A Mormon artists talents tithe

4.11.13 | | 12 comments

At the beginning of 2012 when I decided to both increase my writing rate and focus on science fiction and fantasy, I wondered if I would continue to write Mormon fiction. I ended up writing quite a bit more than I thought I would — mainly because of the two Everyday Mormon Writer contests. But even so, the porportion of non-overt Mormon fiction to overt Mormon fiction that I produced last year was the most un-balanced ever (while at the same time my total word count was the highest ever). When 2013 arrived, I figured that I would cut back on the Mo-lit even more. But then a) I got an excellent idea for a story and b) I decided that I would tithe my creative energies and go ahead and write it.

We’ve discussed this idea in bits and pieces here and there over the years. I’d like to raise it again. I’m particularly interested in hearing from anyone who feels compelled to devote a certain amount of time to projects that speak directly to a Mormon audience.

I realize all the arguments against it: those in other professions aren’t required to tithe their labor, why should we? It’s hard enough to scrape by as an artist and Mormon work doesn’t sell. What if you just aren’t interested in Mormon-themed art?

I also don’t think it needs to be a 10% thing. For artists, especially writers, who make their living from their art, devoting 10% of what they produce in a year to Mormon-themed works that likely wouldn’t sell (or sell for much) seems crazy. Maybe it’s 1 in every 20 works or 100. Or 1 or 2% of a yearly word count. Or whatever.

Nor, in my opinion, does it need to be a tithe in the sense that we give it to the Church for free. If you can make money off it, awesome.

What if you already write Mormon fiction (or nonfiction) or create Mormon visual art? Then maybe your “tithe” should be for a different Mormon audience than you currently write for. Or in a different genre. Or in a more experimental mode. Or in a more devotional mode.

The bottom line for me is that I ‘d like to see more LDS who have artistic talent intentionally addressing Mormon themes/creating overtly Mormon work and see this as possibly a framework to encourage that engagement.

12 comments: “A Mormon artists talents tithe

  1. Mahonri Stewart

    Great post, Wm.

    A lot of my interests intersect hugely with my spiritual beliefs, so some portion of my Mormonism (even when it’s not overt) is found in my work, although a lot of my work is overtly Mormon, too. So I guess I’ve had very little reluctance about writing Mormon literature in the past, although as I’m getting near the end of my MFA and realizing that I really do want to make money off my writing, the question really does become more pressing. I have a hard time not slipping in SOMETHING about my spiritual beliefs into most of my work, though. It’s a bit of a habit. I’m often resistant writing purely secular work, but I’m wondering if I need to do some more of that to make myself marketable. But I’d have a difficult time seeing myself not at least wanting to do it some form or another, in some portion or another, for the rest of my life. I love spiritually themed work, explicitly Mormon or not.

  2. Jonathan Langford

    I think there are a lot of Mormon writers and artists who do something like this, whether they think of it consciously as a “tithe” or not. It’s hard not to see Farland’s In the Company of Angels, for example, as just such a contribution

    I also think it’s generally less a matter of consciously dedicating a portion of our creative efforts to Mormon projects, and more a matter of being struck with the feeling that we *should* do a particular project when the idea or opportunity comes to us — even if it means taking time and attention away from better-paying work. Of course, in my case, my paid work conveniently (?) slowed dramatically just when I needed to put in a big push to get my Mormon novel done…

  3. Emily Harris Adams

    I’m not so sure we should tithe our writing talents. And I don’t necessarily think the offering should be a work of Mormon literature. Or rather, I don’t think we should stop at tithing our talents or have a preset idea of what that tithing will be. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, or even a bad starting place.
    Where I think we should end up, though, is consecrating our talent. And, like you, I don’t mean we should give our lives over to creating free Mormon Literature for the world. Instead, what I mean is that I think God gave us talents partially for our own benefit and partially for the benefit of others. I do feel like there may be times when God will ask us to use our talents in ways and times we might (or might not) expect.
    I have known authors who have stopped in the middle of other projects to write a story they felt spiritually inclined to tell. I’ve known others who have had to learn how to produce films in order to tell the story they felt God wanted told. I’ve known fantasy authors who have suddenly written inspiring works of non-fiction. I’ve known other authors who donate their writings to charity or who use their own literary clout to help a new or struggling author. And of course, I’ve heard of authors who have devoted hours to writing skits for girls camp or scout camp or ward activities.
    As to whether we should make sure that we write overtly Mormon literature as part of our consecration? I suppose that would depend. I don’t think God necessarily needs us to write overtly Mormon literature. I think if we were to tithe a certain amount of time to writing overtly Mormon literature, it would be a secular tithe to the Mormon literary community rather than to a spiritual ideal. It would be more to uplift the genre than to uplift the audience. Of course, that could be exactly what we should be doing. Making a genre better eventually makes the audience outreach better too. I guess, I just think that if we do set aside the time for Mormon lit, we need to realize it is set aside for Mormon lit and not necessarily for the church (I do realize those two don’t have to be exclusive, but they don’t need to be related either).

  4. Scott Hales

    Right now I want to go the other direction and tithe ten percent of my writing to non-Mormon-related topics (like Emily Dickinson and postmortem photography), but time is too limited. Maybe I’ll start paying that tithe when it becomes easier and more convenient.

