Before I get into this week's critique, I thought I'd let readers in on a fiction project I'm working on with a Modern Love twist. I'm writing a series of revisionist fairy tales called Once Upon How It Should Have Happened. (Or somesuch. It's a working title.) I'm retelling or expanding on some well told tales in my own oddball fashion. So far I've done Little Red Restraining Order and Cinder Best Seller. Next up is Dating Nemo. It's a fictional Modern Love column, penned by Nemo's girlfriend, all about the long term impact of helicopter parenting.
Okay, now back to our regular programming.
Lots to like about “All I Wanted Was A Hug” by Holly Welker. A well-crafted essay that takes us to a far away land and into a tightly structured and often secretive society. That’s a great place to write from and the author gives us lots of detail about what her life as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan was like.
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.
Holly Welker’s essay is admirable not just for its subject matter. It’s a winner because it does not play the blame game. This essay recounts a painful period in the author’s life – a time when she felt alone, confused, in need of comfort and human connection. She found she was unable to find this solace among her fellow missionaries or in the work of the mission itself. This was the beginning of the end of her relationship with the church of her upbringing.
And yet, there are no villains in this story. Welker tells this story with emotion, intensity and detail. But not with blame.
Perhaps one of the biggest sand traps in the writing of a personal essay is the tendency to blame. Whenever we write about intensely emotional experiences, this can happen. We blame our parents, our exes, our bosses, our teachers. When we write about something hard that happened, we look for ways to make our choices look right and often that leads us to create a bad guy for contrast.
Welker doesn’t do this. Despite the rich territory for blaming – who doesn’t love to blame the church (or any religion) for being over-bearing, insensitive, sexist, etc. – she avoids this. The characters we meet in this story are there as contrast to the author – but they are also beautifully humanized. The apparently judgmental companion in the opening of the story is found stealing a few moments to play her beloved piano at the end. The fellow missionary on whom the author develops a crush won’t be the boyfriend she desires. But he compliments her, even expresses that he loves her. And even when the author has a true angry confrontation with a church supervisor, she finds a way to make him three-dimensional. Look at this bit of dialogue that takes place after Welker has yelled at an elder and created a scene in a missionary meeting.
“President’s really mad at me, isn’t he?” I said.
To which her fellow missionary replies: “I think you hurt his feelings.”
When you can’t even hate the pushy church elder in a story about a religious break, the author has worked a nifty miracle.