Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Story in Texts and Pictures, Or: I Have Hilarious and Awesome Friends

Long-time readers of my blog know that every year I attend the LDStorymakers writers conference and that it's a bit of a highlight for me. That's for many reasons, one of which is that I have been able to be part of something that had humble beginnings and has since morphed into something massive and awesome. That first conference had somewhere around 42 attendees. This last one had around 700 attendees. Growth, much?

But another reason I love the conference is the opportunity to rub shoulders with my people—with my tribe, as the theme and logo from the conference said.

Dan Wells with an ARC of his new book.
Read on for the story behind his awesome deviousness.

This year, I had a particularly fun moment in the faculty green room between workshops I was teaching.

Important back story: Child #2 is fascinated by all things psychological (she took AP Psychology and will be minoring in psychology come fall), and that interest began after I handed her Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer. She devoured it and went on to inhale the rest of the trilogy, followed by The Hollow City, Dan's sci-fi thriller with a hero who has schizophrenia.

It's safe to say she's a huge Dan Wells fan, and she's been eagerly awaiting the release of his next John Cleaver book, The Devil's Only Friend, which is for sale now but hadn't yet been released.

Dan and Rob Wells (both writers and both friends of mine) have a podcast where, a few years ago, they had an ongoing joke about this daughter; they mentioned her by name in every podcast for several weeks. They eventually took the joke all the way by having her on the show as a guest.

While in the green room, I saw Dan. I mentioned that it was too bad he wouldn't be at this year's Whitney Awards gala, because I'd be mentioning him in reference to my daughter in my introductory remarks.

"Is this the same daughter we talked about in the podcast?" Dan asked.

"Sure is," I said. "And she's a huge fan of yours."

Dan made a generous offer: "I have a few ARCs of The Devil's Only Friend in my car. I could sign one for her."

Yes, please!

He promptly retrieved one. But in typical Dan fashion, he wanted to have some fun with the moment. Here is the text message conversation that followed. Never let it be said that I don't have hilarious, if somewhat cruel, friends.

First, I sent her this picture of Dan holding the book, with the following text:

Her reply:

Note the profuse use of question marks and exclamation points indicating intense emotion.

Dan and I cracked up.

"What should I tell her next?" I asked.

Dan suggested a second picture. Fellow writer friend James Dashner, who was also in the green room, happily played along.

At this point, my child was bordering on freaking out. WHAT was her mother doing to her? She desperately tried to make sense of it all.

Her frustration was clearly bordering on tears. I confess that those of us in the green room were laughing our heads off.

But eventually we took pity on my poor child and told her the truth with a new photo.

Her reply warmed my heart. What parent doesn't feel a sweetness like nothing else when a child expresses true love and appreciation?

But then she sent one more text, a caveat:

Uh . . .

Universal law: Teens can't raise you up without putting you right back in your place a moment later.

Eh. I'll take it anyway. "Best mommy" under any circumstances counts for something.

Besides, Dan, James, and I had a ball creating the emotional firestorm that happened on the other end.

(Who says writers have to grow up to be mature? Pshaw.)

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Flash Sale on Great E-books!

I'm part of a FANTASTIC sale on different genres!! If you have friends who love to read, please let them know about this sale!


Imperfect Love
SALE Price $.99
Regular Price $3.99

Lauren Wilson is well on her way to her happily-ever-after. She’s passionate about her career as a middle school English teacher, she adores her handsome, hard-working husband, and with a baby finally on the way, her perfect life is within her grasp. 

But then a devastating test result changes everything. 

Forced to choose between her baby and her husband, Lauren makes the only decision she can live with, and she returns to her small hometown in hopes of rebuilding her shattered life. 

Ethan Campbell is a gifted photographer who travels the world and has no desire to settle down. When his mother dies, he must go home to settle her estate. Then it’s back to exciting adventures across the globe. 

When Lauren crosses paths with Ethan, her teenage crush, old feelings resurface—feelings she’s not prepared to face. Will Lauren have the courage to trust again or will she spend her life alone? 

Imperfect Love is a story about sacrifice, healing, second chances, and discovering that although love isn’t always perfect, sometimes it’s the imperfect love that’s the sweetest of all. 

