Mormon Artist

Tessa Meyer Santiago

Tessa Meyer Santiago, a native of South Africa, received an MA in English and a JD from Brigham Young University, where she taught creative writing and legal writing. She currently works as an attorney, practicing law with Lincoln Law Litigation. Her personal essays have appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, BYU Studies, and Segullah. Website
Photo by Valen Hunter

How did you first become interested in writing and how did you start writing personal essays?

I went to a South African high school, which was very caught on the British system. Not much creative writing happened, but we did a lot of analytical writing, because we had to take exams every three months and national exams to graduate from high school. I spent a year in Australia, and I came off this Crocodile Dundee experience to BYU. I started in the spring term of 1985. And then in fall, I’d heard about the Honors Program, and I signed up for English 312 Honors, which was taught by Bruce Jorgensen.

He gave us an assignment to write a—I don’t actually know what the assignment really was, but it was to write something personal—I think the prompt that we read was Eudora Welty’s “The Little Store,” one of her autobiographical essays. We were to write something that had the same tone or feel. I went back to the dorms and sat down with a pencil. (We didn’t really have computers then, so I remember it was a pencil.) I just sat and wrote, and it was kind of like a memoir of growing up in Cape Town in South Africa. That was really the first personal essay that I wrote. It was called “Guavas.”

How has your experience of growing up in South Africa influenced your writing?

I grew up white in a predominantly black culture, Mormon (very, very small minority, in a polyglot of religions: Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Methodists Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus). I also was a woman in a very patriarchal society, so I’ve always felt slightly on the outside of any kind of group—a looking in kind of thing, and I think it’s made me somewhat of an observer. Trying to figure out how the larger group operates, I also spoke English and then Afrikaans, and the Afrikaans people were in the government and determined all the policies. I was liberal in a very conservative political environment.

There was always a kind of belonging to the underclass, undervalued, portion of society. And I think as a result, I have this inherent distrust of anything organized. Any kind of hierarchy or structure. I don’t get it, which is really an anomaly because I’m a Mormon, one of the most chauvinist organizations structurally, in terms of power, that you could find, you know? Who occupies all the positions of importance, and who makes the decisions, and where does information come from and who holds the information and who has it? If you had to look at this on an organizational behavior flowchart, holy cow.

So, growing up that way has created this tendency to kind of cock my head and look and go, “Really? Huh, okay. Well, why?” That’s my natural orientation to the world. There’s never a given, a “this is how it should be; this is just how it is.” That doesn’t work for me. Never has.

What is your writing process like, then? You don’t approach it really critically or analytically.

I think the success of a personal essay is there’s no rubric to it. It’s a shifting set of components, and at the center of it is a question that you don’t have the answer for. I think that’s the most important part that changes a piece from a sermon to an essay. The writer doesn’t actually know what the answer is. They just have the questions. So, when you start with the question, then you can actually go and explore. And then the essay becomes the exploration.

Nothing is really out of bounds. Because for me, all truth is circumscribed into one great whole, and any kind of idea or theory or person or life or experience is a prism through which you can look to help understand questions about, for example, God in the polyester white robe. I ask, “What is he actually, or she, or them, or they?” Part of having just a question is that you don’t actually believe that there’s anything that’s out of bounds. Not afraid of finding an answer—not afraid, thinking, “Oh, no, now I’m going out of bounds.” I really believe that things are unfolded and truth becomes known as you’re willing to explore and write and think and question and doubt and hold two competing ideas at the same time and know that they’re somehow related. Saying, “I cannot figure out how, and so I’m going to try to write out the connection.” Work it through.

What keeps you writing personal essays?

The need to have things better than they are. I really always think there’s a better way to understand something, to have gone about something, to experience something. Underlying our religious culture is this set of ideas and doctrines that is so fundamentally sound and so woven into everything that I’ve experienced. The actual principles, the formulas of the gospel are just brilliant, and I just think, “Knowing what we know, is that the best we can do?” That’s always my question. “Knowing what we know, really? That’s it? That’s all we can come up with? There’s got to be something else.” And so that, I think, is what keeps me writing. There are ideas that just come.

Gideon Burton said that he felt like the personal essay genre fits particularly well within Mormon culture because we have this long tradition of writing personal histories and bearing testimony and expressing ourselves that way.

