By Dan Wotherspoon
“The most important thing is simply to let people know who you are—who it is that’s editing Sunstone.”
So said Elbert Peck in early 2001 during one of our many long conversations in the Sunstone office. Though his advice came in response to my query about how he approached the task of writing his “From the Editor” column in each issue, it became counsel that served me well in many other areas of my new job.
Who was I when I came into the Sunstone editorship?
Career-wise, I was five years post-doctorate in religion from Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) and busily employed as an adjunct professor at a couple of Utah colleges while moonlighting at Benchmark Books, Mormonism’s premier used and rare bookstore. (I had previously worked full time at Benchmark, writing my dissertation after hours in one of its back offices.) I had always sensed that my life’s calling was to be a teacher, and I was actively applying for any tenure-track academic positions that I felt even remotely qualified for. But since I was not having a great deal of luck I had decided to try social work on for size, working briefly as a manager in the family and women’s portion of Salt Lake City’s wintertime overflow homeless shelter. I learned a lot from that experience, including the fact that social work was not my calling.
The next summer I applied to become the Sunstone Foundation’s publisher and business manager. I did it on a lark, having little experience in building or running businesses (I had managed a restaurant ten years earlier), but I figured I could learn how to do it, and maybe even like it. And, heck, the job was with Sunstone!
By this time, Sunstone and I were old friends. I had gone through many turbulent years, uncertain of whether I could ever find a hospitable place within Mormonism. It seemed to be too full of loud, fear-filled voices. Sunstone and Dialogue became very important to my pursuit of truth (“let it come from whence it may”). They helped me develop a worldview I began to call “big Mormonism.” Within a couple of years, I was attending Sunstone West symposiums, and then Salt Lake City ones, beginning with the summer 1994 symposium, which proved to be a difficult one as it came right on the heels of the “September Six” excommunications. Soon enough, however, I began to find my footing as a “Sunstoner” (that I could comfortably be!), regularly giving papers and adding my two cents to various panel discussions.
Thankfully, I didn’t get the publisher job. Sunstone was blessed to discover and hire William Stanford, a CPA with strong start-up and business experience, to set Sunstone on better financial footing. Instead, I became the magazine editor about six months later. My brain hurts when I imagine what it would have been like to have full oversight and execution responsibilities for the magazine, the symposium, and finances the way Elbert had. During my first year of editorship, William teamed up with board chair extraordinaire Toby Pingree (also a CPA) and godsend attorney Jay Francis (who worked for us pro bono even though he had not been previously associated with Sunstone) to extricate Sunstone from the burdens of crippling irs penalties (complex traps that don’t actually relate to owed tax money). I am grateful that Sunstone reassigned these responsibilities before I was hired, allowing me to focus on the magazine and symposium while William kept us legal, designed Sunstone’s early website, launched consistent and creative fundraising efforts, and helmed projects such as the digitizing of Sunstone’s past issues and Symposium sessions. It is because of William’s efforts that Sunstone’s back issues and audio are available online today. William was also an elegant, charming southern gentleman whose steady presence often balanced out my more chaotic energy.
As unqualified as I would have been to be the publisher and business manager of Sunstone, I was only marginally better qualified to be the magazine editor. Outside of Benchmark catalogs and one other publishing effort, I had never actually edited anything other than my own writing. I think I was a decent (or at least clear) writer, and several years of studying Latin and Greek as a classics minor during my undergraduate years had given me a strong feel for how grammar and other elements of English worked in comparison to those languages, but I didn’t really know what an editor did. I had never thought about the complexities of sorting through submissions (with perhaps only one in ten even having a shot at making the magazine—and then trying to write rejection letters that didn’t crush the authors’ dreams) and hounding especially good symposium presenters (and various other LDS writers) to submit their work for publication. I knew next to nothing of page planning, how to balance an issue, how to place design elements, how to utilize style guides, or how to prepare an issue for the printer. Interestingly, the one and only issue I helped Elbert prepare (issue 118) was the final Sunstone issue to be printed from film—all the issues that followed were submitted electronically. It was interesting to see how the film-to-print process worked, but I feel very lucky that the technology was just then changing so that I didn’t have to keep doing it!
Most of all, I had no clue how much editing editors do! I remember being astounded (practically laughing and crying simultaneously) the first time I saw Elbert’s (red ink) and associate editor Carol Quist’s (green ink) markings all through pieces that had been accepted for publication. Many of their marks indicated grammar catches or suggested rewordings, but far more denoted passages to be cut out, reordered, or even rethought entirely. Before long I was making the same markings (I inherited Elbert’s red pens), but I learned that an editor’s most important job is to partner with the writers and help them find the form that gives their ideas the fullest and most powerful expression. It became the most natural and glorious thing in the world for me to engage other minds and hearts in this wonderful, intimate partnership. Some of my closest friends today are authors I grew to love through the editing process.