Spinster's Folly
Marsha Ward
SALE Price $0.99
Regular Price $3.99

Marie Owen yearns for a loving husband, but Colorado Territory is long on rough characters and short on fitting suitors, so a future of spinsterhood seems more likely than wedded bliss. Her best friend says cowboy Bill Henry is a likely candidate, but Marie knows her class-conscious father would not allow such a pairing. When she challenges her father to find her a suitable husband before she becomes a spinster, he arranges a match with a neighbor's son.
Then Marie discovers Tom Morgan would be an unloving, abusive mate and his mother holds a grudge against the Owen family. Marie's mounting despair at the prospect of being trapped in such a dismal marriage drives her into the arms of a sweet-talking predator, landing her in unimaginable dangers.
2013 Winner of the USA Best Book Award for Western Fiction.

A Portrait for Toni
Annette Lyon
SALE Price $0.99
Regular Price $2.99

Toni has no idea what she’d do without her best friend, Carter. Who else would she be able to vent to about her parents, her job at the dance studio, or her latest relationship woes? When Toni’s father lands in the hospital, Carter, as always, is there for her.

That is, until he starts questioning Toni, saying he thinks she has an eating disorder. Then she starts dating Clint, the hot new guy at the studio, and somehow that puts a deeper wedge between her and Carter. When she’s hospitalized after an on-stage collapse, and Carter stupidly starts in with advice about food and weight, she sends him away—then instantly regrets it.

Toni tries to mend the hurt between them, but instead of finding Carter, she stumbles onto proof that he has feelings for her that go way beyond those of a friend. Toni is left with the very real prospect of losing Carter forever, unless somehow she can return his feelings—but that’s impossible.

Isn’t it?

Purchase A Portrait for Toni on Amazon

Grounded for Love: A Reunion Romance Novella
Rebecca Talley
Price $.99

After being burned by her college boyfriend, Graham, book editor Serena Johnson believes the only dependable men are the ones found between the pages of a book. Her life in San Francisco is thrown into chaos when her father suffers a heart attack, and she books a flight to her small hometown in Colorado.

Graham McAllister, now a civil engineer in Phoenix, is dating a woman who has it all—except his heart. As the best man for his brother’s wedding, Graham must fly back to Grand Junction in time for all the festivities.

When a massive snowstorm grounds all the planes in Denver, both Serena and Graham are stranded overnight. Will this storm lead to love or will it simply prove that there are no second chances?

Purchase Grounded for Love on Amazon.

Once Upon Two Kingdoms (A Royal Romance)
Anna del C. Dye
Price $2.99

Freedom to Choose is Paramount for any human.

An arrangement made when Elizabeth was just a babe ties her to someone she has never met, never spoken to, never loved. 

Now she desires freedom—a way to choose her own path—her own husband. The moment Elizabeth meets Patrick she knows he is her soul mate. 

But when you are bound to a crown how is any choice your own?

Ring on Her Finger
Lisa Swinton
SALE price $.99
Regular price $3.99

What happened in Vegas should stay there, not follow Amanda home, newly wedded to the man who broke her heart.

After celebrating college graduation with her friends in Las Vegas, Amanda St. Claire wakes up with a terrible hangover and a ring on her finger. Her day gets worse when she finds out she's married to rich playboy Blake Worthington—the guy she has loathed the past four years. Amanda convinces Blake to legally terminate the marriage and they both return home like nothing ever happened. That is, until Blake shows up on her doorstep and Amanda has to come clean with her family. 

Together for better or worse while the legalities are cleared, Amanda reluctantly plays along, but then the unthinkable happens---she finds herself falling in love with Blake. 

Can they overcome the past? Or will it end their future before it even starts? 

Those who enjoy What Happens in Vegas and The Prince and Me will find a kindred spirit in Ring on Her Finger.

Nourish & Strengthen
Maria Hoagland
SALE Price $.99
Regular Price $2.99

Chloe Taylor has the perfect life: a model’s figure, a husband who adores her, three healthy children. So why does she feel so much less than perfect?

After losing forty pounds, Chloe Taylor is finally happy with her body. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s not the one in control. When Chloe is called as the Primary president, she discovers that managing the highs and lows of a chronic illness may be easier than the ups and downs associated with family, friends, and church callings. Consumed by her own challenges, Chloe fails to recognize the issues her friends are facing and is in danger of losing their friendship.

As Chloe strives to develop Christ-like love for herself and those around her, she learns that outer appearances are far less important than inner peace and spiritual strength. But is she strong enough to face her most difficult trial yet?

Family Size
Maria Hoagland
SALE Price $.99
Regular Price $2.99

Is it one-size-fits-all, or all sizes fit? A novel about friendships, faith, and fertility by LDS women's fiction author Maria Hoagland. 

