Nonfiction reader Alex Carroll recently had this exchange with Issue #38 featured writer Shaun Anderson. Here’s what he had to say about how journaling informs his writing, how he navigates the line between fact and fiction, what he’s working on next, and more.
What compelled you to write “Spiritual Dissonance?”
“Spiritual Dissonance” grew out of a memoir class I took the final semester of my undergraduate degree. Throughout the semester, we had the opportunity to interact with several different memoirs, including Deborah Tall’s A Family of Strangers and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. For the final project, we were asked to respond to the art that we had spent the semester exploring in any way we wanted. Through reading these beautiful pieces, I felt like I had learned the tools that would enable me to explore my time in Laguna Hills.
I’ve always wanted to write about my mission. When I more publicly came out after my mission, I abandoned the parts of me that were too connected with the LDS Church, but that also meant that I lost the things I loved about myself as a missionary. I lost the hope that people could learn to be kind and change. I lost the assurance that my life had meaning. I lost the strength to cope with people who disappointed or hurt me. “Spiritual Dissonance” is an attempt to reach back through the years to the biggest, best parts of me to reclaim them as my own.
What do you hope readers take away from your essay?
The first time I talked to my mother about dating men, I expressed doubt that I would find another gay man. She looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t you think this is the answer to your prayers, like God is telling you that you shouldn’t date men?”
I hope that my readers can understand that nothing is that simple. I circle around that question my mother asked, and I think “Spiritual Dissonance” is the only answer I can give. I don’t know if God answered any of my prayers, but there was that moment on the corner of Alicia Parkway and Wilkes Place where I realized I was lovable for who I am. That feels like an answer that the God I want to believe in would give.
I hope that somewhere among the readers of this essay is a mother who wants to ask her son that question, and I hope this essay stops her. I hope that this essay provides a perspective into the worlds of gay men who become Mormon missionaries. I can’t speak for all of those men, but I know that I’m not alone. I hope that my essay helps build understanding between the gay men who feel like they have no place within the Mormon church and those who can’t comprehend leaving. Most importantly, I hope that somewhere there’s a gay man who reads my essay and chooses to live because he knows he is not alone.
Your essay relies on your entries from your mission journal as a narrative source. In what way does journaling contribute to your writing process overall?
I set a goal at the beginning of this year to write at least three pages in my journal every day. I’ve failed, but having that requirement to write each day helps me find the tensions in my life, the fragmented pieces of myself that I’ve neglected that need to be reclaimed. Sometimes my journal acts as a filter. When I have thoughts that I can’t shut down, I journal until those thoughts run out of steam and I can work on the project that I actually want to be working on. Other times my journal becomes a place where I can craft rough drafts. My journal also acts as a place to revise.
After I write an essay, I’ll go through my journal and pick apart the things that are and are not working in the essay. Then I’ll start writing different ideas I want to try as I revise to make the weaker parts pull their weight. Sometimes this means that I’ll journal for a few days about the colors in the essay and what work their doing, and potential ways to make them do more work. Other times I’ll journal about the white space and what that white space is trying to express. In a lot of ways, my journal is my best friend throughout the entire writing process.
How might you suggest that new writers incorporate journaling into their writing practice?
In my first creative nonfiction class, my professor assigned us to write in our journals for twenty minutes a day. I think the most important thing is the routine. There are days when all you can think to do in your jornal is complain: your roommate’s dog pooped all over the house, your husband didn’t wash his breakfast dishes today, your friend is being really passive-aggressive, and you’re seriously reconsidering that friendship. It doesn’t matter if the journaling work is literary every day, just meet the page every day and allow yourself to freewrite.
How did you navigate revealing the intimate moments of your own life in this essay?
Vulnerability is what allows us to reach out and connect with others. Since so much of “Spiritual Dissonance” is about the lack of connection and the emptiness of that isolation, I knew that the essay needed to vulnerable, so that piece of myself I was trying to reclaim could find connection and healing. As Jennifer Sinor says in her interview with Mud Season Review, “vulnerability is not an option for a writer.”
There is a lot of talk about truth, and the line between fact and fiction, when it comes to creative nonfiction. What advice would you give to creative nonfiction writers on how to walk that line effectively and honestly in their writing?
