Although I doubt it was really targeted specifically for me, I received a family e-mail the other day with an article that the Deseret News published about Scott Ditty, a Mormon actor trying to make his way in Hollywood. Ditty was a working actor for 15 years, but eventually abandoned his enterprise because he felt that acting was too compromising of a career choice to be made if one wanted to stay true the values of the LDS faith. He now works at Alta High School in Utah as a football/track coach and film studies teacher.
I appreciate the personal integrity that this showed in Ditty, especially since he adds the caveat “I’m not saying you can’t be a good member of the church if you’re in that profession; I have many dear LDS friends who make it work. Mine was a personal choice to follow inspiration and pursue the noble profession of teaching and coaching.” However, I was also discouraged by the continuing pressure this kind of sentiment puts on Mormon artists, writers, actors and film folks to abandon the field of their creative aspirations.
When I tell people that I’m working towards being a screenwriter/playwright/TV writer, I can’t count the number of doubtful reactions that I have received, not because it’s such a competitive industry (which I’ve received, too…and it certainly is absurdly competitive!), but because they consider it to be a “corrupt” environment. “Oh, Mahonri, that’s not for you,” is a typical response.
Now is there some legitimacy to some of these concerns? Of course there is. However, if I had told some one that I was working towards being a lawyer, would have they told me that the moral compromises seemingly required in the legal field were incompatible with my faith? Or a politician? Or a businessman? To me, those fields are riddled with moral pitfalls, but they are common vocations for many Mormons, without the same cultural stigma attached to them.
A couple of personal examples. When I was in the early years of my undergraduate degree, I got a job working the phones for a company in Utah that sold genealogy software. Sounds like a safe job for a Mormon, right? I mean, genealogy!
However, my first day on the job, I became increasingly aware of what sort of work I had just signed up for.
My job would be to take incoming calls and keep people within their contracts. All right, keeping people within the legal limits of their agreement…I was a little uncomfortable, but that at least sounds ethical on the face of it. Yet during my training I was instructed to listen to one of the employees on a mute head piece, and as he talked to an elderly widow who hadn’t understood the legalese and crafty fine print of the program, I was pretty appalled.
It was obvious that this little elderly lady couldn’t afford the monthly billing of the software, yet the nature of the trap they had set for her made it obligatory for her to stay within the contract. As she tried to plead to the humanity of the worker, telling him about her fixed income, about her financial difficulties, that it was between paying for this program and a light bill, I just couldn’t see how it would be ethical or compassionate to keep her within the confines of the (initially very hidden) confines of the agreement. Yet neither the worker, nor the manager who was listening in with me, strayed from the script that required them to deny this desperately distressed widow.
And, of course, I kept thinking that this woman hadn’t, ironically, realized that the LDS Church offered genealogy programs for free online.
My conscience started a-buzzing, but I needed the money (and it was pretty good money for that stage in my life), so I kept going through the motions of the training, debating with myself. As I sat down with other new employees in an instructional training meeting, our trainer went through what sounded like a pretty typical training until he started talking about a call he had made where he had purposely hidden the truth from a caller on how they could get out of their contract. “Was that a little white lie?” he asked. “Yes. Is that all right? (too long of a pause for my comfort)… Yes.”
I was floored. Did he just say that? After that training session, I took one of the people who was guiding me through the process aside and told him what had happened in the training session and that I simply wasn’t comfortable with those kind of business practices. He justified such practices saying that big companies like Time Magazine and others did similar things, that this was all just protocol. Frankly, I didn’t care how big the companies were that tricked and robbed little old ladies and encouraged their employees to lie and obfuscate… I wanted out. So I quit on my first day, before I had even touched a keyboard or put on a headset.
Now, in this company’s defense, my sister, who had gotten me the interview for the job through a friend of hers, told me of the aftermath. Apparently, I had made enough of a ruckus about the training meeting, that the woman who interviewed me and hired me (my sister’s friend) told the founder of the company (also a Mormon, as were the vast majority of the people who worked there) about what the trainer had been teaching in the training session and he was furious. That trainer got in pretty hot water. The president asked my sister’s friend who I was because he wanted to give me a promotion. He valued the fact that I had been a whistle blower in the name of integrity. She reluctantly told him that I had quit in fiery indignation.
