From the Writer’s Desk: Be Weird, Mormon Writers!

The presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have been good for Mormonism because they’ve brought Mormons and the Church into the national discussion. It’s been gratifying to see pundits correctly clarifying Church positions while debating evangelical critics. And it’s been good for the public to compare Romney and Huntsman. One is a Mormon who served as a stake president and has been faithful to the Church all his life. The other has not attended church since his youth, but comes from a prominent Mormon family and still calls himself a Mormon. This helps people to see that the Church isn’t a cult in the business of creating single-minded robots.

The Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign also has done a good job at showing diversity among us. (And if you haven’t seen The Colbert Report spoof on this, you should check it out: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/394360/august-10-2011/yaweh-or-no-way—-mormons—god-s-poll-numbers ) We are making strides toward healthily complicating our own image.

Why am I talking about politics in a blog on Mormon creative writing? Because we need a complex view of ourselves if we are to create meaningful Mormon literature.

I recently read Malcolm Cowley’s long introduction to The Portable Faulkner. Faulkner’s genius was that he captured the South in tragic decline. The South is fascinating because of two oppositional forces. First it is, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, “Christ-haunted” (as opposed to “Christ-centered,” O’Connor said). Second, it bears the ugly story of slavery, a story that includes the fall of Southern aristocracy which Faulkner, O’Connor, and others wrote about so well. This makes the South a place of both glory and rottenness. It’s that rottenness down at the core which makes it a rich subject for literature.

Mormon culture (and even American Western culture) has glory, but I don’t think it has anything like rottenness. Its past is marred, it’s imbued with foolishness, bravado, and even arrogance, but it’s the arrogance of a young culture. Even its arrogance is naïve and thus somewhat forgivable. Being foolish is not as profound as having horrors deep in one’s core. Yes, American Mormon culture does have the general pride and stink of the human race—every culture has that. Unfortunately, we Mormons are so unaware of this that it’s hard for us to bring to the surface our common lot with humanity.

The word culture (related to the word cultivate) involves social behaviors that are planted, nurtured, and prized. Art, music, and literature—whether high-brow or low—make up culture. So do other products of human work and thought, like traditions, customs, morals, social behaviors, and institutions. I would characterize the bulk of contemporary American Mormon culture as “glib”—quick but thoughtless, unconstrained but lacking depth. Years ago I heard a cultural critic call Mormonism “the American cheese of religions.” I think this says it pretty well. Recently I asked a friend, “How can such a people be taken seriously?” His answer was, “That’s exactly the point of The Book of Mormon musical.”

I’m saddened by this when I contrast Mormon culture to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which I believe is neither glib nor shallow. The history of the Church is complex—sometimes even troubling. And that’s a good thing. Our complicated past shouldn’t be glossed over. We shouldn’t attempt to resolve it with easy answers. When we speak proudly of “continuing revelation,” we should understand that such a doctrine implies change, adjustment, and even historical inconsistency.

Deeper still are two elements at the heart of Mormon doctrine, two tragic elements that make it profound. The first is the reality and consequence of our agency, the power we all possess that allows us to choose sin and perhaps be lost forever—if we so elect. The second is the atonement of Jesus Christ, which caused the infinite suffering of one who did no wrong and never deserved to suffer at all. This cosmic inequity is a profound paradox at the heart of Mormonism.

Fortunately, truths like these shine through our shallow culture. Most people who come to Mormonism anchor themselves to the faith’s doctrines, or they drift away. Few convert to the culture alone and stay for long.

So, I ask you, fellow Mormon writers, the same questions that I ask myself: How are we doing at embracing Mormon complexities in our writing? How are we doing at imbuing our stories with paradox and tragedy?

Recently an evangelical minister was invited to tour Temple Square, interested in learning more about the peculiar teachings of Mormonism. He found little evidence of anything unusual. Mormonism’s unique theology had been replaced, he said, by an emphasis on the family. He said, “The people and the lifestyle are the attractions. Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.”

