ICYMI: In part one of this letter, I address BYU-Idaho’s mission as a Church-sponsored university and place learning and reading within a gospel context; in the second half I walk through a reading of an essay titled “Medical Student” using the principles I outline in my opening discussion. (To encourage engagement with “Medical Student,” . The link will die at the end of this week. If you find this post after 1.17.2015 and would like to read the essay, email me at tyler [at] motleyvision [dot] org.)
I’ve shared this statement especially because it addresses the concern some students have that despite the fact that active Latter-day Saints try not to profane the Lord’s name or to otherwise use foul language, they felt they had compromised their moral standing by reading essays that contain profanity. I hope Pres. Young’s words clarify the idea that the inclusion of such stories in BYU-Idaho’s curriculum isn’t intended to condone the behavior in those stories or to force students into compromising their standards for the sake of a grade. To paraphrase him: “Shall BYU-Idaho practice evil? No; neither has BYU-Idaho told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.” Continue reading “On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 2)”
I’ve taught first-year writing at BYU-Idaho since 2010. The curriculum for the course I teach includes a student essay titled “Medical Student” by Margaret Parker. The essay is a well-written, day-in-the-life narrative profiling one aspect of the intense life lived by a med student named JD; this intensity is conveyed through the narrative’s fast-pacing and through some mild profanity. Because this life experience is likely completely foreign to BYU-Idaho’s student base, “Medical Student” appears on the reading list as part of a course unit called “Thinking about the Other.” The unit claims the following objectives:
This unit invites you to reflect on the question–who are they?–insofar as it can be answered by examining the beliefs, values, and experiences of other individuals whose perceptions of “reality” differ from your own. The assumption underlying this unit is that before you can engage in constructive communication about academic, social, and political issues, you must be able to understand and accurately report the experiences and positions of others.
At the end of this unit, you should be able to conduct effective primary research, such as observing and interviewing, to understand and accurately communicate the experiences and positions of someone whose perceptions differ from your own.
Within this context, “Medical Student” is meant to stretch students’ thinking about the people with whom we share this world, especially those who don’t share Latter-day Saint values. Some students (not a lot) struggle to get past the essay’s profanity and have approached me with their concerns. Which is fair enough: if they don’t want to read the essay, that’s their prerogative. One semester, though, a student had major concerns about it, which prompted her/him to worry about the school’s spiritual standing. The response escalated beyond anything I had previously experienced (I won’t go into details) and it prompted me to pray and think deeply about such concerns and how I might best address them with future students to encourage them to look at their education within the context of gospel values. The following letter grew out of that experience. I’m sharing it here because it explores a way of looking through the lens of Mormonism when we read texts that come from outside the Mormon literary tradition. Continue reading “On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)”
In one sense, I appreciate the effort (initiated by the Academy of American Poets and institutionalized in April 1996 by President Clinton’s administration) “to highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets; [to] introduce Americans to the pleasures and benefits of reading poetry; [to] bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways; [and to] make poetry an important part of our children’s education” (ref). Even if this official celebration of poets and poetry only happens one month out of twelve and even if people binge on poems during that month but never read another poem all year, at least poetry is being celebrated, right? I can’t complain about that.
In another sense, though, I see poetry as something worth engaging every day. If America can set aside one month a year to advocate for poetry as something that can enhance and enrich “the lives of all Americans” and that “affects every aspect of life in America today, including education, the economy, and community pride and development” (ref), we should be able to make a place (no matter how small) for poetry in our everyday lives, shouldn’t we? Of course, I say this as someone deeply invested in reading and writing and writing about and advocating for poetry. So I may be a little biased.
Whatever the case, and whatever your mind is about poetry and National Poetry Month (prominent poet and critic Richard Howard once called it “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” two contraptions that distanced us from the beauty and rhythms of the earth), I thought I’d share some reflections on how to read a poem, whenever and however often you read one.
