Several months ago my lovely wife Anne and I had the privilege to go to a retreat hosted twice a year by the Mormon Artists Foundation. Founded by James Christensen (rightfully famous for his art of fantasy and his fantastic art) and Doug Stewart (playwright of the groundbreaking Saturday’s Warrior), it’s always one of the chief highlights of the year for my wife and I. An uplifting experience, not because of the number of recognizable names on the roster (which was a little intimidating at first, until their relaxed manner and cheerful comradery told me that they were only human and weren’t looking down on my comparatively pitiful contribution to Mormon Arts), but because of the focus it brought to the spiritual aspect of our art, and the complicated ways our religion informs and doesn’t inform our Art. It was a true inspiration to see all of these gifted Mormons from the visual arts, literature, film, drama and music band together for a weekend of reminding each other why they’re artists and why they’re Mormons, and what a wonderfully strange and beautiful mixture that is.
This last time we attended, however, something stood out to me which I believe will remain with me for the rest of my life. This epiphany centered around authors Shannon Hale (author of young adult fantasy novels such as Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River of Secrets and the Newberry award winning novel Princess Academy– not to mention my wife’s favorite writer) and Stephenie Meyer (best selling author of the vampire romances, the Twilight series, and also her new sci-fi thiller/romance The Host). It almost seemed as if there was a spotlight on them during the entire conference in my mind. I was intrigued not only by the two women themselves, but by what was happening between them. They were attached at the hip, eating together, constantly chatting up a storm with each other and even breaking the rules a bit and attending all of the same group discussions with each other (people were supposed to be assigned to different groups in each session so that it wouldn’t be cliquey and that we would get to know a wider, inter-disciplinary range of people). It was almost as if they were two Jr. High BFFs (Best Friends Forever, for those who haven’t kept up on pre-teen lingo). I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of them had gone up to go the restroom, that the other would have raised her hand and asked if she could go too. And this almost claustrophobic closeness in my mind was absolutely, remarkably refreshing. To see these two very accomplished writers, who are established and famous in their respective fields and markets, cling to each other, in my opinion, was like what it would have been to see David and Jonathan form the bands of friendship, instead of rivalry.
To get a better picture to see what I was seeing, I think it’s important to note my observations about both women in this setting:
Shannon Hale was exuberent, an absolute ray of sunshine. Warm, talkative, opinionated (I mean that as the most positive of terms), confident, animated, intelligent, beautiful and really, really, really funny. I mean, she was absolutely hilarious. She was never hesitent to throw in her opinion on a subject, nor was she hesitent to give some one a good natured ribbing. The kind of person who would look you straight in the eye because she was neither afraid that you were superior to her, but neither was she ever looking down on you. You felt like you were on equal ground with her, if not in talent, then as a human being. I was surpised that after one of the chats she took a good deal of time to talk to my wife and I, relative nobodies compared to who else was in the room. Never talked down to us, never seemed impatient to get away. Just a lovely and charming woman, that made my wife’s day– not to mention my own.
If Shannon Hale was the sun, then Stephenie Meyer was the moon. Quiet, polite, slightly hesitent in her speech, kind, shy, with a gentle beauty. Quite the opposite of what one would expect from the woman who knocked off J.K. Rowling from the New York Times best sellers list. She was not only one of the humblest writers I have ever met, but one of the humblest people I have ever met. Period. I had the chance to talk her privately for a few minutes and I discovered what is typical of her kind of personality: talk to them one on one and that’s when they open up. Away from the stares of the public, you positively find them to be what you had only assumed them to be before: a wonderful, good hearted, insightful individual. I asked her about the upcoming film version of Twilight and she was very open with me, talking about the initial fears she had, especially with the first draft of the script (which, I later looked up, had butchered the story and wasn’t a faithful adaptation at all), but how a different script saved the day and she’s quite pleased with the outcome.
It could have been my imagination, but at first the ironic thing about Stephenie Meyer among this group of Mormon artists seemed to be that she was almost… intimidated. Perhaps it was because she felt she was among “Artists,” with a capital A. What I mean by that is that certain artistic personalities can look down on anything that is populist, or, excuse the term, for the “unwashed masses.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, a stereotype, but that’s the sense I got. She seemed to be afraid that she was at a conference full of people who were critical of her work, despite its overwhelming popularity and unabashed fans. Again, this could be me projecting this on her, but whatever the case was, she certainly wasn’t broadcasting her fame, nor using her bragging rights, nor even holding her chin up high. Instead, at the beginning of the conference she seemed almost embarrassed, as if she didn’t know what to do with herself. Of course, I don’t believe this particular group thought any less of Stephenie Meyer. If anything, they were feeling the same thing– rather awed to have this very famous personality in their midst. I certainly know that’s how I felt at first.
And then comes Shannon Hale. She literally took Stephenie Meyer by the arm and was instantly her bosom buddy. Not that their friendship hadn’t before this moment, mind you. How Mrs. Hale told it, if I can remember it correctly, she saw the success that Mrs. Meyer was having and said to herself something to the effect of, “She’s going to need a friend.” So she e-mailed her and they became instant friends. And I think Shannon Hale was very perceptive in this. Sure, it’s obvious that fame can be heady and thrilling and tantalizing. But it must be awful lonely, for as soon as some one makes a name for themself, there are going to be jealous individuals who will want to take that name, tear it down and “humble” it beneath their cruel heels.
And this is one of the reasons that I am so impressed with Shannon Hale. Here she was, a Newberry winner, an established, prolific author and a darn fine writer, whose sparse but poetic (almost elemental) prose, and well realized characters seem to spurt fire and wind and water and life from the page. And then comes Stephenie Meyer, a first time writer who admittedly told Time Magazine that, “I don’t think I’m a writer; I think I’m a storyteller. The words aren’t always perfect.” Here was an obscure, Mormon housewife from Arizona who catapulted into fame and fortune, simply because she had a vivid dream about a vampire romance and decided to write it down. It would have been tempting to any writer to say, “Oh, here I have strived for my reputation as a writer, worked very hard to perfect my craft, and here comes a freshman author and woos the world on her first try. Does she really deserve it? Is it really literature? Is she deserving?”
Not so with Shannon Hale. Instead of being a jealous hearted spoil sport who can’t identify with any work that falls out of her narrow definition of “art”– instead this most deserving of women looks at this other very vulnerable woman who has been thrust into a whole new world and she says, “She’s going to need a friend.”
This, I think, is something that deserves attention, quiet and intimate as it may be. Artists can be a contentious, avarice eyed lot, if they feed their insecurities and egos too much. But at this Mormon Artists Retreat, I found that the vast majority, if not the entire congregation of this group of Mormon Artists had something else entirely in their hearts– they truly had let their religion seep in not only their art, but in their relationships as artists. And there was no better example of this kind of love that weekend than Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer.