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

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