Periodically, (usually when a collection is published) we see reflections on the literary genre of the “personal essay” in Mormonism. Here’s mine, albeit quite belatedly. The footnotes provide some links, which themselves provide further suggestions on the subject if you’re interested.
Title: What of the Night? Personal Essays
Author: Stephen Carter
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Personal Essay
Price: $14.95 (Kindle, $2.99)
Having grown up Mormon I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a “testimony” was. Like breath, sleep, and family, testimony’s a natural part of my life. The genesis is lost to me, but I can remember instances when my conception of “testimony” was sharpened. As a kid in Primary I learned that a testimony ought to be a list of things I know are “true,” and these things were all things I’d learned about at Church. Usually us Primary kids would also sneak a few extra things onto the end of our testimony lists, like the fact that we loved our brothers and sisters and dads and moms. As I got a little older I learned we could include a personal experience or two in our testimonies. I usually enjoyed listening to these ones a little more, but the list still came at the end as it should; the general thrust of testimony remained the same.
This changed a little when a seminary teacher parsed different ways we “bear” our testimony. He said we bear it by speaking it out loud, but he mentioned a few new things for me to consider. First, “bearing” testimony can also simply refer to the way we are, the way others see us. Jesus said to be the light of the world, so we bear our testimonies by loving and serving others, he said. Then he said sometimes we have to “bear testimony” as a burden—we have to bear the weight of it, bear up under the everyday struggles of life in faith. Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow.
Several years later this latter sense of “bearing testimony” came to mind as I read a personal essay by Eugene England called “The Mormon Cross.”1 It was written prior to 1978, before the LDS priesthood was finally extended again to blacks, and England bore witness in this last sense, and said the Church itself bore the weight of a cross he hoped would someday be lifted. And in some ways that particular cross has been lifted, but when England wrote it he was still bearing up under great weight. That seems to me to be the predominant characteristic of current Mormon personal essays, which can be found in practically every LDS-themed publication—Dialogue, Sunstone, Segullah, even BYU Studies. Such essays, like England’s, relate personal stories including personal reflection, but not necessarily ultimate resolution as we typically read in official church publications like the Ensign. “Essay,” which I’m told comes from the French essayer, means an attempt.2 Swimming deep in the perplexity rather than floating high above in the omniscient cloud, is the object. This is another way Mormons testify, and I’m happy we have independent publishers like Zarahemla Books to provide more outlets for testimony. (Minor complaint: I thought the font—large and typewriterish—distracts from the feeling the pieces are meant to evoke. The cover design is cool, though.)
The roots of this latter-day way of bearing testimony are said to run deep. In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism Donlu DeWitt Thayer points out that the current literary form of LDS personal essay was absent in the early days of the Church, despite the proliferation of written diaries and sermons. “By the middle of the twentieth century, however,” she writes, “the Church was essentially at peace with its external surroundings, and a few LDS writers opened the era of the Mormon personal essay.”3 It’s interesting to think of such personal essays as fruits of the environment in which they grow, with all the influence that entails. Today’s best Mormon personal essays, according to Eugene England, are “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.”4
It’s been about a decade since England passed away, but his description of the personal essay still holds up, even in a personal essay written about him, as found in Stephen Carter’s recent collection of personal essays, What of the Night? In “My Brief Tour of England: My Year With Gene,” Carter gives his first-hand account of being England’s office assistant (11-25). Constant phone calls and busy work under Gene’s command are offset by hugs and prayers, and later, cancer, confusion and death. Inspired by England, Carter has become a powerful personal essayist in his own right. In addition to completing an MFA and PhD from the University of Alaska—Fairbanks, Carter, current Sunstone editor, has won multiple awards from the Eugene England Personal Essay Competition.5 His work was included among the “Best American Spiritual Writing” in 2006.
In this collection Carter seems to dwell slightly more often on the “doubt and inadequacy” side of England’s description as opposed to the “exalted faith and love” side, although his main aim is to “dwell in the tensions” (29). “The Weight of Priesthood” is a masterful rumination on his shifting understanding of the power of the priesthood (33-62). Several essays, in addition to the one about England, deal with death. In “Last Supper” (91-96) he tells the story of a couple killed by a drunk driver, and his prose sings: “Outside, the snow was frozen to the ground; the streets black and slick with ice, reflecting the glow of the streetlamps. Wayne and Elaine have left a centuries-old station wagon, a house with bread and milk still in the fridge, credit-card offers in the mailbox, and maybe no will” (93).
Negotiating relationships between those who leave the church and those who remain is another recurring theme. “The Departed” (115-130) laments for promising members who leave the Church, “Writing As Repentance” includes responses from friends who wonder how Carter can write what he writes and still care to remain Mormon (159-168). But “Smoke and Mirrors” pulled me in more than any other essay on this theme, from the first sentence, too: “Sometimes revelation works through a void. Like the day I realized that I knew next to nothing about my little brother” (62). I can’t relate the strength of this essay in a review, and I can’t spoil the ending, but it really resonated with me. Anyone who knows close family members or friends who have left the Church will find much to identify with here.
Back in 2008 Carter popped up in an online discussion about personal essays. He described his overall reason for writing. I’ll close the review with his description because I think it captures quite well what Carter tries to do in What of the Night? These are essays without many neat endings. Plenty of reflection without much ultimate resolution. But Carter bears his testimony throughout the collection, his testimony of the plan of salvation; the messiness and the hope:
“The essays I’ve published have taken months of my life. Ernest Hemingway’s quote: ‘Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed’ sums up my experience well…The reason to put writing in front of a lot of people is to say, “Here’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I’ve followed a line of thought (or an experience) through difficult territory. I’ve questioned myself; I’ve made false starts and hit dead ends. It’s taken me some time to find a way out the back of conventional wisdom and maxims to find something that resonates deeply with me. I know that you haven’t had my experience or followed this path, so I’m going to do my utmost to communicate it to you.”6
It’s clear that Carter is doing a little more than just communicating his own experiences, though. This is where Mormon testimony bearing is most obvious in his approach. The fact that the essays most often include a message, a take-away, however implicit, indicates that he hopes his stories demand something of the reader, too. He doesn’t always pull this off successfully, and I wasn’t always convinced that a given point was true to my own experience in Mormonism. But that’s because much of the time Carter is trying to figure out, even while expressing, his own place in Mormonism. And the bearing of such testimony seems very Mormon to me. I’m glad Stephen’s still here.
1. Eugene England, “The Mormon Cross,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8:1 (Spring 1973), 78-86. England’s book Making Peace has some great stuff too. It’s available for free at Signature’s online library.
2. Kris Wright, “An Eye For an I: Looking at the Personal Essay in Mormon Literature,” bycommonconsent.com, 6 February 2006.
3. “Literature, Mormon Writers of: Personal Essays,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992).
5. I believe this contest has since been renamed as the Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay contest through Irreantum.
6. Comments section of Kristine Haglund, “Goldilocks and the Art of the Personal Essay,” theredbrickstore.com, 18 December 2008. What the heck happened to this site?