, on the relationship between stories, on how the contest fits into larger conversations about Mormon Lit, on what they can teach us as Mormon writers, or whatever else you'd like to talk about.

Possible discussion question include:
What did that story mean? What are the implications?
Which story do you find most interesting/puzzling/troubling/engaging/timely/timeless/shareable/etc and why?
Do you see any sets of stories that come from the same aesthetic or social impulses? Do you see any pair or set of stories that provide us with a useful contrast in approaches?
What do you see in the contest that you weren't expecting?
What haven't you seen in the contest that you wish you had seen?
How are you going to decide which three pieces to vote for?
If you could share one story with the youth in your ward, which one would you pick?
Why are you spending your precious internet time on this contest instead of on, saying, teaching yourself another language or watching cute cat videos?
What stuff you're encountered elsewhere on the internet relates to stuff you've read or that the stories have made you think about?

And...go.

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