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 The request was eventually rescinded, or conditions changed, or something — I don’t know all the details.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.