Now I, like Scott Ditty, quit a certain job path because I thought it had moral pitfalls that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, what would have happened if I had stayed? Apparently, the president of the company was also wanting to stay in certain ethical bounds and wanted to reward me, so perhaps I could have effected some positive change in the company. Who knows? I don’t lose too much sleep over it, though, considering the genealogy business wasn’t exactly the career path I was aiming for. Like Ditty, I didn’t care enough about it to make it work for me, while still fighting the good fight.
Another personal example, before I make my final points:
A number of years passed. I got married to my lovely wife and had a wonderful son. I had just graduated from from Utah Valley University’s newly minted four year bachelor’s in Theatrical Arts degree (where I had focused on playwriting and, to a lesser degree, directing), one of the two members of its first graduating class (it was a great program for me and its productions have since won national awards from the Kennedy Center). My little family was living in my parents basement and I really needed to get a job (I had previously been employed in the theatre department’s office through work study, which now wasn’t an option since I was a graduate) or go to grad school.
Providentially, it seemed, my friend was working at a website building company that really needed a good writer in their legal/customer relations department. They interviewed me, loved my writing samples, and I got the job. It was salaried, had health care benefits (!), and perhaps some upward mobility. And it involved something I was good at…writing. If I could keep a hold of this one, I thought, I could build my theatre business on the side while still supporting my family.
Yet as I continued on through this job for six months (much longer than the one day that occurred with the genealogy company), I felt my conscience buzzing progressively louder again. My job was to defend the company from legal harassment, basically. I would write to the Better Business Bureau, Attorney Generals from across the country, and high level dispute cases, trying to resolve the conflicts that came our way. And, as I discovered, boy, there were conflicts. I found myself in a similar situation as before, where I was the Defender of the Contract. I kept people, through the art of my words, in the chains of their agreement (even if they hadn’t understood what they had been getting themselves into). I was their “legal writer,” making sure the company store got their pound of flesh.
However, my situation had changed. I now had a wife and baby to support. I had to consider their needs, not just my own impugned morality. I wasn’t just a single college guy dinking around any more, I told myself. I had responsibilities. I had to start looking for long term career possibilities. And, oh, that health insurance. And a salary.
So I stuck with it this time, but with a caveat. I was not going to ignore the pleas of mercy I had heard in that old woman’s voice at the genealogy call center. I would try to work within the system and try to be an agent for good.
So I was fierce and cunning with those other agencies of power in the BBB and the Attorney Generals offices, and I argued artfully against those who legitimately were trying to get out of an obligation they understood they were taking on. But when the heartbreaking stories came across my desk, or I sensed desperation in the messages in my phone box or in the e-mails I received, I would try to gently argue for those cases to the combined meetings I had with our chief Lawyer, our CFO, my supervisor, and others. And I was able to win a number of those cases, usually through technicalities (technicalities, I discovered could be beautiful shields for the oppressed). However, my bosses didn’t have the same bleeding heart I did. They noticed that my loyalty (a word they threw at me on a couple of occasions) wasn’t with the company, that I had a different ultimate objective than making us money.
So, after they patiently tried to play Pygmalion to mold me into a corporate shark with literary teeth, and seeing that it was a vain endeavor, they “downsized” my position from the company when the economy went south (among other positions in the company, there was a number of us who lost our jobs), and gave my responsibilities to my supervisor. The company’s lawyer in charge of my division tried to be somewhat kind when letting me go, explaining that I just didn’t have the kind of aggressive personality they were going for (he was being perfectly frank about the sort of moral quandaries involved, which I appreciated). I think he was a little surprised at how well I was taking it, though. I knew it would be a hardship for my family, but I was never so relieved to move on from a job in my entire life. I left that office building feeling better than I had for months (although I certainly was wondering how I was going to break the news to Anne).
After my wife and I worked at a few odd jobs after that, I eventually found what I considered to be a boon of a job teaching drama and creative writing at a charter school in Arizona. Again, like Scott Ditty, I found moral solace in being a teacher.