  5. Mahonri Stewart

    Emily’s comments about consecration resonate with me. As writers, I think it’s important to get to the point where no matter what we’re writing about, it has a certain authentic, dare I say spiritual quality. As Brigham Young was fond of saying, “Mormonism embraces all truth.” So with that more inclusive meaning of Mormonism, it’s not so much what we write about, but how we write about it, I think. Although I’m always very interested in plays with specifically recognizably Mormon themes and characters. Our history, scripture, theology, and culture is a rich mine of powerful subject matter.

  6. James Goldberg

    Emily’s right about consecration. There’s no tithe for talents–just a commitment to give 100% to building up the kingdom of God.

    But how do you build up the kingdom of God? As an LDS father, I have an explicit obligation to support my family as best I can. Writing for a paycheck or to build up my c.v. in better-recognized areas may be one way I can build up the kingdom of God in my family.

    If I can provide for my family and do more, though, God expects me to use my talents to build up the kingdom in other ways. Part of that may be by writing for a general audience in a way that gets people thinking about choice or truth or the depths of the human spirit. Part of that may be writing experimentally with the intent to discover new techniques and increase the possible beauty of art, which glorifies God’s creation by showing its richness. I can build up the kingdom of God and make beauty for Zion without ever writing a Mormon character.

    So why (in terms of consecration) should I write anything explicitly for Mormons? The only reason I can think of is this: I should write for or about Mormons if I believe such writings will help build up the kingdom of God.

    And I do. I really and deeply do.

    I believe there’s a very real danger today of people abandoning covenants because they can’t relate to “Mormon culture.” Full assimilation into the mass culture is easy today and the sheer size and strength of America’s cultural institutions mean that almost every member of the church will experience multiple pitches for it: overt and implicit invitations to abandon our ways for the world’s. But our ways are important. Our covenants are more vital than salt was in our ancestors’ days.

    We need art that helps people own and explore the richness of our faith and our promises. We need to show people that for all the advantages of Egypt, it really is better to follow a prophet through the desert.

    Or to switch metaphors: the dominant culture is like the waters of a flood. The rain has been pouring down harder than ever, and the logic of water, the force of the pull downhill, seems irresistible. But stories can be like sandbags, carving out spaces where the water doesn’t tug at your feet. Or stories can be like trees for people to cling to when the waters rush and yank.

    I write for Mormons as much as I can because I believe my brothers and sisters need the talents in me. I write for Mormons because that’s my honest assessment of what’s needed in the kingdom of God.

  7. Emily Harris Adams

    James,

    I like your point about using Mormon Lit to help people feel more welcome in the Mormon community, and for showing the true strengths that the LDS beliefs and culture bring. It’s a point I don’t think I made enough room for in my earlier statements. Mormon Lit can be an impressive tool for building the kingdom of God.

    p.s I really like: “We need to show people that for all the advantages of Egypt, it really is better to follow a prophet through the desert.” Very well said.

  8. Th.

    .

    I’ve grappled with this issue explicitly in blogging (link), but I don’t know how to think about it in other kinds of writing.

    On the one hand, tithing never feels so much like a lower law than when it comes to my time talents etc. On the other hand, I got things I want to do. On the hand under the bed, I believe anything can be done with a prayer (or consecration) in the heart. On the hand on the top shelf of my closet, I hope to be closer to the Lord each year.

    However. If I were one never to write about Mormon stuff, I would find your call to tithing entirely compelling and, I hope, would thus heed.

  9. Inari

    I was going to make the consecration comment type comment too, but since it’s already made I’ll just make those little murmuring noises of “yeah that’s what I would have said if I had said something”.

    For a visual artist (with a big fancy camera) the opportunities to put my talents to work at the ward level are frequent, especially with a calling in Primary: there’s always something that needs drawing or designing or photographing. I see it as no different than when the doctor in the ward holds a Relief Society activity about health, or when the immigration officer figures out some kind of a complicated situation with the missionaries that one of the investigators is going through. Or such-much.

    And in my personal practice, like Theric, I lean towards the svithing type thing, where I will have “Sunday projects” (usually drawing) that are a bit more godly in some way (I’d feel bad “working” on a Sunday, but I might go crazy having a day with no arting at all), but it is more of a personal communication-with-God type of thing, rather than a kingdom-building activity. Well I guess praying and reading the scriptures builds the kingdom in some ways. But you know what I mean.

  10. Katya

    I am respectful of the idea that artists need to put food on the table, the same as anyone else, and absolutely agree that it’s possible to consecrate all work, whether or not it’s religious in nature. But I also find myself touched when I see that an artist or writer who normally works in other areas has decided (for whatever reasons) to create a work with a Mormon theme or for a Mormon audience. Some might find the idea of an explicit tithe too confining or pedestrian, but for others, the idea might give them a framework to help them balance the work they have to do with the work they might yearn to do.

  11. ET

    I wonder how this discussion might change if we replaced the word “art” with some other profession. Should Mormon accountants tithe their mathematical talent? Mormon doctors their medical talent? Mormon craftsmen their construction talent? It seems so easy for musicians to consecrate their talent (they can do so in sacrament meeting for heaven sake). How does a Mormon athlete tithe his/her talent? Or consecrate it for that matter? It seems we must somehow blend the principles of “lift[ing] where we stand” and being “anxiously engaged” in good causes that bring to pass much righteousness. I suspect that the Spirit, a purveyor of gifts, endeavors to help me make the right measure of mine.

    Orson Scott Card wrote that the artist can’t help but write what he/she believes. I believe that this is true for in the end, are we not most likely to create that which matters most to us. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good…” I wonder if, therefore, in simply seeking to fill our hearts with “good treasure” we don’t consequentially – even inadvertently! – tithe our talent.

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