Can a Fiction Writer be Guileless?

My son called me last week to let me know he was on a bike ride. I asked where he was going. “To hunt zombies,” he said. “Oh honey,” I answered, “they don’t even come out until night. And you have to know where they gather or you won’t find any. What kind of weaponry do you have?” “Just a knife.” “Son, that’s not adequate. Come on home and get better armed.”

Or there was the time the same son asked me how we get boneless chicken. I answered without the slightest pause. “You know about those special eggs, right? The ones for boneless chickens? Very rare. It’s actually a mercy to eat the chickens. They don’t live long because of of the bone problem.  No real structure to them. But the meat is really tender.”
It’s fairly common for me to come up with an absurdity and deliver it with a straight face. My family is used to it.  But my son told me I ought to be careful, because I could hurt someone’s feelings.  He reminded me of a time I had complained about Arnold Schwarzenegger insisting on changing the spelling of California to CalifOHnia.  Some guests were with us.  One of them asked, “Seriously?” I admitted that I was joking.  My son told me that everyone else laughed–except for the person who had been taken in.  “I think you made her feel stupid,” he said.  I had to think hard about that.  I thought even harder about my habit of dry-wit responses when I said something quite serious to a friend and she answered, “I don’t know.  I’m never sure if  I can believe you.”  She was a former student who was taken in when I opened class by saying, “The administration has asked that we have a Jimmer Fredette moment before we start class.  Anyone have some thoughts about Jimmer and how he has affected your life?” I don’t want my style of humor to make anyone feel they can’t trust me.

The issue isn’t really humor; I’ll still engage in this sort of banter with my family and probably elsewhere.  The issue is when our humor makes someone else feel foolish.  I don’t want to do that.  Stephen Colbert was asked if he used his particular style of wit at home.  He said that he didn’t.  “I don’t want to tell my children that I love them and have them answer, ‘Good one, Dad.  Very dry.’”

Word play and humor are aspects of my fiction-writerly imagination.  I will use them as I write.  But I hope to never use my writing to hurt someone or to make false accusations–an important hope during this political season when much of the commentary aims for the juggular.  I’m not talking about Colbert and Stewart, but those politicos who use hyperbole as a dagger.  Most of us have seen our friends fall into divisive language in support of a candidate, and swipe a broad brush over any who won’t be voting for their guy.  I disengage from those conversations quickly.  I never respond to political comments on Facebook, nor do I post my political views in the public spaces.  I know the circles where I can talk politics safely and courteously.

My family knows my serious side–which represents most of my identity–well.  Others may not, and so I am called to be a little careful in the ways I joke around them.  I am called to be my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, and to speak charitably around them, which often means that I resist the one-liners.

I recently closed down a conversation on a big blog because one of the commenters went way over the line. He made an accusation which had absolutely no basis, and in fact was completely counter to everything I stand for.  As I defended myself, the commenter revealed that he knew the accusation was false, but he was just making a point.

That’s when I started thinking about guile.  When does our humor enter the realm of guile?  Guile: Craft; cunning; artifice; duplicity; deceit; usually in a bad sense.

As a fiction writer (yes, I still am, and will be returning to a novel very soon), I certainly engage in telling lies.  But, as I tell my students, “We tell lies to get at the truth.”  I take my fiction seriously.  I can honestly say that I write fiction without guile–ironic as that may sound. But surely fiction or books pretending to be factual but which are in fact fiction (Protocols of the Elders of Israel) can do unthinkable damage, and we must be duly warned. The best fiction will be redemptive.  For me, at least.  I hope to finish the last page and feel that I have new understanding of relationships, the human heart, grace.  Right now, Marilynne Robinson is the author who accomplishes that for me, and I’m using her as my mentor.  I will shift mentors eventually, but her images and words linger with me and even bring me peace.

I have told my children when they were making fun of someone, “Never take joy at the expense of someone else’s dignity.” That might be the best guide.  And none of wants to assume Lucifer’s title of “The Accuser.”

May my lips never speak guile.  But, dear Lord, thank you for the gift of humor.  Grant me the wisdom to use it well.




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7 Responses to Can a Fiction Writer be Guileless?

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Some very good thoughts. I really appreciate this.

    I think that if we want to make claims for the value of fiction, we need to also be willing to admit accountability when fiction does damage, rather than pretend that literature dwells in some purely esthetic realm where texts have no real-world consequences.

  2. Mahonri Stewart says:


    There are reasons you’re one of my favorite writers and it’s the love that spills from your writing is one of them. Thank you once again for blessing the world rather than giving it a black eye.

  3. SteveP says:

    Margaret, when I think of guileless, you jump to mind immediately. And I too am grateful you have the gift of humor, and that it is so abundantly expressed.

    I can’t wait to read what you are writing next.

  4. JULIA G BLAIR says:

    Thanks for this very thoughtful and appropriate article. I’m painfully aware of “humorous” comments I’ve regretted making when I’ve seen deep hurt on someone’s face. I especially remember a student in PRC in 1980 when I made a
    “humorous” remark about Mao. I resolved I’d never do that again. I’ve been wounded
    when others have made seemingly humorous remarks about my faith or things that
    touch on some of my failures. I think a novel or short story can make us aware of
    things we need to re-think, with out the personal cut.

  5. Andrew Hall says:

    Margaret says on Facebook (do you mind if I repost this here?),
    “I will be teaching Literature of the Latter-day Saints winter semester. Excited to do this. I already had a list of books in mind when I asked to teach the course. I’d love to have some of my former students come back. Final project can be creative, for you writers. We will also save the world by keeping the Association for Mormon Letters alive and organizing the conference.
    John Bennion is teaching the beginning course this semester, and will cover the Lost Generation. I’ll be teaching these:
    Eliza Partridge Lyman

    Added Upon (with a discussion of Saturday’s Warrior)
    Steven Peck’s Scholar of Moab

    Short Stories: Selections from
    Monsters and Mormons

    Doug Thayer’s Hooligans
    John Groberg’s In The Eye of the Storm
    Jana Reiss’s Flunking Sainthood

    Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines (selected)
    George Handley’s Home Waters (selected)
    Tyler Chadwick’s Fire in the Pasture

    Tom Rogers’ collection, including Huebner
    My essay on Huebener

    Film: Truth and Treason”

    When someone asked about The Backslider, Margaret replied, “I love The Blackslider, but I assume John Bennion will be teaching it in 298. There is a magnificent story by Levi Peterson in Dispensation, which I will teach.”

    Any comments on Margaret’s syllabus choices

    • Th. says:


      I would take this class just for the excuse to buy the books.

      Also: would love to know what selections are eventually selected.

    • Katya says:

      I’m very excited to hear this. I knew that John Bennion was teaching his Fall course, but I had no idea that a second course was being offered. Hooray!

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