The Pros and Cons of Writing Confessional Memoir in the Mormon Milieu

By Phyllis Barber



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(This paper was delivered at the International Conference of the American Literary West, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, October 2010)

Because the focus of this occasion is the American Literary West and because I have written two memoirs about being born into and shaped by the American West as well as by Mormonism, the organizers of this conference asked for my thoughts on the religious influence on the writer of memoir, especially of the so-called “confessional” memoir. And this is the category into which my latest book, Raw Edges: A Memoir, could be said to fit.

There is a deep desire among Latter-day Saints to create heaven here on earth, to live in harmony with Christ’s teachings, to do whatever can be done to help build a modern-day Kingdom of God. It is of utmost importance to be of service to others, to work together to provide the necessities of life. This is accompanied by a paternalistic, buttoned-down, somber (though not without its own brand of humor), hard-working, earnest mentality that one who is raised in this religion naturally osmoses. One of the main sentiments of the culture is found in the words spoken by the late President Gordon B. Hinckley: “Forget yourself, and go to work.”1

But this dictum raises a question. What work are you, the writer, to do? Do you write to serve your cultural tradition or to aspire to the highest level of artistry? Do you write to explore the unknown in both the self and in the mystery of life? Is the role of the writer that of adventurer into the miasmic ocean of language where a personal or even universal truth might be revealed? The very idea of creativity implies that the creator answers to his or her Muse (which could also be referred to as the “still small voice”), that the creator must listen carefully to this deepest voice within. You, the literary writer, want to be sensitive to the entire spectrum of what it means to be human. You have personal passions you want to follow and explore.

But LDS culture insists that the righteousness of a man or woman is more important than his or her creative gifts. The emphasis lies upon one’s worthiness, rather than on one’s talent.

For example, in the July 1977 Ensign article, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” President Spencer W. Kimball writes,

The full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.2

So it is not sufficient to be a great writer or artist in the Mormon milieu; it is more essential to be a good person, “clean and free from the vices, and thus entitled to revelations.”3

At times, some Church authorities seem to have taken an almost adversarial position to artists. Boyd K. Packer once told an anecdote wherein a member of the Quorum of the Twelve pointed out during a meeting that musicians tend to be “temperamental,” to which one of the other apostles replied, “More temper than mental.”4 “Very frequently,” Packer once said, “when our musicians, particularly the more highly trained among them, are left to do what they want to do, they perform in such a way as to call attention to themselves and their ability. They do this rather than give prayerful attention to what will inspire. I do not mean ‘inspire’ as the music or art of the world can inspire. I mean inspire!”5

Mormon writers are not encouraged to dwell upon themselves, their gifts, or their problems, but are encouraged to get into stride and contribute to the larger whole. It would seem that a Mormon artist needs to be open to being instructed in the art of propriety so that something truly spiritual can transpire in his or her work. On the face of it, therefore, it would appear that the confessional memoir would have a hard time fitting into this mix. The genre implies that the author has something to confess. It implies that the author has possibly been a party to transgression.

So, how do living, breathing, sometimes flailing human beings—more specifically writers—fit into this context? Though no one has yet castigated me personally for being so candid about my less-than-perfect-according-to-Mormonism life, there is an underlying sense that such public confessions as I have written are not desirable or wise.

According to Webster, to confess means, “To admit or acknowledge something damaging or inconvenient to oneself; to unburden one’s sins or the state of one’s conscience to God or to a priest.” The word “confession” has implications and shades of shame, disgrace, and a sense of having fallen away from a particular belief community, whether it be secular or religious.

The idea of confession is not really a part of Mormon culture in the same way that it is in, for instance, a Baptist church where there is a “sinner’s chair.” There is no Mormon analogue of a Catholic priest sitting on the other side of a screen listening to confession with a non-judgmental ear. Mormonism is more inclined to talk about not dwelling on one’s problems or lives, not wasting time challenging doctrine or Church authorities. Rather, members should look to the heavens and prophets for guidance while working their heads off in service.

