Storytelling & Community: Dumbo’s Lament: All Alone in the Big Tent

A (relatively short) meander in two and a half parts that have (mostly) nothing to do with literature. Sorry for the downer after Ed’s lively and entertaining piece; it’s all I have today.

In Ephesians 2:19 we read:

19. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;

20. And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;

21. In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:

22. In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

I’ve always felt vaguely guilty about this passage because I still regularly feel like a stranger and often times a foreigner—or at least an outsider—in so many ways when I meet with my fellowcitizens of the saints and the household of God, both online and in person.

It’s a hazard of any group, whether social, political, cultural, academic, or religious. We tend to share a significant set of common interests that provide us a strong affinity that overcomes the things that separate us. But with time and familiarity those differences become more evident, and the sense of dissonance more acute as we bump up against more and more of those areas where we are not fitly framed or builded together.

It shouldn’t matter. The things that bind us are clearly stronger than the things that differentiate us. And most of the time they seem trivial or irrelevant. But once in a while the rubs seems impossible to avoid, and in unguarded moments our collisions of lesser beliefs especially bothersome.

We saw a fine example of that in our corner of the blogosphere with the discussion around Annette’s post last week. Despite our unity in appreciating Mormon literature (in its many, many forms and expressions), our methods of interpretation and fundamental viewpoints turned out to be sufficiently different to expose some very sensitive concerns.

I couldn’t think of anything to add to that conversation because I felt affinity to all sides. I think it is a shame when people are unwilling to seek new or different experience, because I think there are many things worth knowing that can only be understood if we reach beyond our safe places. I also feel the frustration of being snubbed by academia (and by fandom) and judged as unworthy because of my literary or aesthetic tastes.

It can be very lonely at times inside this big, wonderful tent. Despite all the noise and fanfare and moments of deep intimacy and connection, there are an awful lot of moments when that same fanfare serves to separate rather than integrate. It might well be that we are perceiving inaccurately (see a previous entry from January 25th on Perception of the Sacred), but that doesn’t make the experience less frustrating or alienating.

Fortunately, we believe in both continuous improvement and repentance, so the hope remains. I look forward to the day when loneliness is banished altogether and I can truly perceive perfect unity.


I have a USB VCR that I’ve been using to make digital captures of old video tapes (my regular VCR is dead, and they’re getting really expensive to replace these days). The system captures the video in real time, so I get to watch them on my computer screen as they’re digitized.

Two films in particular stuck out—Dumbo and Beauty and the Beast. I know I’m supposed to view both as the triumph of the outcast as they find their connection to mainstream society, but both left me feeling vaguely empty for essentially different reasons.

Dumbo ends up being accepted only because of an exceptional (and accidental) talent—not for any inherent value in himself. He had to bribe his way into acceptance, and there’s no reason to believe he (or his mother) will continue to be accepted when he finally grows into those ears. He didn’t solve the problem; he just bought a few years of peace.

The Beast had nearly the opposite problem—his curse required a completely external (and thus uncontrollable) validation before he could earn freedom. It wasn’t enough that he become honestly and truly loveable; he also had to be loved by someone else. No act of his own could break the curse.

I suppose that one uses a more Christian image—after all that he could do the Beast still required an external savior. But the curse still seems unusually and disproportionately cruel in that it demanded a confluence of events completely beyond the realm of repentance or change of heart, and his savior was a fallable human. Beast might have been perfect in every way and still not be saved. Nearly as bad, he might be a fully changed and worthy man who then spends year after year in deepest loneliness to no purpose.

I think I understand something of Dumbo’s lament. It’s not all that hard to feel alone despite the massive size of the tent, the density of the crowd, prior witnesses of the spirit, or the joyful noise pressing from all sides. One of the things I think literature can offer—especially the more emotionally difficult stuff—is a lifeline not only to those seeking the tent, but also those feeling deeply lost and alone within it.Just as importantly, it can teach some of us to look a little more closely and see those sitting alone around the edges of the room so we can know to explicitly invite them in.

Not as the only true literary genre, but as one part of a broad and diverse literature that both comforts and stretches our hearts and minds.

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9 Responses to Storytelling & Community: Dumbo’s Lament: All Alone in the Big Tent

  1. Angela H. says:

    Great post, Scott.

    I remember a discussion with some of my college-age creative writing students about this subject. One of the things they mentioned looking forward to about adulthood was "getting over" the desire for popularity or the overwhelming need to fit in. I told them that while the parameters for acceptance definitely change over time, the truth is that a hunger for validation and acceptance seems to be with us always. I suppose that, over time, we do become more aware of how arbitrary "popularity" can be–the confluence of luck and timing and genetics and connections that somehow translate into worldly approval–but it doesn’t make the pain that comes from feeling as if you’re on the outside looking in any less real.

    And, yes, this is one of the major reasons I love to read. It’s those, "Oh, you too!" experiences that let us know we’re not alone, even if the person we’re communing with is fictional.

  2. Ed Snow says:

    As always, a lot to think about here Scott.