Who else was I at this time? I think the most crucial characteristic helping me be a good fit for my new Sunstone role was a peace that I had won that I had won through an intense god-wrestle. During the previous decade, I had gone through the difficult journey (a few mentors assisting me along the way) of coming into my own spirituality, of gaining full confidence that I was on a God-/Universe-approved journey and that this journey would take place within Mormonism. I would not have been ready to serve as editor even a couple of years earlier. In the year leading up to my hire, I had finally begun to settle firmly into a good groove with Mormonism. I had finally learned (through years of trial and error) how to relate to and value the thoughts of fellow Saints who had not asked the questions or gained the perspectives I had. I had also discovered how to speak a faith language that they recognized, even while I was hinting at something more.
Some have described my tenure at Sunstone as a time of revitalization—of the magazine, symposiums, and wider community—a shift to a more explicitly constructive and diverse tone. If such revitalization did happen during this period, it wasn’t a result of any deliberate strategy on my part; I had simply found my center. Mormonism was my home. Its difficult history, inconsistent teachings and emphases, and the authoritative leadership style many Church leaders used were indeed troubling, but I no longer felt crippled by them. With this confidence, I wanted everyone to feel welcome at the Mormon and Sunstone feast. And although I learned through a few difficult experiences that some voices did not want to share their stories and insights in respectful ways (they had trouble speaking their truths without condemning the whole tradition or adding an extra twist of the knife) I tried to maintain that welcoming spirit.
When it came to the magazine, Elbert’s model was the elegant New Yorker, but I wanted to edit something more akin to a family newsletter (a really good one, of course!). And I wanted to host an awesome annual reunion. Maybe the Teddy bear shape of my body and my natural enthusiasm for people helped convey a sense of comfort that attracted new people to our fold while inviting some long-lost family members back. Even amidst the chaos of deadlines, symposium minutiae, and moments of “all hell breaking loose” (not to mention the disarray stemming from my own personal weirdnesses) I continued to dwell in an inward stillness. Sunstone was good, worthwhile work. Everyone has something important to give. What better gig to have than helping them to do so?
Helming Sunstone brought many surprises. One of the biggest was just how little I ended up caring about what the people in the Church Office Building might be thinking about Sunstone’s doings. In previous years, especially in the wake of the “September Six,” some members of Sunstone’s board had attempted to create more dialogue between the institutional Church and Sunstone, but with little effect. As long as Sunstone’s magazine and symposia weren’t willing to be “correlated,” there was no chance it would receive even a hint of official blessing from headquarters. I did have a chance to meet with a few general authorities during my tenure, and the meetings were very encouraging. On a few other occasions, I received calls from persons in the Church’s public affairs department expressing thanks for various articles we had published. One that received special appreciation was Tania Rands Lyon’s book review and essay about Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints (in which Beck had claimed to have recovered memories of having been sexually abused by her father, noted Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley). The public affairs department was apparently mailing it out in response to media queries about the book. Precisely because they are not correlated, Sunstone articles carry a degree of credibility with the rest of the world that “official church” responses often do not.
Probably the reason I spent so little time thinking about 50 East North Temple was that I had already begun to identify Mormonism as being rooted in the Church’s members rather than its leaders. I felt that Sunstone’s concerns should be for our fellow Latter-day Saints; especially those who were struggling to find or regain a convivial home in their Mormon families and wards. If Sunstone was going to “change the church,” I decided, it would be the small-c “church,” one heart at a time.
Before coming to Sunstone, I was certain my life’s calling was to be a college professor. My Sunstone experiences taught me that what I really was meant to be was a pastor. Before Facebook groups and the “bloggernacle” began to become big things—and boy did they during the final few years of my tenure!—Sunstone was one of the very few gathering places for those struggling to find a fit within Mormonism. Certainly it was a clearinghouse for ideas, but, even more so, it was an unofficial “support group.” And, as its most visible leader, I became the community’s chief shepherd, encourager, and spiritual advisor. I spent many hours each week listening as Mormons standing at the crossroads shared their hopes and frustrations. Though I may have contributed something helpful with my replies, I believe my primary gift was to simply be an ear. Serving in this capacity was the greatest privilege I’d ever had; it provided me with the first real sense that this was perhaps what my life had been preparing me for. Even though the sixth Article of Faith tells us that we believe that pastors are an important a part of the Church, there are very few spots within Mormonism for non-priesthood-called pastors. I’m grateful to Sunstone for helping me find one of those spots. As I continue working in this same vein today via the Mormon Matters podcast and through both private and public discussions, I always acknowledge that my primary training came through Sunstone: where I discovered who I am.