Summer, 2003: I was a wreck. My sixth child was six months old, and I wasn’t even close to recovering from his birth and the trauma that followed: For him, lung failure and three weeks in the NICU. For me, a profound emotional and spiritual crisis. The combination of outward and inward events shook me hard. My testimony was intact, but I felt disconnected from it. Unmoored. All my usual connection points failed me: church meetings, scripture reading, even prayer.
Around this time I visited my friend Kylie Turley, a longtime confidante from my married-at-BYU days. She had recently received word that she had won a personal essay contest sponsored by Exponent II, the landmark publication that laudably pioneered the free expression of Mormon women’s voices (and has continued to do so for more than 30 years) . Eager to read her piece, I asked for a copy of the magazine, took it home, and read it cover-to-cover, enthralled.
The issue was about grief. Essay after essay, poem after poem, women shared their experiences with death and loss in honest, vulnerable language. I had never before read such writing by Mormons. These women’s insights fed me–and so did the very reality of their collective voice.
And so, a few months later, when my distress was escalating instead of abating, I began to write. I had never written a personal essay before. My first draft stunk (although I thought it was brilliant). After some crushing yet astute feedback from friends I revised the piece, and then revised again, and again. When I completed the final draft I was certain of two things: this writing had been one of the most difficult things I’d ever done, and at the same time, one of the most rewarding. I’m not sure I can describe the sensations of power and relief and enlightenment that filled me as I struggled (and ultimately succeeded) to use words to capture not only the outward landscape of my family life, but also in inward territory of my private self. I submitted the final draft to the essay contest which Kylie had won the previous year, fingers crossed for the opportunity to be published. But I knew that no matter what the outcome, after writing that essay I’d never be the same.
Fall, 2004: I was elated—and hesitant. After months of waiting, I’d gotten the news that my essay had been named a co-winner in the writing contest. Kylie congratulated me over dinner, and we spoke with great enthusiasm about the fulfillment of seeing one’s work in print. I already had the satisfaction of having connected with myself; now I had the added satisfaction of connecting with readers.
Yet as thrilled as I was to have this privilege, I had some concerns about the publication that had granted it. I’d purchased a subscription soon after reading the grief issue, and while I enjoyed much of what I read in the subsequent issues, there were pieces that didn’t sit well with me. Committed to exploring and celebrating the many facets of LDS womanhood, the magazine seemed particularly sympathetic to voices of women who were dissatisfied with Mormon culture, practice, even doctrine. Having long been passionate about women’s issues, I was sympathetic, myself. But as I explained to Kylie (now over dessert), I didn’t quite feel at home in the magazine’s pages. What’s more, I knew that many of the women I most wanted to share my published essay with felt the same way. Some of them never struggled as women in a patriarchal church; others had resolved their issues, or had found a satisfying way to live with the remaining questions. What to do? I was honored to receive the writing award, eager to share–yet hesitant to hand out copies of the publication containing my work. I felt stuck.
We wished aloud for an alternative publication that featured candid, thoughtful, probing personal writing while maintaining an ultimate stance of loyalty to the LDS Church. We lamented the fact that there was no publication offering the former without offering the latter as well. “Someday we should create a journal of our own,” Kylie said. “Can you imagine?”
We laughed. Our lives were full of young children and nearly void of discretionary time—the thought of us launching a new publication bordered on ridiculous. But in the days and weeks that followed, the idea stuck with me. As I went about the daily routine of diapers and homework and laundry, I daydreamed about a journal wherein Mormon women could explore and share their lives in ways that were solidly faith-promoting yet reached behind and beyond the carefully crafted “church face” we typically wear on Sundays, the face that keeps us separated from each other at the time we most need the strength of sisterhood.
Spring, 2005: I was amazed. In my hands was a large envelope holding an impossible dream come true. This was it: the debut issue of our new publication. We’d chosen to title it Segullah, a Hebrew word meaning “peculiar treasure.”
I ripped the wrapping away, opened the front cover, and read the mission statement that I’d crafted with a small group of friends and friends-of-friends:
Segullah is a 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.
