Our culture is only as deep, or profound, as our art, and it may well be that our art only becomes these things as our artists isolate what is sacred to the human soul and elevate it for our examination. Most people who read fiction do so for emotional reasons. We seek emotion in the pages of our literature as a simplistic way of reaching out, even in the privacy of our homes; or maybe we pursue emotion in literature because of our own need to feel stroked, understood, valued. The intimacies of human life that, when shared, provoke our emotion are, indeed, sacred.
But for Mormon writers there is an added level to the intimacy of the sacred. When we speak of the sacred, we speak not only of the poignant connections between human beings, but between mankind and the divine. We have prayers, blessings, revelation, rites and ordinances–all of which are labeled sacred by our doctrine and are constrained in our discourse by tradition. But writing about the Mormon life without writing about these sacred things would be like writing about our earth without mentioning water.
We know this innately. The result is that many of our most gifted writers choose to either write for our own people, where the implied sacred is considered sufficient, or to encapsulate the Mormon sacred in mostly unrecognizable analogy, usually associated with some fantastical social construct no one will hold against the religion—or the writer. This may leave us with a Mormon literature that fails to be truly Mormon. Instead, we get rehashed national-type stories with Mormon elements. I’d point at my own story, “At Bay,” which was published in 2004 in Dialogue, as an example of this. The story is undeniably feminist—very much of the sort that might have come from any American woman writer in the 1970’s—with a few Mormon elements thrown in for good measure. At its core, however, the story, which revolves around the dissolution of a marriage, is not very Mormon. Where is the temple? The concept of eternal vows? Absent. The story, I suppose, works as a piece of American literature or Women’s literature. But Mormon? No.
“At Bay” was my first piece of “serious” LDS fiction and it is also the most dishonest of my writings. A few weeks back, Jack Harrell, the current co-editor of Irreantum, called on Mormon writers to write “weird.” By this he meant Mormon writers must be willing to examine the complexities of our life, religion, and culture, to find the things that make us stand out from the rest of the world. We aren’t like other people and, if our literature is to be honest, it must embrace this fact.
Of course I don’t mean that the Mormon experience lacks universality. Of course our experience as human beings is much the same as others. We live, we love, we suffer, we fear and hope, we die. But there are undercurrents to our experience that are uniquely Mormon, that make us different, and that may very well someday swirl Mormon literature to the surface of the world’s consciousness. For this to happen, though, Mormon writers must write our complexities, as Jack calls us to do, but we must do this with the courage of complete honesty. This honesty includes the way we approach the sacred.
I do not mean the type of bare-backed disclosure that poses as honesty in the typical journalist’s expose. I’m certainly not speaking of writing out the temple ceremony for the sake of writing out the temple ceremony. It is as dishonest to approach the Mormon sacred with a gratuitous heart as it is to avoid the sacred altogether. Rather, when a writer senses the emotional need exists for the sacred to be broached, that writer should go forth with all the tenderness he or she feels. As a community of writers, we have spent too much time worrying about whether or not we will “get in trouble” for writing about sacred things. Yet every day we are expected to speak of sacred things, to bear our sacred testimony, to witness that God exists and that He loves us. Somehow, though, when we bring that testimony to life in the pages of a book or magazine, we fear. We fear because the dramatization of the sacred is often messy and imperfect. We fear some authority somewhere will take issue with the necessary coupling of sin and sacred. But if a writer truly writes the sacred, it isn’t retribution that will result, but a glory that belongs to God.
When I sat down to write “Clothing Esther,” a story found both in Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction and Best of Mormonism 2008, I knew I’d be writing about one of the most sacred experiences in Mormondom, namely the clothing of the dead for burial. I knew I’d have to deal with the temple to some degree, and certainly with the temple garment and clothing. I knew I have to speak of the kinds of things most mainstream Mormons hold close to their heart. I admit I was afraid that I’d go too far, but I was equally afraid I’d not go far enough. Week after week, I carried that story in to my writing group for critique and week-after-week, I fretted that the group members, all non-Mormons and mostly evangelical Christians, would show it disrespect. What I found instead was a deepening of the spirit at these meetings. What I learned was that if I give non-believing readers a raw, honest story about things that are very sacred to Mormons, those readers will respond in kind. They’ll “get it.” They’ll feel it as we feel it.
This is not about conversion, but connection. Writing the sacred is perhaps one of the most difficult things a Mormon writer can set out to do, but it is also one of the most fulfilling. It engenders an intimacy between strangers that reveals our true natures as divinely connected sons and daughters of God, all. We need not be afraid.
But how does one write the sacred? The answers to that could fill a How To book. I welcome you to share any thoughts on the matter in the Comment section. I will be expressing some of my thoughts on my limping-along blog, lisatorcassodowning.com,, after the holidays are clearly in my rear view mirror. So if you are a writer with an interest in the topic, please come visit. I will not be writing a follow-up on this blog because this is my final post. Like many of you, I struggle to carve enough time from my daily schedule to accomplish the writing I’d like to, so I’m cutting back on non-essentials. I’ve appreciated all those who have read and chimed in on my posts and will to continue participating as a commenter.