Discussion Questions for Some Implications of Human Freedom

Here are the discussion questions for the third email in the AMV Deep Dive of Marden J. Clark’s essay collection Liberating Form.

If you haven’t signed up for the email, you can read it (and sign up to receive future ones) here: Liberating Form: Some Implications of Human Freedom.

Please note that comments are moderated, and the goal is to make this a place welcome to Mormons of all stripes (as well as folks with an interest in Mormonism).

  1. What is gained and lost by believing in a God who is not absolute?
  2. What are your favorite works of art that explore notions of freedom, human agency, etc.?
  3. What does divine discontent mean to you? Is it as useful as Clark suggest? Why or why not?

Discussion Questions for Art, Religion, and the Market Place

Here are the discussion questions for the third email in the AMV Deep Dive of Marden J. Clark’s essay collection Liberating Form.

If you haven’t signed up for the email, you can read it (and sign up to receive future ones) here: Liberating Form: Art, Religion, Marketplace.

Please note that comments are moderated, and the goal is to make this a place welcome to Mormons of all stripes (as well as folks with an interest in Mormonism).

  1. What positive things does religion bring into your life that art hasn’t? What positive things does art bring into your life that religion hasn’t?
  2. A lot of the examples Clark uses are works that are explicitly religions, or at least moral. What’s your favorite work of art that is overtly religious? What’s your favorite work of art that religious folks, and especially Mormons, might find heretical and/or distasteful?
  3. Which works of art do you find valuable that exist because of the market place (and wouldn’t have been able to be created without it)? The market place can definitely can distort art. Are there ways in which it can shape it and make it better? And is the market place really the main evil or are there other villains to point more strongly at (authoritarianism would definitely be one, in my book)?
  4. And the big one: what are the potential pitfalls in re-merging art and religion? What are the potential triumphs that could result? What work could be done to help bring about such a re-merger?

Discussion Questions for the Title Essay of Liberating Form

Here are the discussion questions for the second email in the AMV Deep Dive of Marden J. Clark’s essay collection Liberating Form.

If you haven’t signed up for the email, you can read it (and sign up to receive future ones) here: Liberating Form: The Title Essay.

Please note that comments are moderated, and the goal is to make this a place welcome to Mormons of all stripes (as well as folks with an interest in Mormonism).

  1. Which literary or artistic or craft forms do you find particularly liberating and/or interesting? Are there ones that leave you cold? Which specific works of art do you think are particularly good at investing form with so much energy that the resulting work feels liberating to you?
  2. What do you think about the use of both personal anecdote and literary analysis in an essay? Are there other examples of essay that successfully combine both that you’d like to recommend? Or not recommend?
  3. How do you know when a form is or isn’t working for you? Given that this site is about Mormon art, I’m less interested in whether or not the LDS Church (or other Mormon denomination) is true or not, or working or not, or toxic or not, and more interested in practices related to creating and/or consuming art, literature, craft, and anything else you learn from and find beauty in.

Discussion Questions for the “Foreword” of Liberating Form

Here are the discussion questions for the first email in the AMV Deep Dive of Marden J. Clark’s essay collection Liberating Form.

If you haven’t signed up for the email, you can read it (and sign up to receive future ones) here: Liberating Form: Deep Dive on the Foreword

Please note that comments are moderated, and the goal is to make this a place welcome to Mormons of all stripes (as well as folks with an interest in Mormonism).

  1. In what ways are the tensions you experience—whether they come out of your love of humanities or your Mormonism or other vectors of identity, modes of thought and being—delicate, exasperating, complex, and/or challenging? What is the value in acknowledging those specific qualities of the tensions you experience?
  2. Have you found specific poems and poetic images useful to your thinking on art, religion, society, life? Which ones and in what ways do they help?
  3. In what ways do you find art and culture nourishing and stimulating? What existing communities provide you with intellectual and/or religious stimulation and nourishment? What communities do you wish existed to provide you with more, different, or better stimulation and nourishment?

New A Motley Vision email project—Deep Dive on Liberating Form

Sign up for William’s new email newsletter project — a deep dive on Marden J. Clark’s essay collection Liberating Form

Remember when I put this blog on hiatus and said it was going to be a quarterly email newsletter instead? Well, I only managed to send out the newsletter once.

As it turned out, doing a quarterly email on bits and bobs related to Mormon literature wasn’t something I was able to deliver on.

So here’s what I’m going to do instead: an email newsletter that’s a one season deep dive on a specific Mormon literature topic.

Oddly enough, an ongoing quarterly commitment didn’t work for me. But a limited series is something I can do.

For season 1 of the AMV Deep Dive, we’ll be taking a look at all of the essays in Marden J. Clark’s Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. I think you’ll find it quite interesting. Clark’s essays have only become more relevant since the collection was published back in 1992.

NOTE: you may need to confirm your subscription by clicking on a link from an email the Buttondown sends you. Check your promotions or spam or other folder/mailbox if you don’t see it in your inbox.