The student body came from rough, often tragic backgrounds, though, so management was sometimes a problem. But I found solace in that, too, as I felt like I was making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged kids (that’s not how my wife remembers it, though, as she vividly reminds me of the days I would call home in tears because of the cruelty sometimes exhibited by teenagers). Yet teaching–that was something I could see myself doing long term.
And the principals I worked under, as well as the staff I worked with seemed to really appreciate me (I was one of three teachers who was retained after most of the staff was cleared out–including the principal–as a requirement to get No Child Left Behind government money for underperforming schools). Sure, a lot of the students were tough cookies to crack, but I also felt a great deal of love from many of them (even when some of them didn’t transfer that love into manageable behavior in the classroom). I look back at those couple of years with a great deal of fondness.
However, the stark realities of the raw deal high school teachers get started settling in. We were still living in an apartment in a rough neighborhood living on a minimal salary, shrinking benefits (our money for health insurance was taken out of our salary and put into a health savings account–the adage that benefits are one of the perks of being a high school no longer applies in many schools), and had another beautiful baby girl to provide for, in addition to our son who had been tentatively diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder. We were dealing with bed bugs, a child with special needs, money struggles, and being attached to a charter school that was struggling just to keep its doors open–well, it was a rough time at home, a struggle to keep order at school, and it became evident that this life would not be sustainable for very long.
So, after being accepted to Arizona State University’s grad school program in Dramatic Writing (the only program I applied to that year, since it was in state), I said a fond farewell to my fellow teachers and my students, my wife took a job as an middle school English teacher (through which she has encountered many of the same struggles with the American education system that I did, times 20), and we decided to take a new course as a family.
So I was kind of the reverse equation of Scott Ditty. He escaped Hollywood to go into education, and I may escape education to make a try for Hollywood. Now, I would love love to get an academic job as a playwriting/screenwriting/theatre professor, as I’ve loved teaching the classes I have at ASU (honestly, college professors are living the life compared to their high school teacher counterparts!). I would love to live that life, I can think of few other positions that would make me happier or more content or give more ease to my conscience, while still maintaining a stable life for my family. So I’ve still got my eye on that possible prize.
But I’ve also been inspired by the screenwriting and TV writing classes that I have taken from Philip Taylor at ASU. He worked as a writer on various recognizable TV shows in his career, including Mork and Mindy, Highlander, Murder She Wrote, and The Incredible Hulk. He also had a screenplay produced into a feature length film. As I took his classes, I considered for the first time the possibility of being a TV writer. I had always dismissed any thought like that in the past as morally problematic and unrealistic, but after being mentored by Philip and receiving his glowing encouragement and confidence, I find my mind and heart opening up to new possibilities. Far from closing that door, I will rush to pry it wide open upon the revelation of the slightest slit of light gleaming from the other side.
Every career has its moral quandaries. Even a Mormon seminary teacher has to consider how he or she will present the sticky facts about Church history and scholarship. Dealing with those dilemmas is a part of life, and I’m willing to cross those bridges when I get there. But as I look back on my life, I found myself in many more compromising situations and ethical emergencies in the religiously acceptable realms of business and law. Meanwhile, my experience in the arts has had the opposite effect. The supposedly ethically compromised theatre and film artists and writers that I have been engaging with are some the best people I have ever met, full of inquiry, deep seated integrity (even when they’re not religious, sometimes especially when they’re not religious!), and a compassion for the downtrodden and the outcast to a level that I never experienced from those I interacted with in the business and legal worlds (apart from some rare individuals, including members of my family, whose approach to business I deeply admire). There are few things that have given me more of a sense of spirituality and a connection to God than when I have experienced a film, a play, or a TV show that was soulfully crafted and executed. The arts and media are where I feel myself being called to and I believe, rather than it being a siren’s cry that I’m hearing, that it is the cry in the wilderness of a Shepherd looking for his lost sheep.
I fully respect those who step away from the arts because they don’t think it fits their moral paradigm or their spiritual context. I, on the other hand, feel quite the opposite. I’ve tasted the fruit offered by careers that other religious people thought were acceptable, and it was bitter to me. It didn’t fit me at all. The path of creativity and art, on the other hand, makes me feel like I’m fulfilling the measure of my creation.