Jessica loves being the mom of an ever-expanding family, but when an ultrasound throws her a curve, can she adapt with grace? 

Dragged away from home, Maya feels deserted by her workaholic husband in a land of confusing accents and church cliques. What will it take to acclimate and save her marriage--or does she even want to? 

Sloane is an algebra teacher and runner who would give up both to be a mom, but no matter what she does, pregnancy remains elusive. Can she adjust her thinking and find purpose in her life? 

As their lives intertwine, can friendship and faith help these women hurdle expectations of an ideal family size? 

Vicki Hunt Budge
SALE Price $.99
Regular Price $3.99

In The Darkest Hours of Addiction, A Light Shines 

When Jessica Mobley's husband abandons her and flies off to Mexico to meet another woman, it's the tip of the iceberg. She soon unravels his porn addiction and her financial ruin. 

Jessica tries to keep up an appearance that all is well, but ultimately she resorts to drastic measures to support her three children. She guts part of her home to start a preschool and rents out another two rooms. 

Her life is soon filled with new friends and activities, but the new friends bring problems of their own. Is hope and healing possible as they strengthen one another and rely on the Lord? And will romance find its way into Jessica's heart again? 

Intercession is a story of love and friendship loaded with drama, inspiration, loss and the tenacity of one woman who finds her strength in the Lord

Begin Again
Brittney Mulliner
SALE Price $.99

Escaping her past, Aubrey Tate moves to Southern California for a fresh start with her older brother, Brandon. Starting over at a new school seems easy with her cousin, Mckayla, and her two best friends at her side, but handling the new guys is another matter. Aubrey ends up in the middle of three rivals that each wants her to themselves. 

Mike claims her first and declares himself her friend and protector. Luke is the school heartthrob that stops Aubrey in her tracks, speechless. Gage is the mysterious, dark outsider that Aubrey can be herself around. 

How will she navigate her new life while she's still haunted by her past?

Valerie Ipson
Price $2.99

There’s no way I’m taking Blake’s place as president of the student body. As soon as the memorial for him and six of our friends is over, I’m resigning as VP. Really.
Except people say the fire was no accident.
(I say it’s way too easy to blame someone who’s dead.)
When I read the writing on the wall, literally, the bathroom wall, I know what it means. To get to the truth I have to come out from under my paisley comforter.
But, seriously, what stage of grief says I have to be the one to fix what’s wrong at Ideal High? Maybe I’m the one who’s broken.

What Every 6th Grader Needs to Know: 10 Secrets to Connect Moms & Daughters
Rachelle J. Christensen
Connie E. Sokol
Price $1.99

Is your daughter asking questions about friends, peer pressure, school, and even her weight?

As a mom, are you wondering how to answer them?

Welcome to the club.

But you can relax. Because we’ve asked real sixth-grade girls to dish on their top secret questions. And, we’ve provided time-tested real-life answers that work.

Add to that an enjoyable format. The “Just for Girls” section speaks right to your daughter in words and ways she understands. The “Just for Moms” section talks straight to moms, giving you information, resources, and easy-to-share answers. We include tips for how to start, handle, and enjoy the conversations no matter the situation.

Create connected conversations with your daughter as you explore these life questions together. Get plain facts and jumpstart questions. Discuss the provided scenarios so she can practice responses to use in real-time. Download decorative cards with positive statements and fun fill-in sentences.

Use What Every Girl Needs to Know About 6th Grade to make it happen. Together, answer questions and create connection.

You got this.

Interlude at Cottonwood Springs
Liz Adair
Price $2.99
Audiobook: $21.83 (or free with Audible trial)

Ruth Reynolds moves in wealthy New York circles. Heck Benham rides the range in the high plateau of New Mexico. 

When she comes west during the Great Depression chance throws them together, and they fall in love. But she's a married lady, and he's an honorable man.

The Extraordinarily Ordinary Life of Cassandra Jones (MG)
Tamara Hart Heiner
SALE Price $.99

What's special about Cassandra? Absolutely nothing. She's as ordinary as any other fifth grader. And yet her ordinary life is riddled with hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking mishaps as she guides herself through the world of pre-teens on the brink of adulthood. 

Cassandra Jones is the new girl at school. She's been uprooted from her beloved state of Texas and relocated to the hillbilly Ozarks of Springdale, Arkansas. She wonders if she will like her teacher or if she will have any friends. She can only hope school won't be harder than it was back home. 

