It has been almost a month since I posted. I was travelling. Here are three things I will talk about: (1) Iceland. (2) Travel writing. (3) Mormon travel writing, which essentially means books about missions.
Iceland in One Paragraph
Shady rental car outfits. Inscrutable European road signs. Sneaky camera speeding tickets (beware of Selfoss). Waterfalls. More waterfalls. Awe-inspiring waterfalls. Sheep wandering on roads. More sheep. Highly volcanic. Sweet chili pepper Doritos. RIB boat out of Husavik for a kickass whale watching trip. Nothing is open until ten o’clock. One lane roads. One lane bridges. One lane tunnels. Puffins. Everything is expensive. The only ice in Iceland is at Costco. Extreme and thrilling gravel roads (Oxi Pass). Lots of Germans, mostly older, all nice. Great fish and chips. You can buy almost anything at an Icelandic gas station. Free car wash. Everyone speaks English and they’re all nice. There is only one Iceland.
Travel writing is a well-defined genre that doesn’t generally become interesting until you hit the second half of your life. I think that’s because you need to have travelled a bit yourself to find the genre interesting. It’s fun to read a book about a place you have visited. And by the second half you realize you can’t go everywhere, but you can always read a book about those places you wish you could go but can’t manage to get to.
What travel writing isn’t: an objective, broad, and detailed account of the history, culture, and language of a particular country. What it is: a series of encounters between the writer and various interesting individuals of the country visited. These aren’t generally politicians or celebrities but often just regular folks: a taxi driver, a waitress or bartender, a student, a writer, a mother with children, a police officer, a homeless person. Like essays, travel writing gets to the general (observations on a country, a land, and a people) through the specific (the small collection of people profiled in the book). There are, of course, accounts of visits to museums or landmarks and the like. People, places, and things, but mostly people. Here are some examples, some of which you have probably read yourself:
The Sea and the Jungle, by H. M. Tomlinson. A classic. Fatu Hiva, by Thor Heyerdahl, about his pre-Kon Tiki adventures in French Polynesia. Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It, by Mark Twain, with the second featuring some pleasantly hilarious Mormon encounters. (Twain, a humorist, obviously exaggerated his accounts in some places, not the general method for travel writing.) Burmese Days by George Orwell is a novel but reads like a travel book. Here’s one I read just last month as preparation for the trip to Iceland: Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, by Sarah Moss, a university English lit instructor who took her husband and two young kids to Iceland for a one-year teaching contract. From it I learned that I did not want to brave the busy roads and crazy roundabouts in Reykjavik, the capitol. These are books that I have read. There are many other books in the genre and several fine movie adaptations, such as Under the Tuscan Sun. Got any favorites of your own that you want to add to the list?
Here’s the thing. Travel writing isn’t just a collection of vignettes and encounters. The writer has something to say, something worth writing about. There is something to say about the country and people visited, but also of course something about the home country and one’s own people. The things you like and the things you dislike about the visited country reflect back on things you like and don’t like, and maybe now understand better, about your own country. It’s nice you can wash your car for free at most N1 stations in Iceland. It’s annoying you have to pay two dollars to use the restroom at some landmarks and attractions. The fish and chips are outstanding, everywhere. But you won’t get enough ketchup for your fries unless you flash a handgun. And so forth. (Sorry, I didn’t stay long enough to have any bold, insightful observations to share, just the little stuff.) There are three LDS branches in Iceland, each in a different town with its own building. They all meet at 11 am, which is just so Iceland. We didn’t manage to visit a branch on Sunday or else my post would have been something about the pleasure of attending church in foreign countries. Maybe next time.
Here’s the other thing about travel writing. You have to be honest. If you bias your account to favor your home country and home people, that won’t be honest travel writing. It won’t be good travel writing. That holds for all writing, of course. Remember the advice Lester Bangs gave to young rock journalist William Miller: “Be honest and unmerciful.” You will lob both praise and criticism at the visited country and, by reflection and through commentary, back at the home country. If you can’t be an honest and unmerciful critic when it is called for … don’t write. Which brings us to Mormon writing.
