Monday, June 28, 2010

Unfounded Fears

In this case, I'm happy to support that my husband was right--the Segullah Writer's conference was much less daunting than I'd anticipated. I had a few moments in the morning where I looked around the room at all these attractive, well-dressed women and wondered if I'd really come to the right place. (Aren't writers supposed to be, well, above sordid worldly concerns?)

The truth, I suppose, is that, like most things in life, the conference was not what I expected--in some ways (like the social inadequacy), much better; in other ways, not quite what I'd hoped. I think it's all my sister's fault--see, she's been going to these week-long YA writing conferences at BYU the last couple of years, and every year she comes away raving about how much she learned and (more to the point) the great friends she's made. (I'm not sure why I thought I'd have the same bonding experience in 10 hours that she had over the course of five days, when I was surrounded by 50 or 60 women, and she was in a group of 15 or so--you see what I mean about unrealistic expectations). I guess I had this rosy vision that I would come away with a handful of new friends that would fill in the social gap I've felt since leaving graduate school.

It wasn't quite like that.

But, I did meet some pretty cool people (and made at least one new friend!) and I learned some great tips on how to be not only a better writer but a better teacher (I came away with some great ideas for teaching this fall--for praising my students more and for better strategies to teach personal narratives. For one thing, I finally get the distinction between memoir and personal essay!)

My favorite tips on writing personal essays: build your essay around scenes, not summaries, and you'll be less tempted to pontificate. Also, start with a story and let the meaning emerge. (This was particularly helpful for me, since I tend to approach personal essays as I do academic essays, which is, you start with a point or a question you're exploring--in other words, you start with meaning and then amass the evidence.) And I got some great advice from one of the editors on what they look for in a personal essay, so when and if I get the time to flesh out the essay that's been percolating in my brain for the last month, I might actually have a shot at getting it published!

On the downside, I was also reminded that I can sometimes be less charitable than I'd like! I get annoyed with people sometimes. (Okay, frequently). And sometimes it's easier to get annoyed with strangers, because you know fewer facts to their benefit. By now you're probably wondering what I'm talking about, so I'll cut to the chase. I'm talking about audience members--I think there should be an etiquette of audiences that should be strictly enforced at conferences.

Among my biggest pet-peeves? Derailing the speaker's point with your own personal story or agenda. (I see that frequently in questions at academic conferences, where the question is basically: how does your research relate to my project? I.e., let me use your presentation as a platform for me to showcase my own work). But I hadn't expected to see it so much here. Don't get me wrong, there's a place for stories, but when the presenter is obviously pressed for time, don't make such a long comment!

Another, but lesser, pet-peeve: people who talk too much. I think comments can add a lot to any discussion, but when any one commenter begins to dominate the discussion, it's too much. (I think this is why I have such a fierce internal editor that tells me to shut up after I've made more than one or two comments in a discussion. Although why it then follows that others should have the same internal editor, I have no idea.)

At any rate, these were minor flies in the ointment--and if they were flaws, they were really my own. I really need to learn how to be more generous with others. (Of course, even as I write this, I can't help but wonder if it is so wrong to think some commenting behaviors are a form of rudeness?)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Social uncertainties

Tomorrow, I am going to the Segullah Writer's Retreat. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Segullah, it's an organization for literary LDS women with two basic forums: an online blog and a print journal. I only discovered it a few months ago, but I have loved the community I found there: smart, articulate women who share similar interests. When I found out about the retreat, I was thrilled--here was a chance to meet in real time with a community the likes of which I haven't found since graduate school.

Since then, however, nerves have set in. Oh, don't get me wrong: I'm still excited and I'm still going, but I've also been fighting a plaguing sense of social inferiority that I haven't dealt with in a long time (since we left Pennsylvania three years ago, most of my social time has been spent with family, and in our new area I've had the luxury of meeting my neighbors mostly one on one, a social event I can handle). But this? I feel a little bit like the kid in elementary school waiting to get picked for dodgeball teams--I have a sneaking suspicion I may get picked last (I usually was), but I can't help hoping for better. Or, for another painful analogy, like the teenage girl at a dance, hanging by the wall with her friends, waiting to get asked to dance. (Or, like me, finding an excuse to leave the room when slow songs started--for some reason I was always thirsty!--so that I wouldn't have to face those painful moments of anticipation for an event that, in all likelihood, wouldn't happen).