I don’t see it that way. We Mormons are nice-enough people. We have a pleasant lifestyle. But I don’t find the lifestyle any more attractive than the lifestyles of other good, law-abiding, hardworking people. No, it’s not our “normalcy” that will draw others to us and our stories. It’s our weirdness that makes us interesting. (Can we learn nothing from Big Love and Sister Wives?)

So my message to Mormon writers this month is simply stated: “Embrace your weirdness!” Write about the weird things you believe in. Incorporate you peculiar worldviews—orthodox or not—into your fictional realms. Three heavens, the resurrection of the family dog, pre-mortal existence, the magical power of the CTR ring, your potential godhood, or the sometimes-now/sometimes-not-now spectacle of polygamy. Have faith in your culture and heritage. Face your demons—your Mormon and human demons—and write about them.

Be weird, Mormon writers! Be weird!

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18 Responses to From the Writer’s Desk: Be Weird, Mormon Writers!

  1. Wm Morris says:

    Owning the weird is the only way to make it seem more normal.

  2. Scott Hales says:

    I’m okay with owning up to weirdness as long as the weird is meaningfully employed. Too often, though, I think the weird is evoke for its sensational value alone, or as a joke, without a lot of substance or knowledge behind it.

    I think Abraham is our example in this one. He didn’t just use Kolob as Kolob, but as a symbol of something much bigger. Kolob and Garments have a lot of meaning packed behind them, and if Mormon writers aren’t taking all of that meaning into account when they use them, they’re not doing Mormon literature any favors.

    Of course, I don’t think most Mormon writers are guilty of glibly using weirdness in their writing, which is mostly a sin of the Faux-Mo crowd. Still, I think we should be careful in how we take our cues from “Sister Wives” and “Big Love.” While I get your point–people are interested in the weird–wouldn’t it be better to look at the way Levi Peterson uses Blood Atonement in “The Backslider,” or the way Douglas Thayer doesn’t use the Mountain Meadows Massacre in “Summer Fire,” or the way you use the second anointing in “Calling and Election”? True, these works are not as successful and popular as polygamy dramas, but they are a heck of a lot more knowledgeable in the way they make use, or fail to make use, of the weird. Do we really want a literature that follows the example of those who exploit Mormonism and make shallow use of it?

    • Jack Harrell says:

      I agree, Scott, about not using the weird in cheap ways. People are “hooked” by the weird, and that’s a great way of paving the way to deeper things.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    I guess now I have ask: For whom would these works be written?

  4. Th. says:

    .

    FWIW, Jack’s recent collection was excellent and far from glib.

  5. Mark Brown says:

    That sounds like an awesome t-shirt – “Jack Harrell’s Fiction: How Weird Should Be Done.”

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Loved this post. Loved. But lets take it a step farther. Write the weird is IMO great advice, but I think we also need to write the sacred as well. Lots of us are afraid to do this, to even approach the temple or garments or patriarchal blessings or the blessing of the sacrament, etc. I do think that the evangelical minister was correct when he said, as you quote him, “The people and the lifestyle are the attractions. Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.” We have watered down our doctrine, stopped teaching it to a good degree, and focus instead on the social order. We teach the love of Christ, which is good but also generic, and, downplay the story of Joseph Smith and the First Vision, which is revolutionary. Nowadays many of us seem willing to identify ourselves as quirky, but I don’t see a trend toward embracing the sacred. I’m talking really embracing it. With respect. Candor. Love. Devotion. I look forward to seeing more writing that, when read by non-LDS people, will cause them to understand how deeply we feel the divine.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think this is one of the things we’re hoping will come out of the Mormon Lit Blitz: a great literature that takes the sacred seriously.

      One of the things I hear a lot as a Seminary teacher, but also as a church-goer in general, is that after a while we really don’t learn anything new in church. We get the same lessons, the same types of insights, and the same kinds of talks without a whole lot of variety. I think part of this is because we have become accustomed to thinking or assuming that an investigator is always in the room. We don’t want to scare anybody off. I wonder, however, if we don’t credit the attractiveness of our weirdness enough.

