Words and Phrases You Must Never Use in Utah
When you’re the only Mormon at a prestigious summer writing workshop, it can be tough to convince your classmates that you already know how to swear.
This essay is an outtake from an early draft of my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary.
In 1985, when I was seventeen, I was accepted into Clarion, a prestigious summer workshop in science fiction writing at Michigan State University. I wasn’t the youngest person ever to attend Clarion, but I was close. I realized, that first Sunday night as I looked around the circle of desks in the basement of our ancient dormitory, that most of the other students were in fact in their mid to late twenties, and a handful were much older than that.
Our instructor for the first week was Algis Budrys, a figure of legend from the Golden Age of science fiction. He told us to call him A.J. and asked us all to introduce ourselves. When my turn came and I announced in a piping voice that I was from Utah, I was surprised to hear questions pelting me from all sides.
“Are you Mormon?” someone asked.
I didn’t want to admit it and draw attention more attention to myself, but my conscience screamed that I must. How many times had I heard sermons in church berating those ashamed to confess their belief in Christ?
“What’s a Mormon doing writing science fiction?” asked another person.
“Yeah, I thought that was against the rules or something,” said someone else.
“Orson Scott Card is Mormon,” I said defensively. (And sorry, Ender’s Game fans, but he’s also a raging homophobe.) “And so is that guy who created Battlestar Galactica.” (Glen A. Larson, if you’re keeping track at home.)
“God, I hated that show.”
“It somehow doesn’t seem like Mormons should be writing science fiction,” someone opined.
“That’s actually sort of what my dad thinks,” I said. I was trying to field everyone’s comments, like a novice tennis player dashing from one side of the court to the other.
“You still live at home?”
“You’re how old again?”
“And your parents let you come here anyway?”
“Well, my dad didn’t really want me to come.”
“So are you, like, in trouble?”
“Not really, not exactly. He let me apply thinking there was no way I’d get in.”
“He told you that?”
“After I got accepted, yeah. He said he wouldn’t have let me apply if he thought I was actually going to get in. But then he sort of had to let me come.”
“You don’t have a problem being Mormon and writing science fiction?”
“Not really,” I said with a shrug.
As we kept moving around the circle, I was left to realize, for perhaps the first time, how ridiculous and alien my religion must look to people on the outside. Since the age of six I’d belonged to the majority. Now the shoe was on the other foot. The gentiles far outnumbered me, and I’d been taught from the pulpit that in situations like this they would stop at nothing in their deliberate fervor to undermine and destroy my faith. No one else was here to stand up to them but me.
My summer at Clarion would be a moral test. I resolved to pass that test with flying colors.
The workshop convened for three or four hours every morning in the lounge of our otherwise deserted dormitory. After a lecture from A.J. on some aspect of the craft or business of writing, two or three short stories would go under the microscope. The process was often brutal, with the author required to keep silent while everyone else in turn offered a critique of the work. That first week we drew mostly from the stories submitted with our applications, but by the second week, when Joe Haldeman rotated in as our instructor, we were focusing exclusively on new stories written at the workshop. Afternoons and evenings we spent writing, reading the next day’s assignments, or hanging out. Lots of the hanging out.
Once the novelty of my background had worn off, the other students proved quite tolerant toward me and my beliefs — protective, even. No one seemed shy discussing sex or other adult topics, but some of my fellow students made an effort to keep their language clean around me. When the first beers made their appearance I expected pressure to join in, but no one seemed to give my demurral a second thought. It was a raucous group, but where I might have braced for mockery there was only gentle teasing, and I learned to that give back almost as well as I took it.
Much to my surprise, I realized I was making friends.
On the second Sunday of the workshop, I rose early, put on a dress shirt and a tie, and set out on foot for the local LDS meetinghouse, which I’d found in the phone book. Young families dominated the ward, and, though friendly enough in a superficial way, all the people who introduced themselves to me seemed more interested in the fact that I was from Utah than they did in what had brought me to East Lansing. I had gone with several other workshop members to a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show a couple of nights previously, my first time seeing it, and I was amused and somewhat scandalized to realize that one of the quiet boys passing the sacrament to the congregation, eyes downcast, had been one of the loudest, most in-your-face participants at Rocky Horror.
Two Mormon college girls struck up a conversation with me at the end of Sunday school. They pretended fascination as I described the workshop I was attending that summer. I don’t recall which of them suggested we should all hang out later that week, but I accepted the offer. Why not? It might be good for me to spend a little social time with other Mormons while I was in town, just as an antidote to my godless surroundings.
My Clarion classmates razzed me something fierce when I spilled the beans that night about my upcoming social engagement. “It’s not a date!” I insisted. “We’re just hanging out.”
“No, it’s a date, and it’s a date with two women, you dog,” said Bob Howe. The former Coast Guard electrician from Brooklyn was in his late twenties, and was quickly becoming my best friend at the workshop. “But that’s the way they do things where you’re from, right?”
