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?