THE GIST + A DEEP DIVE FOR THOSE WHO WANT IT

I want you be able to enjoy each email without having to read all of it if if you just don’t have the time or capacity that week. So here’s how the emails will be structured:

Snapshot: A summary of that week’s essay in 50-100 words.

Best Line: The best line or two from the essay plus two or three sentences of why I think they’re the best lines.

Mormon Lit Recommendation: Exactly what it says. Generally will relate to the topic of that week’s essay but often in a tangential way.

Other Recommendation: Some other recommendation. Most often a piece of culture. So far that has included novels, films, music, and a work of literary criticism. May relate to the topic of the week’s essay; may not.

William Update: Announcements of work coming out. A sneak peak at something or other. A recipe. Something pulled out of the archives. Whatever I’m ready and/or in the mood to share.

Deep Dive: This is will be an in-depth look at that week’s essay from the collection. It’ll generally be 1,000 to 2,000 words.

Appropiately enough, the form each deep dive takes will vary depending on what I think the most interesting way to engage with the essay is. So far, we have everything from

  1. a numbered list of observations –to–
  2. three quotes + me riffing off of each of them –to–
  3. reconstructing Clark’s argument from the end back through the essay to the beginning.

Some weeks will include quite a bit of summary; some will pull out a few strands and focus more on the topics I think are most relevant to the here and now.

SCHEDULE (AND KEEPING TO IT)

The Liberating Form emails will arrive in subscribers inbox every other week. Most likely on Thursdays, starting March 31.

So why do I think I can make this work when I wasn’t able to do the quarterly AMV newsletter?

For one: there’s an end point. And when season 1 ends, we’ll see both what I decide to do for season 2 (I alread have some ideas) and when I launch it (there will be at least a two month hiatus between seasons—longer if I’m in the throes of my next novel, and it’s become all-consuming, which is quite possible since I’ll be starting it in late summer/early fall, and it’ll be my most ambitious fiction project to date).

I’m much better at projects with a specific focus and an end date.

More importanly: I’ve already written 6 of the 15 emails (and have notes on several others), which means I have a three month head start.

HOW LDS IS THIS GOING TO BE?

It’s Marden J. Clark, and he, like Eugene England, was pretty adamant about bringing his love for literature and his faith in the Restored Gospel and membership in the LDS Church together.

However, like England, Clark also identified quite ably a lot of the tensions in that project. Tensions that have become even more so over the years.

Some of the work I will be doing will be meeting Clark where he is. Some will focus more on where I think he’s missing elements or where things need to be updated for modern Mormonism.

A lot of the focus will be on creativity and creating art, both in a Mormon context and more generally.

I’m quite confident that you’ll find this email series valuable wherever you are in your Mormon-ness. But, honestly, some weeks may be more interesting to you than others, depending on the specific esssay and my reaction to it.

DO I NEED TO READ ALONG?

Nope. If you want to track down a copy of Liberating Form, go for it. But I’ll be providing enough summary that you don’t need to read it, and any discussions we have will be fairly general. This also works because Clark’s essays tend to be on fairly broad topics.

Speaking of which…

DISCUSSION POSSIBILITIES

Although A Motley Vision is on permanent hiatus as an active blog, the platform still exists so at the same time as the email goes out a post will go live here at AMV with some discussions questions in case any of you want to drop by and talk about that week’s topic.

Heck, feel free to drop by and participate even if you don’t subscribe to the email.

And, of course, you can also reply to me on Twitter if you prefer to talk there. Or if you want to have a private conversation, feel free to reply to the email with a comment or question or request.

SWITCHING EMAIL SERVICES TO BUTTONDOWN

Please note that I switched email services from Mailchimp to Buttondown.

The reason for that is simple: Mailchimp engages in data practices that I don’t approve of, including selling data on to second party entities. Frankly, it sucks that so many of the platforms for writers right now are engaging in skeezy, unethical, and/or simply stupid practices.

Buttondown doesn’t do that.

No judgement for whatever you or your favorite writers use. I’d say I’m quite a bit more tech savvy than most writers so I seek out tools

For example: if you know what Markdown is, all of these emails and all of my fiction gets written in Markdown using either the Typora or Atom text editor and then either copy and pasted into an editor or exported using Pandoc.

IS THIS GOING TO TURN INTO A PAID THING LIKE ALL THOSE PEOPLE WITH SUBSTACKS?

No.

Again: no judgement for writers who do that. I too like getting paid for my writing, but my Mormon literary criticism is a labor of love and will remain so.

I will be letting you know about any of my fiction that is published, of course, and where it can be read for free or purchased (from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc.).

I may also add a way to tip me if you so desire—and that will also be a platform I approve of. Probably: Buy Me A Coffee (Postum!).

Any money that comes in will be plowed back into paying for AMV hosting, books for research/inspiration on future MoLitCrit projects, and production costs for publishing any of my fiction that isn’t being published by someone else—I’ve got both types in the pipeline.

