The Writer’s Desk: Cain’s Sacrifice

I was thinking about the spiritual dangers that come with being an LDS writer (or artist of any kind, really) when the following came to mind:

And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel, and to his offering; but unto Cain, and to his offering, he had not respect. (Moses 5:19-21)

And the eyes of my understanding were opened, and I did wrest the scriptures to fit my own purposes…

Writing is an exercise of the ego as much as the intellect. I don’t personally know any writers who are truly capable of separating themselves from the works they create. To appropriate Yeats (after all, I just did it to Moses, why not Yeats as well?): “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

The danger, if anything, increases with the care and effort we put into our work. I’ve noticed that as a cook, I’m always most anxious and demanding of other people’s culinary reviews when I believe things have gone well — not when they’ve gone poorly. It’s not just because I like to have my ego stroked, though certainly that’s part of it. The true disappointment would be to create something I thought was really good and then discover it wasn’t what people wanted after all. It wouldn’t take very many experiences like that to make me decide TV dinners or boxed macaroni and cheese might be a good option, at least for the complainers. (Scorn my eggplant parmesan, will they!)

Rejection can come from a variety of sources. A friend of mine, a successful LDS playwright, was requested by a General Authority (as I understand the tale) to withdraw his best-known work from production. He complied. The request was eventually rescinded, or conditions changed, or something — I don’t know all the details. What I do know is that my friend is still active in the Church, when it could have been easy for him (or so I imagine) to take offense at the apparent rejection of his offering.

More often, rejection comes from the Mormon audience. We’ve had some important discussions on AML-List over the years and even in our short time here on this blog about how feeling the Spirit (or the spirit of artistic inspiration) as writers doesn’t create an obligation for our readers/viewers/listeners to feel the same thing or find value in what we’ve created. Obvious though it may be, it’s a hard lesson to accept when our own offering is the one that’s being disregarded.

LDS artists are encouraged to view their work (our work) as an offering to God. But it’s all too easy to insist that the offering must be the one we want to give — and then get angry when it’s refused. Perhaps sometimes blame does accrue to the audience for being uncharitable or unwilling to stretch their boundaries or whatever. But that’s not something we can control. They don’t get to say what we write, and we don’t get to say whether they like it or not.

#####

One of the hardest points in writing No Going Back came when I’d finished the initial draft and was getting ready to send it out for comments. I’d publicized it pretty heavily on AML-List and A Motley Vision, talking about my writing process (I figured that if I was going through it, I might as well write about it, which I did in my Writing Rookie blog posts at AMV), and I’d requested readers for the manuscript far and wide.

And suddenly there was a big part of me that didn’t want to send it out at all, that wanted to maybe just pretend I’d never written a novel, delete all the files and just tell people, sorry, changed my mind, a raccoon ate my hard drive and, what, me write a novel? You must be mistaken. I might have done it, too, if there hadn’t been so many people who already knew otherwise.

The thing that scared me the most (I realized) was the fear that the people I was sending my manuscript to would look at what I’d written and inform me that it was, well, junk. I hadn’t realized just how much other people’s opinions mattered to me, or just how paralyzing such fear could be. In the end, the only way I was able to proceed was by accepting internally that No Going Back might be junk, but then deciding that even if it was, my job was to make the offering. As Mormon artists, all we can do is lay our best gifts on the altar — and leave it to God and our readers to decide if they’re worthy.

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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11 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Cain’s Sacrifice

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Herein lies a problem. You write:

    [i]LDS artists are encouraged to view their work (our work) as an offering to God. But it’s all too easy to insist that the offering must be the one we want to give — and then get angry when it’s refused.[/i]

    I ask: When has God refused a literary offering? You aren’t talking about God refusing an offering. You are talking about mainstream Mormons and the official Powers that Be, both of which are a far cry from actually being God. Or representing His literary tastes, for that matter. Heck, I’ve read the Old Testament. God must be a lot more interested in blood, gore, and sex than mainstream Mormons or general authorities.