Some years ago during an undergraduate literature course, a classmate confessed the first time our reading assignment included some poems that “Interpreting poetry is not my forte.” The student’s confession still catches my ear. I hear her/him repeating it poetically in my mind, giving it a lyric ring that comes out more when I write the sentence as if writing a poem, splitting the line after syllable seven:
In fact, the future of LDS fiction will probably be closely linked with Home Literature, for the LDS writer and the LDS reader share an abiding faith and hope in eternal principle, in the possibility of billions of happy endings. Thus we will have more faith-promoting fiction. And we probably will have still more fiction dealing with LDS history and with characters in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. But, above all, we will have more fiction about Latter-day Saints endowed with real, human problems, problems which can be overcome as well as problems which can defeat and destroy. The effect of the gospel in the lives of such characters afford great fictional possibilities.
But the message of Mormon fiction, while inevitably moral, as is most fiction, need not be painfully blatant. Many of the sweetest messages of life are subtle, and the important messages of truth which LDS fiction will be charged to carry can be aimed at readers schooled in reading well-crafted fiction, at readers who rejoice in the elevating message as subtly suggested through skillful character development, dialogue, setting, symbolism, metaphor, and language. Well-written literature challenges the reader to read to understand–not simply to dismiss–to prove the message, dark or light, and to ponder the implications of his or her new insights. Good fiction thus calls for good readers.
At the heart of such literature will lie the examination, in fiction, of the quest for faith, of the tension inherent in being in the world yet not of the world. It is not a new dilemma, of course. But, daily, the dilemma is renewed in the lives of all faithful men and women, and thus the old tensions continue to provide a springboard to significant new moral fiction. As a creative religion, the restored gospel will teach writers–and readers–to find new and fresh and inspiring yet technically sophisticated ways to create a fiction which will measure up to the great dilemmas of human experience and to the grand message of the Restoration.
Good fiction calls for good readers. Mormon fiction…need not be painfully blatant. The dilemma is daily renewed.
Its likely not very hard to convince readers of A Motley Vision of the importance of reading. In fact, the idea also wasn’t controversial among the late 19th century Mormon critics of “light reading.” The critics just wanted children (and adults, for that matter) reading the Scriptures and non-fiction instead of most fiction. But while Edna L. Smith cleary was a critic of “light reading” in 1881, when this was published, much of what she said could be applied to reading in general, not just what she approved of.
While we’ve read other commentaries on what books we should choose to read (for example, George Reynolds on “outside literature”), Wells has some interesting insights into the question, and is, perhaps, the most mild advice from this period that I have read. Instead of prohibiting “light literature,” he optimistically suggests that reading enough literature will itself lead to better choices: “Let us, therefore, make friends of our books, and carefully peruse them for the good they will do us; this will lead us to judicious selections.”
In addition, Wells’ discussion of fiction is so reasonable, that I now assume that the attitude comes from the same attitude many have today when they look at genre fiction–especially the bodice ripper. But even here, Wells doesn’t oppose fiction completely: “We do not wish to oppose too strenuously the reading of light literature, it often presents most faithfully true pictures of life. But we are opposed to making it our principal intellectual food.”
Yesterday I told you all (and myself) to write less and read more. Today I’m saying the opposite. In some ways, I’m still talking to myself, but I’m also talking to all LDS writers out there, regardless of genre or market. You need to read more — and as a result you may need to write a little less. Why? Oh, there lots of reasons. The standards ones include:
Reading helps build your vocabulary and your understanding and storehouse of syntax and metaphor and all those other good sentence-level things that make you a better writer.
Reading helps you generate new ideas and keeps you from falling in to your standard formulas
Reading, especially nonfiction, provides a good base of research that makes your fiction richer and more realistic
But if you’ll allow me to get a bit metaphysical and pompous here, while I think all those points are excellent, I think that, in a less easily identifiable way, reading simply makes you a deeper, more interesting writer. Writing should be a conversation. It should be a grappling with the best in your genre/literary vein/peer group. And if it isn’t, well, then your work is going to be shallow. It’s going to show, and it’s going to lead to a less satisfying experience for (most of) your readers. And that’s true no matter whether you are writing literary fiction or genre fiction, short form or long form.
Yes, your time is limited. Yes, you can’t read everything. But if you aren’t reading key works in your field and if you aren’t also reading wider than your field, then you aren’t putting in the work of a writer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you write literary fiction and don’t read some genre works and vice versa, then you are doing you and your readers a disservice. Continue reading “Read more; write less”