Mormon LitCrit: Building the Kingdom with Writing

Two weeks before beginning work on an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU, Anna Lewis turned in her two weeks’ notice to the eating disorder clinic where she worked. One of the girls there asked her, “Do you really believe that you will be doing anything as a writer that is more important than what you are doing here?” I know about this incident because Lewis tells it in her thesis’s Afterword, in which she searches for the intersections and differences between creative writing and social work.

That struck me as a very Mormon-writer sort of thing to do. We’re trying to be like Jesus, and so we want our writing, somehow, to serve others. Some of us started writing because we had some talent for it, and then wonder how we can consecrate that talent to God. Others, perhaps, were drawn to writing specifically out of a hope that through the special power of words and stories, they could reach people.

For most of us, though, at some point doubt sets in. We’re taught to believe that “didactic” is a bad word (having watched numerous didactic Bollywood melodramas, I have my doubts about the absolute, universal truth of that, but it’s still an idea I have to reckon with). We learn something about the economics of publishing and the statistics of audience and realize that writing a story is far from having it reach the desired audience. And so on.

Can we still believe that, in a conventional Mormon way, our writing helps “serve others” or “build the kingdom”? If so, how? Today, a few of my thoughts on alternatives to the overtly didactic model for writing which still evaluate creative work on its religious utility.

1) “Everybody needs a friend”

Human beings need to connect with others. It’s in our biology, it’s part of our spiritual nature. The business of connection seems unusually complicated today, however, given the breakdown of traditional communities, the weakening of extended family, and the fiercely individualistic spirit of most strains in contemporary culture. Maybe the reason Kafka is so famous, in fact, is that he powerfully described acute feelings of alienation at the moment when an era of widespread alienation was dawning.

Can literature work, in some ways, against isolation? Can a character or writer become someone’s close friend? Alternatively, can a shared piece of writing serve to deepen others’ real-life relationships?

It seems to me that the work of a good writer in promoting sociality offers an alternative to the didactive value of writing for the Mormon writer who wants his/her work to serve. There’s something to be said for a book that mourns with those who mourn, for example, whether it provides any additional wisdom or not. Many people are comforted simply by knowing they are not alone. There’s also something to be said for a work that leaves space for discussion at the end, begging those who have read or seen the work to talk about it. As a playwright, I used to say that my work should by evaluated by what people said to each other after they’d left the theatre rather than simply by how they were entertained during the piece. I wanted my work to open up others’ friendships in its wake.

Finally, it recently occurred to me that the creation of interesting Mormon characters (even if the character is the author), might actually serve to help proselyting efforts. I’ve heard estimates that the average convert has seven positive contacts with Mormons prior to serious investigation. Maybe the act of connection–independent of any need to preach–helps prepare some people to be interested in honest-to-goodness preaching at the right time in their lives.

2) Awakening spiritual wonder.

Another possible role creative works can play is in awakening and fostering spiritual wonder. When I was a kid, books like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Ursula LeGiunn’s Earthsea trilogy did this for me. As I recall, neither of those authors is presenting detailed spiritual or ethical systems, but they do tell stories about ordinary people who become aware the what’s happening around them matters more and is more mysterious than they might have imagined. Creative writing might help build the kingdom less in delivering detailed instructions than in promoting the awe which lives at the heart of real reverence, in helping articulate and give strength to people’s innate spiritual hunger, etc. It’s one thing to write a piece which explains your view of God. It’s quite another to write a piece that makes people want to see God themselves. Both types of work, I think, have real building-the-kingdom value.

3) Getting people drunk on insight.

We talked about the Psalms in Sunday school last week. One thing I love about the Psalms is their praise of insight over vanity, their fervent prayers for wisdom.

Allow me to suggest that we will tend to ridicule as didactic pieces which suggest things we already know (even if we don’t do them), but that we’ll refuse to apply the same label to surprising preaching which lends us new vision.

