Why I Spent Years Trying not to Be a Mormon Writer (and How I Got Over That)

In 1992, back when I started my freshman year of college, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I also knew (or at least thought I knew) that I didn’t want to be a “Mormon writer.”

The only Mormon literature I’d seen back then was pretty cheesy. It seemed to aim for sentimentality, and if that’s what Mormon art was all about, I wanted nothing to do with it.

I decided that “Mormon writers” were hacks, cloistered minds who cranked out sappy tales, like those seminary videos my friends and I found such glee in mocking. (Does anybody else remember the Tom Trails filmstrips? I found all of them here.  Classic stuff.)

A QUICK NOTE: I’m revealing the inner thoughts of my eighteen-year-old self in this post. It’ll become apparent pretty quickly that my eighteen-year-old self was an ignorant, deluded, misguided, arrogant, little punk. It’s okay if you don’t like him. I’m not too fond of him myself.

So, when I started writing stories, I didn’t ever want to have the label “Mormon writer” attached to me. As far as my artistic life was concerned, I wanted to be just a writer. Nothing else. I wanted my readers to see my faith as an afterthought. I imagined a glitter-glazed future where people would be discussing my books:

“Oh, Beatrice, Have you read Josh Allen’s latest?”

“Oh, yes, Margot. It’s delightful.”

“And, Beatrice, did you know that Josh Allen’s a Mormon?”

“Oh, is he, Margot? I’ve read all of his books, and I had no idea.”

ANOTHER QUICK NOTE: You see my point, right? My younger self was a mess–for a whole lot of reasons.

Somewhere in my delusional, arrogant fantasies, I thought this attitude toward my art was the right one. My art, I felt, demanded a separation from my faith. It wasn’t that I ever wanted to abandon my faith. I loved Mormonism, had a budding testimony, and planned to cling to my Mormon faith forever. I just didn’t want my art to be “Mormon art.”

I wanted to be an artist first, a devotee second–not the most pious of desires, but there you have it. (And, by the way, I’ve since learned that no such prioritizing is necessary. The better devotee I am, the better my art is, and vice versa. But that’s a post for another day.)

Today, I’m obviously pretty ashamed of my younger self.  I’m ashamed to admit publicly that I once had such juvenile, vainglorious, wrong-headed thoughts. Still, I suspect my younger self had/has plenty of company. So just in case anyone out there feels like defending my younger self, let me say this:

My younger self was most certainly wrong-headed. Here’s why:

In an essay titled “The Church and the Fiction Writer” Flannery O’Connor says “A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add a dimension to the writer’s observation.”

Faith “adds a dimension” to our observations. This is what my younger self wasn’t getting. It seemed to me that faith removed dimension, that it blinded artists. The Tom Trails filmstrips I loved to hate were so mock worthy because they lacked dimension. Tom Trails (the character) was endlessly clueless, mopey, and sad. And yet, in each episode, his sorrows were pretty easily overcome through short chats about church and the scriptures. Think about the layers of ambiguity, complexity, and beauty this overly simplistic, reductive narrative ignores. So, in these tales, dimension was being lost.

Today, I understand that it wasn’t faith that removed dimension from the Tom Trails stories—it was something else, something like institutional pressure, or the need to teach a lesson tidily to teenagers in ten minutes, or somebody’s assumption that young people needed to be condescended to. No, whatever brought about the lack of dimension in those stories, it most certainly wasn’t faith.

Flannery O’Connor is right. Faith adds dimension. Faith is the thing that gives us the courage to bring all of our problems into the open, to acknowledge that sometimes the sick aren’t healed and the lame don’t walk, to say the words, “I just don’t know” when we talk about polygamy or other sticky issues. Faith welcomes complexity. Doubt shuns it.

Of course, you know this already. So why am I writing this today?

That’s simple.

Too many of my creative writing students at BYU-Idaho seem to be in the same place I was twenty years ago. They want to write independent of their Mormonism. Frankly, this makes me want to shout at them. I want to tell them that the longer they avoid their Mormonism in their art, the worse off they’re going to be. I want to tell them that they’re missing out on exploring a complex world of saints and sinners and myths and monsters and symbols. I want to tell them that everything they need to create great art is right here, in their own faith community. I want to tell them to start paying more attention to the fascinating universe they know and to start paying less attention to the bland universes they’re imagining.