I'm not quite sure how it happens that I can be 33 years old, married, a mother of two delightful children, with a handful of degrees (three, if you're curious: BA, MA, PhD), and still be fighting demons of insecurity. Wasn't I supposed to outgrow this with those skin blemishes from adolescence? (Oh, right, I haven't quite outgrown those either). It's true that I'm much more comfortable in my skin than I was as a teenager, which gives me some hope for the future, but I wonder if I will ever reach a point where I don't care at all what other people think of me. (What if I'm too nerdy? What if my clothes are wrong? What if I'm not really as smart as I sometimes like to think I am). And what is the trick to not caring?

At any rate, I'll find out tomorrow if my fears are well-grounded, or if, as my husband says, I'm just creating monsters where none really exist.

Monday, June 14, 2010

To love oneself is the start of a truly great romance

Or so said Oscar Wilde.

Still, I think that loving oneself is an art form--one that, unfortunately, often eludes me (and many of the women I know. While I'm sure men are also guilty of self-loathing, they don't seem to do so on nearly the same scale that women do. I wonder why that is?)

I just read an interesting bit of chick lit (The Frog Prince, by Jane Porter)--not necessarily the most stellar work of fiction, but it was fairly well written and the premise was interesting. The heroine, after a series of personal and professional disasters, finally comes to realize that the key for her happiness was not going to be found in someone else, because no one else (not family, not lovers) was going to be able to love her in quite the way that she wanted or needed. Her best shot at happiness, she decided, was in really learning how to love herself.

But while I like, and even applaud, this moral (it's much better than the typical happily-ever-after of the genre; and don't get me wrong, I like me some happily-ever-after, but the realism here appealed to me) still doesn't quite get it. I think we do need to love ourselves--I think we need to know that we are inherently lovable. To borrow a somewhat cliche'd and cheesy idea from a poster I saw years ago, "I know I'm somebody, because God don't make no junk." But the core of that is true: if we believe that we are children of God, doesn't that also mean that all of us are inherently lovable? God loves us, so there must be something in each of us worth loving.

Along the same lines, I read a talk by Elder Holland on the prodigal son--specifically, about the other son, the one who has spent his life in his father's service but feels jealous, threatened even, by the return of his brother. In this talk, Elder Holland makes some good points about the insidiousness of envy. But the most compelling point he makes (for me) is the idea that we are not diminished by someone else's gifts--because someone else is beautiful, intelligent, talented, does not make me any less of a person. Nor does praise showered on anyone make us less praise-worthy. (Although it's hard, seeing life through a worldly lens as it's so often easy to do, to remember this.) At any rate, I found the article a useful personal reminder that I am loved, warts and all.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Scapegoat or Savior?

In her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Ursula Le Guin describes a seemingly utopian society, Omelas, where there is no disease, no poverty, no unhappiness--except for that of one small child (a child who is mentally deficient and who may not be completely aware of its circumstances), a scapegoat whose unhappiness makes the happiness of everyone else possible. And because there are a few members of this society who will not accept their own well-being at so high a cost, there are those who walk away from Omelas.

Of course, Le Guin tells the story much more beautifully than this summary can suggest, and the story is harrowing. But I've also had niggling moments where the story is disturbing on a deeper level even than the moral questions it raises for readers (to what extent are we willing to accept our happiness at the expense of others?). You see, sometimes I find the line between a scapegoat and a savior to be a blurry line--sometimes (and it almost seems blasphemous to write this), I've even wondered if I am somehow morally compromised when I accept the idea that Jesus Christ bought my spiritual salvation at such excruciating expense. Is it right for me to be so complacent about that idea? How can I justify the idea of someone else suffering for me? Is it possible that in my own spiritual life I'm reenacting my own Omelas?

