Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Guest Post Series: Angela Hallstrom's It Is Better to Speak


In my late twenties, I decided to go back to school and get my Master's in creative writing. I'd quit my job as a high school English teacher, moved to Minnesota with my husband and two young kids, and I was lucky enough to find an amazing MFA program at Hamline University that allowed me to take only one class a semester. I knew I needed the outlet; I knew I could fit the part-time class work into my schedule as a full-time mom; I knew having a Master's degree would open up future opportunities when and if I decided to go back to work.

What I didn't know is if I could actually do it.  Actually write. Then put that writing out into the actual world and let actual people read it.  The thought was terrifying.

I remember sitting in my very first class surrounded by people who wore funky glasses and multicolored Peruvian scarves, people who went out together after class to attend poetry slams in artfully decrepit Minneapolis bars, people who were (obviously!) much cooler than me. Me: a scarf-less Mormon stay-at-home mom who'd never been to a poetry slam in her life. 

A few weeks into that first class, the professor asked me to read aloud a poem by Audre Lorde called "A Litany for Survival." I read the first stanza confidently, affecting nonchalance as I attempted a musical rhythm and an almost-a-pause-but-not-quite-a-pause at the end of each line, like a real poet. But then, at the beginning of the second stanza, I read this: "For those of us / who were imprinted with fear / like a faint line in the center of our foreheads . . ."   I read that line and I felt it coming on, unstoppable: the pounding heart, the shaking hands, the tight, high voice that meant my carefully constructed veneer of dignity was about to crack.  But this wasn't happening because I was afraid.  This was happening because I began to feel overwhelmed by the power of something true. I like to call what I was feeling the spirit, but whatever you choose to call it, we all know what it is: God (the Universe, Your Best Inner Self) tapping you on the shoulder and telling you to pay attention.  And I don't know about you, but when I feel that feeling, I can't help it. I cry.

My voice trembled as I continued to read, my face flushed with the humiliation of it all (there's no crying in grad school!). Tears rolled down my face as I spoke the final few lines:

. . . when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.

As I read in that cramped, drafty classroom, embarrassed and surrounded by strangers, the spirit almost knocked me over with its power: You, young lady, it was saying, need to speak. It's not going to be easy or even fun, it's not always going to be pretty, and you're going to be scared to death half the time. But you still need to do it.

I realized then and know now that the reason God wanted me to speak wasn't because he had grand plans for me to become a rich and famous author. No, God wanted me to speak for the same reason that I believe he wants all of us to speak, in whatever way that "speaking" expresses itself in our lives: because our world needs truth, and honesty, and beauty, and when human beings speak and other human beings listen, we all develop charity.  And God is a big fan of charity.

For the past five or six years I've been involved in helping Mormons speak through the medium of literature as an editor and creative writing teacher. I've also tried to do a little writing myself. In that time, it's become very clear to me that "Mormon literature" is a misunderstood genre -- misunderstood by those inside and outside the religion. Many people think all Mormon fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction is being produced for the purpose of either converting non-Mormons or convincing those who are already LDS that because they’re Mormon, their lives will have the sparkly, pastel look and feel of a Thomas Kinkade painting.  While such Mormon writing definitely exists, and I'll even concede that it does have its place -- sometimes we'd all like to escape into a sparkly, pastel world, wouldn't we? -- it isn't necessarily "literature," and it isn't the type of writing I've been trying to promote. 

The type of writing I'm most interested in is committed to exploring truth and beauty (with the paradoxical understanding that truth does not always equal certainty, and beauty isn't always pretty). Writers who are interested in tackling truth or beauty -- or preferably, both -- have their work cut out for them, because such writing is really, really hard to do. The beauty part is hard because beautiful writing entails mastery of the craft, and such mastery is exhausting and time consuming. The truth part is difficult, too, because it entails exposing your inner self, and exposing your inner self is both scary and risky.

In my opinion, it can be particularly challenging for Mormons to write such literature, because doing so requires the writer to go for a good long walk down a murky, mossy, ill-lit internal path.  In one of my favorite books on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, "You can't get to truth by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. You anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don't have much truth to express unless we have gone into these rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go into."  This doesn't mean that all good literature must by definition be dark, or that there's no such thing as a happy ending.  But writing truthfully does require a willingness to acknowledge that there is, in fact, "opposition in all things."  This is scary for all of us to do, but Mormons, in general, can be especially leery of poking around in the abyss.

Fortunately, I do know many Mormon writers who are willing to take those longs walks down the path. And they are nice Mormons, generally happy Mormons (just because you poke around in the abyss doesn't mean you have to set up camp down there), church-going, faith-seeking, put-your-shoulder-to-the-wheel Mormons who also take the rigorous requirements of art-making seriously. Writers like Jack Harrell, Kathryn Lynard Soper, Stephen Carter, and Todd Robert Peterson write about Mormon life with artistry, honesty, and care.  Such writers can also be found in the pages of magazines like Irreantum and Segullah, and in the anthology of short stories by twenty-eight LDS authors I recently edited, Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction

And many of these writers are blogging, too. Sometimes I think blogging can be the most terrifying genre, since not only are you exposing your personal life to scrutiny, but that scrutiny sometimes winds up in the comments section when "anon this time!" feels moved upon to declare that you 1. need a haircut and 2. are going to Hell. Despite this, bloggers by the thousands are choosing to speak, and the best of them, like Courtney (who may not delete this compliment!), are brave and vulnerable and real. Which is why we love them. Well, all of us except "anon this time!," but she's been having a hard few months, so we'll give her a pass.

Writing is scary and writing is hard, with or without anonymous commenting, but I am forever grateful to those who have the courage and fortitude to do it well, because we all need each other’s stories.  This quote by the author Richard Russo in the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories explains one of the reasons why: 

“The study of literature has had what I believe to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to wonder if maybe this is what reading all those great books is really for — to engender and promote charity. Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end, if not compassion?”
Good essays, good novels, good poems, good blog posts: they're necessary in this world.  I believe God wants us to write them and to read them, to speak and to listen, because by doing so, we learn how to love each other better. And that, I’m quite sure, is the work God put us all here to do.

Angela Hallstrom ( lives in Minnesota with her husband and four kids. She's the author of the novel Bound on Earth, editor of the anthology Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction, and serves on the editorial boards of Irreantum and Segullah.