“I don’t even know any polygamists!” I said, feeling beleaguered. “We stopped that a hundred years ago.”
“If you wanted that kind of company,” said Martha Soukup, an actress and playwright from Chicago, “you probably didn’t need to go looking for it outside the group.”
My face heated right up.
“Aw, look at the poor kid, Soukup,” said Bob. “You’re gonna make him burst a blood vessel.”
Martha gave him a sour look. “My love for you is spiritual, Bob.”
The girls took me to the Institute of Religion, a Church-run school just off campus that offered scholarly gospel classes to LDS college students. I went to one just like it, albeit larger, in Salt Lake City when my university schedule allowed. The Institutes serve as social hubs for Mormons away at school, and the girls and I played ping-pong and billiards in the game room for a couple of hours. I tried to impress them with the fact that our second-week instructor was Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War, but all I got was blank looks.
When dusk fell and they suggested grabbing a bite to eat somewhere, I begged off. Everything my new acquaintances talked about seemed to revolve around church, and I’d begun to miss the more adult conversations of my classmates.
The handful of workshoppers reading manuscripts in the dorm lounge looked up when I came in.
“That was fast work,” said Bob. “I hope you used protection.”
“Neither of them was really my type,” I said.
“You mean easy?”
“Literate,” I said.
“That’s too bad, since you have to get married now,” said Martha.
“Married?!” I exclaimed.
“That’s the rule after your first date, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been on dates before, you know.”
“I thought brides for Mormons were cumulative.”
One of the girls called the dorm that Sunday and left me a message when I didn’t show up at church. I had decided that, time with the Clarion gang being short, I would rather spend my Sundays with people more like me than like them. I didn’t go to church for the rest of my time at Michigan State.
By the fourth week of Clarion, when Michael Bishop arrived as our instructor, a certain surly, snappish mood had settled over the workshop. Factions had formed, pranks had taken on a meaner edge than before, and the air vibrated with tension.
It was in this atmosphere that, in a careless moment, I caught the fingers of my right hand in the heavy fire door that gave access to the men’s half of the dormitory.
“Fuck!” I exclaimed.
I was trailing a group of half a dozen classmates. Their shocked faces turned to gape at me.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” said Bob. “I’m not sure I heard you right.”
“Fuck!” I said again, shaking my injured hand like I was trying to break a chicken’s neck.
Martha rushed over to me, horrified. “Oh, my God! We’ve corrupted you!”
Wincing, I clamped my hand under my opposite arm. “Judas Proust,” I said, my high school humanities teacher’s curse of choice. “You didn’t corrupt me. I swear all the time.”
“You don’t have to say that to make us feel better,” said Martha, waving her hands helplessly. “My God, now you’re going to go home talking like us, and your family’s going to lock you in a closet and never let you write science fiction again.”
“I bet I’ve said fuck a hundred times,” I told her and everyone else.
“Sorry,” Bob said, “but it takes a thousand times to get into the club.”
“Fuck you,” I said.
“Keep practicing, buddy. You’ll get there.”
Over the next couple of weeks, I experienced both the agony of devastating critiques of my work and the joy of writing a relatively well-received story. Clearly I was not among the top rank of my classmates — a circumstance I found unusual and disagreeable — but I was determined to get there one day soon. Damon Knight, who taught the final two weeks of Clarion together with his wife Kate Wilhelm, both encouraged me and inflamed my impatience with his prediction that, in his opinion, it would take me about five years to start producing professional-quality work.
On the final Friday of the workshop, we convened for a farewell barbecue with Damon and Kate, and A.J. returned for the festivities as well. It was the sort of early August day perfect for Frisbee, water fights, and cold beer — well, for everyone but me. After the hamburgers had been served and our plates were all loaded down with chips, pork-and-beans, and potato salad, Martha called for silence.
“I have a presentation to make,” she said, flourishing a printed sheet of paper. “Where’s Bill? There you are. Don’t run.”
Abashed, I stepped forward from behind two of our classmates.
“Young Master Shunn,” Martha said, summoning me closer, “in light of the terrible corrupting influences you’ve been exposed to as part of your Clarion experience, I think it’s important for you review the following words and phrases you may have picked up during your time here, which you must under no circumstances permit to pass your lips after you’ve returned home to Utah. We’d hate to see you get excommunicated or arrested on our account.” She handed me the sheet of paper. “Will you read this aloud for us, please?”
I cleared my throat and read the following:
Words and Phrases You Must NEVER Use in Utah
Bend over, I’m driving
Any synonym of “penis”
Any synonym of “vagina”
Any synonym of “Bob Howe”
My love for you is spiritual [depending on tone of voice]
My love for you is profane [ever]
I want to go home to Clarion
A Public Service of the Mormon Reentry Drive
“Shit,” I said, looking around at all my friends. “I think I’m going to fucking cry.” ∅