    I’m a whole heck of a lot more concerned about facing God in the hereafter and having Him tell me that I didn’t multiply my talent as much as I could have than I am that He’ll say, "Daughter, that piece of writing was junk." After all, He knows my heart. I hope for an indulgent pat on the head and a "Thanks for trying to understand your fellow man." I don’t sense that our Father will be nearly as quick to reject an "offering" as Sister Mainstream.

    As to what "man" has to say. I learned a valuable lesson during the 2005 fiction contest run by [i]Sunstone[/i]. Dan Wotherspoon sent me the judges comments on my story "Clothing Esther", which had come in second. Its a story that has served me well since its publication in 07 and subsequent republication in [i]Best of Mormonism [/i]and [i]Dispensation[/i]. One judge detested the story and wrote (and I quote) "Odd, stilted syntax that almost works." Okay, fine. Surprised me, but mostly taught me that you can’t please everyone. When I get discouraged about feedback, I literally combine two statements from the judges of that contest and play it over and over in my mind.

    [i]"Eloquently written" with "odd stilted syntax that almost works." [/i]

    And that keeps my head on straight.

    Joshua Foster, who was selected as a 2010 Stegner Fellow, reminded me recently that we writers are fortunate if we find an audience, any audience. I’d point out that if we only have one audience (MoLit types, mainstream lit types, SF/F types, etc–it doesn’t matter what it is), our offering is being rejected by most. So what? A rejection by man does not equal a rejection by God. (And I know you know that.)

  2. Lisa,

    Good comments. And yes, a rejection by man doesn’t equal a rejection from God. At times, though, we do seem to see some bitterness from artists whose works aren’t accepted by the Mormon audience. It’s something I could see myself doing, if I wasn’t careful. I think it would be easy in such cases–not right, but easy–to let that acceptance (or lack thereof) color one’s feelings toward the Church itself.

    I also think that on a personal level, there may be times we want to serve in a way that isn’t the way God wants us to serve. Of course, we’re the only ones who can know if this is the case. I think it’s true, however, that part of consecration means committing to use our gifts in the way God wants us to (to the best that we can discern that). This may not always align with our own personal preferences. In that respect, I think writing is probably very much like any other area of life–that part of what we have to put on the altar isn’t just our gift itself, but our own will as to how it should be used. That’s one I’m still working on, frankly.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    I agree with Lisa completely, but would take it a step further: I believe that waiting on man to decide what to publish and not is not quite getting the offering to the altar.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Putting aside that pesky commandment to not judge, yes, it does seem some have left the church because the audience didn’t follow. But really, I don’t buy that. And why dance around the name. I don’t know Dutcher, but he sure does get talked about a lot, separate from his work. oh, and I suppose I could name others who seem to be accused of the same thing. But something tells me if I were privvy to an intimate, keeping-it-real conversation w. these folks, they wouldn’t feel that they’d left the church–or began to disbelieve–because of low sales. It just feels aggrandizing to me to so say. Even insulting to them. It seems more likely that low sales or low acceptance by the mainstream emphasized the feeling that each didn’t fit in as they had hoped. A good many of us have been there, done that.

    As to melding our gift to fit the purpose of God, I agree that such a call is a personal one, one that must be based on personal inspiration. Of course, this leads us back to the notion that the direction in which I’m lead may not be the direction in which a particular audience member is lead. I know–ug–that I’ve already mentioned one of my own stories by name (that’s uncomfortable), but I’m about to do it again to bring home a point. I’ve got a story in the current [i]Dialogue[/i], titled "Straight Home." Now its got its weaknesses, I know, but I consider it more a part of my testimony than what I’d rattle off at a pulpit on Fast Sunday. Others have found it down-right offensive, pornographic. [Call Salt Lake!] To me, its tender and true; but to some, it may be grounds for a serious talk w. my bishop. Around and around we go.