In fact, I’m hoping to be able to share news with you on several completed/brewing projects over the next six months or so. Oddly enough, I’ve had a prolific past couple of years writing what I believe to be not only some of my best Mormon fiction, but also stuff that is pretty groundbreaking for the field.

QUESTIONS?

I think that’s everything. If you have any questions or comments, leave a comment below.

I really hope you’ll sign up for the email and take this journey with me. I think you’ll find it—to use a rather Mormon word—nourishing.

How I wrote When Home Isn’t Heaven on Earth in Mormon Literature

If you haven’t yet read the Building Zion issue of Irreantum edited by Natalie Brown, you should.

And not just because it features my essay “When Home Isn’t Heaven on Earth in Mormon Literature.”

By the way: if you are one of those folks living in Utah who use Google Fiber and can’t access it (as of this post, we’re still working on fixing that), here’s a link to a PDF version of my essay:

When Natalie announced the call for submissions earlier in the year, I knew I had to submit something. But I wasn’t sure what.

The most obvious route would be a short story.

But I’d been wanting to return to literary criticism and so found myself thinking about homes in Mormon literature.

I had an inkling there was something important there but wasn’t sure what until I read Donald Marshall’s “The Week-End” in his story collection The Rummage Sale and was struck by how the main character’s home was described. This led to the following notes (in a text file–all notes and writing begin in text files for me):

Tracy memoir
Angel Falling Softly scene with vampire in home
The Weekend Donald Marshall
Bound on Earth ????

Bound on Earth is the lovely novel in stories by Angela Hallstrom. One of the finest works of faithful realism of the 21st century.

Angel Falling Softly is a not well known Mormon vampire (or more Mormon meets vampire) novel by Eugene Woodbury. Published by Zarahemla Books not too long after the Twilight series came out, it does things with the vampire mythos and Mormonism that are strange and heretical and yet also mundane and ultimately orthodoxically Mormon. In some ways, it’s much more in dialogue with Bound on Earth than Twilight.

The Tracy memoir is, of course, The Burning Point by Tracy McKay. It’s one of the works of recent-ish Mormon literature that I’ve though about the most over the past couple of years. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how one of the reviews of it said something about how the the third person interludes in it didn’t really work. I’m not entirely sure why, but that judgment has gnawed at me since I read it. I suppose because to me it felt like those interludes were doing something important even if I couldn’t quite articulate what that was.

The next set of notes were these:

Reference?
Love at HOme, home as temple, home as sacred,
The World – Danny Mark Fisher on the uncanny
Chicago book on the home as domain – nuclear family

The World refers to Danny Nelson’s short story in Monsters & Mormons by that title. The Mark Fisher book is The Weird & the Eerie. The Chicago book is Families against the City: Middle Class Homes of Industrial Chicago, 1872-1890. Both are fascinating works that could be put in fruitful dialogue with Mormon topics, but didn’t make it into my essay due to space/scope considerations.

I wasn’t sure I had something there. But I re-read portions of Angel Fallling Softly and Bound on Earth, and it all began to add up. Specifically, the descriptions of Mormon homes as sites of the uncanny or weird were oddly parallel or resonant in the works I had put together even as unlikely as a set of works as they are.

This, by the way, is what makes the study of Mormon literature interesting and challenging for a critic: Mormon literature as a field brings in all types of narrative art in many types of genre that were written and published under a whole variety of circumstances.

It also may be why not only is there not very much Mormon literary criticism, but often it’s focused on an individual work or author or genre. Worthwhile work. But my background is comparative literature, and I can’t help but have a magpie approach.

The next step was to transcribe all of the passages were relevant to the framework. That process did more than anything else to help the essay come together. It validated (to me, at least) the approach I was taking.

At the same time, I worried that The Burning Point wasn’t quite going to fit, especially my point about the interludes. And I was worried that the essay was going to be too long because I knew I’d need to do quite a bit of summarizing and quoting, partly because that was the nature of the project, and partly because I knew the audience couldn’t be expected to have read all five of the works I was going to include.

In fact, if you have read all five, let me know in the comments or at me on Twitter.

The first draft came in at 5,952 words.

The introduction was too indulgent (I went heavy into the gnomic mode that comes much too naturally to me); some of the summarizations were awkward; and the ending wasn’t quite all the way there.

But to my surprise and delight, the conclusion was very different from what I had thought it would be – the interludes in The Burning Point had turned out to be critical to a larger point and a bridge between the memoir and the fictional works as well as to the field as a whole.

And then I didn’t touch it for two weeks, maybe three. Not for the valid writerly reason of wanting to build some distance, but because I wasn’t sure it worked. It was all summarization and not enough analysis.

But as the deadline for the special issue approached, I decided I should at least give it a shot. And I discovered that what was wrong is that I kept trying to say too much and provide too much context. There are forms of literary criticism that need to do that. That need to be boiled down and condensed more. But that’s wasn’t what I was actually trying to do.

