Eight or nine years ago I submitted an essay to Sunstone that began "One day my companion Sister Knight and I met a 'weird funky lady,' as I described her in my journal, who tried to explain to me her adoration of some reincarnated Buddhist monk." It did not begin "One day when I was a Mormon missionary, my assigned working partner or companion (to use the term we employed for said assigned working partners) Sister Knight and I met a 'weird funky lady,' as I described her in my journal (which I kept because doing so was a religious commandment I was obligated to obey because angels might some day quote from my journal if I said something inspiring), who tried to explain to me her adoration of some reincarnated Buddhist monk, a conversations many Mormon missionaries wouldn't have had because they generally talked to rather than listened to other people about religion."
It's a good thing the essay didn't begin with the second sentence I offer above, because that sentence sucks. But if I had submitted that particularly essay to a mainstream secular journal whose readers weren't necessarily familiar with Mormonism, I would have felt obligated to provide lots of background and context--maybe not in the first sentence, but certainly SOMEWHERE in the essay. Whereas I knew that as soon as a Mormon audience was informed that I had a companion named Sister Knight, readers would assume, correctly, that I was a woman somewhere in my 20s who had elected to serve a mission.
Despite or perhaps because of their self-proclaimed and cherished status as a peculiar people, Mormons hate to be misunderstood. As a result, when they talk about their religion, they explain A LOT. Sometimes--perhaps usually--they explain TO EXCESS.
Two groups especially prone to excessive explanations are missionaries and Mormon writers.
Missionaries indulge in excessive explanations 'cause it's sorta their job. The missionary discussions are rudimentary introductions designed to make people see the church the way it sees itself. The goal is not to intrigue or excite, but to inform, and to do so in a way that is dignified without being pompous (though an individual missionary can certainly make the message pompous with very little effort).
Mormon writers who take Mormonism as their subject matter indulge in excessive explanation because they want readers to understand not only Mormonism, but what Mormonism means to the people they're writing about. They believe--with some validity--that readers won't understand their work if they don't understand certain things about Mormonism. But I have come to believe that while some explanation is order, Mormon writers should strive always for the barest, skinniest minimum.
And then there is a third group of excessive explainers: Mormon writers who write about missions. They over explain more than anyone else I have encountered. They 'splain, and then they 'splain, and then they 'SPLAIN SOME MORE, JUST FOR FUN. Except by that point, it has stopped being fun--for the reader, at least.
Several years ago another Mormon writer and I thought it would be cool to put together an anthology of personal essays about missions. We put out a call for submissions and got LOADS of essays in response. A few were phenomenonally good; several were pretty great; most were mediocre; a few more were egregiously bad. But with very few exceptions, all of them contained too much exposition, too many foreign words or terms unique to Mormonism followed by parenthetical translations or glosses, and little wikipedia entries about Mormon doctrine, practice or culture.
It was PAINFUL to read essay after essay with the same problem. It was also very educational, because I suddenly realized how annoying it was when I did precisely those things in my own work.
I thought that including Chinese terms throughout my text gave it color, flavor. It might--but it's also precious and pretentious unless a term is actually relevant to the narrative or argument. In order to keep my eyes from glazing over, I started skipping over all foreign terms in the essays I read, whether they were Spanish, French, Chinese, Korean. And when I finished, I went through my own work and started getting rid of any foreign terms, unless I felt they were absolutely necessary to the intrinsic meaning of the text. I would never again throw one in just for "flavor."
And the mini wikipedia entries, the three paragraphs complete with footnotes--about baptism for the dead, or the MTC, how you fill out your papers before going on a mission, what happens when you get your call.... I mean, yes, it all really MATTERS--to us. It really, really, really MATTERS. A LOT. I want the people who read my work to understood, fully, why a call is called a call. But maybe they can sorta get it on their own. Maybe even though I care, they don't. Maybe if they have to wade through my explanation of what happens when someone, anyone gets a call, they'll lose interest in the still more important details of what happened when I got my call.
Certainly that happened with the essays I read: I became impatient with long passages about baptism in general and so didn't care as much when I got to the account of an individual baptism. It's true that I already knew all about the stuff being explained, which might have made me more impatient. But it's also true that I had an investment in the subject matter and a reason to continue reading that many readers don't. I really want to know how other people talk about their missions. I would LOVE an anthology full of thoughtful, interesting essays about the good, the bad, the ugly, the miraculous, the tedious, the heartbreak, of a mission. So if I gave up on work that tried to provide that, well, it means something.
My co-editor and I didn't abandon the project in that we both still think, theoretically, that it's a great idea for an anthology. But we just didn't get enough truly strong work to fill it. We could have devoted huge chunks of our life into reshaping the mediocre essays into pretty good ones, and at one point we actually intended to, but it didn't happen.
Shortly before Christmas I read a really great blog entry by Stephen Carter, the editor of Sunstone, at the Red Brick Store, about the myth of the writer genius (later revised into a piece about the author bunny). Stephen claimed that he learned all sorts of important things about story craft from reading one single book on screenwriting, a claim that intrigued me, so I put the title on my amazon.com wishlist, and someone bought it for me for Christmas.
And then it sat on my shelf, for almost six months. Last weekend I read it. And I'm here to agree with Stephen: Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee is a freaking great book, one I wish I had read not just when the postman dropped it off in January, but years ago. It's very wise, and I will reread it before very long, I think. A bit of advice that particular resonated with me is this:
Never include anything the audience can reasonably and easily assume has happened. Never pass on exposition unless the missing fact would cause confusion. You do not keep the audience's interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.... Reveal only that exposition the audience absolutely needs and wants to know and no more. (335-337, emphasis in original)
That is one thing we'll have to achieve in order for Mormon literature to grow up: we'll have to stop EXPLAINING and EXPOSING and DEFINING to excess. Yes, we'll have to do some a little explaining, a tiny bit of exposing, and of course we have to acknowledge how weird it is that "elder" means someone who is very, very young instead of really old. But I sincerely hope that eventually I will stop reading works that go "story, definition, story, wikipedia entry, story, wikipedia entry, different wikipedia entry, story."
I especially hope I'll stop writing work like that. It won't be easy. But I'm determined to try.