    Some days, I feel frustrated with talk of God and art–as if any of us understands either. I guess this is one of those days. I struggle everyday to understand the power and impact of both God and art; and God on art; and maybe even art on God. Some things I read or watch in film or on stage speak to me; others don’t. When they speak to me, I tend to see inspiration at work. But not seeing that inspiration does not mean it isn’t there and I’m betting we all (or mostly all) know that. Nor does it mean I’m not reading with "the right spirit," as we like to accuse listeners in Sacrament meetings who get nothing from a sermon. I’ll repeat: we’re lucky to have an audience at all. Why fret if some audience prefers something else?

    You know–just to add some perspective–its a much happier problem to be worried about rejection by an audience than by an acquisitions editor.

  5. Lisa,

    I don’t personally have an opinion on what Dutcher’s reasons may have been for leaving the Church. I know some people have interpreted his comments that way, but in the absence of a more direct comment from him, I simply don’t feel that we know. In any event, my intent wasn’t to point the finger at anyone, but rather to point out a danger that I, at least, feel could apply to myself: that is, of becoming offended as an artist and letting that spill over into my attitude to the Church as a whole. Whether or not that’s something that has happened to anyone else, it’s something I could see happening to [i]me [/i]– and thus something I think is worth talking about and (hopefully) guarding against.

    I agree with you that the cause of offense or alienation in such cases may have to do with our own sense of whether we belong as part of the LDS community. We offer art not only to God but also to our fellow community members. When it isn’t accepted, we may be offended, we may be hurt, we may feel alienated. Those are all possible responses. We may not care — but frankly that’s one response that’s utterly alien to me. I can’t imagine not caring what one’s intended audience thought of one’s work, and I honestly can’t think of a single published author I’d believe it about.

    I’m not honestly sure that you and I are arguing about anything except where to put the emphasis. My point of emphasis was on some of the challenges I feel accompany the act of making an artistic offering, whether to God or to a mortal audience — and the fact that our very desire to make such an offering can, as I see it, become a weakness to us in such circumstances, if we let it.

    And you certainly shouldn’t feel shy about citing your own work. After all, I did. All of us here, I think, are talking largely from our own personal experience.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Jonathan, I really didn’t think we were arguing. Sorry about any cantankerousness on my part–not that I have a problem w. arguing (as you well know).

    Now about audience and rejection. We don’t seem to think alike. I mean, sure, there’s a target audience. For me, most of the time, its the lit fic folks. But hey, there are people who write lit fic who I like to read and those I don’t. I can examine my own reactions to those voices that don’t resonate with me and realize that I’m not "rejecting" them, per se. I’m simply choosing the Other. It seems to me to be the mature reaction. At least it keeps me sane.

    It reminds me of what I tell my older kids about dating: Not everyone you have an interest in is going to have an interest in you. It isn’t personal; its just life. It is certainly not a measure of your worth.

    You have called yourself a newbie at this writing gig. (Maybe that’s my word, not yours.) I consider myself an unknown, but not a newbie. Far from a newbie. In all the time I’ve struggled to learn to get it "right," or right enough, I’ve learned a few things. Detachment is one of them. I don’t even like to read my own stuff once its published because [i]I[/i] might not like it! [i]That’s[/i] detachment. Are my feelings hurt if someone doesn’t like something? Depends on how obnoxious they are, I suppose, and whether or not they set out to tear down or to build up. I’d like to think our critics aspire to push MoLit to better places. But the truth is, I’m probably too arrogant to spend much time on it. Some time, sure. Maybe. But not much.

    My audience is anyone who relates to my work. If they don’t, they don’t. Believe me or not.

    Now I admit that I’ll be very unhappy if I ever find myself back in the position of having no one like (or publish) my work. That stinks. Maybe that’s the difference between us. You wrote a first novel and Zarahemla picked it up. My first novel[i]S[/i] (all for kids and YA) are gathering dust in manuscript form. I’m unbelievably grateful that readers have the option of reading or skipping my work entirely. I’m thrilled that someone might hate something I wrote–because it means they actually read my work. Wow. Amazing. So many writers never have even that experience. I’m so far past sweating over a reader who doesn’t "get it." I’m more into rejoicing that anyone–[i]anyone[/i]–would like my stuff, even a little.

