The Writer’s Desk: Angst upon Embarking on a New Novel

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.<–>

This entry was posted in The Writer's Desk and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Angst upon Embarking on a New Novel

  1. Katya says:

    "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"

    Why do you think that nonfiction is inherently superior to fiction as a teaching tool?

  2. Rebekah says:

    I believe God is absolutely concerned with story and its ability to teach (think of the Temple ceremony) and I also believe, as Robert McKee suggests in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Filmmaking, that story is a reflection of culture and that has culture deteriorates, so does story. So by upholding stories, we are performing, indirectly, missionary work. Not to mention the fact that by writing and creating worlds and characters, we are practicing to someday be gods.

    Just a thought, but how much could you have written on your novel in the time it took you to write this post lamenting that you aren’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t write your novel?

  3. Wm Morris says:

    My previous comment aside, I agree that it’s not quite so simple, Chris. The reality is that everything we create, consume and critique that is culturally-related — both material and artistic culture — is embedded in a history and network of materials, works, activities and relationships that may or may not have much consonance with the Gospel as practiced and preached by the LDS. That makes things messy, especially for the producer of cultural products, and especially for the producer of cultural products that are less overtly didactic or totemic/symbolic or useful.

    And literature, in particular, as a field of culture has experienced revolutionary changes in the past two centuries and, for discursive and pragmatic reasons, has not been as fully embraced by the institutional Church as other forms of art — even of narrative art.

    On the other hand, I think that it’s clear from the scriptures that God is in constant dialogue with the cultures and cultural products of each time, and I see no reason why that shouldn’t be true today. I suppose one could argue that the LDS Church and what it provides is enough — but I see no evidence that that is the case. Members seek out other things. Nor could the Church engage in all the creative activity and engage all the genres and forms that exist today. Some members take that as a repudiation of those other genres and forms. I think that’s an impossible position to take — the reality is that we can’t cloister ourselves and so all of us are going to be tainted by the culture of the World (keeping in mind that the World always bring good and bad, fresh and tired, complex and shrill with it). The question, then, is not should you or shouldn’t you. It’s: how subversive can you be and what are you subverting? That, to my mind, is the importance of the radical middle.

  4. Katya: Cause it’s real, not made up. And I’m not saying that’s what I personally believe but what I imagine may be the case with God, based on what I’ve seen.

    William: That’s a great essay. I’m not at that higher "love" level yet, I guess.

    Rebekah: I think you missed my point, a little. I don’t think God is against storytelling, but I just often wonder if he has any use for the stories people MAKE UP. Interesting comment about writing fiction being practice for godhood–I could also see it as being sorta satanic, a premature bid for godlike power and glory.

    William: On your second comment, I see what you’re saying. It’s a more positive way to look at the situation. Personally, I’m cursed with the persistent impulse and desire to combine the world and Mormonism. I seem to want them both to suffuse each other, I guess because I like or believe in aspects of both but am not fully satisfied by either one alone. Maybe that’s my definition of the radical middle.

  5. Wm Morris says:

    I like the word suffuse — it’s much more positive, actually, than the verbs I’ve been using/thinking. And, coincidentally, this is something I’ve been think a lot about lately. I may have a more formal response in me.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    I dunno. Maybe I see God as a lot more generous than all that.

    Maybe he doesn’t care about our fiction. So what? Maybe he doesn’t care for bland, overwrought, overdone, mediocre little hymns, either. ("I Believe in Christ," I’m looking at YOU.) Hot/cold/lukewarm, blah blah blah.

    Somewhere up there, Bach and Handel are sitting at a bistro table sharing a good bottle of celestial w(h)ine and griping about how UNINSPIRED our liturgical music has become.

    And in some respect, I see us and this life we’re living as God’s grand fiction.

    What can I say. I’m hopelessly lost in the quest, even when I struggle with the story itself.

  7. Th. says:

    .

    I don’t have it in me to believe in this dour god you posit.

