Author grateful for conflict with LDS Church
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Artists nearly always come into conflict with powerful institutions,
especially religious ones. And that's not all bad, according to
novelist Brian Evenson.
"When you're writing or painting or composing, when you're deeply
engaged in the act itself, that has to come first, above everything
else," Evenson said today during a session at the annual Sunstone
Symposium. "What you do, what God you serve at other times is up to
you, but if you can't give yourself to your art at that time, your art
will never be as good as it can be."
Evenson knows the conflict firsthand.
In 1994, Evenson had a wife, two children and was in his first
year teaching at Brigham Young University. After reading selections
from his just-published anthology of short stories, Altmann's Tongue,
a student in one of his classes wrote an anonymous letter to an LDS
general authority. The letter accused Evenson of "promoting incest and
cannibalism, of corrupting the youth, and of writing the sort of book
that was the opposite of what a Mormon should write."
His dean asked Evenson to defend himself in a letter back and
seemed to support him, but included a memo to administrators that
"'Brian" knows that this book is unacceptable coming from a BYU
faculty member and that further publications like it will bring
Actually, Evenson thought no such thing.
He left BYU voluntarily to teach at Oklahoma State University,
where he remained for four years. In 1999 he moved to University of
Denver, where he was the director of creative writing. He now teaches
in the creative writing program at Brown University. He got divorced
and wrote six more books.
"I feel that the Mormon church did me a favor by putting this
pressure on me. It made me think carefully about every word I was
writing and made me committed to every word," he said. "It tightened
my sense of style. I knew that I could be made to suffer for what I
wrote and that made it feel like it mattered."
For a while after leaving Utah, Evenson continued to participate
in weekly LDS services, but slowly drifted away from the faith. His
marriage ended, in part, over this. In 2000, he asked to have his name
removed from the church's rolls.
"This was a terrifying thing for me to do, and it was incredibly
hard," he said.
Such a final step was necessary, he felt, not because of profound
disagreement with doctrines or moral differences, but because he
needed an irrevocable separation for his writing.
"If you decide to stand up for your own beliefs in the face of
your religion, you will lose," Evenson concluded. "But it's worth
losing, and that willingness to stand up even if you know you can't
win does something to you that it's hard to get any other way."