Imagine if Flannery O’Connor had shied away from Catholicism in her art, if she blanched at the label “Catholic writer.” Or imagine if Philip Roth had distanced himself from Jewish-American ideas. What if Naguib Mahfouz had written novel after novel in which Islamic issues were virtually ignored?

In all of these cases, these writers’ art would have suffered immensely. Quite simply, these writers couldn’t separate their belief systems and religious cultures from their work because such a separation is impossible.

It took me a long time to learn this. I didn’t really get it until graduate school, when a savvy teacher—a non-Mormon, I might add—dumped Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners in my lap, ordered me to go to the library and read it, and told me to stop ignoring my Mormonism in my work.

“Whether you like it or not,” she said, “you’re writing Mormon stories. You might as well admit it and do it well.”

Tomorrow, I’ll be starting another semester. Somewhere in my classroom, I’m sure there will be young men or women who feel a need to separate their art and their Mormonism. I hope I can show them why they shouldn’t.

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11 Responses to Why I Spent Years Trying not to Be a Mormon Writer (and How I Got Over That)

  1. Wm Morris says:

    Amen and amen.

  2. Steven Hopkins says:

    I think te real issue is that we equate any action that takes place in fiction as somehow autobiographical. Any Mormon that writes about sin is basically openly confessing to having committed that sin (in the minds of most readers). Writing bout good Mormons being good makes for bad fiction usually (I’m sure it’s possible, but I don’t know how to do it). Most readers see far too thin a line between writing about good Mormons going rogue or doing bad things as quality fiction and celebrating sin in open rebellion against sacred teachings. I have felt it myself. I have felt like I either have to make my fiction a confessional or only subtly related to my faith do that secular audiences don’t feel like they are getting preached to. Either outcome is an over correction and results in bad fiction again. Not only that, but our beliefs in self sufficiency make fiction writing a laughable for someone trying to raise a family. We Mormon fiction writers are in a tight spot for sure.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    The problem is interpreting “being good” too narrowly. Take Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth — being good is complicated.

    I’m so glad I took the step and became a “Mormon writer” — I can still write other stories all I want, but a hold world’s opened up to me. I would suggest having your students read James Goldberg’s essay on the topic in the last Irreantum.

  4. Th. says:

    .

    (James Goldberg: “Wrestling with God: Invoking Scriptural Mythos and Language in LDS Literary Works”)

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    Great thoughts. Anytime we ignore those things that are deepest rooted within us, we (almost inevitably) make our writing less meaningful.

    That said, I would add (as a long-time sf&f buff) that you don’t necessarily have to write about specifically Mormon characters in order to write Mormon fiction. Science fiction and fantasy can be superb tools for addressing deeply Mormon themes. One of the jobs of Mormon criticism is to look at such works and bring out the dimensions (hidden, perhaps, to most non-LDS readers, and even possibly to many LDS readers) that connect with being Mormon.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    Another thing: I really don’t think that national readers are that unwilling to read about Mormons by Mormons. The publishers might be unadventurous, but the readers? Just got be be hip enough.

  7. D. Michael Martindale says:

    So much fuss over nothing. Just be yourself and write. Don’t try to avoid Mormonism. Don’t try to force Mormonism into your story. Just pick a story and write it, and to hell with what other people think.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      But that’s the point, D. Mike. A lot of Mormons who write aren’t avoiding Mormon topics because they worry about what others think when they read it, but because of what they, themselves, think about the state of Mormon literary art. Its that self-loathing thing again. Self-loathing seems to have a strong hold on many in our culture: Are we wonderful because we are peculiar? Or do we suck because we are peculiar? Josh, like so many of us, worked it out. Unfortunately too many Mormon readers don’t work it out and remain convinced Mormon literary art is produced in a cheese factory. Which is why I continually ask Mormon lit artists why they keep aiming their fiction at Mormon audiences.

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    I do not now nor have I ever considered myself a Mormon writer or a writer of Mormon fiction.

    I’m just a writer.

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    Wait, no. Not just a writer. A romance writer.

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