I was initially reluctant when my dear friend and co-conspirator in CNF, Antonia Malchick, invited me to participate in the Writer’s Life Project blog hop, only because my life at the moment is in turmoil. But then I thought, you know what? I always say I don’t get invited to these reindeer games, so if I refuse to jump in now, I can never complain again. So here I am.
It’s perfect that Nia invited me, actually, because she has talked me off the ledge many times when I doubted myself or my work, something I am going through right now. She and I met through the daily #cnftweet micro-essay contest on Twitter, and I recognized her as a kindred spirit, someone who appreciates a deep plumb line. I mean, oh my god, she took on a sawmill apprenticeship to learn the skills of her pioneer ancestors. How freaking cool is that? She is an amazing writer and an even more amazing friend.
1) What am I writing or working on?
I am currently writing “Superman is my Temple Recommend,” a memoir about adopting a magical worldview while living as a gentile among the Mormons. It is part theodicy, part environmental memoir, and part grimoire, wherein Salt Lake City’s infamous air pollution, the Zion grid, Mormon forger and bomber Mark Hofmann, Gary Gilmore, Ronnie Lee Gardner, Hugh Nibley, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, David Copperfield, a local weather tower, and a cast of “missionaries” are colliding to cast a magic spell for atonement/at-ONE-ment.
Right now, I am working on the final section of the book entitled “Bone Lead Burden,” which combines epigenetics, air pollution chemistry, toxicokinetics of lead and methylmercury, astrological medicine, Saturn Death Cult cosmology, ancient magic, Biblical prophecies, Adam-God doctrine, blood atonement, radiocarbon science, my story of incest, and my attempt to resurrect my brother (through forging his confession) into an Augustinian theodicy or justification for evil and suffering.
All my life, strains of this theodicy have been crammed down my throat, and I decided, “What would happen if I took theodicy at face value and ran with it?” It has been triggering to say the least, but what better way to write an anti-theodicy than by following theodicy to its bitter end?
I say Augustinian, but I also wrestle with other strains of theodicy, such as Irenaeus, in which evil is “justified” for human development (a strain I see in Mormonism).
The book process has led me to take a polygraph, submit to hypnosis, learn how to manufacture inks and forge documents, and translate documents into Deseret Alphabet. I have discussed the nature of “testimony” with LDS missionaries, interviewed a key forensic document examiner from the Mark Hofmann forgery and bombing case, explored the inner workings of an air quality monitoring station, stood in line with Ordain Women to gain entry to the Priesthood Session at October 2013 General Conference (read about it here), sat in quiet contemplation at the grave site of Brigham Young, attended an ex-Mormon conference, learned ancient magic, visited Hofmann’s crime scenes, spent countless hours in Special Collections at BYU and U of Utah, filed more GRAMA and FOIA requests than I care to count, submitted to medical tests, and become a one-way pen pal with Mark Hofmann (he never writes back). Soon, I will volunteer to rescue fledgling peregrine falcons on Temple Square.
Probably the best way to learn about my engagement with the Mormon faith and my connection to Mark Hofmann is to listen to me on the Mormon Matters podcast: Engaging Mormonism from Outside the Fold.
I also have a number of shorter works on the burner, including an essay about loving a man who loves guns and something called “Retracting my Testimony,” which I am not ready to discuss.
Check out karriehiggins.com to find links to published essays and standalone parts of the book.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It depends on how you classify my “genre.”
If you mean how it differs from other creative nonfiction, then I would say my current work is more speculative and sometimes magical. In a recent standalone essay/chapter entitled “The 37 Miracles of Block 37,” I wrote a history of Library Square (aka Block 37) in Salt Lake City, but it reads less like a history than a prophecy, which is how it felt writing it, too–as though I was channeling it. It’s got an angel and Lucifer colluding to steal a skull, the Angel Moroni delivering a golden watch to the old police station, the Metropolitan Hall of Justice lighting the Jordan River on fire, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in the basement of the library as a secular Holy of Holies, Adam & Eve waving at us from Planet X as it falls into its sun … and more.
Do I believe those things happened? No. I’m not crazy. Do I believe they are true? Absolutely, yes I do. They speak a truth about the war between the secular and theocratic in Zion, about the psychogeographic battle between Library Square and Temple Square. And each and every event in that piece is based on a verifiable historical research. Even the skull! For real! Geologists excavating the site found (and lost) a strange horned skull. Everything in that essay is true. I never had to bend a thing or lie to make it “fit” a magical theory. So the piece itself is a meta-commentary on how history becomes polemic, how polemic becomes conspiracy, and how all of the above become faith.