If a creative work can help us see the consequences of our actions differently, if it can gives us the visceral pleasure of new insight into difficult human problems, then we’ll rave about it. “This book changed the way I think about x”…”This book showed me something I’d never known about y.”

Does it build the kingdom to get people hooked on insight? If it’s real and good insight, the kind which is also inspiriation, then the Psalms seem to say yes. The Doctrine and Covenants also seem to suggest that people who start seeking insight are more likely to be led by the Spirit to truth. Thus, a real literature of fresh ideas can serve in a different way than a literature of ideological reinforcenment to give people a hunger for righteousness and truth.

There are, of course, many other ways in which literature can build up the kingdom. How many can we come up with in the comments?

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22 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Building the Kingdom with Writing

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Its wonderful to hear your story, Melinda, and know how books and storytelling lifted you. In the end, I think most of us write because we loved to read from the beginning. Its nice to think we can serve others by providing the thing we love for their consumption. So service. After all, it isn’t as pleasurable to write as it is to read.

  2. Katya says:

    "Its wonderful to hear your story, Melinda, "

    ?

  3. Th. says:

    .

    There was another comment above Lisa’s. This is an example of comments-getting-delete-that-aren’t-spam that some people were talking about.

  4. Melinda W. says:

    Yeah, there was a comment above mine that got deleted too.

    My story that Lisa is referring to is my search for normality in novels. I was raised in a somewhat skewed environment, and it left me with some dysfunctional thinking. Novels with lost, lonely heroines who eventually found themselves (and happiness) were a lifeline to me for much of my life. I want to write the sort of books that I wanted to read when I was younger. I’ve noticed that many books about emotional and behavioral troubles end with the diagnosis of the problem. Actually, the diagnosis is the beginning of the next road. I want to write books about the healing process. Since Christ is the great Healer, the stories I want to tell (only one manuscript completed so far) are about survivors walking the path to healing.

  5. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I swear we are only deleting the spam link posts. I don’t know how other posts are getting deleted, such as yours, Melinda, and I grovellingly apologize that they have been deleted.

    If we can figure out what is happening, so only the spam posts are deleted and no others, we will do so.

    One suggestion is that we have posts moderated (so that only posts from real people actually appear on the blog), but that could slow down the back-and-forth discussion aspects, and we’re reluctant to do that.

    Any feedback on the idea of moderating comments?

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    I would suggest using a different blogging platform and using a spam filter.

  7. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    There are reasons why we didn’t go with a different platform in the first place and we are using a spam filter, but thank you for the suggestion.

    We are interested in feedback on whether or not to moderate blog comments.

  8. Wm Morris says:

    What are the barriers to switching to a different platform? Are they barriers that some of us could help remove?

    In terms of moderating blog comments: it’s already slow enough around here (and the other AML platforms for conversation are even slower). I’m willing to put up with a little spam in order to facilitate the flow of conversation. And for those of us who receive comments via the RSS feed, we get the spam comments whether they are deleted shortly after they post or not.

  9. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I realized something today that concerns me about the missing comments.

    The spam comments we have been deleting on purpose have been in the comments section of older posts (as long ago as weeks). I can’t imagine how there is any way deleting the spam comments on those older posts could be connected to the missing comments on this post, unless the spammers have somehow linked their comments to legitimate comments so they disappear when the spam comments are deleted.

    So, they are two different problems.

    As for a different platform, when the AML board discussed having an AML blog, we talked to our webmaster about using WordPress or Blogger, and he said that this was a better system.

    If you all want to argue with him, that’s fine. Go ahead.

    If anyone here wants to take over as webmaster and set the AML blog up on a different platform, please let the AML board know and they will consider your offer.

  10. Moriah Jovan says:

    To be very clear: I am not trying to pick a fight. There is a problem, and I am trying to help. It’s a compulsion. I should probably take medication for that.