She doesn't expect to have two close friends, and even worse, two friends that don't like each other. As she tries to make a spot for herself, will she keep her friendships intact? 

Best Kind of Love: A Reunion Romance Novella
Rebecca Talley
Price $.99

Brynn Sawyer is a successful project manager in Houston. When her best friend from high school convinces Brynn to attend their ten-year reunion, Brynn hopes she’ll have the chance to reconnect with Troy Richards, the guy who stole her heart back in middle school. 

Craig Dawson, an attorney in San Diego, is in a relationship that’s going nowhere and wonders why he can’t seem to commit. When he sees Brynn at their reunion, he thinks he might finally understand why. The only problem—she’s still infatuated with Troy what’s-his-name. 

Will Brynn find the love she seeks with Troy, or will she realize the best kind of love has always been right in front of her? 

Silver Linings
Kaylee Baldwin
Price $.99

Drew Westfall wants nothing more than to forget what he had to do in the name of "smart" business. Cutting off all ties with his parents—including handing over the entire contents of his trust fund to a charity—he takes off for Bridger, Colorado where his best friend has an extra room for him. It doesn't take long for him to realize that his business degree won’t do him much good in a town as small as Bridger, but he's broke and has nowhere else to go. 

Eden Torresi has every reason to wallow. Not only did she have to sell her house to pay for her mother’s medical expenses, but she had to drop out of school and is in a relationship with a guy unwilling to commit. But Eden isn't the wallowing type. Instead, she spends most of her time taking care of the seniors at Silver Linings Assisted Living. When she learns that her boyfriend's new roommate is down on his luck, she reaches out to offer what help she can. But the more time they spend together, the more complicated things get, especially when the seniors of Silver Linings decide to play matchmaker.

Six Days of Christmas
Kaylee Baldwin
Price $.99

When Natalie goes home with her best friend for Christmas, she expects plenty of quiet time to work on a winning ad so she can turn her dream internship into her dream job. 

Instead, she gets time-consuming Christmas festivities, a house full of children who seem to be multiplying, and Jimmy, her best friend’s brother—someone who makes her question everything she’s always thought she wanted. 

Life Soup
Pamela Lynn France
Price $6.99 (ebook)

This is a true story told using the memories of a child - my inner child. It is a story of survival - a love story without romance, but hope. It tells of the age old struggle between good and evil, light and dark forces around us.

Jesus Christ has been saving souls throughout human history. Thankfully He is a part of my story...

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Speech as President

The awards gala honoring the best fiction published by LDS writers in 2014 was held on Saturday, May 16. As the program's outgoing president, I gave a speech prior to the presentation of the awards. I'll share some thoughts and feelings about my year as president another time.

For now, here's a photo of that night when I asked the finalists present to join me on the stage, which was an incredibly cool moment with so much talent in one place. And below that, the speech I gave next. Being the Whitney Awards president has truly been an honor, one I did my best to live up to.

2014 Whitney Awards Gala
May 16, 2015

I have literally spent the last year pondering what to say tonight. I have a file on my computer where I dumped quotes and ideas. It’s ridiculously long, but I promise that my remarks won’t be.

Many of you have been acquainted with the Whitney Awards for a long time, while some here tonight know little about the program, so I’ll begin with a little background.

In your program, you’ll see a section called “by the numbers.” I thought it might be interesting for attendees to get a feel for the scope of the awards. A book must receive 5 reader nominations to become an official nominee. For 2014, we had nearly 400 books receive at least one nomination. The total number of nominations is the official recorded number, but the real number is higher, as some books received more than five nominations.

About half of the nominated titles became official nominees, which sent them to the judging round. Each of the 8 award categories had 5 judges who read and ranked each book in their category on a Condorcet-style ballot. The result was 5 finalists in each category, for a total of 40 finalists. Essentially, a book had a shot of one in ten of becoming a finalist.

Once the finalists were announced in early February, the voting academy gets to read them and cast their ballot. The academy has about 400 members made up of writers, editors, reviewers, judges, and other industry professionals and experts.

The academy ballots were due on April 30, and tonight, the winners will be announced.

So that’s how they function in a very large nutshell. But I thought it might be good to share how the program came into being as well.

Fellow novelist Robison Wells was on a mission to continually raise the bar on literature written by Latter-day Saints. He began that journey by creating a database of reviews, making it as comprehensive as he could. But he soon realized that criticism, while important, isn’t enough by itself.