  7. After years of working on a documentary and then marketing it, I finally began writing a novel yesterday (not a new thing for me). I don’t know everything that’ll happen in it, but I do know a few things, and I know it’ll offend some readers. And I have a history of offending some readers. Believe it or not, it DOES hurt when someone accuses you of having a tainted heart because of something you’ve written. Since I am also a prolific writer-to-missionaries, it’s hard to not imagine them at some future time reading the novel I’ll finish in a couple of years and thinking, "Sister Young wrote that???"
    For now, I have only ideas and the beginnings of characters, so nothing to "lay on the altar." But my goal is not to produce something "worthy" (such a dangerous word) but true to the humanity of its characters. I know one character is gay. I want the reader to love him by the end of the book. If any reader is asking, "Would the Brethren approve of this?" while reading my work, they’re probably not my target audience. They’re working with a censor hovering over their shoulders. My work will never penetrate such a shadow.

  8. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Thanks for chiming in, Margaret. Hurt feelings about accusations of a tainted heart, yes. Hurt feelings that someone doesn’t like your work, no. The tainted heart thing is personal and I understand that. It a judgement on your personhood and spiritual connection to God. But rejection because of topic or the use of a ‘bad’ word is not something that I get worked up about.

    I’m glad to know you are back to writing.

    Again, I simply wanted to draw a distinction between offerings set on God’s altar and offerings set on man’s.

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    Hmmm. I’m hesitant to chime in here, as it seems the default position is that everything we make is (or should be) an offering to God. Am I reading that right? If not, I apologize.

    Yesterday, someone asked me about this (independent of this post) and they shared their feelings about art as a form of worship (offering?). This is how I see it:

    I don’t see art as a form of worship. I don’t see it as an offering at all. I see it as practice at becoming a god and supreme creator.

    I don’t feel "inspired" when I write long works, or at least, not for the duration. Maybe snips here and there, a nudge in the right direction possibly. A spark. Then I start thinking about it and I feel energy flowing through me, filtered by years of training, to pull together something that works and, like Margaret, that’s hopefully true to the people on the page.

    When I write, I create characters. I give them a circumstance. Then I watch them go through the logical steps of negotiating that circumstance bound by the limitations of the characteristics/personality traits I’ve given them. Thus, when I write, I am a god. I am [b]their[/b] god.

    I’m NOT saying that God is not in the process at all. I’m saying he gave me talent and opportunity and other people to help/support, and said, "Get to work. You’ll know when it’s good."

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m with you on this one, Morijah. At least, I don’t have the idea that I’m ever writing "for" God. I figure we human beings are enough entertainment for him. I do think of writing as an offering to God only in the sense that my life, in his service, is an offering and, by default then, developing talents is, in itself, an offering. So writing is as much an offering as, say, cooking a meal to sustain my family and therefore, the kingdom of God. I’m glad for the opportunity to clarify that. I sure don’t write particular stories in hopes of pleasing God. I know lots of people who are certain they know God’s mind and will, but I’m not one of them. I do, however, write hoping that the behavior of writing pleases God. I do sense an obligation to represent his children with a view that is as close to his view of them as is possible. I focus on what is, not on what we imagine God wants us to be. If he sees all, this approach allows me a great deal of room to explore things many mainstream Mormons want kept closeted. With this in mind, I completely understand your claim to Godhood in Writerhood.

    In truth, I have a pesky patriarchal blessing that commands me to keep at it, or I’d have walked away. The money hasn’t been worth it. :)

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]So writing is as much an offering as, say, cooking a meal to sustain my family and therefore, the kingdom of God.[/b]

    Yes, exactly! In fact, I was going to use a food/cooking metaphor myself, but then deleted it.

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