    I think anyone who writes feels snubbed, alone, even forsaken, no matter how successful, sometime or other. Say, you’ve sold 1 million copies you wish you had sold 5 million. And, if you sell 5 million copies of book #1 and then can just barely sell 1 million copies of book #2, you’re probably depressed even though you sold 1 million freaking copies of book #2. It’s a problem of perception, as you note.

    You know, we’ve never met face-to-face (that I can remember), but we know each other through various iterations of AML publications/blogs so I think I know you, or rather your writing voice, pretty well. I think I could recognize that voice just as I recognize the face of a neighbor. There are many other writers whose voices I know and recognize. However, I often fail to connect to these voices, but usually that’s because of my own insecurities rather than any failing in the voices I read/listen to. So many times I’ll read something here, or on FaceBook, or on a blog and I’ll have typed up a comment but I’ll withdraw it at the last second for a variety of reasons, usually because what I’ve written was too stupid or not stupid enough to fit my fancy.

    Similarly, how many times have we heard someone give a talk and not afterwards tell them how much we enjoyed it? It ought to be a commandment/moral imperative to celebrate the creativity of others with them. We should be morning stars shouting for joy celebrating the creative activities of each other, just as we did at that first creation. At least at church we get to say "amen" and give some verbal affirmation after a sermon or lesson. It’s really a wonderful practice that we usually mumble through without thinking about its consequences.

    So, Scott … amen.

    PS. I almost didn’t post this comment.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]Similarly, how many times have we heard someone give a talk and not afterwards tell them how much we enjoyed it?[/b]

    One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to email authors whose work I enjoyed and tell them.

  4. Melinda W. says:

    I really liked your post. I read books to find myself for years, because I didn’t relate well to people in real life. My first draft of my latest book was very daring, for me, because I wrote some of the hard emotions. It was significant for me to have readers say they recognized themselves in the characters; it was a connection I wanted to create. I find it easier to tell the truth about hard emotions in fiction than in non-fiction writing like blog posts or personal essays.

    And I agree with your assessment of Dumbo, because I noticed the same things myself several years ago. :)

  5. J. Scott Bronson says:

    And, amen.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Because of this big tent and its voices asking for validation, I picked up and read two books I never would have otherwise: Josi Kilpack’s [i]Surrounded by Strangers[/i], thru Bonneville; and Julie Wright’s [i]My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life[/i], through DB. I’m a hard-core literary fiction mama, so no, reading these didn’t spark a change of heart in terms of my reading preferences. Nor did they convince me that mainstream Mormon readers are going more "edgy" in their tastes. The characters had problems "ripped from the headlines," so to speak, but, as a reader, I still knew from the outset that everyone would make the right, spirit-driven choices in the end. I found both books entertaining, if not escapist, but not thought-provoking in the sense that I felt challenged to either consider or reconsider my world in a new way. Generally, I was impressed with the craft–the skill–that went into creating these stories. And let me be clear, I enjoyed both reads. . .enough.

    I bring all this up not to rub salt in an old wound, but to point out that it is a good thing to read and celebrate kinds of writing and thinking that is not our own personal foundation. Admittedly, I don’t read like most readers because I’m a writer and I’m fairly well-schooled in how stories should grow. That’s the kind of thing I look at. In reading both of these books, I felt as if I’d learned more about a segment of my potential audience. I learned more about what their expectations are. That’s beneficial to me. So while I haven’t suddenly made a genre-switch and while my thinking about how Mormon literary fiction and genre fiction (which is really the mainstream) are delineated hasn’t changed, I understand more clearly that the mainstream writing can help me understand the Mormon experience better. That is a good and valuable thing. And as I go forward with my own reading and writing experiences, I expect I’ll incorporate the occasional mainstream read as a means of keeping connected to a potential audience.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Hm, that "enough" line above is grating on me. I didn’t mean it as an put-down, but as a way to acknowledge that I was reading out of my preferred genre, a genre that doesn’t set out to accomplish the things I’m usually reading for. Because of that, these books can’t be something I enjoy to the same degree as my usual reads. I can’t fault the books for that. They do exactly what they intend to do and do it well. (I bet I’m not making this any better.)

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    Lisa, I think the super important thing here is that you read the books for what they were instead of reading them for what you expected/hoped/wanted them to be, and then getting upset that they weren’t whatever you expected/hoped/wanted. Even readers/lovers of any given genre have devices they don’t like and/or are tired of.

    [b]I bet I’m not making this any better.[/b]

    You’re just fine.

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Thank you, Moriah. I do think you’ve hit the nail on the head. So much of the apparent bickering between Mo Lit camps seems to be because we forget that each co-exists in its own sphere–and quite successfully so. Big tent, sure. Its a good analogy, but within that Big Tent, we’ve all got our own little section where we set up our hot dog and cotton candy stands. Mo Lit folks don’t want the accusation of being faith-destroying because we don’t set out to affirm faith, but to do something quite different. We like to use the word "explore" and active exploration remains open-ended more often than not. Likewise, genre, or more mainstream, writers, shouldn’t be hacked to death because they focus on affirming faith. Might as well be upset with a cat for not being a dog. But as I said, I walked away from both reads a little better informed about what a particular audience expects, an audience, quite frankly, I’ve not paid attention to. Big tent, but I’ve only been paying attention to my corner of it. Too bad. Do unto others and all that.

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