At what I believe was the 4th annual Storymakers conference, he had the realization that honoring the best among us would naturally raise the bar, and he set to creating an awards program to do just that.

I remember talking to him at the conference and getting excited about the idea of a purely Mormon literary award. I wasn’t on the first committee, but I did get to watch pretty close by as the program was created. Robison studied the Hugos and Nebulas and many other awards programs to come up with the best mix of input and voting, wanting to include the general readership and fans as well as professionals and industry peers.

He also wanted a name for the awards that would reflect the goals of the program and would also be uniquely Mormon. One night as I made dinner, he called to brainstorm ideas for a name, as nothing quite felt right yet—the Golden Plates award and such felt a bit too cheesy.

I suggested that we name the program after a literary figure from our Church history. The first name to come to mind was Eliza R. Snow. But, I pointed out, she was primarily a poet. Who else? We wanted someone who related to fiction.

I offhandedly said that well, there’s that one really cool talk by Orson F. Whitney all about literature and fiction. You know, the one about how we will one day have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. But did Elder Whitney write fiction?

(To be honest, I hadn’t actually read the talk, but I knew that one prophecy.)

Rob latched on to idea and never let go. Today, at the 8th Whitney Awards gala, I’m honored to be president. And it’s kind of neat that I helped name the program, even if people generally think that “Whitney” refers to a 1980s cheerleader. I’ve even been called “Whitney,” and once, a bank teller who apparently didn’t read closely called me “Wendy.”

Orson F. Whitney gave his famous talk a few weeks before his 33rd birthday and about 18 years before his call as an apostle. He gave the speech at a large youth conference, and it was published the following month. On this year’s program, we used a younger photo of him than we’ve often seen, taken closer to the age he was when he gave his famous speech.

When I suggested his name, I didn’t know that Elder Whitney was a writer himself, but he was. He wrote fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including the biography of his grandfather, Heber C. Kimball. Our modern hymnal includes two of his songs, “The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close,” and “Savior Redeemer of My Soul.”

His father set type for the Deseret News and worked with the paper for 21 years, so in some respects, the written word was likely always part of Orson’s family life and childhood.

Elder Whitney was a proponent for education, reading, and writing. In his famous talk, he said, “It suffices me to know … that this people are the friends, not the foes, of education; that they are seekers after wisdom, lovers of light and truth, universal Truth, which, like the waters of earth, or the sunbeams of heaven, has but one Source, let its earthly origin be what it may.”

Education is all well and good, and considering the period, he was way ahead of his time about it. But he also understood that the arts themselves are significant.

He declared that God’s people must progress; their destiny demands it. And he seemed to see that the progression would happen through the arts, saying that even as “the glory of God is intelligence,” so is “culture … the duty of man.”

Think about that. Culture is our duty. In context, it’s clear that by “culture,” he means the arts, in all their forms. Culture is our DUTY.

So much for those people who think that fiction is a waste of energy. Next time you run into someone at a book signing who is concerned for your eternal salvation, you can calmly assure them that oh, no, they’re quite mistaken—your soul is quite safe and by writing, you’re doing your eternal duty.

As fun as that would be to actually say to someone, the idea that writing can be our duty is profound. We believe that we are here on earth for a purpose, with special talents and missions.

Quoting Brother Whitney again: “It is by means of literature that much of this great work will have to be accomplished: a literature of power and purity, worthy of such a work. And a pure and powerful literature can only proceed from a pure and powerful people. Grapes are not gathered of thorns, nor figs of thistles.”

In other words, for many of us, writing is part of our mission and purpose, and God can use our words for good and for advancing His work.

And that doesn’t mean our stories must feature Mormon characters and story lines, although they may. It doesn’t mean that our stories must include sappy morals. It doesn’t mean they have to be so whitewashed to avoid offense that they’re stripped of voice and personality.

I will always remember what Dan Wells said when he accepted his Whitney Award for Best Novel by a New Author. Keep in mind that he won the award with a HORROR novel. And the sequel also won a Whitney. And so did the third book of the trilogy.

This is all paraphrasing, of course. He said that some people consider horror as a very “un-Mormon” genre. How could he consider himself a good Mormon if he wrote “bad” stuff? And now he was being honored by his peers for that very work.

But horror, he said, could arguably be the most Mormon of genres. Horror at its core is about good versus evil, and his series is especially so—a young man fighting his natural man, struggling to do the right thing when every impulse is to do the wrong one. When Nephi preached about the natural man, he might as well have been talking about John Cleaver.

