On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 2)

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)”

On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)

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)”

The Writing Rookie Season 2, #5: Writing in the Plane Style

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

Recently in a over at the AML blog, William Morris (someone I greatly respect and often agree with) talked about being frustrated by his first drafts because “the language seems so mundane.” Which resulted in one of those sinking feelings on my part — you know, like the one you get when the speaker in sacrament meeting talks about how bad things were when they missed their daily family scripture study, just when you were feeling good about reading scriptures together once last week. Or maybe like how you feel — at least, the way I feel — when I turn on the radio to one of those money management programs that keeps talking about how much I should already have saved for my retirement. But that’s another (though not entirely unrelated) topic.

The point is that I don’t really feel like much of a stylist. Sure, I revise — but it’s not to achieve any kind of lyrical prose effects. Really, I have only 2 main goals: to make my writing quick, clear, and easy to read, and achieve some kind of consistency in my characters’ voices. Those are hard enough.

Continue reading “The Writing Rookie Season 2, #5: Writing in the Plane Style”

The LDS writers’ secret weapon for creativity

You know how the pragmatic version (as opposed to the philosophical, sociological or aesthetic versions) of why LDS writers don’t produce great art includes the fact that we tend to be so busy that we don’t have a ton of peak energy time to devote to artistic creation? As in: between work and parenting and managing the household and fulfilling our religious obligations, we don’t have a whole lot left in the tank when it comes time to write.

Good news: our lifestyle may very well be a secret weapon.

One of Jonah Lehrer’s “creativity hacks” that accompanys his recent Wall St. Journal article on How to Be Creative is: Get Groggy.

Lehrer writes: “According to a study published last month, people at their least alert time of day — think of a night person early in the morning — performed far better on various creative puzzles, sometimes improving their success rate by 50%. Grogginess has creative perks.”

So there you go. Since for most of us the writing happens late at night or early in the morning or in the afternoon when the baby/toddler is taking a nap, and we’d like to take a nap too, we are totally primed for accruing the creative perks of grogginess. Perhaps we should all teach early morning seminary. Or switch off and on daylight savings every other month.

The Writing Rookie Season 2, #4: Yes, I’m a Stalker — Er, Writer

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

A couple of months ago — shortly after my oldest son got back from his mission — I hijacked him for a day to go driving with me in the northeastern suburbs of St. Paul, about 45 minutes from where I live. He, unwary soul, neglected to ask the purpose of our expedition prior to departure. When eventually he did discover the purpose — to check out a neighborhood and high school that I’ve adopted as the model for the set of novels I’m working on at present — much eye-rolling was evidenced. (Note my clever use of the passive voice to clue the reader in to just how clever I am. For, um, using the passive voice. Yeah.)

Continue reading “The Writing Rookie Season 2, #4: Yes, I’m a Stalker — Er, Writer”

The Writing Rookie Season 2, #3: The Search for a Writing Group

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Back when I was in college, one of the best things I ever did was join Xenobia, an sf&f writing group. It was a great experience. I didn’t do much writing back then, but the process of reading, giving critiques, and listening to other people’s comments taught me a lot about both writing and what I value as a reader. For several years, it served as one of my primary social groups. Some of the people I met there have become longtime friends — people I’m still in contact with today.

As a writing group, Xenobia is no more, alas. (It still exists as a kind of email list where people share news and encouragement from time to time.) And I truly regret it, because now that I’m finally trying to get my own creative writing going again, I find that I need both readers to react to my work and people I can bat ideas around with.

Continue reading “The Writing Rookie Season 2, #3: The Search for a Writing Group”

Is the dilettante ready to commit?

I will cop to a certain amount of pride in my dilettanteism. I will also admit that there might be some fear involved as well. And I will also say that I have been thinking for a while that it’s time to settle on something so when I listened to the very first episode of back in February, and heard Sarah, Rob and Marion talking about how you need to choose a genre, it was like a punch in the gut. I can’t even settle on a form, let alone a genre.

But even though I’d received this message many times in the past, I resolved to take it seriously and so I did an inventory of semi-viable (as in: not dead yet) projects. The result: 1 play, 2 essays, 14 works of fiction — a mix of literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and parable — and 1 epic-ish poem. And then I decided that based on my current interests, and where the majority of my short stories clustered, and what I enjoyed reading (although I read across a fairly wide range of genres), I needed to focus on fantasy with a literary sheen. And by that, I probably mean slipstream, but maybe not exactly, and, of course, it’s probably not the smartest of choices since it’s not the hottest of sub-genres at the moment, but it seemed to suit me. I even went so far as to secure a twitter account and domain name, and then spend a couple of hours installing textpattern and realizing that it really isn’t all that interesting of a CMS. Meanwhile I was actively not writing. Classic trap, but self-awareness of my bad habits makes things worse in my case. I tend to deliberately step in things rather than avoid them. Continue reading “Is the dilettante ready to commit?”

The Writing Rookie Season 2, #2: Choose to Write! (When a Choice Is Placed Before You…)

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Every minute of every day, each of us has to choose what he or she will do next.

Okay, maybe not every minute of every day. Practically speaking, most of the time we’re in the middle of tasks we’ve already started, and so not really actively thinking about our options. I suppose that technically, even at those times we’re choosing to continue what we’re doing by not choosing to do something else, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the times when we pause at least briefly between two or more options. So maybe every 15 minutes, or every half-hour if we’re particularly focused or stuck in a meeting or something. Then again, who knows what we’re actually doing mentally while we’re in those meetings? (For the purposes of this paragraph, I’m choosing to ignore all those hours we spend sleeping, in comas, being experimented upon by aliens, etc., on the grounds that they’re not relevant to my point. Not relevant, I tell you! Bad reader! No milk bones for you.)


Anyway, it occurs to me that one very simple definition of a writer is someone who — among all the myriads of other things he or she could be doing — chooses to write often enough to actually produce something. The rest, as Einstein might say, is details. (And don’t you just want to whap Einstein upside the head when he says that? And people like me when they quote him?)

Continue reading “The Writing Rookie Season 2, #2: Choose to Write! (When a Choice Is Placed Before You…)”

2011 Writing Goals

It’s 2011, and time for all good Mormons to be writing their goals. Because, you know, a goal that’s not written is only a wish. Or something like that.

Actually, I have to admit that I’ve always hated the push toward concrete, outcome-based goals in Mormon culture, considering it something of an unpleasant borrowing from the power-of-positive-thinking, success-oriented culture of corporate America. Far more sane, in my view, to set process-oriented resolutions: I will focus on this, I will remember that. Come to think of it, this may be part of why I have such a hard time giving firm time- and cost-based goals to the people I work with…

Be that as it may, I have set some writing goals for 2011. So here’s the deal: I’ll share mine, and then you can share yours. And then at the end of the year we can pretend we’ve forgotten everything we wrote here look back on all we’ve accomplished over the past year. Deal?

Continue reading “2011 Writing Goals”

Read more; write less

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 help you learn from other writers and keep up with developments in the field (for a great example of why this is important see question 13 of this excellent interview with Brandon Sanderson over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist)
  • 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”