A better word to describe what writers of memoir and personal essay are doing might be “candid,” rather than “confessional”—stories being presented because they reveal who a person is with less spin, less posing, fewer masks. Though there is an element of personal revelation in both words, the word “confession” more fully implies one’s wish to be forgiven or to make amends.

This brings us to our core concern, “What, if anything, can be gained from writing an intimate confession or from writing an unreserved, forthright account of your life?”

If you are a memoirist, religious or not, you will at some point in your writing ask yourself, “How will this affect my family and those closest to me? How much license can I take? Whom will I offend if I put this in writing? How ethical is it for me to write about someone else’s life and/or mistakes since a memoir inevitably includes people with whom I interact on a daily basis?”

If you write fiction, you can wear the mask and pretend your work has nothing to do with the people around you. But the truth is that all writers collect their material from the realm of the living, from the experience that has shaped their lives, and from the realm of what they know and have been taught to believe. But can you write about anything just because you are a writer?

Here are seven arguments against writing confessional memoir, some of them specifically informed by the Mormon milieu, some applicable to other contexts as well:

1. Doctrine & Covenants 42:88 admonishes: “And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone.” In other words, keep your own counsel behind closed doors and with the proper Church authorities. Old school wisdom in many cultures says to keep the secrets in the family and settle matters in private. This model has had considerable influence on my thinking and led me to keep the Raw Edges manuscript shut away in a drawer for several years.

2. A Mormon artist should be free from impurity in order to write the kind of material that is truly inspiring, the kind that is worthy of revelation. If one has made mistakes, he or she should settle them with the proper authorities, make peace with the Savior, and then return to dedicated service, not dwelling in the past or wallowing in guilt or sin.

3. Writing one’s life takes time away from service to others. A good Latter-day Saint artist should be serving God at all times and helping to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. If that is not the artist’s primary task, then he or she needs to re-examine his or her intentions.

4. Why put on a public display of one’s shortcomings and challenges? Such is likely a subterfuge for gaining attention. It is selfish, self-absorbed, and narcissistic to wrangle with one’s life in print. An artist should not practice artistry in order to bring attention to one’s self, but to glorify God.

5. There are many sides to every story, and you, the memoirist, are telling only one side. A memoir invariably includes other players. Is it your right to tell others’ stories? Do you know the other peoples’ stories? Is it in accordance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to speculate on others’ motives and show their conflicting sides? Shouldn’t that be something they do themselves?

6. What are the consequences of a varnished or an unvarnished story on future generations? Your writing may affect your family—your children, your grandchildren—in adverse ways when they realize that one of their predecessors was less than perfect, or—even worse—a bad example.

7. Could writing a memoir erase the writer who has disclosed all of who she is, creating the sense that there’s no more story to tell, that the end has been written, and that there is no more evolution? Is the memoir hardening the author into concrete, even though that person is still living and changing? Do Readers think they now know who the writer truly is? An additional hazard is that writers can become totally occupied with a particular version of their story, becoming imprisoned in their narrative, and finding themselves unable to escape that obsessive viewpoint.

These seven points are the thorns that prick the conscience of every memoirist, religiously driven or not.


When a writer influenced by a religious perspective sets out to write a novel, a short story, a poem, or a memoir, the desire to be prayerful, to trust a Greater Intelligence, and to be in tune with what this Intelligence would have one do, is important. It has been important to me. But it is like balancing on a tightrope. A writer who wants to remain within any institution must walk a thin line. In the Mormon situation, the temptation is often to prove one’s loyalty by writing stories with happy endings, illustrating the joy of living the Gospel. As essayist Holly Welker writes, “We are a church of autobiographers. But as a church, if not as individuals, we have particular expectations about what an autobiography or life story should do: promote faith.”6

In a religious (or even political) context, people assume that all things of importance have already been outlined in Holy Writ and in the utterances of the leaders. Doesn’t it seem presumptuous, even borderline blasphemous, to attempt to find “truth” through one’s individual creativity? In such a context, writing “what you cannot know before you have written,” as Hélène Cisoux put it in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing7 seems almost heretical.