I have to admit that this isn't something I spend a lot of time thinking about--for one thing, I find the idea of a Savior moving on so many levels that it's hard for me to even entertain negative questions. For another, I am, at heart, somewhat conventional and blasphemy makes me squirm. (And these kinds of questions seem borderline blasphemy to me). But now that I've raised the spectre of the question, I think I have to entertain it.

Ultimately, though (and much to my relief), I don't think that the seeming parallels between the scapegoat of Omelas and the savior of the world hold up. You see, there's a crucial difference between those two stories, a difference that was driven home to me today as I prepared to teach a lesson on the sacrament. Jesus Christ knowingly chose his role as a savior; the child in Omelas had no choice. And that ability to choose is, I think, crucial. In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ prayed to have the "cup pass from [him]," but he accepted the will of God if this was not possible. He accepted the possibility of pain because, to Him, the cost was minimal compared to the outcome. The child in Omelas, uncomprehending, had no such option available.

But. The fact that the Savior was complicit in his sacrifice doesn't change the fact that I do still have some moral responsibility in the situation. He may have chosen his sacrifice willingly, but I still benefit from his pain, which makes me somehow complicit in his suffering. But I can't walk away from this kind of spiritual Omelas because I need it too much. So what do I do? Agonizing over it (harboring some kind of spiritual guilt akin to the "white liberal guilt" that so many liberals feel over the ills of their colonial past) doesn't seem to accomplish much. I suppose first I have to recognize my complicity--but I also have to accept my responsibility. If I do indeed believe that Christ died for my sins (and I do), then I also have to accept that I need to do my level best to ensure that the sacrifice was not in vain.

Some days, that seems like a big responsibility. Walking away might be easier. But I choose, instead, to yield.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Love is Not Blind

I recently stumbled across a link to a talk Bruce C. Hafen gave when he was president of (then) Ricks College. In it, he talks about developing a kind of spiritual maturity that is neither blindly optimistic or unduly pessimistic, but that deals courageously with ambiguity and still holds on to faith. I thought it was beautiful, and wanted to share it here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Do I contradict myself?

I am, by turns,

a scholar
a mother
an artist

and also

lacking creative impulse

Does this seem contradictory? It's nonetheless true. I suppose that one of the illuminating (and terrifying) things about writing (about any form of creating, really) is that it can expose for you the limits of whatever self-hood you think you possess.

In graduate school, I read a fair number of theoretical texts on identity. Most scholars now eschew the term, preferring instead "subject position," arguing that identity (as a sense of a self that is whole) is a fiction. In reality, they say, individuals have multiple identities, multiples selves that are called into being. While I have a hard time accepting their final tenet--that the "I" that speaks is just a discursive construct (I may contradict myself on occasion, but I still have some sense that there is more to me than just a socially configured set of ideas and mechanisms), I do think that there are different facets of my "self" that are called into greater prominence by different contexts.

And so yes, I can be both wise and unwise, depending on the day, the place, the situation, the people I am with (even whether or not I've eaten recently, or slept well the night before).

I was thinking about this, the other night: our strange ability as humans to live with and embrace contradictions. My husband and I read Philippians 4 the other night, and I was moved by Paul's declaration: "I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need" (v. 12).

Psychoanalysts (Lacan, I'm looking at you here!) maintain that the self is always fragmented, always imperfect, and that we spend much of our lives in pursuit of an illusory sense of wholeness. And while I'm not sure about much of Lacan's theories, I am pretty sure that we are imperfect (our inner contradictions, much less our moral weaknesses, point to this).

But Paul suggests that we need not be paralyzed by contradictions; that wholeness need not be always illusory. If we can be both abased and abound, if we can be both full and hungry, if we can be all things in one (alpha and omega), then I think we do this only on the terms Paul set: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

I have to admit, I find much of the Pauline letters obscure or confusing. But this, for me, was both clear and illuminating.