What of the Night?


Stephen Carter’s 2010 essay collection, as you might expect, provides plenty stellar examples of the form, what with the personal essay being The Great Mormon Form (or so I hear) and Stephen Carter being Stephen @#(*&$^ Carter.

Before taking the helm at Sunstone, Carter racked up a few Eugene England Memorial Personal Essay Competition notations, had been cited in Best American Spiritual Writing, and scattered his work through the major Mormon literary rags. He’s Stephen Carter, folks!

(Obligatory note: Although I paid for my copy, I still may be biased as Stephen is a friend of mine. Who knows.) (In similar news, see Wm’s earlier review.)

First, as an object (this is not relevant if you’re planning on saving money and ). The cover has really grown on me since the book was first released. The type is huge making this 168-page book an even quicker read.

But the words, the words. What about the actual words?

I’m going to begin by focusing on the final essay (which I do not feel badly about as ) which provides a useful metaphor for the entire book. Frankly, I rather wish it had been first as it provides an intellectual framework—something of a shortcut to understanding the book as a whole. (Then again, perhaps that’s a good enough reason to make it last.)

In essence, as with his aunt May Swenson in the essay”Winter Light” (which, yes, I just spoke of yesterday), Stephen feels pulled in two directions. To quote him quoting Terry Pratchett in another of the book’s essays, stories etch grooves “deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a moutainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper” (118).

The final essay, “Writing as Repentance,” provides a different metaphor for understanding this idea. Rather than an ever-deepening groove, stories are mountains whose massive presence and gravity drag us towards and up. In Stephen’s case, he has two stories threatening to crush him, that of the Correlated Mormon and that of the Virulent antiMormon. Not that Stephen is anxious to join the latter camp or hateful toward the former, but both of those are stories and nothing more. To go back to Pratchett, “stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.” And if we are to work out our own salvations with fear and trembling, we can’t rely on the simplicity of one story or the other—we must write our own stories.

As Stephen writes in “Writing as Repentance,” “In order to really finish any of my essays, I had to forgo the satisfaction of an answer, promised at the top of either mountain. Instead, I had to forge into the canyon, filled though it was with mist and darkness. Because that was the only place not already built. It was the only place I could create myself without the dominance of one mountain or the other” (166-7).

This is a good time to quote Joseph Smith: “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

Often we would rather be safe, repeating rote stories rather than making Truth manifest. Stephen instead is plumbing the shadowy depths of the canyon between stories, and I wish him godspeed, with a note of thanks for sending us these postcards from his travels.

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A few notes for the curious:

  • Not all the essays are such heady stuff (though, to a diligent reader, even the hilarious story of the cocky missionary who swallows a habanero will deal in contraries), nor do they all stay firmly entrenched in ambiguity. For instance, the penultimate story, “The Calling” (my favorite?), is about the lurking sense of failure that is an inherent part of being a missionary while, at the same time, ending with something that tastes a great deal like a miracle and teaches a lesson many of us would do well to incorporate into our home and visiting teaching.
  • Much is written about family here, from the strayed brother to the beloved grandmother.
  • Thanks to one essay, Eugene England will now be on my list when people ask which three people, past or present, would I invite to dinner.
  • There is only one way of knowing an essay is finished, and that is when I have wrought something new from the contradictions of my life” (167).

3 thoughts on “What of the Night?

  1. Thanks for the informative review and link to Stephen’s essay. It got me thinking and writing until I wrote a post on Writing Towards Atonement, which includes an alternate and personal interpretation of the painting his friend gave him: http://www.shipsofhagoth.com/2012/01/writing-towards-atonement/

    I need to pick this book up- Carter is someone I haven’t read enough of. Aside from his intro to The Best of Mormonism (which inspired the name of Ships of Hagoth in part), this is the first essay I’ve sat down with. Thanks again.

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