But let’s be optimistic. Let’s say that you, the writer, are a good person, a religious person, someone who adheres to an ethical, temperate, moral lifestyle. But you’ve encountered difficulties along the way, places where your story seems to deviate from the norm, and you want to reconcile those places with Mormonism at large. You believe that you can do this by writing about those difficulties, by essaying them, by looking them straight in the eye. You want to tell your story as is, not as someone else would tell it. How do you proceed?

In Levi Peterson’s autobiography, A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning (which he considers a work of candor rather than confession), he writes openly about his experience with masturbation and his futile attempt at sexual intercourse with a girlfriend in the front seat of his car. In advance of publication, he knew that this openness would “make his likely readers . . . uncomfortable” with his revelations. To quote Peterson:

My impulse to make such facts known derives, in part, from a resentment I have felt since early childhood toward the mandatory silence polite society imposes upon matters of sex and personal hygiene. It has puzzled me that people can’t talk about instincts and behaviors known to be common to all of them. My impulse to reveal such facts also derives from my sense that, without a due portion of them, my life’s story is incomplete. I don’t want to present myself as something I am not . . . I do not present these facts for others either to emulate or to repudiate. I present them simply because they reveal the person I was, and that is the purpose of an autobiography.8

His willingness to delve into the “seamier” side of life has gotten him into trouble with his relatives a number of times. His mother once wrote him to ask, “Are your stories wholesome? Do they uphold true and honest principles? I hope no child of mine will write poor stories—or bad stories. There are so many good people in the world—so many true, honest-hearted people—surely we should portray the good side of this lovely world of ours.”9 A niece also wrote a tactful remonstrance to his stories: “What I object to is the picture I think they may be painting of you . . . which seems in variance with the great & good man you are in my eyes. The shocker is . . . that one I think so highly of should delve his mind in subjects which I am not sure are not reflective of his self in action.”10

Works by contemporary Mormon writers whose writing could be classified “confessional” or “candid,” are Daughter of Zion by Rodello Hunter; What of the Night? a book of personal essays by Stephen Carter; Secret Ceremonies by Deborah Laake; Grace Notes by Heidi Hart; The New York Regional, Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker (a memoir exploring the challenge of abstaining from pre-marital sex); the essays of Holly Welker; and the classic memoir written in 1941, A Mormon Mother: An Autobiography by Annie Clark Tanner, among others. These works come mostly from those who have felt a deep commitment and a reverence for their religion but who also felt at odds with it. These are writers who have encountered their Mormon heritage as something more idealistic than realistic. As Lavina Fielding Anderson, a well-known Mormon writer, historian, editor, and activist in the cause of candid Mormonism, said in a recent email to me, “These writers were writing less to confirm their Mormonism, than, like you, to describe a sometimes uneasy negotiation with institutional Mormonism that includes both moments of reconciliation and also fairly serious estrangement.”

However, despite these conflicts, Mormonism also provides the very seeds that can motivate a writer to write candidly.

• The Mormon culture has taught you to strive to be perfect “even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” And if you’re willing to entertain the thought, there’s room to ask just what “perfection” is and who can define it.

• You’ve been encouraged by Church leaders to keep a personal journal in which you tell your own story and record your family history. In this way, writing and self-revelation are encouraged.

• You’ve been told that the “truth shall make you free.” (John 8: 32). But, again, the thought arises, “What is the truth, and how much do I tell in order to be free?” Truth feels ubiquitous, but you wonder about the differences and the shadings between The Capital “T” Truth and the small “t” truth.

• The Church has encouraged you to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, but you have realized that these teachings are harder to live than you at first imagined. It not only takes a lifetime to learn to live as the Savior taught, it also takes a lifetime to figure out what it was the Savior was teaching in the first place.

• Church leaders have taught you to have love, compassion, and charity for others. This compassion enables you to see others as children of God on the road of eternal progression. You are hopefully slower to judge others, and even yourself when you find yourself wandering out in the cold, wondering if there really is any redemption or forgiveness through Christ’s atonement.