Regardless of the genre or age group or market we’re writing for, the things we write matter. Our words have the potential to influence and change lives. There is power in words.

The scriptures strengthen that idea:

In the beginning was the WORD.

Alma counsels us to test our faith by planting a seed, and that seed is THE WORD.

Captain Moroni called his people to action and saved their lives through a few powerful words written on his coat and held up as a banner.

And in the New Testament, the armor of God is described with a list of DEFENSIVE items: the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, and so on.

Only ONE item is OFFENSIVE, which to me means that it can have an EFFECT. It’s the one item that isn’t reactionary but can take ACTION.

What is it? The sword is the word of God.

Of course we aren’t channeling the word the God onto our keyboards. But I believe that literature has a place in the plan and that God is willing and eager to help us with our writing.

Back in 1996, way before blogs and online newspapers and e-books, at a time when we had fewer things to choose in the art and entertainment we consume, Elder M. Russell Ballard said:
With so many choices for viewers and listeners, the artistic works of the Latter-day Saint … must be excellent to set them apart from the worldly and the mediocre. People deserve alternatives of quality, the kind that Latter-day Saints are capable of providing through the influence of the Holy Spirit.
And further:
If we are determined to live by Heavenly Father’s plan … we will use the inspiring opportunities around us to increase our talents.
Brother Whitney prophesied that we would have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. Today, those two writers are taught in the classroom as classics, but in their lifetimes, they were the poplar genre writers. They were the Stephenie Meyers, the Orson Scott Cards, the Shannon Hales, the James Dashners, the David Farlands, the Brandon Sandersons of their day.

The prophecy continued, saying, “In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in the earth.”

So has the prophecy been fulfilled? Do we have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own?

Some may say yes. Others say no.

I don’t think we can know, not in our lifetimes. I have a suspicion that maybe we do have Miltons and Shakespeares—and more than two—but we can’t know who they are.

And we won’t know for another 400 years, when, from the other side, we’ll take a peek through the veil to see whose books are still being read, whose words are still influencing lives long after we’ve passed.

I’ll say one more thing, and then we’ll move on to the actual awards, which is why you’re here.

After the first gala, I wrote out my impressions on my blog. Here’s a snippet from that post:
Our table was dead center at the back of the room. As a result, I had a great view of the large crowd that had gathered for the awards. A lot of amazing people were inside those four walls. Some I’d go so far as to call legends.
As the evening wore on, I felt a surging sense of awe and privilege. That night represented the beginning of something very big. And I got to be a small part of it. I even got to be involved a tiny bit in its creation. I was sitting in the middle of a piece of history. The thought was overwhelming. I felt so honored to be in the company of those around me, to bear witness to the birth of something so much bigger than myself, something meaningful, something that I believe Orson F. Whitney himself smiled down upon.
I still believe that Orson F. Whitney is aware of the program bearing his name. And I believe that he’s pleased with the program and pleased to see the literature of his people continue to grow and expand in both quantity and, more importantly, in quality every year.

It may be a small thing to most people, but my belief that he’s looking down on all of this was reinforced when I learned that tonight’s gala falls on the 84th anniversary of Orson F. Whitney’s death.

Click here to see the list of winners

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

L. M. Montgomery and My Truth about Depression

A lot has been written and posted and discussed about mental illness over the last few years, at least in my little circle of the world. To some extent, a lot of the openness was sparked by fellow writer and friend Robison Wells being public with his battle with several mental illnesses.

Then came the Altered Perspectives anthology, spearheaded by Brandon Sanderson and Robison's brother, Dan Wells, to help raise funds that would aid the Wells family, who were struggling financially due to no fault of their own.

I was honored to be able to be part of the anthology (my name is listed first on the back, which is cool, but that's only because the names are in alphabetical order). In the book, readers can find a brief glimpse into how mental illness has been part of my life, followed by an excerpt from a novel that will be coming out later this year. Writing that tidbit about mental illness turned out to be hard for me, not because of the topic, but because of the space constraints.

I've long wanted to talk about my experience with depression, specifically because it's so different from what people typically envision depression to look like. It's different from how a lot of other fellow depression sufferers describe it. Yet I know that I'm not the only person who experiences depression the way I do, so I hope I can show and explain in a way that helps with understanding.

I think I finally found a way to explain: by telling about the author who has had the single biggest influence on me and her personal, lifelong struggle with depression.

