Mormon Literature: It’s In the Mail

For the past few years, I have been making a documentary.  For the past few months, I have been doing all of the business associated with distributing that documentary, since we haven’t yet found a distributor we’re satisfied with.  I have actually been using a calculator, which thing I never would have supposed.  People think of me as a writer, but the only writing I’ve done for a few years has been in little blog posts, emails, and letters to missionaries.

The missionary I communicate with most often, a young man who was in our MTC branch when my husband and I served there, thanked me for the letters I had sent him and said, “It’s like you have written me a book.”   I told him that I HAD written him a book.  It was all in the mail.

I have to write.  It is my sanity.  With my main project being the documentary, that need found fulfillment in letters and emails to missionaries.  But it’s good stuff–not just what I’ve written but what I’ve received.  I will never publish the exchange of letters and emails, but years from now if somebody looks at my papers in the Marriott Library (where I’ll donate them), they will find these communications and learn more about my life than they ever would reading my fiction or essays.

In turn, I have been privileged to share the lives of ten missionaries in Africa.

This was in my email last week.  I will not reveal the missionaries’ names.

Last Saturday morning, resting trying to recover from my sickness, Elder C. stumbled to his bed. I asked how he was feeling. He said bad, so I asked him to take his temperature again. It was 40 C, or 104F. I called the doctor and we got him checked in. His fever rose to 104.5 before we got there, and I supported him up the six flights of stairs. He was immediately hospitalized and stuck with an IV to bring down the fever.

We spent ninety six hours together with him suffering a lot. I felt for him when they came in to inject him in the leg with a syrup-like substance, the needle being over two inches long. He squeezed my hand and curled in pain as they sent this medicine through his quad. It was a ten by ten room and I had a little cot to sleep on. I passed my time reading the four gospels and a large portion of Gordon B. Hinckley’s biography. We also had the Work and the Glory DVDs, which were interesting (that Ben Steed is as stubborn as an ox).

This time was a unique opportunity for me to really show my fraternal love to Elder C. It is rare that we are given opportunities to render this kind of service, so when it comes it is special. It was not a random, flowery occasion like a batch of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies or a shoe shine, but more of like doing everything for him he could not do himself: running his bath, tying the back of his robe, helping him into the bathroom by carrying his IV line, getting his books, etc. It was encompassing and significant for me.

I compare this to those rare occasions we have to show our faith. Normally, we demonstrate small acts of faith in our daily routines: praying, living the laws, studying scriptures, being kind, putting in an honest day at work, and nothing really demands too much out of the ordinary. But then there are those moments where we are put to the test. Will we take a possibly crippling risk to do the right thing, to stand up for something in the face of opposition and scrutiny? Are we willing to sacrifice what we have to help or save someone else? Or will we cower back to our sofa and ignore something that could have taken us, at least for a moment, to plane of greatness and confidence; to accomplish something of a deeper value, something that goes beyond an apple notebook or iphone.

I have witnessed this particular missionary go from wondering how he would survive his mission to this remarkable note.  He returns home in less than four months.

Here, I will make two observations: Note that he passed his time with the sorts of things we give AML awards to.  (Granted, we have never awarded Matthew, Mark, Luke or John any certificates, but we could change that…)  He found comfort in words and images.  They mattered in that 10 x 10 room.

Note also that his writing is quite wonderful.  In fact, there is a whole genre of fiction based on letters-epistolary fiction.  Reynolds Price’s Letter to a Man in the Fire is among my favorites, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Guernsey Potato Peel Literary Society.  It appears that the new film Dear John is structured around letters.  And we mustn’t forget C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.

I tell my students that every time they start an email or a journal entry, they should hear the clarion call to WRITE WELL.  Even when we find our time consumed in unexpected projects, or projects we have chosen but which have become larger than we anticipated, there is always time to write something well.  The missionary who wrote the email quoted above has only two hours, one day a week, to do all of his internet communication with friends and family.  No excuses for the rest of us. Yes, many of you should feel very guilty now.

Incidentally, that missionary is from California.  His companion is from Zambia.  The email, which reveals such affection between the two, says much about what a mission can mean and do for young people who choose to give it their all, how it can bond a “band of brothers.”  (Another missionary used that phrase in an email I got last week, and I offered him American candy if he could tell me which Shakespearean play it was from.  I even gave him a bit more of the quote: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”)

Band of brothers indeed.  There is still fertile ground for Mormon literature in the mission field-even if it comes through emails.

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4 Responses to Mormon Literature: It’s In the Mail

  1. Oh, I shouldn’t have said epistolary FICTION and then referred to _Letter to a Man in the FIre_, which is non-fiction. So many great letters. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" should be a must-read during Black HIstory Month.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Guilt? Did you just try to heap more guilt on Mormon writers? Egad, who has the tar? I’ll bring the feathers.

    My family teases the daylights out of me because my email and facebook messages are often freakin’ essays. I spend much too much time on stuff like this. But then I won’t be donating "my papers" to anyone. Not even my mom would want them.

    But, all kidding aside, writing well when we write anything–including email–is a great way to eek out some kind of writing time when we are crazy busy. (Pls refer to Jack’s last post.) Write to your spouse’s family, if they live out of town, and he/she will think you are wonderful. I still save all my letters. Call that my journal.

  3. Margaret says:

    Thanks, Lisa! (Btw, the only reason anyone would want my papers is because of the cool stuff I got while researching Blacks in the Church. There’s nothing all that special about JUST ME. But I have some cool stuff which belonged to other people.)

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    You are too modest, Margaret. But yes, I bet you do have some great stuff on that particular topic.

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