    [b]As for a different platform, when the AML board discussed having an AML blog, we talked to our webmaster about using WordPress or Blogger, and he said that this was a better system. [/b]

    I would then wonder why he isn’t dealing with this problem.

    [b]If anyone here wants to take over as webmaster and set the AML blog up on a different platform, please let the AML board know and they will consider your offer.[/b]

    How many people are on this board?

  11. Wm Morris says:

    [quote]How many people are on this board?[/quote]

    See: http://mormonletters.org/Staff.aspx

    —-

    One of the barriers to someone taking over as webmaster (not that I’m saying that that needs to happen — I like Jacob and he stepped up to help out when no one else would and deserves a lot of credit for making major improvements to the AML website*) is that this is all built using an ASP.net framework. As far as I know (and I could be wrong), that makes it difficult for lay-webmasters (who can, for example, use WP or Google sites or basic html/CSS) to help out.

    *Props also go to Kathleen and Johnna for their hard work.

  12. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thanks, Wm.

    [b]One of the barriers to someone taking over as webmaster … is that this is all built using an ASP.net framework.[/b]

    I would simply suggest creating a new subdomain and loading WP on the back end using Fantastico.

  13. Wm Morris says:

    Is there a Board Member who is specifically charged with electronic communications? It seems to me that Kathleen shouldn’t have to be the one who worries about all this and who takes all the heat.


    The blog is already on a subdomain — blog.mormonletters.org. One of the advantages of using ASP.net is you do get the easily consistent branding and navigation across the site.

  14. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Thanks, William. I’m the membership secretary and the electronics communications board member (for want of a better thing to call it). It’s definitely less than what I have done in the past, by the way.

    As you pointed out, the moderation on the AML-list doesn’t slow discussion down all that much, so moderation on the AML blog probably wouldn’t either. It would just be one more thing for someone (me) to do, but I am already keeping track of the blog as it is, so it really wouldn’t be that much more.

    I’m am very sorry that this discussion has taken over the very important topic James Goldberg started here, and if I can, I will see if we can move these comments so the discussion can continue in its own topic, and so James’ topic can have its own discussion.

  15. Katya says:

    "I’m am very sorry that this discussion has taken over the very important topic James Goldberg started here . . ."

    Here’s the thing: The more barriers and disincentives to participation in this forum, the fewer people are going to participate in a discussion on this topic or any other.

    Having to pick through spam comments is a barrier to participation. Not being able to follow the discussion in comment threads because random comments have been deleted is a barrier to participation. Having one’s own comments randomly deleted is a disincentive to continued participation, as is having to wait for every comment one submits to clear moderation.

    As far as I can tell, the only reasons to stick with the current setup are (1) it’s what you’re already doing and (2) it allows for more consistent branding across the site. Are inertia and consistent branding really more important actual forum participation?

    Kathleen, you mentioned that you’re willing to moderate the comments and that moderation on the AML listserv hasn’t slowed down the conversation. With all due respect, the AML listserv averaged fewer than four posts per day last month. That’s a very slow pace for a group blog and relying on manual moderation effectively puts an upper bound on the pace of conversation, based on the amount of free time of the person doing the moderating. With an automated spam-catching filter (such as the dozen or so plugins available for WordPress), the number of comments could increase by a couple of orders of magnitude without any slowdown.

    I’m baffled when I hear AML higher-ups lament low membership rates, yet refuse to make basic changes that could increase participation and interest. (Unless, of course, you all [i]want[/i] to keep AML cliquish and insular, in which case, you’re doing fine.)

    I’m not trying to shoot the messenger, here, but I have no one else to interact with, so I’m hoping that she’ll take my arguments back to whoever it is that’s in a position to make some changes.

    "I will see if we can move these comments . . ."

    Please don’t. Given the track record of this software in terms of deleting random comments, I doubt that the move would be successful, and I think it’s an important conversation to preserve.

