Mormon Artist Magazine interview–three cut Qs & As

Mormon Artist Magazine interviewed me for their latest issue (Issue 10).  You can find my interview here.

Mormon Artist Magazine Literature editor and fellow AMVer Katherine Morris suggested I post here at AMV questions and answers cut from the interview.   So, for your reading pleasure:

There also seems to be an underlying theme of agency in your writing: “[I]t enables those who read or hear it to create choices for themselves”. How does the concept of agency inform your writing?

The “It” here refers to “sustainable language.”  Sustainable language is creative, proactive, productive language that effectively sparks others to create their own risk-choice spectrums and generate possibilities for themselves.  It’s the language of life. Sustainable language goes out on its faith in others’ creativity, creative drive being a far more commonplace phenomenon in all levels of society than is popularly supposed. Good language–sustainable language–allows for that creativity and invigorates human agency.

Bad language runs the other way.  Through fear, guilt, shame, and other devices of control it prods people in the direction it wants them to go, dismissing agency as counterproductive and undependable.

I believe language and human agency to be intimately bound up together. I depend on readers’ native creativity and tendency to exercise choice to make something meaningful for themselves (within reason) of the words I put out there.  The question of language–what it is and what it does to and for us–lies at the heart of my novel The Pictograph Murders.  At a critical moment the protagonist catches wind of a key element of the villain’s philosophy–he “perceived himself as having the power, and so he could make things mean what he wanted them to”–a version of the might makes right stance, which shows as clearly in rhetorical acts as it does in physical ones.

What role does religious symbolism play in The Pictograph Murders?

I think what symbolism comes across depends on what symbolism readers bring to the story.  Since The Pictograph Murders seems to sell in a steady trickle in non-LDS bookstores on the tourist circuit here in southeastern Utah, like the local museum gift shop where people visit from all over the world, readers may well find a wider range of symbolic elements in the book than I can anticipate. To my thinking, that’s perfect.  My hope is that even readers who distrust religious symbolism will find archetypal appeal in the story’s spiritual elements.

When I read your essays/posts on language, I feel your gentle urging for awareness and watchfulness in the use of language.  In “The Downstream Principle” your concern is with the rhetoric of those with two different perspectives on the use of a canyon. “But given the weighty importance of what I don’t know about this place, I’m cleaning up my language”. Could people be substituted for place and what suggestions do you have for cleaning up language?

“Could “˜people’ be substituted for “˜place’?”  Yes.  Practices that result in exploitation and manipulation of or damage to the natural environment or that display carelessness or unawareness are only extensions of our behavior in the human environment. In other words, if I’m doing it to nature, I’m doing it to people, too, at one level or another.  I don’t think we can improve our behavior in the natural sector without improving behavior in the human one. I said earlier that spirituality is a quality of character, not of place, and so carries across in person from home to church to field to canyon.  Furthermore, human language now exerts tremendous influence upon the world. It creates experience for others and can affect them powerfully, for good or for ill, with some effects extending beyond sight. That suggests that how I behave in language is a deeply spiritual concern.

Characteristics of human language make it a wilderness in its own right, chock full of wild beauty and miraculous realms where fabulous adventures unfold and heroes and villains choose their parts.  It contains a wealth of cultural and natural resources. Whenever I act to clean up my language, I examine it for unfortunate or wrongful intent, looking for evidence that I’ve relied on anger, fear, guilt, etc. to assert myself.  I also look for shortsightedness.  To me, the question of bad language reaches beyond what’s commonly considered off-colored or offensive–it goes to usual words thought clean as a whistle that are spoken in common conversations but carry the interest to control, exploit, or harm.

But really, my hope for my language is not just to clean it up but to find ways to apply the common dictum many outdoor websites and camping brochures contain: Leave the environment better than it was when you found it.

9 thoughts on “Mormon Artist Magazine interview–three cut Qs & As”

  1. You’ve written about sustainable language in depth before, but I really like the way that you put it here — that language contains “a wealth of cultural and natural resources.”

    Can I ask a follow up question? (to Patricia, but if others want to answer, that’s cool to):

    What do look for when you look for shortsightedness?

  2. Good question, Wm. The language of that sentence is kind of funny, now that I look at it.

    Shortsightedness is, basically, perception that lacks acuity to see very deeply into circumstances at hand or that fails to foresee obvious or not-so-obvious results of actions. It’s garden variety unawareness.

    In language–specifically, in my language–it manifests as over-hasty responses (in online conversations especially but also in private reading) that miss important points in another person’s words. I also find it in expression on my part where I arrogantly and blindly assert myself out of self-protection, out of unknowingness that mistakenly thinks it knows, or some other failure in comprehension.