  8. Mariah: I like the idea of this life as God’s grand fiction. One of my favorite BoM verses is Jacob 7:26, especially the italicized part: "The time passed away with us, and also [i]our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream[/i], we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days." I savor that darkness and melancholy and the idea of life as just a dream.

    Th.: I’m not saying I "believe" in such a God either, just don’t yet know what else to think, when it comes to the role of fiction in life.

  9. Katya says:

    "Cause it’s real, not made up. And I’m not saying that’s what I personally believe but what I imagine may be the case with God, based on what I’ve seen."

    That’s fair, but I have a strong belief in the truth of well-written narrative, not because the events are factual but because they represent fundamental truths of human nature. And while I can’t claim to know if God likes fiction or non-fiction better, I do know that I have been powerfully spiritually moved/taught/influenced by fiction in ways that non-fiction can’t replicate, so it’s serving a purpose in my life, at least. (Actually, I think I may be inherently suspicious of didactic non-fiction because it feels contrived, while fiction at least admits its contrived nature upfront.)

  10. Angela H. says:

    Writing fiction is one of the most creative things I do. I’m not a gardener or a painter or a dancer or a gourmet cook, but I can make up stories and write them down. Writing fiction is my deal. And I think God is just as happy over my decision to practice the act of creation through fiction writing as he is with a person who dances or comes up with groundbreaking mathematical formulas.

    In the excellent talk "Happiness: Your Heritage," Pres. Uchtdorf says: "Our birthright—and the purpose of our great voyage on this earth—is to seek and experience eternal happiness. . . . One of the ways we find this is by creating things. The more you trust and rely upon the Spirit, the greater your capacity to create. That is your opportunity in this life and your destiny in the life to come."

    He’s not saying here that WHAT we create always has to bring other people to God directly. But well-written novels (even novels that deal with the dark and troublesome aspects of being human) HAVE helped bring me closer to the spirit, and I’m grateful to the children of God who wrote them so I could experience the enlightenment and understanding and joy that comes from reading a good novel.

    Can people take creative talents and pervert them, or use them to exploit others, or begin focusing on them to the exclusion of all else? Yes, yes, and yes. But the God *I* know wants us to have joy, and he wants us to grow in power and understanding, he wants us to do hard things, and he wants us to reach out to others. Writing fiction accomplishes all these things for me. This doesn’t mean that He expects my fiction should covert people; if I thought He thought that, I’d never be able to write another word. No–I think he’s my Father, and just as I encourage my kids’ individual talents and interest and quirks, I think He does the same for me.

    Write your novel, Chris. God loves you. :-)

  11. Th. says:

    .

    I would like to ditto Angela’s call for you to write your novel, Chris. Surely writing it won’t make you more miserable. Trust the fruit.

  12. Lee Allred says:

    Chris,

    Just one page a day. Just 250 words. (Your post today was 2100 words — 8 days worth.)

    One page a day, that’s a 90k word novel in a year. It’s doable. Especially with all the notes & plotting done.

    Hang in there!

    – Lee

    (P.S. Don’t make me dig out the Round Tuit button… :) )

  13. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    As I read this, I kept thinking, "Someone sounds depressed," and "There’s a pill for that."

  14. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Had overnight to occassionally think about this. And Chris, while I’m not living with the same mindset, I do think your concerns are valid. And part of me wants to say as others have here: Just write the thing; it IS a good thing. But it does sound as if you are deeply troubled. Maybe this is or is not your "calling." Maybe you are dealing with dragons the rest of us aren’t. Maybe the spirit is leading you to something different than writing novels. I can’t say. But just as we shouldn’t try to slam you with the notion that writing-novels-is-good-just-and-holy, I’d caution you against seeing the philosophy that writing-novels-is-sacrilege as an a truism. As I’ve said in the past, I’m "blessed" with a commandment in my Patriarchal Blessing to keep at the this worldly pursuit. I find spiritual satisfaction in it. I’d have quit otherwise. So for me, it can’t be a waste. But the spirit will move different people in different directions-and certainly at different times. Turn inward and upward is the only advice I have to give. Meditate and pray. I do want you to keep at creative writing, though, as long as it satisfies you, if it brings you peace. If it troubles you, then be shed of it. Either way, we’re probably all rooting for you to find peace.

