Monday, December 21, 2009

An Alarming Thought

I came back to graduate school last year primarily so I could have health insurance, but also with the idea that I would become a better writer. I feel like I am learning important things, but I feel (today) like I'm writing less important work.

In 2006, among other things, I wrote a play called "Maror." It's based on a true story about a Mormon couple whose two-year-old goes into an extended coma and eventually dies. The play explores what it means to believe in and experience miracles while not getting the only miracle you really want. The play asks us to consider how we can be healed from the bitterness intense suffering makes it so easy to receive. The play looks at how hard deaths in the Mormon community end in a mixture of faith and grief; the play emphasizes that faith and grief are in no way incompatible. We produced the play twice. The first time, a couple who had lost a child in a similar way told me that the play was accurate, that it brought back hard memories, but was very affirming to watch. A woman whose child was in the midst of serious health issues told me the play reached her in ways she never would have expected.

Perhaps a year after the second production, a close relative of one of the actresses ended up in the hospital in a coma and subsequently died. The actress later told me that she thought of the play often in that period, that in important ways it gave her additional resources to process her own experience.

To me, these reactions make a successful play. I am pleased to think I wrote something that helped a few audience members in their own hard times. Our scriptures tell us to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and I feel like I did that with that play.

In 2007, I focused almost exclusively on ten-minute plays, but also felt like I was connecting with local audiences on important, central issues from everyday life. A few times, I dealt with young married couples facing various challenges and learning (or not learning) to talk productively with each other--stories Provo university student audiences need. I explored immigration issues in a way that (I hoped) would promote dialogue instead of stifling it, would enable people to frame the issues in ways they hadn't thought of before. I spent time with political polarization but in the specific context of how the broader culture of partisanship adversely affects the Mormon community. I spent time with ideas about the unexpected sources from which people can find strength to turn their lives around.

Audiences came, interacted, left the theatre a little different. It was a good year.

In 2008, my greatest writing achievement was a piece I wrote in March called "Prodigal Son." In it, I looked at how an otherwise close father and son were divided by the son's conversion to Mormonism. The play takes seriously the values and perspectives of both father and son, reaches toward understanding and a kind of healing that can accept difference and pain. The piece won the Association for Mormon Letters' award for Best Play of the year. It made it into the anthology "The Best of Mormonism 2009" and as such will apparently be required reading in a Mormon Lit class at Utah Valley University next year. More importantly, the play resonated with my its audience and especially deeply with those who live in such situations. Like with "Maror," I was able to speak pain in an affirming way, advocating charity and love as sustaining powers through all kinds of difficulty.

And then I came back to school. I haven't written a play since.

I have done some good work over the past year and a half. As far as I can remember, I've written:
-an essay about how our modern understanding of how trauma can affect individuals well after traumatic events end can enrichen our understanding about a Book of Mormon passage in which Jesus blesses some deeply traumatized children. The essay was written between classes rather than for a class, but won me some money and got published in a BYU Essay Collection.
-a draft of a picture book telling the stories of my experience as a terrorist look-alike after 9/11 and my grandfather's experience being separated from his best friend during the Partition of India. I like it, but haven't done anything with it. I finished the draft in December 2008 and haven't touched it since January of this year.
-a cycle of very short stories (less than 300 words each) about immigrants, structured around the Jewish liturgical calendar (a story about an African refugee invokes Passover imagery, Judah Maccabee is an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the Hanukkah piece). Again, I think it's beautiful, but it's just sitting in my files now.
-"Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg" a fictional set of folktale fragments. I love it, and it's been published online, which is great, but it's been hard to see much fruit yet. I think the piece has the potential to deepen the way we look at things, but it's sort of weird and without being trapped in a theater in advance, not everyone seems to have the patience for it.
-"Four Side of a Rhetorical Triangle," an essay with a strong voice that explores the ways in which we think about writing. This one, I think, will be able to make it into a national literary journal and be read mostly by writers and English professors. Maybe it will change the way they think and talk about writing. Maybe it will just give them a good laugh. It may not ever find out.
-and last, but not least, my three blogs. People do read these, at least according to Google Analytics. And they probably are helping someone somewhere with something. They have certainly helped me to write, which I was finding very difficult to do.

This school output is not too bad, but when I consider that I haven't written plays, haven't run a theatre company, and haven't done nearly as much connecting with audience, I'm faced with the alarming thought that maybe I'm not doing better. Maybe my writing is doing less to serve the community I love than it did before I came back to school. Maybe this whole academic career thing is a distraction from the core of what I once managed to do in engaging with real-life issues in moving and meaningful ways.

And maybe it's time to stop for today and go clock in to the research job that puts bread on the table.


  1. And maybe this season of life is for having new experiences that will become your next set of plays.

    Aunt Sheila

  2. James,
    I think that's the question of this time in our lives, and of most of the time since we leave high school. Are we to be meaningful and engaged, or in the safety of the Ivory Tower? It's a really big question.

    Happy Christmas!


  3. I am hoping that fallow seasons lead to new growth in writing when the chance finally comes. This year should indicate whether I've been betting in the right direction.

    Mom Caucajewmexdian


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