Using these Church-given tools, can confessional or candid writing about one’s personal life have value outside the office of your bishop or even outside the walls of your own home?

Levi Peterson answered this question in a recent email to me: “Yes, the confessional memoir has a place in Mormonism. Absolutely. However, I am quite sure that the typical active Mormon (one who believes and goes to church) would want an autobiography that characterizes its subject in ideal terms (as) Medieval hagiography depicted Catholic saints in ideal terms.”

During my twenty years’ teaching both creative nonfiction and fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and while I was writing my own decidedly non-hagiographic memoir about the dissolution of my thirty-three-year Mormon temple marriage, my falling apart, and my pulling myself together, I have been nagged by the questions we have been contemplating here: What is the value of keeping the details of my personal life private and behind closed doors? What can be gained from being candid about my personal life on a broader scale?

I finally chose to write a no-holds-barred memoir. To me, the word confession ultimately meant to unburden, unload, relieve, depressurize, clean the barnacles off the hull of the ship. I was also drawn to an obsolete definition of the word candor, “unstained purity, whiteness, brilliance.”

Raw Edges: A Memoir, from the University of Nevada Press, began as a bicycle trip I took with a student of mine from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to Montpelier, Vermont. I was planning to make the trip into a “chick novel,” one that would make me rich and famous: two divorcing women encounter the U S of A on their bicycles—their two-wheeled getaway cars—riding through thunder, lightning, and tornadoes to conquer themselves and their insufficiencies. What a story! I could already smell the success and the unhatched chickens.

But as I wrote draft after draft, I realized that I was trying to write over the top of some very confused and hurt feelings. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t write a breezy, funky story about two very cool women who were riding out the storm of their lives in Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois (which is as far as I got on my bicycle—a trip of 1,000 miles). I just couldn’t turn these two characters into larger-than-life Thelma-and-Louise cult heroines. I finally realized that I was in the middle of an exceptionally difficult low spot in my life—my seven lean years, I’ve come to call them. I was falling apart. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wasn’t the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, eagerly-enthusiastic, service-above-all Mormon maiden that I’d always envisioned myself being. I wasn’t the strong, iron-rod kind of woman my mother (who’d been promised noble children) had taught me to be. I was still a pretty good person with a good heart (which gave me some hope), but I’d left the path somewhere along the way and didn’t know where to turn next. I couldn’t rely on the person I’d been before my world had ripped apart at the seams. (Speaking of seams tearing, that is where I found my title, Raw Edges—the memory of those frayed pieces of yardage my mother had brought home from the fabric store to sew doll clothes or a dress for her daughters.) I needed to figure a way to climb out of a very deep hole before the rains came and filled that hole with me in it.

Gradually, it dawned on me that I’d grown up in a truth-telling culture, and that therefore, it was now time to tell myself the truth. Were the people around me the problem, or did I need to examine myself more ruthlessly? Had I been pretending to be something I wasn’t? Was I projecting an upbeat image when I was withering inside? Was I a phony? A straw woman? A chameleon?

I knew I needed to probe deeper into both the actuality and the mystery of myself. A teacher had once told me that universal truths are often found in those embarrassing, shameful, hurtful incidents and attitudes that hold so much power over an individual, so I looked in that direction.

In mythical terms, I embarked on the hero’s journey, entering a labyrinth with its dragons, Sirens, bugaboos, bogey men, and ghosts—the ones that inhabit each of our peculiar paths.

