Liner Notes: Speculations: Oil & Wine

Liners notes for Speculations: Oil and Speculations: Wine, which appear in the spring 2012 edition of Dialogue.

“Speculations: Wine” and “Speculations: Oil” appear in the Spring 2012 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. They are companion pieces to “Speculations: Trees,” which was published in Irreantum. Several of the pieces in “Speculations: Oil” come from the same flurry of writing that led to “Speculations: Trees.” When I finished Oil, I decided to submit it to Dialogue. It was accepted. And then it fell through the cracks. Kristine Haglund, the editor, was very apologetic about that when I finally decided to ask about it. But to be honest, I was kind of glad that it had because in the meantime I had come up with some ideas for “Speculations: Wine” and asked if I could finish that and then resubmit the two works together. Kristine agreed. This was in the spring of 2011. Because of Monsters & Mormons, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to work on Wine, but then in the fall of 2011, I felt the urge to procrastinate other tasks, and went ahead and wrote most of it. I’m glad I did because just a couple of weeks later, Kristine emailed and asked if I could have things ready for the next issue. I’m lucky she was proactive about it because who knows how long I would have waited around before finishing it and resubmitting. Here’s a tip for my fellow writers: if an editor expresses interest in an unfinished piece, don’t let too much time go by before you finish it.

I really enjoy writing the Speculations series, but I also find it to be the most difficult writing I do because I’m trying balance several different tones (they’re all supposed to be funny and serious and sincere in varying degrees) in each section and across the entire piece. And then I’m also trying to balance each section against the others in the piece. And I’m trying to do that without repeating myself. It was certainly tempting for “Speculations: Wine” to just use some of the same forms/concepts that I used for Trees or Oil. I tried to resist that. Hopefully I succeeded. 

I’d note that although Dialogue categorizes this under Creative Nonfiction, that’s not entirely an accurate categorization. But I can’t think of a better term. I’d also note that I violate all sorts of authorial conventions below and actually explain what I’m trying to do in some of the pieces. It’s likely folly that I can be a critic of my own work, but that’s the way I roll.

Speculations: Wine

Originally, Wine started with a section that was a list of all the people in the Bible and Book of Mormon who we know got drunk as well as some names (which I put in {brackets}) of people who were accused of being drunk but weren’t. It was way too high concept and obscure and not all that interesting so it didn’t end up making the final cut.


I wanted to do something about Christ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, but what? I toyed around with doing a review, but that seemed to similar to Oil I. I then tried this very high concept, philosophical approach related to perfection, but I couldn’t get it right. So one Sunday at church, the bones of the published incarnation came to me. It’s, of course, a nod to the difficulty of Mormon theology and aesthetics, where it seems like once you get beyond basic doctrine, either side could be argued, while at the same time it’s an affirmation of the strong thread of historicism in the LDS approach to scripture. To me, the fact that we can read so many things as both a metaphor and historical (and scientific) event is fascinating.

Also: count the words in both the Yes and the No responses. It’s a little easter egg I worked to hard put in. Wait — nobody is actually going to do that so I’ll reveal it here: each is 100 words long (according to MS Word).


This really happened. Elder Hunt and I were on splits and visited this family way out in the northern hinterlands of Sector 2 in Bucharest. It was, literally, a shantytown, which was unusual for Bucharest (most of the city is large apartment blocs). The piece itself is burnished and stylized, of course. Yes, I’m the one who ended up on the short end of the events of paragraph seven. But I couldn’t really blame Elder Hunt for doing it. The last paragraph about testing to see if we were drunk didn’t happen (or at least not that I can remember). I have rarely been in the presence of such despair. It was a clarifying experience. I don’t know what finally happened with the family and the boy.


Totally silly and a bit clumsy, but I like that it operates on several different discursive levels. And if it isn’t clear, I have sympathy for each of the types while at the same time I’m making fun of (or to use a more hifaulutin’ word: deconstructing) the stereotypes and the foibles of different types of Mormons. And for the record I’m probably somewhere in the 3-5 range. Maybe 6. But likely not. We don’t eat much beef in the Morris home. We will use red wine vinegar and rice wine vinegar, however, and every so often cooking sherry in Asian dishes such as stir fries.


This one came together in a rush. One of the things I like about this series is that I can finish a first draft in a single writing session. Writing full short stories is hard. The only difficult detail was the mohairs. I was going to go for something more overt, but it didn’t feel right so I did several Google searches for various fabrics (including some image searches), and once I thought of mohair and fact checked it, I knew it was the perfect fit. I don’t know how writers lived without the Internet.

Also: if I could afford it, I’d wear Armani. Or even better vintage Joseph Abboud from before he went all populist and American and down market. His mid-1990s stuff, which was a variation of classic English tailoring combined with a Middle East inspired color pallette (I look good in browns and grays and eggplants) was excellent. I can claim this because as proper dilettante I know a little about many different things: fashion is one of those things. Okay, the truth is that if I actually could afford it, I’d spend the money on books and food and travel instead.

Speculations: Oil

This also had one additional section originally. It was long and very high concept — rather allegorical — and wasn’t actually directly related to oil (it was about an oil painting). Luckily, the Dialogue editors asked some questions about it, and I decided to just axe it. I’m glad I did. What’s more, I already had a short story in process that used a similar conceit. It may show up in the outtakes if I end up producing enough pieces in the Speculations series to put together a collection.


I think this is my favorite piece of the entire Speculations series. It does so many of the things that I want these pieces to do. As a critic, I suppose I should be uncomfortable with how this is such a devestating critique of criticism. It’s good thing I’m also a metacritic, right?


This is the very first piece that I wrote in the entire Speculations series. It’s also the one out of all of them that shows the most direct influence of Kafka. I worry that it may be read as heretical. But I also think it points to something real: the fact that we can’t always live in a heightened state of readiness. That we really don’t know when the second coming will occur, and that a certain overly urgent way of living the gospel (or of just living life) can wear you down.


I still am bitter about walnut-laden brownies and dry Rice Krispies treats from my days as an LDS teen in Provo and Fremont (Calif.). There’s just no reason for either, brothers and sisters. Also: I’m so right about footnote four. Ask any teenage Aaronic priesthood holder — they’d totally agree.

I’ve personally never used anything but extra virgin olive oil. But this one guy in a ward I lived in had a cousin who…


I stole this story from my Aunt Arlynn. I love it, but I also love that she loves to tell it. It’s a minor little thing, but it says so much about how our faith operates in our modern, daily lives. For the record, by grandfather didn’t swear a ton, but he did grow up around cowboys. Real ones. He actually road the range with them. On a horse. My grandfather was all kinds of awesome.


I worried about this one too. It’s too stately; too mushy. On the other hand, I wanted to capture that moment. It seemed like a necessary moment to capture.

If I’ve accomplished anything so far in my meagre career in Mormon letters, it has been to describe moments that are utterly LDS. I kept this one in because of that. And I use the word supernal as both a loving homage and a sly wink. The ineluctable is stolen from Joyce, of course.

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