As I turned the pages of the journal, I smiled at the sight of the personal writing our group had worked hard (so hard!) on over the previous months (including my very first editorial, which required about 100 hours and a dozen drafts to reach satisfactory status). This was even better than seeing my first personal essay in print: not just one woman’s voice being heard by an audience, this was a veritable chorus of voices, all female, united according to a common purpose.
In the months that followed, I fielded a lot of questions about Segullah. Some people asked about the reference to faithfulness in our mission statement. To some, that phrase smacked of self-righteousness. I explained that it constituted a vital assurance to potential readers that their core beliefs and values will not be challenged when they pick up our journal. Others asked why the journal’s contributors were women only—didn’t we value men’s voices as well? I answered that I believe that the greatest heights of humanity come from the union of male and female, in intimate pairs and in larger communities. And I’d love to see a faith-promoting journal of personal writings by LDS men and women. But those are someone else’s projects. Segullah is dedicated to fostering the female voice.
When we question what the female voice might be, here is a starting point: the collective sound of women offering their experience as truth. This concept embraces not only the simple instance of a woman saying something, but also what she says, and how she says it. And Segullah attends to all three. With few exceptions, we invite women only to speak in our forum, because to share the forum would limit opportunities to speak. With few exceptions, we invite women to share personal writings-–essays and poetry capturing pieces of their lives, their selves-–because herein lies their truth. Womanly truth. Human truth.
This truth is nothing short of transformative–for the writer, and the reader. It is a woman’s being, spoken as art.
Spring, 2010: I am grateful. Such tremendous growth has unfolded since the release of Segullah’s debut issue. We’ve published eleven additional editions, and we’re about to publish a twelfth: a special five-year anniversary issue, which comes free with a one-year subscription to the print edition of our journal. Every year we sponsor our own personal essay contest, and a poetry contest as well. In addition to the journal, we’ve produced two books featuring the kind of writing Segullah has become known for. We maintain a thriving daily blog full of engaging conversation that’s in harmony with our mission statement, as well as a sampler of personal blogs written by LDS women. Next month we’re hosting our very first community event, a writing retreat packed with hands-on workshops for women who write, or want to write. (Yes, men can come too.) Over the past five years, Segullah has indeed emerged as a peculiar treasure.
Since this forum’s inception, our name has served as a constant reminder of the blessings and responsibilities we receive in our covenant relationship with the Lord. Over these past five years I’ve realized that segullah describes something else as well: our voices in this forum. A collective voice that “explores life’s richness and complexity while reflecting faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Such balance is not easy to attain, and without constant diligence it quickly topples. But we believe it is well worth seeking day after day on our blog, and page after page in our journal.
Inevitably, walking this path means we’ll draw criticism from those who prefer more or less controversy, convention, and/or conflict when it comes to expressing our experiences as LDS women. As another staff member recently remarked, “Some people think we’re flaming communists, others think we’re all romping around wearing denim jumpers and crocheting all day.” So be it. Inclusion is one of our watchwords, but if we tried to please everybody, we wouldn’t please anybody.
I hasten to add that we very much want to please our intended audience: vibrant, grounded LDS women who enjoy lively yet respectful conversation on a wide variety of topics. For such individuals we want Segullah to be a comfortable place, one where our faith is affirmed and our views validated and our struggles understood. Of course, our forum is intended to be a place of positive growth, and growth isn’t always comfortable—in our dialogue we have our hearts, minds, and spirits stretched on a regular basis, for “our aim is to highlight a variety of women’s perspectives within a framework of shared beliefs and values.” And as the Lord’s cache of peculiar treasure includes an eclectic mix of personalities and perspectives, so do the women’s voices featured there. It’s not a neat and tidy package, that’s for sure. But each of these elements—unity, challenge, comfort, change—is a necessary part of any community that intends to endure.
And Segullah most certainly will, because it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s not just a journal, or a blog, or a publishing company. It’s a living, breathing, dynamic community that includes fifty volunteer staff members and hundreds of journal subscribers and thousands of blog readers. It’s a place we gratefully and joyfully call home.