Confronted by this maze, I turned to the written word to guide me through. I decided that everything I wrote would stay strictly between me and the page. I could write whatever I wanted because I didn’t have to let anyone else read my words. I found validation in the direction I had chosen from writers such as Maria Vargas Llosa who’d been quoted as having said, “The writer is an exorcist of his own demons;”11 such as Robert Louis Stevenson who in a letter to W. Craibe Angus, wrote, “Macerate your subject, let it boil slow, then take the lid off and look in—and there your stuff is, good or bad.”12 I also took note from Mormon writer, Stephen Carter, who writes in his essay, “The Departed,” “What if I could give myself enough authority to start my own story? I mean really delve into my life, really probe my thoughts, really lay out what my experience seemed to present to me instead of letting the Mormon story take over the interpretation.”13

Writing can help you literally see what you think. As you fill the pages, you can ask, “Is this right? Is this the way it happened?” The anger and hurt inside—where does it really come from, and what does it mean? The truth may not be so easy to discern. It can be as slippery as mercury which pulls away every time you try to touch it. As Oscar Wilde expressed it in a greeting card quotation, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

So now, what are the reasons for writing a candid or confessional memoir in a Mormon context, or in any other milieu?

1. You can retrace your steps through your labyrinth, essay your journey, understand it more fully, and thus find the magic key—the one usually kept in a secret box by the Wise One of fairy tales—to unlock something that may have been a puzzle or a stumbling block. Then you can write past what you think you know, discovering important, but until-now-hidden, things about yourself.

2. Your journey, if honestly documented, can help others start on their own journeys. When you write down your journey toward self-understanding, your reader can gain something essential from your struggle.

3. You will experience moments of transparency—a place of whiteness, brilliance, and unstained purity. You’ll escape the Emperor’s New Clothes. You will be able to say, “What you see is what you get.” Maybe you aren’t as brilliant, talented, and good as you would like to be, but you are willing to own what and who you are, and you have found that you are still fluid and capable of change.

4. The truth you have made public will no longer be lying in wait to catch you by surprise or to be discovered and exposed by someone else. A demon personally exorcised leaves behind fewer scars than one extracted by someone else.

This concept can be illustrated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. In 1993, leaders in South Africa successfully completed a long series of negotiations that would end Apartheid and set in motion the institutions of majority democracy. But Apartheid had inflicted horrific events on the people of South Africa. Many deep psychological, emotional, and physical wounds marred them. The purpose of Truth and Reconciliation was to create an atmosphere where the stories of Apartheid could be told, and, instead of eliciting vengeance and retaliation, bring forth understanding and ubuntu (humaneness). They sought for restoration instead of prosecution.

The victims and the perpetrators were brought together in a courtroom to tell their stories to each other. Selective amnesty for the brutal crimes committed during Apartheid was granted as part of the narration process. As I watched clips of some of these “trials” in the documentary film Long Night’s Journey into Day, I saw those who had entered the courtroom hating each other beginning to listen as the other party told his or her side of the story. Their blind hatred changed during that time in court in full view of the press and the South African nation. When the participants finally left the courtroom, they took with them a greater understanding of the complexities of each other’s story, knowing a little better why members of the police force, for example, had done what they had. Certainly one woman who faced the man who’d murdered her son did not leave with an about-face empathy or trust for the policeman, but the fact that she’d listened to his story gave her the ability to question her assumptions. Similarly, the police officer left with a deeper understanding of a woman whose life he had changed so irrevocably.14

This endeavor by Mandela and Tutu has served as a model for me to reconsider my own approach to truth-telling, giving me the possibility of moving intellectually and emotionally to a place beyond blame, beyond fault-finding, beyond self-pity. There I can hear the other side of the story.

5. In the writing process, you can arrive at a more mature understanding of your own story. The truth is relative depending on your angle of perception. Your account is, in actuality, only your perception of what has happened. Acknowledging that may be your most valuable achievement in the writing of your memoir.

So much of today’s confessional writing is of the kiss-and-tell, talk-show variety with not-so-subtle shades of kill-the-bastard, take-him-down. But in the process of writing one’s story, it’s possible to go beyond whining, complaining, or seeking revenge by telling all. It’s possible to turn the tables and ask yourself if you’ve been drowning in self-pity because life didn’t turn out the way you thought it should and to ask if you’re being swallowed by your bitterness or self-righteousness. It’s possible to detach yourself from whatever perfect-life picture you had painted in your mind—the one you had set out to achieve at all costs. In my case, this picture was the smiling mother who never said an unkind word to anyone and never snapped at her children, the cooperative wife who held her family together at all costs.