If you had asked me this question about genre ten years ago, I would have said something about writing as a forensic art or science, an adversarial process that I left bare on the page. You can see my crisis of faith in forensic science playing out in how my writing has shifted toward something more … magical. And yet, really, I am after the same thing as I always was: a testimony. I have discovered that magic and forensic science are two ways of getting at the same thing, and they both require leaps of faith.
It is not merely the case that men conceived of matter as possessing mind in those days, but rather that in those days matter did possess mind, ‘actually’ did so. When the obvious objection is raised that the mechanical world view must be true, because we are in fact able to send a man to the moon or invent technologies that demonstrably work, I can only reply that the animistic world view, which lasted for millennia, was also fully efficacious to its believers. In other words, our ancestors constructed reality in a way that typically produced verifiable results.
–Morris Berman, quoted in Quinn
If by “genre” you mean to contrast my memoir/grimoir to other literature born of (or at least during) the “Mormon moment,” one huge difference is my outsider status. I am not Mormon. I am not ex-Mormon. I am not anti-Mormon. I am not even a believer in any faith. I am, in a way, the ultimate outsider. One might think this would limit me, but instead it gives me incredible freedom to explore Mormon theology and doctrines in a way that many members invested in the Church either cannot or will not. I am free to let the psychogeography of Salt Lake City guide me to Brigham Young’s doctrines such as blood atonement or Adam-God, and I can get from them what I want and need.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I grew up in a family of secrets: secret siblings, secret abuse, secret incest, secret affairs. These experiences turned me into a secret agent. If there is a secret, I will find it out, whether through court databases, background checks, forensic document analysis, or magic.
When I got my lie detector, the polygraph examiner said, “You’re interested in the troublemakers, aren’t you?” Yes, I am. I was sexually abused as a child by an adult brother (you can read the story here), and I never got justice. As a result, I am drawn to the criminal element, the dark side, the unjust. In a very real sense, my WIP develops several theories of criminogenesis.
4) How does my writing process work?
My writing process is immersive to the point that I cannot tell my writing from my life.
I believe, as Mircea Eliade wrote:
There is indeed only one way of understanding a cultural phenomenon which is alien to one’s own ideological pattern, and that is to place oneself at its very center and from there to track down all the values that radiate from it.
Immersive process begins in psychogeography. I take walks in the city and listen to what it is telling me: If I feel a powerful urge to turn down a block, I turn down that block and try to figure out why. I notice traffic patterns, pedestrian patterns. I listen to the prophets of the streets, i.e. graffiti artists. I make maps. I study old maps. I study histories of blocks I feel drawn to. Every city is an ideology expressed in a grid, and I try to figure out what that ideology is.
For me, walking through Salt Lake City feels like this:
As a result, my work compels me to take certain actions. You could call them performative in the sense that they spring from the art, but they are also sincere and true. I believe my writing process is like a nucleus attracting matter to my ideas. I never thought of memoir as just writing about my life. On the contrary, I think my writing incants my life into being.
For example, when I was writing “Nowhere, No Place, Like Home” for Black Clock, the process of working through that essay drove me to take my brother’s names to the temple door for a heretical Gentile proxy baptism request.
Another example: Ezekiel. Ezekiel has become central to my WIP for a variety of theological, theodical, and cosmological reasons. Throughout this process, I have felt connected to him across the centuries.
I made Ezekiel bricks, except instead of the city of Jerusalem, I carefully drew the 1860 SLC Plat. I am taking them out to the Salt Flats to lay siege to them with a bicycle. I will also be eating my own homemade scrolls written in my homemade bone black ink, amongst other things. In my WIP, the Salt Flats are Ezekiel’s Valley of the Dry Bones. They are Hofmann’s saltwater jar for his document-aging ozone tank. They are a place of magic and resurrection.
And speaking of ink, it is perhaps the action most central to this process: I started making iron gallotannic ink because I wanted to get inside the process and mind of Mark Hofmann, but once I made that first batch, I asked myself: What would I forge if I could never get caught? I wondered which came first: the ink or the forger?
I have since branched out into many kinds of inks, including bone black, lamp black, carbon black, iron gall, metallic, and others. They are central to this writing process.
I have learned how to strip ink from vintage Valentine and birthday cards to give me a clean slate to forge my brother’s confession. That process strips paper of time, making it young again … so I have learned how to put back that time, make it old again.
See what I mean? I wrote myself into a forger. That’s my process.