I think the essay format allows you to be less dogmatic and less sure, and even the structure of a personal essay is a sort of a wandering around a central point—a coming at it, like spokes on a wheel. And a refusal. I think there needs to be some kind of refusal on the author’s part to tie it up really cleanly. You just come to a resting point or a stopping point. Sort of like, “As for now, as for me and my house, this is what we know.” Rather than, “Thus you know.”

I think sometimes Mormon writers, particularly zealous Mormon writers, have a certain kind of commitment, that things are just very clear. And there are certain minds that work that way. And I don’t think they’re very good essay writers because that commitment, that conviction, comes through, and it can override the reader’s agency. I think an essay needs to be an invitation, like a Section 50. Two people come together, face to face, they reason with each other. There’s a give and take and light or good that comes out of it, and it’s in a way that you have to respect the reader’s agency. You cannot come to a firm conclusion for the whole world. It can only be for yourself, and then the reader responds to that invitation.

So what brings you back to engaging with these ideas in your writing and for a Mormon audience?

I actually don’t think of my audience as Mormon. That is, I try to keep the language kind of neutral, so that if you were any sort of mind that likes to think about spiritual concepts, you could read it and not be alienated because you don’t understand the vocabulary.

Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?

Somebody I really like right now is Anne Lamott. I enjoyed her very frank exploration of her faith in Grace (Eventually). Eudora Welty. I love her voice, as well as Willa Cather. I enjoy their fiction, but it’s mostly the voice that I’m attracted to, rather than really what they’re saying. I like how they say it. I like people that make me think differently and so it’s kind of a random assortment.

Photo by Valen Hunter

What made you decide to start a blog? Are you enjoying blogging?

I started my blog because I didn’t have anywhere to publish my writing—it just didn’t fit. It does fit in BYU Studies, it does fit in Dialogue, but that audience is so small. I’m not saying a blog is huge, either, but it’s a very select kind of audience that subscribes to BYU Studies, and it’s the same kind of people.

Blogging? It’s interesting, I don’t know if it’s a blog in maybe the traditional sense, because it’s not like an everyday “this is what I did with my life,” but it is a place to put writing, and having people comment is informing. It doesn’t force me to write, but it makes me feel like I need to post something, so while I work and do attorney stuff, it keeps me thinking about other things and gives me an opportunity and an outlet to create a finished piece, rather than a few paragraphs of unfinished prose. The hard part is the finished piece. That takes so much time, and thought process and energy, so that’s a good skill to keep at.

You taught writing for ten years at BYU. Do you think teaching writing influenced or affected your writing in any way?

Yes, because you have to figure out what the process is. You have to be able to clarify it in your own mind because you have to be able to explain it to somebody. And for me, I didn’t like having to revert to grading a paper on spelling and punctuation and sentence structure, because I thought that was the easiest way to grade. It didn’t require my students to think very much, it only required them to be good proofreaders.

In my courses there was never a finished product. If my students wanted, they could rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, but it had to be a substantial revision. In other words, the ideas had to be more developed and the sources had to be changed and the analysis had to be deeper. But if they wanted to, the students could actually wrestle with an assignment the whole semester if they were so inclined.

I love teaching. I love the engagement of ideas. I love looking at somebody and going, “You know, that might have been good enough, but it’s not good enough now. We can get you to where it’s good enough, if you’re just willing to invest yourself.” My main concept was “anybody can be a competent writer.” Because it’s a methodology, it’s a set of skills and equations—and you can break it down and actually be very competent. You can write good, well-crafted, very competent prose.

You went to law school, yes?

Law school was very important in teaching me to think clearly. It was also very instrumental in helping me to clarify my thoughts and how to think about ideas and constructs and connections and proofs. I’m equally competent drafting a brief, which is just one theorem after another, as in a personal essay—and they couldn’t be more structurally different in the kind of writing that’s required. But it’s equally as challenging to actually get that right as well. You know, the rhythm and the pace and the placement of the idea and the pulling out of the pertinent quotes. It is challenging and just as interesting for me to be able to craft that kind of language.

How do you think your legal training has affected your creative writing?

