An Eye For an I: Looking at the Personal Essay in Mormon Literature

Last year, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “We All Have A Life. Must We All Write About It?” Personal writing has always had its critics and many have refused to consider it as a serious literary form. E.B. White, remarked that, “The essayist must be content in his self-imposed role of second class citizen … a writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs, had best write a novel, poem or play.” Despite these perceived limitations, personal essays, particularly Mormon ones as of late, continue to occupy a favoured place upon my bedside table.

The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. As Mary Lythgoe Bradford has noted, “The personal essay is vulnerable. It cannot stand upon its footnotes.” This writing genre is a form of discovery; by its very nature it is modest in simply being an attempt (rooted in the French essayer, meaning exactly that, to attempt). The personal essay expresses perplexity at life’s offerings, injury and outrage which has not been voiced, expectations that could not be met, or fulfillment at arriving at unexpected places. The heat of human experience rises from the page — all claims of impartiality are dropped at the outset, all masks removed, and the essayist proceeds with unabashed subjectivity. One author noted that, “the personal essay requires blood on the page, whether it has death in it or not.”

In an Association of Mormon Letters Presidential address, Lavina Fielding Anderson noted the central element of “new” Mormon fiction, the distinguishing feature of which is its intelligent affirmation as opposed to alienation. This spiritual realism is also at the heart of my favourite Mormon personal essays:

In spiritual realism, the conflicts that a character may encounter in his or her social settings are primarily important as they provide information about the spiritual life of that person. The experiences move the person toward a greater understanding of the ambiguous nature of human good and human depravity. They affirm or challenge the reality of God. They illuminate by recording those perplexing moments when prayers are not answered and the equally perplexing moments when they are. They shoulder the burden of a community where a vision of holiness and unity stands in contrast to the inevitable pettiness and cruelties of daily living. They attempt to make sense out of human interaction that includes both deepest doubts and anger focused on a seemingly uncaring God and swelling rejoicing and gratitude focused on a seemingly loving and watchful God.

Eugene England believed that the personal essay

best expresses the Mormon theological and cultural qualities: It allows us to bear witness, in effectively artistic ways, to our personal religious and moral experience and to the development of our eternal selves as children of God and members of a covenant community … The voice is rooted in the extremes of honestly revealed feeling and experience, from doubt and inadequacy and anguish to exalted faith and love and encounters with divinity… That voice, in that genre, can, I believe not only help us develop a more valuable Mormon literary culture but may become our major contribution to world literature.

In my reading, the Mormon personal essay is intertwined with yearning for and bearing testimony — a particular and peculiar lens for interpreting the world around us. It is a sublime travelogue — a raw and vulnerable exploration that defies other literary forms and disciplines. The blood on the page infuses life into my own testimony and gives me the courage to let my own crimson drops flow.

** any and all recommendations of personal essays of all descriptions would be gratefully accepted

Comments

  1. Moving post, Kris. There have been a few times, were I have felt that I bled for ink. Interestingly, I am not at all exposed to this genre of Mormon writing. I spend alot of time in History and primary sources, but not in the personal essay. Have any good recomendations for the neophyte?

  2. Kris,

    I find comfort in this view as I am one who has been compelled to write my life in simple form.

    “This writing genre is a form of discovery; by its very nature it is modest in simply being an attempt.” “One author noted that, “the personal essay requires blood on the page, whether it has death in it or not.”

    The pain and honesty are real, but truth shared no matter what the price is worth it in the end.

    In this what you wrote;

    “In my reading, the Mormon personal essay is intertwined with yearning for and bearing testimony — a particular and peculiar lens for interpreting the world around us. It is a sublime travelogue — a raw and vulnerable exploration that defies other literary forms and disciplines. The blood on the page infuses life into my own testimony and gives me the courage to let my own crimson drops flow.”

    Are great truths that will help others to pick up the pen (or hit the keys) to write the things of their hearts, experiences and dreams in a new more welcoming light.

    Thank you for your kind words, understanding and wisdom in these matters which give new life and light to the Bloggernacle this day!

  3. Jonathan — I’m on my way out the door but some quick names to check out (ones I have read, and others recommended in some of the essays linked to above)

    Eugene England
    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
    Robert Rees
    Clifton Jolley
    Carole Hansen’s “On the Death of a Son”
    Parley A. Christensen
    Edward Geary

    This is just off the top of my head, I’m just scratching the surface. Most of these, and many more can be found on the Dialogue DVD.

    Mary Lythgoe Bradford has edited a volume of women’s personal essays and apparently Exponent II is full of wonderful stuff, that I have not had a chance to read.

    As far a non-Mormon personal essays, my favourites are by Wendell Berry and a collection of two volumes called Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told, the best of which is Jane Urquharts’ “Losing Paul: A Memoir”.

    Thank you Charley, for your kind words, too.

  4. Elisabeth says:

    This is a wonderful post, Kris. The personal essay is so powerful precisely because it reveals so much about the author. But by revealing so much, the author is painfully vulnerable to criticism regarding the most intimate of thoughts and experiences.

    Likewise, some of the most profound and moving posts I’ve read on the blogs thus far have been from people truly hitting bottom and baring their souls to the world.

  5. My favourite thing about Sunstone are the personal essays. Thanks for this, Kris.

  6. Almost any personal essay by Eugene England or Mary Bradford is great; recently, I particularly enjoyed re-reading Eugene’s The Quality of Mercy (Bookcraft, 1992) and Mary’s Leaving Home (Signature, 1987).

