Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Anger, arrogance, and creativity

I have often been mystified by the poverty of good LDS fiction I see in the marketplace in my day. This has occupied my mind as I have considered writing a novel for a Mormon audience. How can a people so full of talent, creativity, and surpassing love of God and men have so little capacity in this creative genre?

It is said by thoughtful and reliable sources that within the breast of any comedian, funny man, affable joker, or inveterate prankster beats a heart full of anger and discontent. Some are crusaders and freedom fighters who fight against injustice with mockery and pith, while others find themselves unable to cope with the unpleasantness of life unless they make light of it all.

This is a common thread in many forms of creativity. For most any writer with a passion for expression and a desire to be heard, there has to be a reason to do it. Something must drive them to create. Writing is an exercise in arrogance: if I do not flatter myself with the thought that I have something to say about which others are ignorant, why should I bother with the effort?

George Orwell said this about writing: “When I sit down to write a book…I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

I feel like Mr. Orwell. I would leave the simpler faith-promoting stories for those who know how to assuage readers with pleasant and rather unenlightening affirmations – not because that isn’t difficult in its own right, but rather because if I tried to write without saying anything I wouldn’t be able to write at all.

These empty affirmers that feed the market with works that will change few hearts and enlighten few minds – they are not really writers. Orwell elsewhere says, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” By this measure they certainly aren’t writers and I certainly am. Their vanity does not require of them anything grand or surpassing; they do not selfishly care to be the first or best to do anything, and if they are lazy it is a beneficent, productive laziness indeed. That is far better than my dyspeptic, bilious failure.

Is there something for me to say to the LDS fiction audience? What is there to change? What is there to fight against? What challenges need issuing forth? We believe our doctrine is perfect, and the organization of our church (if not our culture) improvable only by God. There is little to establish about divine order or the nature of man, and no unrealistic hope or gloomy pessimism to rectify.

So we are reduced to nit-picking. To issue forth challenges against viewing R-rated movies and the blight of internet pornography, but such is standard General-Conference-fare (and research into such stories would be uncomfortably difficult). It would be an affirmation, made better only by a rather more frank portrayal of wayward Saints than I think the marketplace is used to.

I am a Mormon, faithfully believing and perhaps slightly more devout than average. I have much I would dream of saying to the world (fantastic stories of hope and betrayal; the virtue of forgiveness in a world that cries for vengeance; the blessing of unconditional love when it is least expected; long love letters to the planet earth and its beauty being a proof of the existence of God). I would say that and more.

But I imagine I have nothing my fellow Saints should want to hear. Is it because I would be preaching to the choir? I suppose filling books with lessons from Sunday School is not a sure-fire best-seller recipe. And anyway, so many know so much more than I about unconditional love, faith, hope, reverence, or forgiveness.

I am reminded of a thought by Orson Scott Card about stories – they tell us how to be human. By this measure storytelling for the pleasure of Mormons is exceedingly difficult indeed, for we already have a surfeit of such instruction about the true nature of humanity, its origin and destiny. And I am certainly not one that could improve upon it.

I thought to write for Mormons because I fancied it an easier task taking on a provincial literary backwater than would be going up against the likes of Orwell and Card. I have had it backwards. The world, dark and ignorant and desperate to have light shine on it, could be much easier.

I have new respect for the LDS fiction “writers.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Intesting piece. By the closing line I was asking myself whether this process of self-discovery was happening in real time, or if it was something you learned and posted after the fact. Regardless, an interesting exploration. I like it for the same reason I like the great historicaly personal essayists: they're willing to open up their learning experince to the scrutiny of their readers. Surely it's one of the riskiest literary exercises of all for an author to expose initial ignorance, intermediate insight, and final insight. Should a reader have already reached the same conclusion, the writer looks suddenly backward. But I would hope that on the whole the exploration is a shared one, with both writer and reader growing thereby.