  15. J. Scott Bronson says:

    "Because of what they do, we are able to feel and learn very quickly through music, through art, through poetry some spiritual things that we would otherwise learn very slowly."

    "Music and art and dance and literature can be very appropriate in one place and in one setting and for one purpose and be very wrong in another."

    "Think how much we could be helped by another inspired anthem or hymn of the Restoration. Think how we could be helped by an inspired painting on a scriptural theme or depicting our heritage. How much could we be aided by a graceful and modest dance, by a persuasive narrative, or poem, or drama. We could have the Spirit of the Lord more frequently and in almost unlimited intensity if we would."

    "When it is done, it will be done by one who has yearned and tried and longed fervently to do it, not by one who has condescended to do it. It will take quite as much preparation and work as would any masterpiece, and a different kind of inspiration."

    The preceding quotes are all taken from Elder Boyd K. Packer’s 1976 speech, "The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord." Many artists were offended by this speech, but I think a very careful reading can be very encouraging for any Mormon artist.

    As for "finding" the time. Not gonna happen. You have to make the time. Several years ago I was hired to write a "God’s Army" novel by Richard Dutcher through Excel Entertainment, but found that I had a very difficult time creatively for a couple of years because of cancer. Finally, I was given an ultimatum; produce a novel or give back the advance. I rented a closet in the basement of an office building not far from my home and spent most evenings and Saturdays there for a whole Summer. As time progressed I was able to write more and more each day. It really was rather exhilarating. Simply had to prepare my wife and kids. "I’m gonna be gone for awhile. I have two jobs for the next few months."

  16. Jonathan Langford says:

    Coming to this long, long afterwards…

    I think that part of what Chris is doing here involves an implicit challenge for us as LDS artists not to simply assume, unproblematically, that the work we do is pleasing to God. And he’s right, I think, to issue that challenge — not because writing is evil (in my view), but because it’s a question I think we all need to ask ourselves. The gospel principle of consecration includes, as I see it, a steep challenge to consecrate all that we have to God’s purposes. If something isn’t worthy or capable of consecration, should we be doing it? The question isn’t one that applies just to writing, but it’s a particularly pertinent one for some of us because (a) it is such an obsessive preoccupation (for some of us), and (b) in the Mormon literary market, we can’t really defend our writing on the grounds that it can help support our family.

    Note that I’m not saying that writing fiction is worse in this respect than other kinds of work. If I were a farmer or a salesman, I’d expect that I should spend time pondering how what I was doing was helping to build up God’s kingdom.

    Mind you, I am personally convinced that fiction can serve a powerful redemptive and consecrated purpose. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a good 30+ years now, partly in connection with my own reading hobby/obsession and then as a kind of guiding personal concern as I pursued my academic study. The answers that I’ve found do satisfy me for at least one kind and purpose of fiction. But they don’t necessarily justify all works of fiction writing, just as a general endorsement of food doesn’t justify all efforts at cooking.

    Some people, I think, aren’t troubled by questions like this — perhaps because they arrived at answers long ago that satisfy them. For people like myself and Chris, the concern is perhaps more immediate because there are so many other things we can (and perhaps should?) be doing. Certainly more people will read Chris’s Mormonism for Dummies than are likely to ever read all his works of fiction combined. It probably has more potential as missionary work, too — and he got paid for it! And it led to other money-making work. So is the desire to write novel part of the lure of worldliness? Or is it a calling (internal or external) that needs to be honored? I respect Chris for struggling with the question.

  17. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Good points Jonathan. I’d love to hear back from Chris on this. He and the post haven’t left my mind since he posted this.

  18. Wm Morris says:

    Agreed on all counts, Lisa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>