I’m into middle age now, but I apparently haven’t decided yet if I’m primarily an editor, publisher, or author. Lately, I’ve been doing mostly just editing, publishing, and noncreative informational writing, but I still harbor a deep inner desire to do original creative works, and I often find myself thinking of all this noncreative breadwinning and volunteer stuff as hindering me from doing some “real” work.
So, I’ve had this novel idea rolling around in my head for many years I don’t know how many, because I can’t remember when the idea first started to form. It may have been nearly twenty years ago. In recent years, I’ve done a fair bit of daydreaming about it and even some experimental drafting. In recent months, the pieces have finally started coming together and cohering as an actual doable novel in my head, and I’ve felt so creatively “inspired” that I’ve often had to pull over the car to jot down new ideas. (My file of notes now exceeds 100 pages single-spaced. Part of me wishes I could just import that document into some kind of software, push a button, and get a finished novel, because I don’t know when I’ll ever find the time to write it myself and because hey, I want to read the book, which is a good sign.) It’s a strange feeling to watch something ripen like this and wonder how and when I can or should harvest it.
In Stephen King’s On Writing, he recommends fully devoting oneself to a focused, concentrated, continuous drafting process, spending several hours a day for several weeks in a row in order to build up and sustain creative momentum, attain a sort of creative critical mass. Of course, he has the luxury to do that, since he’s not exactly under pressure to earn a living. But I can see the wisdom in it because it fosters an organic synergy (to use an odious corporate buzzword). So right now I’m trying to figure out a way to carve myself out a focused drafting period free of as many other demands as possible.
But on the other hand, I’m wondering if that’s worth the effort and sacrifice. Like most people, I’ve got so many other things on the burners in my case, wife and five kids, full-time day job, night job teaching freshman composition, paid freelance writing and editing, donating my time to Zarahemla Books and, to a fairly minimized degree, to the LDS Church and I wonder if a novel is really a worthwhile thing to devote myself to, when I’m already stretched rather thin. Part of me feels that my novel project should perhaps be a hobby, something I dabble in when I have time and feel in the mood. (Now I’m starting to sound like my earlier post about Zarahemla Books.) Contrary to King’s advice, I sometimes tell myself that with the notes and plotting I’ve already done, it doesn’t matter if it takes several years to write out this novel, since I’ve already captured the basic elements on paper so I won’t forget them.
In other words, I’m dealing with those questions that must plague most Mormon writers in fact, I’m sure we’ve discussed them many times in AML, but now they’ve become active concerns for me again instead of just theoretical. Here’s another big one for me: Does God even value and respect fiction? Yes, I know the Savior used short little fictions called parables to teach the gospel, but I’m not sure we know for sure they were fiction, and they don’t tell me anything about what the Lord thinks about flawed mortals devoting big portions of their lives to writing book-length fiction.
Frankly, I’m pessimistic about it. It seems to me that much mortal-created fiction at least the kind I personally most like to read and write, the kind that reflects human reality rather than depicts a more idealized, sanitized, superficial version must fall into the category of “vain imaginations.
I honestly don’t think God has much, if any, use for fiction. I remember with Irreantum I used to ask authors what they imagined God thought of their fiction. The only answer I remember is Brady Udall’s: “I don’t think he thinks anything at all.” But I don’t agree with that. I imagine God thinks our fiction is more often a product of the natural (wo)man than otherwise. Perhaps in his view it’s most often an unholy, impure practice, a waste of time both to read and write, something that will not be present in heaven and that must be repented of in order for us to get there. (I think fine Adamic writing will be present in heaven, but not fictional fine writing.) At best, I can imagine realistic fiction as a mortal tool for working out our salvation, which I suppose has considerable value, if indeed it ever really serves that purpose, which I think must be relatively rare.
I admire people like Angela Hallstrom who can write a realistic Mormon novel that is both literary and pure-minded, that doesn’t feel repressed and artificial like LDS-market fiction but that doesn’t become perverse, which is a word that has been applied to my own writing. For me, imaginative creative writing including satire seems to bring out more cynicism and impurity than otherwise, my id rather than my ego or superego. I’m not sure why perhaps it’s the desire to provoke, or to turn like a dog to its vomit, or to somehow take a sort of passive-aggressively (passively aggressive?) rebellious stance toward religious culture. I love to generate and manipulate the stuff of fiction and produce polished prose, mingled with simile and metaphor, but writing with some kind of higher moral purpose or agenda or point or desire to edify or enrich the human race seems to be largely a disconnect for me. My biggest limit as a potential author may be that I don’t primarily want to explore serious questions seriously and work toward redemption; I already get way too much of that through church-y channels, and I don’t want religion to subsume and consume my imagination too. For me, fiction is a playground of the mind and a place to put aside inhibitions, to create messes and, if not glory in, then to wallow in humanity. I remember one well-known Mormon reviewer read a draft of a novel I wrote and called it “masturbatory.” Yet in the end, as a believing Mormon myself, I didn’t want to invent a whole new religion or spiritual paradigm for my characters to replace the LDS gospel, so at the last possible moment I brought them back around to mainstream Mormonism, as D. Michael Martindale did at the end of his novel Brother Brigham.