After I’d finished what seemed to be the 2,000th draft of Raw Edges, I asked David, my long-time first husband, whom much of my story was about, if he would read it. I was finally ready to know whether what I’d written rang true for him. After so much revision, I’d overcome my sense of having been wronged, and this helped me to tell as much of his side of the story as the book would allow. I was more willing to operate out of a place of forgiveness and to give him a wider berth. I had also shifted the focus of the book away from just me to a much larger playing field—a philosophical analysis of how people get mired down by the stories they insist on believing.

When David had finished reading the manuscript, he telephoned me. “The book is good, even great,” he said. And then he paused. “There’s love after all,” he finally said, softly. I was stunned by his words. He had not only heard my story for what seemed like the first time; he had received it. And in his reception of my story, something in me was set free—the part of me that believed no one was listening. I was tremendously gratified by his response. It meant that I had transformed the torn pieces of what I’d once perceived to be a more-than-sad story, that I had written through the labyrinth, emerging with a new understanding that prepared me to shed the weighty, sorrowful narrative I’d carried for years.

I turn again to words from Stephen Carter in his essay, “The Departed:”

All of us want to have a community where we are heard, where we can hear other people, where our individual stories can cross-fertilize, making something new and beautiful. There are a lot of us, and we’re very different from each other . . . . [I] wonder if, as a church, we need to follow Alma’s advice, to “mourn with those that mourn . . . and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” To me, that sounds like a good way to say, “Let’s start listening to each other’s stories.”15

6. By moving beyond easy dualities, beyond the obvious, you can make art of your experience. You can move into the realm of creating, dreaming, and shaping new thoughts and possibilities. If you choose to be an artist, your goal is “to write what you cannot know before you have written” just as a painter “paints what she cannot paint.”16

A scribe records: an artist pierces the skin of the unknown, sets foot, as Kafka says,

in the Holy of the Holies [where] you must take off your shoes . . . your travelling garment and lay down your luggage; and under that you must shed your nakedness and everything that is under the nakedness and everything that hides beneath that, and then the core and the core of the core, then the remainder and then the residue and then even the Holy of the Holies and let yourself be absorbed by it.17

In conclusion, I offer a few questions to all writers, be they memoirists, poets, short story writers, or novelists. Should a book be written to serve the expectations of its audience? Should it be written in a formulaic format with a happy ending and only for entertainment? Should it have good manners and wear Mary Janes? Should a book bear testimony to The Truth, or, by its very nature, can it explore only the tiny tendril roots of The Truth—the roots of personal experience? Should a book be something dangerous, edgy, something that serves as “the axe to break the frozen sea inside of us,” as Kafka has written?18 What should a book be? And why write a book at all if one does not explore unfamiliar territory, the places where one holds one’s breath because of what might wait around the next corner?



1.  Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward With Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1996), 64.

2.   Spencer W. Kimball, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” Ensign, July 1977, (accessed 17 January 2011).

3.  Ibid.

4.  Boyd K. Packer “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord,” BYU Fireside Address, 1 February 1976, (accessed 17 January 2011).

5.  Ibid.

6.  Holly Welker, “Mormonism, Criticism, and Bad Autobiography,” in “The Pros and  Cons of Writing Confessional Memoir in the Mormon Milieu,” (2010 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, 6 August 2010, SL10344).

7.  Hélène Cisoux, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993), 38.

8.  Peterson, Levi. A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning, (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2006), 411.

9.  Ibid., p. 273.

10.      Ibid., p. 273.

11. Quoted in Brian Doyle, Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies (Chicago, Loyola Press, 2003), xxii.

12. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson Volume 2, Edited by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1994), 92

13.      Carter, Stephen. What of the Night?, (Provo, UT, Zarahemla Books,  2010), 119.

14.      Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid, Long Night’s Journey Into Day,  Reid-Hoffmann Productions, 2000.

15.      Carter, What of the Night?, 129.

16.      Cisoux, Three Steps, 38.

17.      Ibid., 39.

18.      Ibid., 17.