Mormons are nice. Maybe too nice. I’ll bet you’ve said to someone at church “nice talk” or “nice lesson” when that wasn’t the case at all. But that’s just being polite and encouraging, knowing the speaker didn’t volunteer and the teacher was doing her best, with little help from the curriculum materials. Writing is a different matter. Writing is serious business. (I sometimes reflect on the fact that the many blog posts I have authored will continue to circulate on the Internet for decades and possibly centuries after I am dead and buried.) Official LDS curriculum materials and official histories don’t even score well on simple candor and honesty: lots of questionable or plainly wrong interpretations are offered and summaries of sources are often askew, sometimes wildly so. The Gospel Topics Essays, the various historical topics and essays posted online the last few years, and the new four-volume history Saints are better, but hardly the gold standard. Even some very good LDS historians “pull their punches” as I call it, meaning they might be good at telling the nice episodes of LDS history, but they can’t quite give a full and honest account when recounting a more difficult LDS episode. The Mormon habit of making every story a morality tale and every narrative a didactic exercise (with the Church always right) plays into this, no doubt. To be fair, there are a few historians who do LDS history who are at the other end of the spectrum, fine at criticism but unable to give praise when it is due. It can be tough to find and hold the middle ground.
So … the narrower field of Mormon travel writing. There just isn’t much of that. The closest we come is the missionary account that some people write, generally a few years or a few decades after returning. All the weaknesses of LDS writing (too didactic, unable or unwilling to say anything negative about the Church or even see anything negative about the Church) carry over way too easily to the mission memoir. Add to this that the young missionary lives in the country and learns the language to a certain degree of fluency, but doesn’t really engage deeply with the culture or the country. Add to this the young age of LDS missionaries. Add to this the know-it-all mentality that comes so easily to missionaries who are reminded they go forth to teach, not to learn. Who doesn’t look back at their two years and say about many persons, events, and encounters, “Wow, now I understand ….”
Consider the short talk that all missionaries give to the ward upon their return. Think of it as a very brief verbal travel account. It’s always sugar coated. What is reported is selective to the point of being dishonest (because it would just be wrong to say something negative about missions or the Church, right?). It is the very opposite of “be honest and unmerciful.” Which is not to say that sacrament meeting is the right place to give an unvarnished account of the mission experience. But, you know, if you can’t write an honest book, don’t write. If you can’t give an honest talk, don’t speak.
Caveat: I hang my head in shame for not having read (yet) The Legend of Hermana Plunge, a missionary memoir authored by one of W&T’s own. I am fairly confident that the book avoids the characteristic weaknesses of the LDS missionary memoir genre as I presented them above. Those of you who have read it are welcome to confirm that in the comments.
So here is a challenge for readers: Say something honest about your mission. Something you didn’t put in your letters home and you wouldn’t mention in your homecoming talk. I’ll go first. I had two companions who became mentally ill while serving. One was close to being a sociopath and a real handful. After a couple of months I got him over to the Mission President and he was set to go home early (as we say so casually) … but the MP decided to give him one more chance and sent him back to me. Thanks, Prez. He was gone two weeks later. Last I heard he was an Evangelical minister in Utah. Go figure. A second missionary was a good guy, a convert who was a bit older than the average missionary, bright and engaged, but he spiraled into a state of paranoia bordering on being psychotic (people were after him, plots to kill the LDS leaders, etc.). He went home early and hopefully got some help. Another mission casualty.
The “something to say” from these episodes is this: Missionary life is challenging, mentally challenging. It’s tough, it’s stressful, and there are very few resources available to help young missionaries deal with those challenges. Discouragement and depression are common, and more serious conditions such as I encountered in these fellow missionaries are known to emerge under the stress of missionary service. Treatment in the field, even recognition of the nature of the problem, is almost unheard of. If you break a leg, they’ll get you to a doctor, but early recognition and proper response to serious psychological difficulties manifest by particular missionaries is simply not part of the program. That’s just one aspect of the overall mismanagement of the program and the missionaries. There is just a bit of improvement now compared to say forty years ago. Missionaries are allowed more frequent contact with family back home. New missionaries are screened for psych conditions and, if mild and treatable, they can still serve, probably in the States where there are resources to help them if needed. But once out in the field I think it’s sink or swim, the same old story.
So here’s your chance to shine in the comments. Pick one or more:
- Say something interesting about Iceland if you’ve ever been.
- Say something about your favorite travel book or movie, if you have one.
- Say something about The Legend of Hermana Plunge if you have read it.
- Say something honest about your mission.