As long-time readers know, I'm a bit of an L. M. Montgomery nut. I own every book she ever wrote, collections of her hundreds of short stories, all five volumes of her annotated journals, her autobiography, a CD filled with photographs from her life, a first edition Windy Poplars, and more. But I'm not an Anne nut, something I wrote about a long time ago (see that last link). Rather, I've admired and connected with the author from the first day I opened one of her books back when I was thirteen.

Now that I've read her journals, however, I connect with her on a different level, and a lot of that has to do with her mental and emotional inner life.

What a lot of her fans don't know—and what many would be shocked to learn, considering how happy her books are—is that she fought deep depression and an anxiety disorder.

Yet to look at her during her lifetime, you never would have known. She put on a happy face. She went out in public and did her duties and acted the part everyone expected of her. She played the gracious guest. Then she'd go home and collapse. She'd walk the floor all night, unable to sleep. She'd wish for death. She had more than one nervous breakdown.

To make matters even more challenging, her husband, Ewen Macdonald, had mental illness too. He certainly had some kind of depression—religious melancholia, they called it at the time, as he was convinced that he was predestined to go to hell. He was a minister, which made this belief and his attacks that much worse. Some theorize that he had some type of bipolar disorder in addition to depression. Whatever it was, the medical community back then did not have the ability to diagnose or treat it.

Keep in mind that Ewen Macdonald was a minister. His salary was paid and his position retained only if his congregation remained happy with the performance of his duties. And that meant the congregation's belief that their leader was strong and stable. If they ever learned that he was really a complete wreck, that he was mentally and emotionally unstable and therefore unable to help others through their spiritual journeys because he thought he was personally going to hell? Well, the congregation would simply have found another minister.

That would have spelled the end of his career.

Quite literally, to keep her husband's career alive, LMM, as the minister's wife, had to cover for him and pretend that all was well. No matter how miserable she was, she had to go out to community and church events, looking chipper and acting strong and everything she didn't feel while Ewen stayed home with a handkerchief tied around his head due to a headache brought on by his mental misery. There he sat in a corner, wailing. From her journals, it sounds like most of his public appearances during bad spells were Sunday sermons. His wife took care of the rest, protecting him from prying eyes that would have destroyed the family's reputation.

LMM couldn't confide in anyone, or the secret would get out. Yet she was utterly miserable for years on end. Her anxiety and depression worsened and ate at her, yet she had to keep playing the role of the perfect minister's wife.

Her writing was the one escape she had from the bitter realities of her life and her own mental illnesses.

And no one around her had a clue. 

Things got worse for her. Ewen's episodes grew longer, deeper, and more frequent. He eventually ended up spending time in a mental hospital (during which, if memory serves, LMM made up excuses as to where he was). Eventually, he could no longer function as a minister at all. His career was over.

At that point, LMM was world famous, and for a spell, she was able to support the household with her own income. But then the Great Depression hit. When people can hardly buy food, they certainly aren't spending money on books, so in spite of her fame, her income plummeted. As the sole breadwinner, and with far less income than ever, she struggled to make ends meet. She had other problems as well, some due to the painful choices of her son Chester. And Ewen continued to get worse.

Yet she had to keep going. So she did. I'm sure that she would have preferred to sit in a corner and wail like Ewen did. But that wasn't an option for her. Someone had to keep moving, paying the bills, being a parent, and attending to her career as best she could. If she didn't keep stepping up, everything would fall apart for her, her husband, and their sons.

Eventually, in the spring of 1942, she reached her limit and fell apart one last time. So much weighed on her, and I'm sure that World War II was part of her stress, as World War I troubled and worried her deeply. In April of that year, she died, quite possibly after deliberately taking an overdose of medication. Whether it was deliberate or not, the note found on her nightstand is revealing:
I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.
I can't help but see the juxtaposition between such utter misery and despair in someone outwardly functional and apparently happy (and famous!). I'll repeat the most telling sentence, with some important emphasis:
My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it.
I bring all of this up to show that depression doesn't necessarily mean that the sufferer is lying in bed all day, unable to get up. It doesn't mean that the person sits on the couch for weeks at a time, watching television but unable to do the dishes while life passes them by.

Depression can mean all of those things. I know people for whom that is their depression experience. And it tends to be the image most people have in their heads when they picture depression. They never think that the woman over there who is showered and dressed and behaving professionally and talking animatedly could be suicidal.

Many years ago, Oprah interviewed an actress who talked about a major bout of depression. In her case, she couldn't get out of bed except for work. She went to work, did her job (acting the role of not depressed on set, even off camera), and then she went home and back to bed as soon as she could.