  16. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b](Unless, of course, you all want to keep AML cliquish and insular, in which case, you’re doing fine.)[/b]

    More and more I’m coming to believe fatigue may be a component here, possibly combined with a fuzzy vision of the future of Mormon arts and letters and/or a sense that the wagons need to be circled to fend off uncomfortable viewpoints and/or…some other thing that would take time and effort to dissect/digest (e.g., burgeoning technology and its options), then deal with–time and effort that is already in very short supply, as are new volunteers.

    Artists have their projects and interests. Those change over time. Life happens (KIDS HAPPEN!) priorities change. I’ve had to let go of quite a few things I love in order to focus on the things that became more important. In fact, I had to let go of a lifelong hobby I adored because I made a business out of it and it wasn’t fulfilling; the net result was I had to ditch the business AND the hobby because it made me unhappy and tired.

  17. I had an eye-opening conversation a while back with a friend from outside Utah who had never personally been to an AML board meeting (as I’ve been a couple of times, years ago). As we talked, I realized that he believed the organization was much bigger and commanded more resources than it really does — rather than being a volunteer effort run by a few people (changing over time) in between other, more major commitments.

    The sad truth is that those of us who comment on these lists probably have as much time and investment in the organization’s goals as anyone in a position of leadership. Some of us probably would already *be* in a position of AML leadership if we lived in Utah. This isn’t meant to denigrate the leadership or their commitment, but rather simply to point out that there is no "them" out there. I suspect that a typical ward activity commands more volunteer labor than AML can count on in any given month.

  18. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Thanks, Katya. We won’t try to move the comments, then. We will not go with moderating either. We think we’ve figured out why legitimate comments were disappearing, and that should stop. Again, apologies to all to whom that happened.

    What we are going to look into is inserting a captcha (the little picture of wonky letters that you have to type in a box in order to prove you’re not a spambot) into the comment process. We hope that will help.

    And as Jonathan said, we are struggling to find people who are willing to help us do the things AML is supposed to be doing. At the board meeting the other night, when we discussed the AML blog, they asked who is keeping track and dealing with the spam comments, and I raised my hand. They asked why I was doing it when I’m doing so many other things, and I said because I care about the AML blog. When someone said that we need to find someone else who cares to do it instead, I almost fell off of my chair laughing.

    AML volunteers don’t need to be in Utah for some of the stuff we are trying to do. For example, we need people who know how to use the internet (Facebook, Twitter, whatever) to get the word out on AML, its website and its blog (and that does not require anyone to be in Utah, since the internet spreads all over the world).

    We need readers who are willing to serve as judges for the specific categories in the AML awards, so one person (the AML Awards chair–which happens to be vacant right now) isn’t responsible for deciding which offerings to present to the AML board for selection from each category. In the past, some of our readers have been out of Utah, and I suspect that all of them could be.

    So we’re not trying to horde any of the "glory" or keep people out, we are desperate for "enthusiastic amateurs" (as someone once put it) who would like to help. Anyone who cares about Mormon literature (as opposed to wanting to use AML as a platform for their own grievances against the Church or whomever) is most anxiously welcome to apply.

  19. Jacob says:

    If this comment actually posts, it had to make it through a captcha :). So that should cut down on spam. A lot.

  20. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Hooray! Thank you, Jacob!

  21. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    So, back to James Goldberg’s topic.

    I don’t spend anywhere near as much time on writing fiction as I once did, but I spend a lot of time on working with writers, especially on the writing workshop fora sponsored by Orson Scott Card (the Hatrack River Writers Workshop forum and the Nauvoo Workshop for LDS Writers forum, both of which I moderate), and I find that even though I’m not creating so much, I am nurturing, and that is very rewarding.

    I enable learning (I hope) and I share what I’ve learned, and though I’m not taken very seriously by other published writers, I still contribute. (I suspect my heart is more in editing than it is in writing anyway.)

  22. Katya says:

    Thanks for your efforts, Kathleen and Jacob. (And thank you, Moriah and Jonathan, for reminding us that we all have a part to play.)

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