Sunday, May 06, 2012

Whitney Award Gala Speech 2011

For the last two years I have served as president of The Whitney Awards, a genre fiction award for LDS writers both in the National and LDS specific market. Robison Wells founded the award program five years ago and left me some very big (and sweaty) shoes to fill. I have enjoyed my opportunity to serve very much and have learned so much about myself, about other people who put their shoulder to the proverbial wheel, and I've discovered a lot of great books I would not have read otherwise. It's been a blessing to me to be a part of this program, and yet I gladly hand the baton to Heather Moore who will be president for 2012. Last night (May 5, 2012) was the Gala where the winners were announced and our Achievement Winners, Jack Weyland and Douglas Thayer, were acknowledged. The Gala is always a bittersweet night for me. I love, love, love hearing the acceptances and feeling the spirit of the night, but I'm aware of the 28 or so people who go home with empty hands. I've been that person and as happy as I've been for the other winners, I still wish I'd have won it :-) It's my supreme hope and prayer that they all feel the tribute of having been a finalist and that those in the audience who weren't finalists this year will have felt some of the spirit of night meant just for them as well. Though the Gala recognizes the winners--and their accomplishment is great--it is about everyone who writes the words. I was asked by a few attendees for a copy of the opening remarks I gave prior to the award portion of the evening. Since I print my blog into a book every few years, I wanted a record of the evening as well so I chose to post it here. You are welcome to use it, within context, in whatever it might support. 
Thanks to everyone who has offered their support and encouragement to this award process and to me individually. It's been a fabulous experience I will ever be grateful to have had. For more information about the Whitney Awards, click HERE. To see the winners for the 2011 Whitney Awards, click HERE.

The Whitney award program was named in honor of Orson F. Whitney—a former member of the twelve apostles who pursued and encouraged the fine arts throughout his life. Orson was born on 1855 in Salt Lake City, Utah. From the time he was very young he had what was described as an artistic temperament—he loved art, music, and literature. While attending The University of Deseret—now the University of Utah—he formed the Wasatch Literary Association and was planning to make a career in theater in New York when he was called to serve a mission in the Eastern United States. Prior to this time in his life he claimed not to be spiritually driven. He did accept the call but did not feel as though he himself were converted until he had a remarkable dream where he witnessed Christ’s atonement in the Garden of Gethsemane.

By the time he returned to the Salt Lake valley he had not only been converted himself, but through his proselytizing he’d grown remarkably as a speaker and teacher. He was offered a job with the Deseret News and was called as a Bishop at the age of 22 and, as yet, unmarried. He married Zina Smoot just a year later and they had their first child a year after that. In the years that followed, he served a mission to Europe, continued to work at the Deseret News, and served in local politics. Amid it all, however, he found time to pursue his passions in writing. His first book “The life of Heber C. Kimball” was published in 1888 and soon followed by his first book of poetry—a joy he had worked on in private for many years.

Politically he advocated Women’s Sufferage, protection against persecuted polygamists, and also fought against compulsory vaccination. He was hired to teach philosophy at Brigham Young College in Logan but when no one signed up for his classes, he ended up teaching Theology and English instead and from that point forward began lecturing on a regular basis. It’s been said that In literary work, discourses, lectures, orations, funeral sermons and miscellaneous addresses, along with his ecclesiastical labors, his mind, tongue and pen were kept constantly busy.”

After 28 years as a bishop, seven of which were also spent working in the Church Historical Department, Orson F. Whitney was called as a member of the twelve in 1906 but asked friends and acquaintances to continue calling him Bishop Whitney in part because he created most of his literary works as Bishop Whitney and preferred that identification. Time and again the message of his talks and presentations was to encourage people to use the gifts God had given them and see within those gifts lasting treasures of virtue, accomplishment, and enjoyment. He served vigorously as a member of the twelve apostles for 25 years until his death in 1931.

The excerpt of his talk that was chosen as a foundation for The Whitney Awards is from an address delivered at the Sunday evening session of the MIA Jubilee Conference held on June 7, 1925.
He said: We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God's ammunition is not exhausted. . . In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose tops will touch the heavens.”

            In 1976, Elder Boyd K. Packer repeated those words and added “Since that statement was made . . . those foundations have been raised up very slowly. The greatest poems are not yet written, nor the paintings finished. The greatest hymns and anthems of the Restoration are yet to be composed. The sublimest renditions of them are yet to be conducted.”

            Tonight we gather in part as a fulfillment of both of these messages. Words are a powerful force—they build and destroy nations, build and destroy ideas, build and destroy people. It is specifically through the gift of literature that we have our understanding of the creation, of Christ’s ministry, of Nephi’s journey to the promised land. It is through words that we’ve learned of science, governments, the universe and the intricate detail of human nature.

             In 1988, exactly 100 years after the publication of Orson F. Whitney’s first book, Thomas S. Monson said, “God left the world unfinished for man to work his skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. He left the rivers unbridged and the forests unfelled and the cities unbuilt. God gives to man the challenge of raw materials, not the ease of finished things. He leaves the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that man might know the joys and glories of creation.”

             Writers know the joys and glories and pain and agony of creation. The experience of that process is priceless on a personal level, and, as with Bishop Whitney’s life, none of us knows the journey our lives may take. Our lives unfold one day, one word, one experience at a time and it is left to us to hone our craft and enjoy the ride we find ourselves upon.

            With such reverence of the gifts and talents overflowing this room, it is, therefore, an honor to honor the time and dedication that has gone into the creations of these 35 finalists in the 2011 Whitney Awards. We thank each of you for your time and efforts. You are working towards the fulfillment of prophesy and we are grateful to have the chance to acknowledge that.