On Writing the Mormon Sacred

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.

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17 Responses to On Writing the Mormon Sacred

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    An excellent post, addressing what may be the single thorniest problem in Mormon writing. A fitting capstone to your series of posts, which I for one have consistently enjoyed reading. Good luck with your other endeavors!

    As for techniques in writing the sacred: the most successful strategy I’ve seen used is to focus honestly on the character and what is important to him/her — showing the reader the sacred through the eyes of the character. That’s a way of approaching things that can work for at least some non-Mormon readers. If we do a good enough job of showing that religion is important at a deep level to our characters, even nonreligious readers will connect to that deep level of feeling, where a superficial depiction of religious belief would invite dismissal. Or so I think.

    • Thanks, Jonathan. And you point out the foundational issue for writing the sacred, IMO. Tone and language choices will also matter. I hope more of you can chime in, sharing your craft techniques and observations. How do we keep the sacred from sounding, well, trite?

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    This alleged “dilemma” is no dilemma at all. It’s a false dilemma caused by the fear writers feel about a backlash to what they may write.

    It’s very simple to write as you’ve described: just write it. Just tell the story honestly, ignoring any concerns about whether fools out there might label it “inappriopriate.” If told honestly, it’s not inappropriate. Since when is honesty inappropriate?

    • Lee Allred says:

      Lisa speaks of “the intimacy of the sacred.” Jack Harrell speaks of writing “weird.” Michael speaks of writing “honestly.”

      A number of my regular blog stops are by Jewish writers who use the term “G-d” rather than writing out the full word because for them the name of God is too sacred to write out fully. It is not just inappropriate, to them it is defiling the sacred. For them, “G-d” is writing honestly; violating the sacred name of God would be the dishonest path.

      I don’t think this exclusive to Jewish writers.

      I have never heard the particulars of the temple spoken outside the temple by members other than in roundabout circumlocutions, the equivalent of writing “G-d.” Wouldn’t an honest depiction of Mormon characters depict that reluctance? Much of the power of Lisa’s “Clothing Esther” comes from the emotional struggle with that reluctance of discussing the divine.

      For outsiders, our refusal to discuss what goes on in temples, our shutting out of outsiders to our marriages is Jack’s “weird.” Weird, if not sinister. In every other culture, marriage is a very very public liminality; the ceremony is in essance a covenant with the community (and the world at large) that the couple will abide the temporal vows. In a temple marriage, the covenant is not with Man but with God, because Man cannot authorize an eternal covenant, only God can.

      Part of the Mormon “weirdness” is to often be 180 degrees out of phase with the rest of the world. We hold marriages in “secret” rather than in public. We speak of the nature of Godhood not with hushed sublime mystery but as an attainable concrete goal. We view Adam’s fall not as a curse but a blessing. We speak of modern day revelations and scriptures and priesthood in a world that holds God silent, if not dead or comatose. We write “God” where others write “G-d,” and “G-d” where others write “God.”

      I would hold that (for myself at least) writing the intimately sacred with that reluctance is writing honestly, is weird, is very very Mormon.

      • I agree. We shouldn’t dismiss the cultural tendency to go mute over sacred things. We should use it to our advantage. In Clothing Esther, one way I tried to do this was thru the halting, or hesitant, syntax. A sentence would head in one direction, then wording would shift to recreate the Mormon struggle to find the right way to express the sacred, to show human deferment to God.

        I don’t think plowing directly into, say, temple rites is any more of an honest representation of the Mormon sacred than omitting discussion of it entirely. Treating the Mormon sacred too plainly is as dishonest as pretending it doesn’t exist.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          We shouldn’t dismiss the cultural tendency to go mute over sacred things. We should use it to our advantage.

          I agree with Lisa wholeheartedly and, in fact, used that tendency in Magadalene, where the bishop wasn’t as forthcoming as he should have been to his new (nonmember) wife about the garment and what it really meant to him, his first wife, and her. And the first wife had a hard time prying information out of ANYBODY who could explain it to her in a manner she would understand.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          Oops. I meant the SECOND (nonmember) wife had a hard time prying information out of anybody.

      • C. M. Malm says:

        This is an excellent evaluation, Lee. I had not thought of it in these terms, but it makes much more sense to do so. Thank you.

  3. James Goldberg says:

    “But writing about the Mormon life without writing about these sacred things would be like writing about our earth without mentioning water.”

    Isn’t there an old writers’ saying about how, if you asked a fish to describe its world, it wouldn’t mention water? Because we often don’t stop to talk about our fundamental assumptions. So if you’re interested in some degree of emotional realism, you probably want to treat the sacred at the level of unspoken assumption rather than object of detailed discussion.

    Otherwise it’s going to feel like one of those tourist stories about foreign cultures where they put food names in italics to prove you’re getting the authentic exotic experience. ;)

  4. 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.

    I was surprised by the extent to which I found this to be true with the most Mormon story I’ve published, which got a better reception that I ever imagined. While in any large group of readers there will always be some who do not receive a story well, I think for many a story can have resonance because of the Mormon-ness, not despite it, because the author is pouring more of his or her soul into the work.

  5. Pingback: Below Our Peculiar Surface - Ships of Hagoth

  6. Jake Clayson says:

    I started writing a comment, but it mushroomed into a full-length post. Here’s the crux of it: “How should we write weird? By infusing our words with divine hermeneutics from the Holy Ghost.”

    Read more about Below Our Peculiar Surface – Ships of Hagoth on:

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Thanks, Jake, for taking the time to respond on your blog. And especially thanks for your kind remarks. I’ll cross-post this to your blog.

      I’ll respond to and (hopefully) clarify this statement of mine: “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.”

      First what I don’t mean: I don’t mean that the sacred rites of Mormonism may bring us national literary attention. That smacks of trying to eek fame out of an expose-style story. What I do mean is that we should remember the undercurrents of the Mormon experience, the very things that actually make those sacred rites sacred. It isn’t the secrecy or isolationist approach to them that makes them sacred. It is, as you suggest, the Holy Ghost.

      In my mind, the “undercurrents” that may have the ability to swirl our literature to the surface of the world’s consciousness are the blessings of the Holy Ghost. The Mormon sacred is an everyday thing. Perhaps we don’t all experience the gifts and blessings and comforts of the Holy Ghost every day of our lives, but the notion that Mormons can and do have this experience about everyday occurances is phenomenal. Writing about these tender mercies in a way that reflects them, that models them as best as humanly possible, is a tough, tough thing to do. It seems to me it will take a very intense inward-turning and upward-turningfor a writer to succeed. I hope to take this discussion into the realm of How-To next week over at lisatorcassodowning.com. (I keep saying it, but on Tuesday there will be a post. I’d welcome all comments and will consider guest posts, btw.)

      • Jake Clayson says:

        It sounds like we’re really on the same page. Thanks for the clarification. Also, made a couple updates to my post (before I discovered your reply here) for clarity.

        I look forward to the ‘How-to’ sequel to your post and would likewise welcome a guest posts. Take a look at shipsofhagoth.com/about and let me know if you’re interested in writing something in that vein.

        Thanks again!

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    That’s a kind invite, Jake. I’m about to enter my own impassioned fit of writing (gonna finished this dang-blasted novel or burst) so I’m cutting back on as much as I can. Still, I never seem to be shut myself up when the mood hits. :)

  8. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, January 6, 2012 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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