The summarization was the analysis.

That is, the way in which the portions of the text that describe when homes don’t feel like heaven on earth are woven into how I tell the story of the individual works provides a reading that, hopefully, brings something to the audience.

To put it another way, hopefully it makes The World seem a little less like a satire and the first chapter of Bound on Earth feel a little more strange.

I spent (parts of) two days revising the essay.

The second draft ended up longer – 6,138 words.

But they were better words. Everything fit together mpre solidly and smoothly. I submitted it and was delighted that Natalie accepted it.

In the editing stage with Irreantum, I fixed some textual infelicities in the sections on The World and The Week-End along with a few other minor wording changes.

I know that the essay is a little rough, a little weird. I could have done a lot more to build the critical framework. It relies way too much on the reader being able to decode and contextualize the assertions I make in the introduction.

But hey: I’m writing Mormon criticism again.

I’m thinking of writing more of it in 2022. And doing so in email newsletter form (but one that happens in seasons/limited runs). If you want in on that (should that happen), click the button below to subscribe.

Note that you can also subscribe via RSS. And that I’m using Buttondown because it has better data practices than some of the bigger email platforms you may have heard of. Thanks!

An conversation with Melissa Leilani Larson about Third Wheel and the writer’s life

William Morris and Melissa Leilani Larson discuss her two peculiar plays of women in love, food, ink, football, Jane Austen and being single and Mormon.

Earlier this year BCC Press published Third Wheel: Plays by Melissa Leilani Larson. Subtitled “Peculiar Stories of Women in Love”, the book collects two of Larson’s most Mormon, most interesting and provocative plays Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program. Not only is it worth picking up (in electronic or print form–or both!), it also makes for a great excuse for me to pick Mel’s brain. This is our conversation:

There are so many places I feel like I could start, but let’s start here: did you learn something by putting these two plays together in this particular context–a book published by a Mormon publisher meant for reading as a book? Or were those things already there when you went to write Pilot Program because of what you learned writing Little Happy Secrets? I’m thinking about theme and plot and characters here, but also things like form (the monologues, the silences) and voice and conceit (third wheel!).

It’s a good question. I did intend for the plays to go together stylistically. When I started writing Little Happy Secrets, it was very much an experiment. I was trying to be as honest as possible in telling Claire’s story, and the character became very real to me. Somewhere in that first weekend I realized she had to give permission for the story to be told, which is how she ended up actually doing the telling. I usually avoid narrators, but Claire had to tell this story—because she had reached that place in the world of the play, and because it would help us as an audience to accept it.

When I first began drafting Pilot Program, there was a correlation, but it started in a different place. As a single woman, I was thinking about Heather’s role in the marriage. But as I started writing, I realized it was Abigail’s play. It’s a play about being married and then single, not the other way round. Abigail, like Claire, had to sign off on things. She had to talk to me. Breaking the fourth wall would allow Abigail to say things to us she might not otherwise. Almost like a confessional, but without touching on sin. Abigail, like Claire, is at a place where she can tell us what her life has been like.

So there are similarities in tone, in format, and in theme. I think of the plays as a duet; they complement each other. The “third wheel” conceit came naturally into the conversation, as both women identify with the idea and comment on it. Eventually I would like there to be a third and final play in the trilogy, aptly named Third Wheel. It’s about being a single woman in a culture of marriage, and will be told in the same style as the other two—a mix of monologue and scene. It’s the bridge between the other two and, also like the other two, it’s a story we don’t always acknowledge within Mormon culture.

That makes sense. One of the things I discovered when collecting my short stories together is that it was quite clear they were by the same author even though there was some variation of situation and structure. Of course, my stories stay on a page. I’m both fascinated by and a little scared of the whole process of staging a play. Would you be willing to share a moment or two from the rehearsal and staging of one or both of the plays in Third Wheel that spoke to you in some way?

I love being in rehearsal. It’s where I know that the words on the page are in the right order because I get to hear actors bring them to life. I’ve always been rather amazed at how naturally actors take the words from the page and made them their own. For example, the actors cast in Pilot Program at Plan-B Theatre Company were all so comfortable with each other, and with Jerry (the director) and with the script. They inhabited the story and let it unfold organically (it’s a word that gets overused in the theatre world, but really it’s the best choice). I remember feeling a little guilty because there was a scene I added after we settled on the cast. As Heather, Susanna Florence was playing her first role at Plan-B while April and Mark Fossen, playing Abigail and Jacob, have been staples at Plan-B for years. April and Mark are married in real life and were playing a married couple—married to each other, anyway—f or the first time. So there were a lot of ways in which Susanna was the outsider, just like Heather is. And I wrote this scene that is basically Abigail walking in on her husband making out with his second wife. I felt bad, like I was piling stuff on April (I guess I didn’t feel bad enough, because I left the scene in). Naturally April is a professional and took what I gave her in stride. But they were all so good at filling those roles that I sometimes had to remind myself they were acting. Hence the guilt.

