Short Story Friday: Return by William Morris

We’re going self-serving for today’s Short Story Friday.

Title: Return

Author: William Morris

Publication Info: Popcorn Popping, December 2007

Submitted by: S.P. Bailey

Why?: “1. Missionary and post-mission fiction is fraught with possibility. Wm. captures a lot of good stuff here: disorientation, anticipation of an uncertain future, and the powerful way that a place can imprint itself on a missionary’s mind.

“2. This story was posted in the last days of popcorn popping. I didn’t feel like it got the audience it deserved. Hopefully it gets some love here.”

Thanks, Shawn.

A few comments on the story by the author (me):

1. It’s not autobiographical or even semi-autobiographical even though it reads as it probably would be. Okay, that’s not entirely true. The image of the bus is from my mission to Romania, but it’s made much more than it really was. It was more of an aesthetic experience for me personally — and I was already writing it as I was experiencing it. All that stuff about time is stuff I added when writing the story.

2. I’m not convinced by the ending. I rewrote it several times. I think it still needs work.

3. What is important about this story is that it marks the first time that I try to explore through fiction some uniquely Mormon psycho-emotional-spiritual moments — or at least such moments expressed mainly through the language and worldview of Mormonism. It’s become a bit of an obsession, really. Most of my Mormon-themed fiction since then has tried to do the same thing. Which means it all shares the same weaknesses as this story — a bit thin on plot, edges in to sentimentalism, and focuses too much on interiority.

Not to bias your reading or anything.

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4 thoughts on “Short Story Friday: Return by William Morris”

  1. .

    I am trying to determine my reaction to this story.

    Some obvious things to say:

    It is well written–perhaps too well written–it might create pov problems.

    It’s less story and more….something. My vocabulary is failing me. My point is there is no plot. It’s a moment, a series of thoughts.

    It is a bit sentimental and I can see why the ending strikes the author as inadequate, but I think it is less that the ending is inadequate and more that the buildup wasn’t tight enough.

    But the underlying concept is very true. I would like to know if nonRMs can feel it.

    I came home from my mission and became deathly ill, was quarantined and in bed for a month. Interestingly, that really eased my reentry into society.

    I’m glad my mission was too far away to easily revisit. Anyone else find it unsettling, the guy who was a missionary six months ago showing up in sacrament meeting?

  2. As a non-Rm I would say I could feel it. I have noticed it with a number of people freshly back, usually to the point of thinking they were jerks about it.

    My wife prepared a dinner for an RM friend of hers and sometime during dinner conversation I used the term ‘Mormons’ referring to All of Us and he jumped down my throat saying, “I don’t know any Mormmons, I only know Latter Day Saints.” The whole dinner was like that and it seemed most RM’s I met had that initial period of hyper-sensitivity.

    It took me awhile to understand the culture shock for them and just let it go.

    I don’t think I would be unsettled if a missionary from six months ago showed up at sacrament, but then I’m in Utah and might not even notice.

  3. I like a lot of the details of the talk with the father: trying to guess the meaning of having the talk in the bishop’s office but not in the official interview way, the picture inspiring a new train of thought, and the fact that the explanation he’d been planning came out a little differently than he’d pictured it.

    I also like how you illustrate his relationship with his mother: the little details while passing the sacrament; that she saves him a seat but can’t stay to the end and go to class with him. I sense that there’s love and caring, but that somehow their lives aren’t quite on the same wavelength.

    However, I think you spent a little too much time spelling out the analysis of his problem (especially repeating “It’s not this, it’s not that, it’s not any of the standard problems you expect”). I feel like this mysterious sentiment could be illustrated in little scenes more effectively than it can be explained in words. For example, some half-remembered fleeting image from his mission could come back to him, and he can’t place the memory specifically or figure out the significance.

  4. Thoughts…

    The heart of the story is p. 3, when Tanner spills his guts. I like that part a lot – and the basic conceit of “missing” something that actually lies in the future. There are lots of small nice details before then, but it all feels like stage-setting.

    The thing that struck me in the first part of the story was how all the concrete details related to peripherals: that is, everything that’s going on around Tanner. But there are few if any concrete details about his current situation, his mission, or his feelings. Example:

    “The setting made him uneasy. He found solace in the sole non-Church-catalog picture hung on the wall. It was a photograph of a group of forty or so ward members from the ’50s or ’60s. They were lined up four deep, front row kneeling, a few of the men leaning on a pitchfork or shovel. The photo had been set in a fabric matte and framed. The matte was embroidered with onions and ears of corn and across the bottom with the words “The Service Caballeros.” He smiled. The condescending fondness the photo aroused in him seeped into his prideful reticence and undermined the tension of the situation. Tanner realized that his anxiety over the rhetorical difficulties his father’s dual role brought on was actually quite humorous. And what’s more, it wasn’t the first time his heart had been softened by Mormon kitsch. He smiled further.”

    There are lots of nice concrete details in the first part of the paragraph, describing the photograph. But it doesn’t give rise to any answering concreteness from inside Tanner. Instead, what we see are abstractions. It’s my sense that the paragraph would have been stronger if the second half had been rooted in concreteness and personal experience as well. E.g.: “He smiled, recognizing a few of the older ward members. Pure Mormon kitsch. Despite that, he couldn’t help but regard it with a certain condescending fondness. It reminded him of the hot afternoon he and his companion had spent with the branch members clipping and pruning and weeding outside the house in __ that doubled as a missionary apartment and local meetinghouse.”

    Similarly: “But his mom had been weird since he’d come home. When she wasn’t acting like he was a stranger, she was making him feel like a child.” Actually seeing her treating him like a child – or starting to, then biting her lip, or something like that – would be more convincing.

    Part of the problem for me may be that I didn’t pick up from the opening paragraph that Tanner *hadn’t* registered for BYU. As a result, I had no idea just what his mom was worried about until his dad mentioned him not going to BYU during their conversation. Perhaps that was deliberate. If so, I think it was a poor choice: generally speaking, I tend to think it’s a bad idea to hold back info from the reader that the POV character would know.

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