Welcome to the second email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. This email focuses on the essay that establishes the core theme of the collection, and the only essay that’s printed out of the order it was written/presented: Chapter 1, Liberating Form.
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of this email and the discussion post for it can be found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark presents the key theme of his collection—form is liberating, whether that’s in art or the LDS Church, and that the liberation of form allows us to create better works of art and, hopefully, richer, better lives than if it didn’t exist. He does this by relating two personal anecdotes and analyzing two works of literature. He also notes that form is not enough. We must provide energy and meaning to the form.
Best Lines: (after explaining how no form can “liberate energy not available to it”) “This again is the burden of both Christ and freedom (I see the two as closely related): We supply the energy.” (11)
Why: the notion that form or structure or a certain set of limits actually facilitates the creation of art and the living of (an exemplarly) life is quite common. This notion of Christ and freedom being closely related and also being a burden within the overall context of the essay strikes me as a more unique point (Clark looks more closely at the idea of freedom—of agency—in a later essay).
Mormon Lit Recommendation: Clark uses the sonnet as one of his examples of how form can liberate. A classical example, but liberating forms aren’t confined to structure. One of the more interesting experiments I’m aware of in Mormon literature is when the Mormon Lit Blitz held a contest that not only had its’ traditional 1,000 word limit, but also asked writers to “draw on their many cultures’ myths to make a Mormon story.”
Other Recommendation: Sometimes form isn’t structure, but point of view, or the threading through of certain images, or the repetition of phrases and words, or a rhetorical situation. Pereira Declares: A Testimony by Antonio Tabucchi (English translation by Patrick Creagh) is a fascinating character study of a pre-WWII writer and minor intellectual living in Portugal. It resonates even more now than it did when I first read it more than two decades ago. Here’s the marketing copy: “Pereira is an aging, overweight journalist who has failed to notice the menacing cloud of fascism over Salazarist Portugal, until one day he meets an aspiring young writer and anti-fascist. Breaking out of his apolitical torpor, Pereira reluctantly rises to heroism.”
William Update: I am currently working on a project with a specific form that I hope proves liberating: a novella about a female Mormon academic whose initial tenure application is rejected by UW-Madison, and so, partly because she is intrigued, and partly because she needed a prod to visit, she flies to Utah to interview for a tenure track position at Utah Valley University, give a presentation at BYU, and connect with some friends and family. The form I’m using is that of a typical LDS sacrament meeting. So an incident on the flight out is the prelude music. Her meeting with a BYU associate dean is the announcements, her BYU presentation on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels is the administration of the sacrament, etc. I don’t know yet if it’s going to work, but so far I’m enjoying working within the form.
Correction: In last week’s email, I said my forthcoming story collection had 18 stories—it’ll actually be 17. I forgot that one of the stories that I was considering including in the collection will have a different fate. More news on that soon, hopefully.
As I re-read “Liberating Form,” I was struck less this time by the overall argument, which I’m now very familiar with, and more by the way it was delivered. So it seems fitting to me that we start by taking a look at the structure of the essay.
Two Personal Anecdotes
Clark gives a fireside at a pottery class on a trip to Hobble Creek Canyon
Clark and his son Harlow share stories and talk together as part of a structured fathers and sons outing activity
Two Literary Works
the sonnet “Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought” by X. J. Kennedy
the short story “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor
Analysis of the Sonnet
Initial Point About Form: The Anecdotes
Analysis of the Short Story
Second Point About Form: Requires Energy
The LDS Church As Framework
The LDS Church As Ultimate Form
Notice how Clark braids the personal and the artistic/analytical to make a point about how form can be liberating and then adds a bit of nuance to that (the point about investing energy into form) and then relates that all back to the LDS Church and, finally, ends with testimony. And more specifically, how each of the strands that are braided are directly related to how Clark views both art and his faith.
Seeing this laid out in the form that it is (and other readers may see the essay’s structure as slightly different than this), I’m struck by how much more it is about the LDS Church than it is about the creation of art and how he uses the latter as an argument for the former. Part of that is because Clark sees the two as interrelated. Part of it is because of his audience. Part of it is because I was more drawn to thinking about the artistic part rather than the Church part, which I think has grown more complicated than since Clark wrote the essay. For example, that he uses paying tithing, the Word of Wisdom, and sexual morality as the examples of the form/boundaries the Church provides very much illustrates that he’s writing in a different era.
In fact, one of the key ways things have changed in the past 30 years is that many members of the Church (or former members) are much less concerned about being required to live by certain rules, and much more concerned that how their identity fits into the forms the LDS Church sets. For quite a few, it seems like those identities don’t fit at all. And I’m not just talking about sexuality and gender here. Like the hell in Kennedy’s sonnet, I fear that we’re often so narrow and mechanistic about what the “correct” form of the Church is that active Church members needlessly alienate individuals, especially young individuals. There’s some irony in Clark using a story about a tattooed man in an essay that seems mainly geared towards young, active LDS Church members.
I’d also note that Clark (this will continue to be the case—and so is something to talk about in the future) uses very traditional texts and genres in his examples of art. The sonnet is a lovely form. But anyone who has edited a literary journal will have stories of submissions that come in that use a more traditional, more strict form that show how such forms can be old vessels that aspiring writers use thinking that adherence to the form is what matters. That by creating something with that form, they have then created something that is good. I suppose the same metaphor could extend how some members approach their LDS Church practices.
Whether or not you buy the way Clark connects the way literary form can liberate creativity with the way the LDS Church can also liberate creativity and meaning, I think one of the key strengths of this essay is the way that it notes that form is only liberating if energy is invested into that form. I will admit that in prior readings of this essay I’ve glossed over the two personal anecdotes Clark shares. Re-reading it this time, I can see how important they are to Clark, and how they spurred the thinking that led to him writing the essay. I’m often less willing to invest energy and meaning into occasions and opportunities than I should be.
I want to end by talking about this notion of liberating form in relation to creating Mormon art. No matter what kind of Mormon you are, I am, we are, I think we too often fret about the forms and what they will or won’t result in. I think we don’t expend enough energy trying to innovate new forms. I think we too often forget the innovations and struggles of prior Mormon artists. I think that too often we invest energy into forms (read this especially as genres and audiences) that don’t allow us to more fully express our Mormonism. I think this lack, this cultural malnourishment harms us all.
Because here’s what I have experienced over the past decade of trying (for better and worse) to write Mormon fiction: there’s no substitute for, no liberation like pouring all of your Mormon self into the right artistic project for you. By the same token, there’s nothing like when you encounter a work of Mormon art someone else has poured their Mormon self into and finding that it unlocks something in you.
Thanks for reading!
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