Ah. That’s interesting. Taking that back into the work itself–what is it about the experience of the modern Mormon woman (especially single woman) that feels so urgent and rich and dangerous and interesting as a subject for narrative art? I’ve tried writing characters that fit that profile myself and done so with mixed feelings because I’m outside or adjacent to that experience but at the same time want more of those stories. Perhaps it’s as simple (and somewhat condescending, to be honest) as feeling sympathetic towards single Mormon women, but I’m sure there’s also a bit of that artistic selfishness of just: hey, this is an interesting position to be in that if explored could say something unique about the Mormon experience.

I think it’s a point-of-view that seems simple and easily understood from the outset. “Hey, in this faith it’s important to be married, but here is a person who is single.” And it is that. But at the same time, it’s not.

Recently I was working on a project and getting feedback from others on the team. I had written a scene in which the main character, who is single, sees a couple steal a romantic moment. In that moment she realizes that they have something she doesn’t, and that she may never have, and that is heartbreaking to her. The moment happens very quickly; we don’t dwell on it, we just go on. But it affects who she is as a person.

That day, in the feedback session, the responses were like, “This moment is unnecessary. Why do we have it? It’s kind of creepy that she’s watching them. Nothing is happening. This character is weird and voyeuristic. Who cares?” I realized, looking around the room, that I was the only single person there. Everyone was married, and none of them got the point of the scene because none of them felt the same sense of loss. I think they would if they saw it, but they didn’t get it on the page. The point of the moment was like what happened to me in that room: the character realized she was expected to be paired with someone but she wasn’t. In our culture, everyone talks about how great marriage is and how important it is. How you need it to get to the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. But there are good people who just aren’t married. They aren’t weird or voyeuristic or creepy. They are—we are—unattached, and that’s just the way things are.

Another quick experience. A few months back the podcast The Cultural Hall had an episode about mid-singles. I was so excited to listen. What were they going to discuss? But the whole episode was about dating. Because that’s all singles and mid-singles are supposed to be doing? Ugh. What about what the Church and its married members are supposed to be doing in regard to single members? No, it all comes back to marriage. Thing is, I don’t need other people to tell me I should be married. I am well aware.

We all have moments in our lives when we think about what’s missing—what we’re doing wrong in this life that will keep us from ultimately getting where we want to be.

We definitely do. That actually relates well to something else I wanted to ask: in his introduction to Third Wheel, Eric Samuelsen coins a phrase that I found very interesting. Speaking about your stage managing, in particular, he says that you possess a “formidable omnicompetence”. Do you have any sense of where that came from? Do you experience that as a gift or a curse? I’m asking this strictly out of self-interest, by the way, because while I’m not sure about the formidable, I’ve found in my work and church career that being competent at a lot of things often just means that you are expected to do more things and be competent at all things and that’s both gratifying and frustrating. And this is especially true when you’re trying to figure out how and when to also make art.

To be honest, I don’t think that term applies to me in any context but a theatrical one. Stage management is an all-encompassing job, which is part of the reason I had to give it up; I love it, but I didn’t have enough time to write. If I ever had the “omnicompetence” Eric mentions, I don’t think I have it anymore. Culturally, as Mormons, I think it could be equated with the things you mention—expectations, and how they tend to stack up before we can really catch up. As a people, we’re obsessed with perfection even though we know it’s not possible—at least not at this point in our existence. I try not to think too much about expectations; I disappoint myself before anyone else gets the chance.

I can relate to that. The weird thing about expectations–especially in relation to Mormon culture and the arts–is that there are none in terms of being an artist. But the if you do tackle the challenge of being an artist in Zion, there are a ton of (often competing) expectations. We could chat in depth about that, I’m sure, but I’m thinking now about expectations people might have about you and your work, and, not to be Captain Obvious, but I’m going to bring up Jane Austen. Everybody knows you’re the go-to for adaptation of her work (and if they don’t know, they should know). I want to ask about you as a reader of Austen: what do you go to certain Austen novels for and how has that changed over the years? For example, in my early twenties I went to Emma because of Mr. Knightley. Because, I suppose, I wanted to learn to be the mature romantic hero who attracts the bright young thing. Now, I’m more interested in Emma and who she is and what she wants and why.

Sense and Sensibility was my gateway drug to Austen. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice the first time because someone recommended it, but I set myself up to not like it because that friend was so insistent. I read it, and it was fine. I don’t think I even found it very funny. In undergrad, I read Sense and Sensibility and I got it. I related to Elinor in a way I hadn’t related to a character in a long time. She was trying so hard to do the right thing, to do what was expected and to figure things out—she thought she had to sacrifice her relationship with Edward because it’s the proper thing to do where honor is involved. And then I saw the 1995 film adaptation, and it blew my mind. 1995 was a big year for Austen: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, Clueless, the Amanda Root Persuasion, and of course the BBC Pride and Prejudice (which I didn’t see then, because we didn’t have cable).