      Of course, I’m one of those who worry about getting too strange in church. Not because I’m afraid of being weird, but because I’m worried that a freer reign on teaching may result in speculation abomination, like the time I sat through an annoying Sunday school lesson about the possibilities of Joseph Smith being the archangel Raphael. I guess I’m an advocate of scriptural weirdness rather than folkloric weirdness…at least inside the chapel doors.

      Fiction is another realm entirely. I’d like to see Mormon writers explore the folklore a little more in their writing. And more attention to the sacred would be great. Unfortunately, though, sacred experiences often come off wrong in fiction. I’m not a creative writer, so I can’t say why this is. I’ve often thought that the aim of writing the sacred should not necessarily be to render or describe the manifestations of the Spirit, but rather evoke them, or create opportunities for them to be felt.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        “I’ve often thought that the aim of writing the sacred should not necessarily be to render or describe the manifestations of the Spirit, but rather evoke them, or create opportunities for them to be felt.”

        Agreed. If writers aim to describe them, we tend to get flowery language that says very little. But evoking them? Well, how do we do that? I have some ideas I may toss down my next (and last) turn posting to this blog, which would be this Tuesday the 21st I think. So I’ll keep quiet now. But I agree. Writing the sacred is tougher than writing weird. Writing weird forces us to accept our “otherness,” but writing the sacred makes us stand out on the limb and bounce. It can go tragically wrong.

        • Jack Harrell says:

          I agree, Lisa. When I came to the church, and ever since, it has been the weird-but-sacred things that really caused me to look deeper and with more respect. The first time I observed people doing baptisms for the dead in the temple–I had been a member for one year–I said to the friend who brought me, “This is either the stupidest waste of time any people has ever been engaged in, or the most loving and holy thing I’ve ever seen.”

  7. Jason Covell says:

    At my workplace (in Sydney, Australia), I found Big Love was a tremendous icebreaker in terms of explaining who Mormons are and what they actually believe.

    Before that, people knew that I was LDS but scrupulously avoided any discussion of religion around me – either they weren’t interested or wanted to avoid copping an earful of proselyting from a zealot (hardly me, but anyway).

    After Big Love, I had some terrific discussions which ended up going quite deep into doctrines and history – and all with an increase in mutual respect and understanding.

    [Although I did take a certain unseemly delight for a while when a few colleagues weren't quite sure that I didn't have a couple of extra wives hidden away at home! Though also very glad to disabuse them of that notion.]

  8. Jonathan Langford says:

    I like Lisa’s distinction between writing the culturally weird and writing the sacred — which may be weird because it’s different from mainstream American culture. Embrace our weirdness? You bet. But when it comes down to it, weirdness for the sake of weirdness can be just as superficial as bland conformity.

    (I also disagree somewhat that a focus on pleasant lifestyles and families that fit the norm is necessarily superficial. Somewhere in the back of my mind is a notion that normalcy can itself be an object of deep, desperate, and profound desire, and that this impulse is often undervalued in talking about literature. But I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I’m getting at with this idea.)

    Very good post, and excellently thought provoking.

  9. This just takes me back to a blog post I wrote months ago in which I asked why LDS writers don’t seem to show their LDS characters praying about the conflicts in their stories, when we are supposed to be praying all the time.

    I was told that prayers were too sacred for people to write about in fiction. And if that’s true, then writing about what it’s like to be really LDS is too sacred for fiction, and we all might as well just go home.

    • James Goldberg says:

      Mel Larson’s Little Happy Secrets has really beautiful prayers in it. They’re particularly cool because right in front of you, the main character will shift from audience direct address to conversations with God. Deeply moving.

      Mel also has some lovely prayer in Martyr’s Crossing. She’s definitely a writer I would recommend studying for effective use of prayer in creative writing.

  10. Jacob says:

    Anybody here read the two Brandons? Sanderson fits gospel principles into his writing better than anyone else I can think; his books are profoundly moral, but still entertaining, engrossing, and accessible to a wide audience. And then there’s Mull who’s also entertaining and accessible, but he’s more just weird.

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