It occurs to me that the law of consecration comes into play here, that Mormons are supposed to consecrate their time and talents to building up God’s kingdom. So I guess for me part of the problem is that, as far as I can tell, God doesn’t really want fiction consecrated to him. So yes, perhaps it is like Cain’s sacrifice, as Jonathan Langford recently discussed on this blog. I don’t think God is interested in doing much if anything with fiction: he has many other superior tools for teaching and influencing his children, including nonfiction stories and so his people who want to write fiction tend to consecrate it to the Church and to Mormon culture, for lack of better alternatives, and therefore it ends up pretty insipid and lacking in much real value. Or it veers all too easily off into the nether world of apostasy. (Stephen Carter deals excellently with how these two poles suck in Mormon stories in his forthcoming book of essays, What of the Night?) I’m not sure God really wants his people to carve out a “radical middle” in fiction, to tell you the truth, or even spend much time or energy on it at all, in any form. Or maybe it’s just that I honestly can’t conceive of how someone would consecrate his or her fiction-writing to God and still come up with anything very interesting.
Here’s another thing I struggle with: Why does writing fiction have such a strange compulsion to it, for those of us who carry this virus? Deep inside, many of us have such gonzo expectations for our fiction, and we carry a dark secret: the thing that often seems to mean the very most to many of us is achievement and success with our fiction, perhaps even fame and fortune. I think it’s a compulsion not unlike other flaws of the flesh, though in this case it’s cerebral flesh. I was brought up short by a comment by Joyce Carol Oates in a recent Atlantic: “Your writing will not save you. Managing to be published by Ontario Review Press! [or fill in the blank] will not save you. Don’t be deluded.” I think a lot of us do think that if we can just pull off this great novel, we will somehow be saved. Perhaps it’s even a form of pride, of relying upon the arm of (cerebral) flesh. I know I sometimes almost feel that way, deep down. Brady Udall told Entertainment Weekly about his ordeal writing his new novel The Lonely Polygamist, during which he went days at a time without sleep: “I got nutty. I felt immense pressure. Your life is staked on a book like this.” But is it? Should it be? My higher spiritual conscience says no, even if one receives a $300,000 advance, as Udall did.
Another question I’m struggling with right now, as I decide how seriously to take this next project, how much of myself to devote to it, how much hope and ambition to put into it: Who am I really writing for, as an audience? My answer to that is most often “myself,” but on the other hand I’m aware that I always seem to get myself into a situation where I’m writing to both Mormons and non-Mormons. I want to address deep Mormon themes from an ultimately believing perspective but also to include realistic R-rated elements when it’s germane to the story and to highlight the weird, exotic, interesting stuff. But there’s not an audience for that combined package and probably never will be. So do I try to write a novel without any overt Mormonism in it, or do I try to write something for the Mormon market? The problem is, neither one of those alone interests me. So if I don’t have an audience, why should I take writing the novel very seriously? If it’s just for self-fulfillment which I don’t discount as a valid option then it should be a hobby. But for me, writing fiction never behaves like a hobby I always get caught up in thoughts of self-imposed deadlines, and getting critical feedback, and how I might approach agents with it, etc. etc. That’s work, not a hobby.
Anyway, right now I’m in a somewhat uncomfortable limbo because what I really want to do is hunker down with this new novel, but I’ve got so many other projects still floating around competing with it, and they’re not just things I can blow off. And on the deeper spiritual level, I’m just not convinced of fiction’s worthwhileness, at least in any form in which I personally can relate with it. I want to start drafting now, but I don’t want to start until I can stick with it in a sustained way. But if I wait for a better time, it may never come, at this stage in my life. Yet every day I think about this project and yearn to do it.
I wish there were a pill to make this dilemma go away. Maybe my pessimism in thinking of writing fiction as some kind of fallen, sinful, ungodly activity is a way to talk myself out of it, give myself permission or imperative to put it aside as unworthy of a believing Mormon. But it seems like I would feel so aimless and adrift without something to look forward to doing creatively. I don’t just want to home teach and play Candyland with my kids with all my spare time, which is sometimes what it seems like good Mormons are expected to do.
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.<–>