I watch Sense and Sensibility at least once a year because the story is so great and the film is just brilliant. Eventually I figured out that Pride and Prejudice is funny and that Persuasion is heartbreaking. Sense and Sensibility falls somewhere in between. I love them all for different reasons, I think. I re-read Persuasion frequently because the prose is quietly beautiful. Plot-wise, I love both Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility because you don’t really know where they’re going to end up; they both have moments where you think everything is going the way of tragedy. That’s a sign of greatness—when a writer can make you wonder what’s going to happen, honestly make you wonder, with just the right level of frustration.

I used to go back to Sense for the romance, but lately I’ve been going back for the family relationships. People accuse Austen of sameness, but I find that ridiculous. I look at all of the families she portrays across her novels, and they are all different and complex and human. Really there are so many different family groups in Sense, and those families affect who the characters are and the choices that they make. The last several times I’ve gone back to Pride (including to adapt it) have been to study Darcy, actually. I wanted to figure out why so many people are so obsessed with him as a character. As much as I love the book, I think a lot of the obsession comes down to Colin Firth. It’s interesting that we can’t seem to separate novels from their adaptations. Of course, that’s a discussion for another day. Though there is a lot about him to like, I don’t personally see Darcy as the perfect romantic hero. Now, Colonel Brandon or Captain Wentworth… Ah, choices.

Speaking of choices (and good ones at that): you know we have to talk about food at some point here. What are some of your go-to food rewards after you finish a first draft or on opening night, etc.?

It’s so true. I love food so much I wrote a play about it. If we’re celebrating and being fancy, I could do with filet mignon, medium rare, with mashed potatoes and garlic butter. On an opening night, I’m usually too nervous to do dinner before the show but I’m ravenous afterward. That’s usually a cheeseburger and milkshake situation. Sushi is great. Fish and chips! Biscuits and gravy. Schnitzel! Chicken tamales. Num. Look, writing is hard and deserves a reward. I should get all the foods. Plus an ice-cold Coke.

You’ll get no argument from me on food-based rewards for writing. There’s something about the emptying out of the mind and soul that is the writing process, and the subsequent buzz after you’ve put in that mental and emotional work that demands reconnecting with the body through food. I mean, I never need an excuse for all the foods, but I am often famished after a writing session.

Based on your tweeting at certain times of the year, you have a fondness for college football. Competitive sports are great, right? I mention this because sometimes people are surprised to discover how much into sports I am. But writers can (and do) like sports that aren’t baseball! So what do you like about sports and do you see any intersections between that fandom/experience and your interest and participation in narrative art, especially theater?

College football is a pageant of sorts. The players are out there to put on a show. What matters is what the ref sees. A receiver will move his body in such a way that pass interference gets called on the defender, even though nothing happened. An offensive lineman will trash-talk the defense, trying to goad them into jumping the line. It’s all a show.

It’s fascinating how football can sometimes take you completely by surprise. Two teams will meet, and everyone seems so certain that one team will win, which makes the upset that much sweeter. So much can hang on a single play—sometimes that play is executed perfectly, and sometimes it isn’t. An intense game can make my breath catch in my throat, just like well-acted Chekhov. How will it end? That’s the question—in sports and in drama. I love the Olympics for similar reasons. Human effort. Human drama. It comes down to inches and seconds. Being in the right place at the right time, or the opposite. NBC tends to lay it on a little thick, both with the human interest and the spoilers, but I can’t turn it off. There is something epic and beautiful about sports that aligns rather perfectly with the stories we enact on stage.

Agreed! The NBA has been my favorite soap opera for three or four seasons now. And it just keeps getting better (and weirder!). I’ve pretty much stuck to fiction in my writing; whereas, you’ve worked across several different narrative arts. What art form/mediums and/or subjects would you like the opportunity to tackle that you haven’t yet?

I would love, love, love to write for television. Television drama right now is very cinematic as far as design, direction, and cinematography go. At the same time, TV writing is actually very close to playwriting; it depends on dialogue, and a lot of it—much more so than your typical film. You have fewer scenes in TV than you do in film, and yet you have more time to explore characters. You get to know a character over several scenes, perhaps even over a number of episodes, which is closer to what happens in plays than in film. The possibility to tell a story serially over a series of episodes is just so cool. There is so much you can do in TV that you can’t really do with any other form of storytelling. I have a couple of ideas for pilots and series. Who’s got several million dollars they can loan me?

I would also like to write a novel. I have a couple of YA novels that I started way back when that was the thing I was going to do with my life.

As far as genre goes, I’m presently writing a Western, which was a bit unexpected. I would love to do something creepy on stage. A ghost story. Ooh. I think I just gave myself a chill.

Sadly, I don’t have a million dollars to loan you, but if you get it, I’d be happy to write a spec script and apply to be in the writer’s room. Oh, something else I’m curious about: are you a listen to music while you write person or not? If so, what parameters do you require? If not, why not?