  7. Mary L. BradfordEmail says:

    I am gratified that so many wonderful people are still reading personal essays. Gene England started them in Dialogue in the sixties. He asked me to write a regular column. The column idea didn’t last, but I kept writing them. “Essy” means “to try.” Writing an essay is not as intimidating as other forms and is a good way to tell your personal history.

  8. My favorite essay collection is “A Thoughtful Faith,” edited by Philip M. Barlow.

    A powerful and spiritually enriching (and challenging) essay is in Dialogue Volume 2, No. 3, Autumn 1967 – Carole C. Hansen’s “Death of a Son.” It’s also in a Dialogue essay collection, “Personal Voices: A Celebration of Dialogue” edited by Mary L. Bradford.

    Margaret Rampton Munk wrote a superb poem cycle, called “One Year,” about dealing with breast cancer, in Dialogue Vol. 18, Number 3, Fall 1985. It’s a personal essay in a different format.

  9. Mary L. BradfordEmail says:

    There is also “Goodbye to Poplarhaven,” by Ed Geary,; The humorous essays by Elouise Bell–“Only When I Laugh,” and “Madame Ridiculous and Lady Sublime”:Emma Lou Thayne’s “As for Me and My House” and one she co-wrote with Laurel Ulrich, whose name slips me right now. Dialogue also publsihed “Persoal Voices: A Celebration of Dialogue” in 1987. (These are all books–I should have used italics.)

  10. Emma Lou Thayne & Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s collaboration is _All God’s Children Got a Place in the Choir), Aspen Books.

  11. My life would be empty without those who have the courage to spill their guts in these essays. I am so grateful. This is a wonderful post, thank you.

  12. Levi Peterson says:

    This is a timely topic, Kris. I appreciated your statement. We have some debate at Dialogue over the proportion between pages devoted to personal essays and pages devoted to documented articles on Mormon history, scripture, and theology. Our new subscriber survey, part of which has been posted on the Dialogue website at http://www.dialoguejournal.com, indicates that our subscribers tend to prefer documented articles. I personally am committed to an ample showing of personal essays in Dialogue. The personal essay focuses upon a single person’s experience. You could say it is therefore of dubious worth, because it may not be at all typical of Mormon experience in general and the reader who makes a generalization based on it may well be formulating an erroneous concept of his fellow Mormons. However, I like personal essays because they are real and actual rather than abstract. A generalization, even if it is accurate, hits a point somewhere between instances of actual experience. I prefer to record in my memory the striking experiences of individuals. It pleases me to think that Dialogue will go on making these accessible to its readers. And thanks to you, Kris, for reminding us of their importance.

  13. Thanks to everyone for their comments, especially Mary and Levi who have worked hard to preserve and encourage the writing of Mormon personal essays. One reason why I really appreciate them is because they allow us a look at the spiritual journeys of our brothers and sisters that our testimony meetings don’t allow for. I always read them first although I have a great appreciation for the documented articles as well. :)

    Thanks to all for recommendations

  14. Levi, maybe it’s the idea of the personal essay, rather than the actual implementation, that caused them show up below “documented articles” in your reader preference poll. Maybe your responders have the idea that personal essays are about ego – “Look at me!” – (kind of like the way I blog). I have rarely read a personal essay, though, that isn’t either inspiring or thought provoking or both, at least in Dialogue.

  15. Just to back up what Ann just said: While I may think I prefer the heavily-footnoted articles, I end up reading the essays because they actually keep me awake during my late-night reading time. I agree with Ann that the Dialogue essays I’ve read invariably inspire, motivate and/or amaze. On the other hand, the footnoted pieces often end up in my revolving “to-be-read-later-when-I’ve-had-enough-sleep” pile, usually never to be read.

  16. Excuse the shameless plug, but I must recommend the publication I’m part of: Segullah, Writings by Latter-day Saint Women. Our specialty is personal essays, with varying degrees of bloodiness.

  17. Mary L. BradfordEmail says:

    to Kathy S.: What is Seagullah? Sorry to be so ignorant.
    And thsnks to others for your comments. I think I will get to work on my next essay!
    Mary Bradford

  18. Mary, Segullah describes itself as, ” journal designed to encourage literary talent, provoke thought and promote greater understanding and faith among Latter-day Saint women. We publish insightful writings which explore life’s richness and complexity while reflecting faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our aim is to highlight a variety of women’s perspectives within a framework of shared beliefs and values.” It can be found at http://www.segullah.org

    In a review of the book edited by Mary (Mormon Women Speak: A Collection of Essays), Eugene England wrote that Mormon women have dominated, particularly in the personal essay – any thoughts on this statement?

  19. Thanks, Kris, you beat me to it. Mary, we’re just young ‘uns–2005 was our debut year.

  20. Mary L. BradfordEmail says:

    Kris–I recall arguing with Gene about this. At the time, iI didn’t think women dominated anything, but since then, so many other voices have been heard–and read– that I have no idea. Does it matter?
    and Thanks for the info on Seagullah. More power to you!
    Mary Bradford

  21. Not sure if it matters, more wondering if it’s true and if so what might be the reasons behind this. It is so rare to hear the idea that Mormon women dominate anything. However, it is interesting that if you look at Exponent II and Segullah, it looks like they may be claiming some horizontal space to have a voice (that they control)in the “unsponsored” sector. Do personal essays provide a place for women to speak and explore ideas that the Church doesn’t. I would say yes.

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