I’ve had many discussions with my writers’ group about this. I don’t have any solid answers. I believe that genres are the agreement we’re making with our audience. Every fiction story has immense amount of truth behind it. Every nonfiction essay has been shaped and molded by the writer, whether intentionally or unintentionally, which distorts the truth of the moment. However, if you choose to label yourself as a nonfiction writer, you are making an agreement with your audience that you will do everything you can to capture the Truth of what you write. You owe your audience your research, you owe your audience vulnerability—even if that doesn’t always make you look like the hero—you owe your audience as much of the picture as you can provide. Let the real truth shape your work. It’s the agreement you made with your audience when you chose to write creative nonfiction.
Writing is a frequent tool employed during processes of emotional and spiritual growth. To what extent does writing complement your faith journey? That is, how does writing function as part of your discernment process?
Writing has been a means to line up different narratives side-by-side and ponder how I fit into them. I spent my two-year mission reading magazines, scriptures, and books that supported one outlook on life. My journal entries from that time are filled with attempts to try to make myself fit that perspective.
There’s a poem in one of my mission journals that’s entitled “Would You Love Me If You Knew,” which is a very melodramatic poem about how scared I was that I would never fit into this perspective. Coming home from my mission, I started reading other perspectives again. One of the first books I read was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which doesn’t explicitly describe homosexuality, and doesn’t even have happy endings for the arguably gay characters, but it was refreshing to see a character that reminded me of myself be condemned for something other than his homosexuality. I started reading more and more works with gay characters, and while most of them experience some sort of tragedy, my journal entries started tracking where and when they started moving toward the final tragedies. Often the tragedies were results of things besides their homosexuality. As I read more and wrote about the things I read I began to craft my own narrative. I read books by men who pursued relationships with men and still maintained faith in God. I read works that condemned those men. Writing allowed me to sift through all the competing narratives and find the pieces that rang true to me. I needed to read to hear the narratives, but I needed to write to explore how each narrative related to me.
“Spiritual Dissonance” is written in a style that incorporates lists, prose, and a deliberate use of white space. What advice do you have for beginning writers on how to develop their own style?
Read as much as you can, and read as many different writing styles as you can. This essay would not exist if I hadn’t read a varied selection of different memoirs, so I could hear the voices that spoke to me. I loved how Deborah Tall used white space to show the things that couldn’t be expressed in words. I can’t express how empowering it was to watch another queer writer explore her experience of coming to terms with herself in her journals in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I honestly think that the best way to develop your style is to read, and as you do you’ll see writers do things that astound you, you’ll see writers do things you would never want to do. You claim the parts that speak to you.
Since Mud Season has grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: what is your best—or worst—workshop experience?
This past year, I was invited to be a part of a workshop group with a handful of the classmates I spent my entire undergraduate career admiring and idolizing. I’ve never had a more positive experience with workshopping. At first I felt like the outlier, because I looked up to these other writers so much, but each of us spent time in the workshop discussing our writing insecurities, and building each other and each other’s work up. I’ve never had a workshop group like it before, where each writer was able to exist vulnerably, without competition, fully able to ask for the help that they needed.
What book(s) are you reading now? How do your reading interests influence your writing process?
Currently I’m reading a collection of poetry by Kenneth Rexroth and I’m working on A Tale of Two Cities. Every work of art I come across, especially the books I read, are part of an enormous universal conversation and story. I want to be a part of that conversation, so I read, and as I read I can find the pieces where I have something to say. As I’ve been reading Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry, I’ve been paying particular attention to the things he has to say about love and the ways he says it. Rexroth joined the universal conversation about love, and I admire his voice, and want to see the places my own voice and story could interact with what he has to say.
What is your a favorite place/space to write?
It depends on what I’m trying to write. When I write nonfiction I tend to find somewhere where I can listen to Taylor Swift and Neon Trees without judgment. I spent a lot of time after I came out driving around blasting those two artists, so something about their music helps me reconnect with that time in my life where I allowed myself to be more vulnerable than I ever had been. Their music reminds me that I’ve survived allowing myself to be vulnerable, so I can meet the page with whatever I need to, and I can survive.
When I write fiction, I tend to find a place where I can listen to movie soundtracks. Pride and Prejudice, How to Train Your Dragon, and Stardust are particularly enchanting soundtracks. It doesn’t really matter where I write, as long as I have the chance to be surrounded by music that inspires me.
What are you working on now?
I’ve spent the last year working on a young adult fantasy series that I’ve been writing, rewriting, and rewriting since I was thirteen. The characters have lived inside of my mind for too long, and since I’ve spent the past year outside of school, it’s felt like a golden opportunity to finally push past the first section that I keep rewriting and start seeing where these characters take me.