I think it gives me a deeper basis from which to write. It’s a wider, more expansive set of ideas and ways to look at the world. The legal training and practicing as an attorney gives me another context out of which to analyze experiences. That’s helpful, because the law is also quite dispassionate. There’s this certain objectivity that you bring to it. It’s not actually about right or wrong, it’s about what can be supported by the laws that have been put in place, by the legislature. Becoming an attorney and practicing forces you to live with that somewhat duplicitous stance. I know you probably were injured and wronged, but according to the law, you haven’t been, or we don’t have enough proof and we don’t know how to find it. You have to work within those confines and that’s an interesting intellectual exercise. It is how you have to operate as an attorney. It’s the tools that you have.

Sometimes I think in the Church and in any religious community, you can think, “Oh, we just shouldn’t have these rules or this particular procedure or this way of doing things” or “Why was this decided?” And you rail against it, thinking that it’s of absolute importance that we have this approach. Being an attorney makes you realize, “You know what? These rules, these laws, these approaches, these mechanisms—they’re arbitrary, but they’re what have been decided thus far. It’s the best that society has come up with. And this is what we have to work with.” I think that’s an interesting, a useful place to be, because it takes the mystery out of a lot of things.

Your essay “Take, Eat” won the BYU Studies Personal Essay Contest in 1997. What was your process like writing that essay?

I noticed that there was an essay contest, and I wanted to write something. I had just had Seth, who was my third. Between Seth and Christian is almost five years, and I’d had a miscarriage before that, so I was sort of marveling. Because the first two were ready to come down, you know? I mean, we got pregnant on our honeymoon, and I’m not even sure we did it right, like properly, all the way, and yeah…

Seth was about six months old, and I was contemplating what experiences I’d had lately that caused me to think in new ways about particular issues. After two and a half years of no birth control and then the miscarriage and then suddenly here is this child who just showed up? There’s this exaltation for this little child who decided to stay. We named him Seth because that means “God has granted me another son.” And so I was pulling together all of those different experiences, about the fear of those C-sections that I have to have—they freak me out. I was just trying to resolve issues, so excited with this child and then this C-section, and then this body and what it does for you and what it looks like—you know it’s like a cartoon by the end. And you’re not really in control.

I always tend to go to a place where there’s a yin and a yang: “I know this should be wonderful and divine, but my gosh, I actually want to throw this kid through the window.” When I’m in possession of these conflicting emotions—the pleasure and pain, that kind of experience—that’s a good place for me to start. And that’s what I was trying to sort through.

What do you see Mormon authors contributing to Mormon culture?

I’m always reminded of the quote by President Kimball, who said that we need the Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares and writers to step up, and for me I don’t think that means to tell a particularly Mormon contextual story. I would hope it means to tell a human story with the light of true principles underpinning. And I think what Mormon writers can contribute is an unflinchingly honest look.

I’ll say it this way: at the center of our experience is an atonement which allows us to look at ourselves and to correct and to acknowledge flaws and weaknesses and to always know that there is another opportunity to create something of worth and to build a new world or a new creature. The Book of Mormon says to become a new creature in Christ.

Another uniquely Mormon idea is tied to revelation—that it is possible and necessary to ask questions and seek for answers. We write and create and we examine, either in fiction or in personal essays, those principles of correction and of creating anew, not being afraid to look down deep and acknowledge, “Yes, this is me and this is what I have done, and this is what we do as humans—this is what we do as women and as husbands and as wives and as mothers and parents. This is our behavior. But because we are grounded in these principles, it doesn’t have to be our behavior.”

And so we seek and we create worlds and ideas that suggest more and better. I don’t believe that because we are already Mormon that the place we already are is where we should be. I just believe we have greater access to clearer principles that allow us to move forward.

Hopefully a Mormon artist’s work would not end in annihilation. To me that is so contrary to the very core of what the whole plan is.

I don’t think it’s really a setting or a context but an actual orientation towards how you write a conclusion—what resting points you rest at in your work, towards what you portray. I don’t think there’s any R-rated stuff; I don’t believe in an R rating. I think that’s a tool that’s made up.

There should be an examination of what is true and what has happened. Like Mountain Meadows Massacre. I don’t think we should push that under the rug. Pull it all out! Pull it out. Pull Joseph out there and see what a phenomenal creature he actually was. And ask yourself, “Could I have done any better?” Pull it out and look at it and show it to our children and talk about it and give them tools and all those kinds of things.

That to me is a really Mormon viewpoint because it’s not afraid of anything. Because we know answers are available, if we work and think and look and ask—they’re there, they’re available. And that to me is what a Mormon artist or writer does. That would be the contribution I would expect to make. ❧

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