Oprah was confused. She asked how, if this actress had really been so depressed, she could even get out of bed to go to work. As an interviewer, Oprah usually showed a lot of insight, but in that moment, she revealed a big blind spot. I knew firsthand what she didn't grasp at all: functional depression is dark and ugly and powerful, and it's real. That actress had to go to work. She had to. So she did. That didn't mean she didn't also suffer terribly.

Functional depression is my experience too. Some people consider functional depression to be "low-grade" depression, but I can tell you with no uncertainty that it can be every bit as brutal and devastating as other kinds. (Low-grade nothing; don't get me started.)

The truth is that I have battled depression in some form most of my life. Yet I get out of bed in the morning. Not because I'm not depressed, but because I have to get up; my children are counting on it. I shower and get dressed and go out into public when needed, and I act as if all is well. Because I have to.

(It's not always an act, but I'd bet money on times when I've been in a very, very black place, that most people have been quite sure I was totally fine and happy.)

Here's the truth: Wearing mascara doesn't mean I'm not depressed. My kids are fed and get to school on time (okay, most mornings), and they wear clean clothes. None of that means that their mother doesn't battle significant depression. I go to their events with a smile. That doesn't mean I don't have depression or social anxiety. (I deal with both.)

During some periods, I've kept moving and doing because that was the only thing I could do. I had to, like the actress Oprah couldn't understand. A lot has to be done, and I am the person who has to do it. Sometimes I've resented that fact, but even so, during the rough times, I drag one leaden foot in front of the other through the darkness, even when I feel sure that the light will never come again.

Of course, the darkness does end. But that's hard to remember when the black dog is hanging on your back with its claws deep in your skin as it growls ugly things in your ear.

During those times, I keep moving, yes. But I move like a robot, trying not to think too much, drowning in feelings of despair. Writing has always been the one place I could escape, if briefly.

But every time I've been so low that I wondered why I had to keep living, the rest of the world saw a functional, healthy person.

Another significant difference in my depression: When I'm in the throes of the battle, I don't feel bad or sinful.

Instead, I feel as if, even if I were to be perfect in every way, it still wouldn't be enough. I feel irrelevant. As if I could vanish from the face of the earth, and no one would notice.

Depression makes me feel like I have to keep working no matter what, because that's the only way to ever mean something or get anywhere. It's the only way to be relevant, but it's a losing battle. So I run and run and run but advance mere inches, then fall behind by yards. Even without progress, I don't stop running. I can't stop running. But no matter how hard and fast and long I run, it's never enough. It doesn't matter.

For me the last part of LMM's note jumps off the page because it describes the run, run, run, but never get anywhere feeling that has been a huge part of my life:
What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.
Those words make me ache. Yes. I feel the same way. 

I'm not always in that dark place. Compared to many years of my life, I'm much, much better most of the time. But I still have periods where the black dog shows up, and I'm back to dragging my feet one step and then another until I'm running frantically on what feels like a hamster wheel going nowhere, because I have to.

I may look fine. A good chunk of the time, I am fine. Not always, though. Most people, not even close friends, will know when I'm putting on a Stepford act to keep from shattering into a million pieces.

That right there is part of what makes any mental or emotional disorder so hard for everyone involved: you can't see it

Even if you're looking for it, the person suffering may be hiding it in an effort to cope. And they may be very good at hiding it. None of us can know who is suffering and who is totally fine.

It's easy to assume from Facebook status updates and witty tweets that the people behind them live a charmed existence. I heard Person A get snarky about Person B's feeling down. A scoffed, thinking B had a perfect life. In that case, as in so many others, I happened to know that A was living a life many people would yearn for, yet A couldn't see it. I have a suspicion that A has depression too. Maybe they're both doing their best to cling to life at all.

So let's be kind. Let's have compassion. Let's give one another the benefit of the doubt. Let's get rid of the jealousy that poisons and has us judging and categorizing.

You never know who is fighting a battle, who is wounded. Let's assume everyone is dealing with a heavy burden, whether it's the black dog or something else.

Even when they look "fine." Sometimes, especially then.

And often, you'll be right.

If you've made it this far, thank you. On Thursday, May 7, I'm part of the northern Utah Listen to Your Mother night of readings. (Think TED talks about motherhood.) It's at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi. I've heard all of the readings, and they're all wonderful. Some are hilarious. Some are tearjerkers. Some make you think. You can get tickets HERE