    Sometimes, it’s hard to find, because it operates from blind spots. Sometimes, someone else needs to respond and shine a bright light, and then I catch on and say, “Oh! Boy, did I go off track! Better pay closer attention.” But one big clue for me that I need to go back and look again or ask clarifying questions is when I notice that I’m feeling testy while listening to or reading another person’s words. Quick and sharp “knee-jerk” reactions often often show me places where I need to examine my own language for the thinking it holds rather than critique or correct another person’s.

    It’s easy to reinforce your position using loaded language, especially when it’s become commonplace. Loaded language nearly always signals short-sightedness. In this post, for instance, I examine my own use of the word “heal” in describing the process of change I’m witnessing in a canyon I frequent. After realizing how often people use it when talking about the canyon and seeing the kind of rhetorical company it kept, I came to see that while it’s popular to use that word in regards to the canyon, it’s actually quite loaded and prejudicial, and in using it I was only imposing myself, not to mention helping to cloud the already turbulent dialogue affecting the canyon. I realized I really don’t have the experience or knowledge to understand the changes in the canyon, and that saying it was “healing” probably revealed more about me and my motives for using the word than it did about the canyon’s actual state.

  3. I completely agree. Nicely put.

    Another symptom, I think, is questioning motives. Now sometimes that’s part of the spotlight, but we see so many internet discussions break down in to what people’s motives are and even armchair psychologizing of one’s interlocutors and the discussion quickly becomes about the the discussants rather than the topic at hand.

    And another one is shifting the terms of the debate (this one I’m very guilty of) where you take this meta or nitpicky about the meaning of words when the conversation gets tough and complicated. Now, both of those can sometimes be important for perspective and clarity, but often, in my experience, they are used as weapons/escape routes.

  4. Another symptom, I think, is questioning motives.

    I take it that by this you mean, those instances of discourse where one person or more turn to questioning each other’s motives for asserting their positions?

    If that’s your meaning, then I think you’re describing a form of name-calling, which suggests that, logically, the conversation has gone ad hominem. Name-calling is an act of intimidation, not illumination.

    And another one is shifting the terms of the debate (this one I’m very guilty of) where you take this meta or nitpicky about the meaning of words when the conversation gets tough and complicated. Now, both of those can sometimes be important for perspective and clarity, but often, in my experience, they are used as weapons/escape routes.

    At this point, my thinking is that true conversation is by nature tough and complicated (I think you’re acknowledging that) because when two people with different narrative takes come together to discuss, a frontier opens between them. All that unexplored territory. Do we dig in, each of us on our side, or do we get out there and see what happens? My experience is that the best conversations get intense and difficult and frightening and frustrating, and sometimes very fast. I’ve come to rely more and more on the “slow down” effects of asking questions. “When you say this, do you mean this, or this, or this? Something else altogether?” The reason I might provide an array of possibilities is that it stimulates my own thinking about what the other person might be trying to tell me. Also in my experience (you’ve heard me say this before): 3-5 years of engaged language is required before people can begin to approach understanding each other.

    I’ve often had to stop, calm myself, consider my reactions, wonder what they mean, all with my finger either on or just inches away from the button that jettisons the escape pod. Questions–querying not only the other person but also myself–play an important role for me in keeping the adventure going. But yeah, it gets scary sometimes.

    But it can also be revelatory, and creative (in the cosmoplastic sense) and embracing and effectual and .. well, it can change much, if not everything at some level.

  5. [blockquote]I take it that by this you mean, those instances of discourse where one person or more turn to questioning each other’s motives for asserting their positions?[/blockquote]

    Yep. That’s what I meant.

    And: I like that you defined it as unexplored territory and frontier rather than a gulf.

  6. Nice interview, nice outtakes here, and nice book excerpt. It puts The Pictograph Murders on my already woefully long list of books to read.

    Giving my own reaction to William’s question: I’m reminded of two different things. First is a quote from Tolkien (yes, he’s influenced me in many different ways) talking about previous critical approaches to Beowulf: “For it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.” The combination of powerful searchlights with a short range is one that has stuck with me as frequently describing insights (my own and those of others) that while at first striking turn out to only take one a limited distance toward understanding.

    The other thing this reminds me of is Joseph Smith’s comment, in D&C 121, that pure knowledge “shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” This has given me pause over the years, considering that there may be some times of (less pure) knowledge and ways of appearing to enlarge the soul that do involve hypocrisy and guile. The specific application of which I’m most guilty (I think) is using rhetoric to appear more certain and knowledgeable than I really am: something I do almost without realizing it sometimes, in my desire to buttress my posision and “win the argument.” It’s a false knowledge, and I can (in retrospect at least) tell the difference between it and the kind of genuine enlarging that doesn’t seek to make myself greater at the expense of other people.

  7. This is entirely shallow, but for some reason you looked exactly how I thought you would look.

    I don’t think I’ve seen you before in real life, but there you are, looking just how you’re supposed to.

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