Typically I don’t listen to music while I’m working because I’m easily distracted. Music is an emotional experience for me. I want to pay attention to it. I can’t seem to listen to music without getting caught up in it, and then no writing happens, because the writing is where my focus is supposed to be. That said, it can depend on where I am in the process. When I’m trying to figure out a character, I often will make her a playlist—not necessarily songs she would listen to, but songs that fit her and help explain her. If I do listen to music while I’m writing, it’s instrumental. Usually classical.

Give me three inks that fountain pen or calligraphy neophytes should try. Also: what are the colors you’re currently obsessed with and/or have an eye on?

For the neophytes, I would recommend:

  • Waterman Inspired Blue, a beautiful turquoise with some surprising pink shading. Waterman is a classic brand, and you can use it in just about any pen without problems. I love turquoise ink; it’s probably my favorite color family as far as ink goes. I have a range of them, some leaning more green and others more blue.
  • Robert Oster Dark Chocolate, a perfectly named ink. Somewhere between burgundy and brown. Just pretty. And dressy enough that you could away with using it at work. Robert Oster is a new ink maker from Australia who comes out with new colors all the time. Great stuff.
  • Diamine Oxford Blue, classic and classy, a dark and intense blue.

As for the ones I’ve been playing with myself, Diamine Blood Orange is an intense red/orange I just discovered and like a lot. I have been playing with Japanese inks lately and enjoying them immensely. Examples: Sailor Jentle Yama-Dori (“copper pheasant teal”) and Pilot Iroshizuku Yama-budo (“crimson glory vine”). Even the names are great. I’m not a fan of black inks; I know they are practical, but they are also boring. I do, however, enjoy grey inks; they have a lot more going on. My favorite grey at the moment is Papier Plume Oyster Grey, handmade in the shop that sells it—a stationary shop in New Orleans.

Going back to your question about getting myself a reward for finishing something—I get myself a fountain pen as a present when I have a show or a film open. It’s really something to look at a pen later and remember the stories that go with it.

That sounds very cool–and dangerous. I think I’ll stick to food for now, although I find the fountain pen life very tempting. Okay, final question: what creative works–theater or not, Mormon or not–are you finding particularly interesting, powerful, etc. right now?

The recent film Jackie is pretty fantastic. It’s a very thoughtful portrait of Jackie Kennedy; it’s also an incredible and compassionate portrayal of a woman in mourning. The shots are beautiful, and Natalie Portman’s performance is stellar. It kind of blew my mind. I had never thought of the parallels between Jackie Kennedy and Emma Hale Smith, but they hit me hard watching that film. I’m working on a piece right now in which Emma deals with the trauma of her husband’s death, and seeing Jackie was a timely and beautiful experience.

I’m a subscriber to NT Live, which is a really great service that screens performances from London’s National Theatre to movie theaters around the world. I go about once a month and the productions are almost always fantastic. The Bristol Vic did a wonderfully theatrical retelling of Jane Eyre that has just stayed with me. It was a simple show, with a few actors who each played multiple roles and a set that was basically a ramp with a few choice pieces of furniture. There was a live band, and the accompaniment really added a lot to the performance. The dialogue was lean and to the point, and yet the story was perfectly clear to those who had no experience with the novel. The emotion between the characters was palpable even though I was watching it several thousand miles away. Wow. It’s the kind of stuff I want to be making. Just beautiful.

Thanks, Mel!

Artists and Doctrine & Covenants section 58

What D&C 58 means in relation to Mormon artists when it chastises Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps.

I listened to section 58 of the Doctrine & Covenants this morning on my walk to the bus stop. Verses 26-28  are the ones that tend to get quoted in classes and talks—that’s where we’re told to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause”, etc.

But as I listened to the rest of the section, I was struck by a few verses down from those oft-quoted ones. Specifically:

38 And other directions concerning my servant Martin Harris shall be given him of the Spirit, that he may receive his inheritance as seemeth him good;

39 And let him repent of his sins, for he seeketh the praise of the world.

40 And also let my servant William W. Phelps stand in the office to which I have appointed him, and receive his inheritance in the land;

41 And also he hath need to repent, for I, the Lord, am not well pleased with him, for he seeketh to excel, and he is not sufficiently meek before me.

I can’t really relate to Joseph Smith. He’s too much of a true prophet, a revelator who used his many gifts to try to get people to see (and live) a grander vision of life. Nor do I quite track with Brigham Young who has this pragmatic, unwavering, sometimes ruthless streak to him that kept the body of Saints together and going. 

But Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps? Yeah, I can very much relate to the desire to seek the praise of the world and to excel. Because (which I keep finding myself surprised to discover) I’m an artist, and the formula for an artist to succeed is to excel and gain praise (e.g. a certain measure of fame) so that fortune and influence will follow which will then (hopefully) facilitate the creation of further excellence.

