Years ago, when I was pursuing my undergrad degree, I studied English. I had planned since I read my first books to write them. I wrote stories all the time. I loved going to the theatre, and going to movies, but I didn’t think about writing for those media the way I thought about writing fiction. I ate books up as a kid. I have a distinct memory of a week in the first grade when my teacher sent me home with a new book every day, expecting me to read a chapter or section; but I would come back the next morning having read the whole book. Eventually she sent me to the library to pick out my own book to read while the rest the class worked through their readers. I remember that one of the books I read that week was Charlotte’s Web, and reading it had a profound impact on me. It was also during the first grade that I was introduced to storybook versions of stories that have stuck with me through my entire life and writing career—Helen Hoyt’s The Princess Kaiulani, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, adapted by Amy Ehrlich and illustrated by Susan Jeffers; The Story of Joan of Arc, by Maurice Boutet de Monvel. All these stories were powerful, and so were the illustrations—so much so that now I can look for them thirty years later on Amazon.com and recognize them. I remember reading these books over and over. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was another favorite; I came across an old, worn copy in a used bookshop in Iowa City and totally snapped it up.
The point is, my roots are in fiction. I learned theatre and film, and that’s where I hang out mostly, but fiction is where I started. Two fantastic things happened my senior year of undergrad: 1) I took a playwriting class from Elizabeth Hansen, which changed my life; 2) I took an advanced creative writing class from Leslie Norris, which was amazing. Just talking to that man was amazing. I still have the note he wrote in response to my final portfolio (I had written a play to read in class, which threw off the rest of the group—besides which, I didn’t know what I was doing yet). In that note, written in a distinctly broad hand, Professor Norris told me not to forget about my prose.
Well, Professor Norris, I’m sorry, but I did in fact forget about my prose. Sometimes I write my stage directions for plays to have a definite flow and narrative to them. But when did I last sit down and pen a piece of fiction? It’s been a pretty long time—so long that I’m embarrassed about it.
My good friends James and Nicole Goldberg have started a pretty nifty website, www.EverydayMormonWriter.com. The goal, as I understand it, is to post pieces of LDS fiction and poetry on a nearly daily basis. At the moment they are hosting a contest for short stories set in each of four centuries: 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd. With James’s encouragement, I wrote a short story based around a family history that has haunted me. I have since found the recorded history of the events on which the story is based, but I also have had a narrative in my imagination since my father first told me the story of Andrew and Annie Larson and their little boy Karl. The story is an adaptation of a memory of a verbal history—Ha! Say that five times fast. It’s not perfectly accurate in its portrayal of events, but it is dramatic, and it’s what I led myself to remember to be true as a child. Checking the historical account in my great uncle Andrew Karl Larson’s book The Red Hills of November, I think I have 85-90% of it down, which is pretty faithful. In this case, the story is more about the ghostliness than anything else, and that feels appropriate. I wasn’t there when these events happened, of course, but it’s strange; reading Annie’s recollection of these events in Uncle Karl’s book makes me think, “Hmm. I don’t recall it happening that way,” almost as if I’ve tricked myself into thinking I actually was there.
Anyway, my story, “Little Karl,” posted today, as the official opener for the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest. There will be a new story every day, 12 total, posting through October 27, with three finalists representing each century. At the end of the the contest, there will be a voting period wherein readers can choose their favorites. I’m really excited to be a part of this project. I’m looking forward to reading something new every day. Check out my story here: “Little Karl”. And maybe you should come back and vote for me later, because you love me.
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