Fame, fortune and influence—they each influence the other in such a way that all three increase. There’s a very high level of fame that messes up the equation, but for the most part the three are a powerful engine, and one that can be very important for an artist because without a working engine of that sort it’s very difficult to find the time (and other resources) to create powerful art and then get it in front of an audience. Fortune (money) is the best way to free up that time. Fame not only help with fortune, but also grows audience further. And without influence, your position becomes more precarious and your ability to effectuate your artistic vision lessens.

The problem with this engine and its’ three parts is that it’s very easy to be seduced by it to the point where you feel like you deserve the fame, fortune and influence and for those to continually increase. I was going to say that’s especially true for artistic types who tend to have at least to a small degree a measure of narcissism of “look at me! Validate me! I exist!” but then I think it’s probably actually most of us. 

And yet: I still believe in the importance of art. And artists have to have enough encouragement (praise) and time/space/means to create good art (excel).

Which means, if my reading of D&C 58 is actually applicable to the situation, that artists who are also interested in building up Zion need to be sufficiently meek.

Remembering Jonathan Langford the critic

It’s been almost three months since Jonathan died. I miss him very much. This is not a proper obit. For that, read Andrew’s In Memoriam over at the AML blog. Rather, it’s a tribute about just one particular facet of his life and personality. This originally appeared in a book of memories put together by the Langford family.  

There are so many things I could write about Jonathan, but I think that for this particular tribute I want to focus on him as a critic because it captures one of the wonderful things about him. That is: Jonathan was an amazing critic because he had well-informed tastes that were particular to him, and he was always very honest about what worked for him and what didn’t and why.

I thought about using some examples from literature or Mormon culture, practice or doctrine, but instead I’ll go with food.

After I moved to Minnesota about ten years ago. Jonathan and I decided to get together every couple of months for lunch. Because I work in Minneapolis (and Jonathan was gracious enough to drive into the city), we had a lot of lunch places to choose from, and we could sometimes choose restaurants that we’d never be able to afford during the evening hours.

Oftentimes when you go out to eat, people will say the food is good, and that’s the extent of the conversation on that subject. But I liked to talk about the food and so was delighted to discover that, if anything, Jonathan was even more interested in and candid about food than I was.

However, he wasn’t pretentious about it. It didn’t matter what the restaurant signaled about itself, all Jonathan cared about was the food. One time we went to a kinda fancy, sorta spendy restaurant. Jonathan ordered a vegetable tart. When it arrived, it was about the size of a DVD. His verdict was that it was tasty enough–but it was not a large enough portion for the price. I had to agree. Another time, he tried a tomato soup. His verdict was that it was fine but no better than what he could make at home.

But there were also other times, where a dish would arrive, and he’d find it excellent or interesting or different or new. And then he’d try to figure out why he was responding to it so favorably or he’d compare it to other dishes he’d had. He’d take a bite then sit up straight and tilt his head back just a bit and conjure up a flavor or cooking technique or a memory or an idea for how he’d implement this new sensory experience into his own cooking. And if it was truly amazing, he’d always insist that I try it. Because when he liked something, he wanted everyone to experience it.

So that was Jonathan: always a critic. But not a snobbish, jaded, or sarcastic one. Jonathan was always generous in praise, thoughtful in critique, and quick to admit that others may have different opinions. I had the pleasure of having numerous (verbal or written) conversations with him over the years that let him showcase his wonderful skills as a critic.

States of Deseret is now available

Cover of States of Deseret featuring a Casey Jex Smith pen and ink illustration of a Mormon temple with the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridge in the backgroundPeculiar Pages in collaboration with A Motley Vision is pleased to announce the release of States of Deseret. With a foreword by Theric Jepson, cover illustration by Casey Jex Smith and 8 pieces of short and short short fiction, States of Deseret is, as far as I can tell, the first anthology devoted solely to Mormon alternate history.

It was a ton of fun to edit. My thanks to the eight contributors who authored such interesting and varied stories and who put up with my editing notes. This is a short anthology–it’s about 26,000 total words of fiction. It’s lean and mean and packs a punch. But that means that we’ve by no means exhausted this particular patch of the garden. I hope that it’ll inspire other Mormon authors to tackle the genre of alternate history.

Here’s the blurb:

What if the territory of Deseret had never joined the Union and instead became its own nation? What if Leo Tolstoy or Nikola Tesla had converted to the LDS Church? What if Brigham Young had gone all the way to California instead of stopping in Utah? The genre of alternate history invites us to imagine how the past (and thus our present and future) would be different if different choices had been made. These eight stories provide glimpses at alternate historical trajectories for Mormons and Mormonism—of other states of Deseret.

States of Deseret is available in several different ebook formats worldwide for $2.99* from: Amazon/Kindle | B&N/Nook | Kobo | iBooks

We don’t plan on offering a print version at this time, but if things change, I’ll be sure to let you know.

*or local currency equivalent