Zion, Utopias and being politically agnostic artists

Based on the evidence we have (the scriptures), it seems to me that it takes extraordinary social, political and economic conditions for a community of believers to form a Zion state. The city of Enoch required a separate city-state protected by a prophet who could work miracles to keep enemies at bay. The no-ites found in Fourth Nephi required a series of natural catastrophes which caused the deaths of thousands (and thus a major reduction of the population) and (presumably) disrupted existing economic and political structures, followed by a personal visit from the resurrected Christ, and the personal calling of Twelve Apostles in front of hundreds, perhaps, thousands of witnesses and all that even managed only two generations worth of Zion. The post-Millennium situation requires Jesus Christ himself to vanquish evil and rule personally (not to mention a fairly dramatic restructuring of the physical elements of the planet itself). Even the not fully successful attempts at establishing Zion, such as certain periods among the Nephites and/or Lamanites, the people of Israel, and the early Mormons required a fairly homogenous population forged out of much tribulation (and, generally, a prophet who was also the main political leader).  And all of those periods were difficult, fragile, and short-lived.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about neo-liberalism and the way in which it erodes families, communities and individuals in the service of technocratic utopian visions, which while may be sincere and well-meaning on the part of some are undergirded by the demands of capital. I am by nature and experience a political pragmatist and radical centrist. Which means I find value in libertarian and Marxist and democratic socialist and crunchy conservative critiques of neo-liberalism (and of each other). But I also find myself frustrated by and/or deeply skeptical of the solutions proposed by each of those political philosophies.

So I think what I’ve arrived at is that all utopias–all ideal states that are not Zion–are flawed and something to be fought against. All political philosophies tend to have elements of them that are totalizing. That are willing to sacrifice humanity and human agency on the altar of the political philosophy.

Satan’s plan is not socialism. It’s not neo-liberalism. It’s not Marxism or libertarianism or anarchism. It’s any world view that attempts to totalize, that degrades, that dehumanizes–that can swerve into fascism on the way to utopia. Anything that loses patience with human agency and sacrifices human compassion on the altar of expediency and tries to smooth out the messiness of this physical existence through force or coercion or seduction.

While engagement in the democratic process is necessary, important and can lead to much good in the world. While engagement in the economic and cultural marketplace is necessary, important and can even lead to much good in the world. While we as Latter-day Saints are not called to the monastery, the compound, the commune, the enclave, I worry that we are too often too much in the world.

I think this is especially dangerous for artists. I’m not calling for solely apolotical art or artists to not engage in politics. Artists shouldn’t be willfully blind to the realities of the modern world. In fact, I think artists should be in dialogue with current political and socio-economic thought and action. I think artists should be angry, concerned, hopeful, curious, engaged and informed about the world. I don’t believe that art for art’s sake is actually possible or desirable.

But I also think that artists, and especially Mormon artists, should have at their core a deep skepticism of utopian solutions and an ultimately agnostic stance towards politics that prods them to interrogate the reifying language of politicians and technocrats even when (especially when!) they happen to lean towards a particular party platform and/or candidate. We should want to make the world a better place within the current social, economic and political constraints. In order to do so, we have to work with the ideas and people of our time. It’s just that Zion should be this pulsating hope inside us that repels other ideologies from burrowing all the way through to our inner core worldview and artistic themes and concerns.

Am I wrong about this?

Note: comments are welcome — this is not, however, an invitation to talk about politics in general or any one politician or party, and rather about artists positioning in relation to the discourse of politics.

Vote in the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz and you will be blessed

Voting for the twelve finalist of the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz is now open through this Saturday, June 11. The editors have made it super easy to vote this year. Just click on the link above, open up the links to each of the eligible works in a new tab, narrow your choice down to four, rank those four and then fill out the form on the original page.

Also: if you feel compelled to publicly comment on any or some or all of the entries, do leave a comment on the discussion post. We authors appreciate it when readers engage with what we wrote.

It’s a fascinating group of finalists this year — some names that are familiar from LitBlitzes of yore; some that are new. And quite the eclectic mix of poetry, personal essay and poetry. Kathy Cowley and James and Nicole Goldberg have done a wonderful job. So much so that I’m going to say something about each of the entries. You might want to wait to read the commentary below until you’ve read all of the entries. But I’m not kidding when I claim that you will be blessed if you do the reading required to vote for the finalists. I was:

“Foolish and Wise” by Lisa Barker: Lisa gets at something that I can really relate to — parables often present contrasts of two or three types of individuals. But most of us don’t fall cleanly into one of those types. We’re both or all.

“Fresh Courage Take” by Bradeigh Godfrey: when it comes to flash fiction the most difficult thing to do is fit a robust premise into 1,000 words. Bradeigh chooses the right situation for his story. We’re so familiar with the post-apocalyptic/trek back to Zion tropes that he doesn’t need to worldbuild those out. Instead he shows us the emotional impact and let’s us fill in the blanks to add even more weight to the story.

 “Leaving Egypt” by Tyler Chadwick: When I taught the Old Testament, I was a bit harsh on the Children of Israel at points, but I also tried to show how they weren’t all that different from us and tried to provide context for their experience. Tyler captures in a few lines what weeks of clumsy lecturing on my part barely got across. That’s the power of poetry, folks.

“Ghost” by Merrijane Rice: I’m going to repeat a comment I left on the discussion post — If “Ghost” is about what I think it’s about, then Merrijane has given me quite the bittersweet view of the future (my daughter is currently 12). Actually: already starting to glimpse it. But then again: isn’t that exactly a type and shadow of our relationship to our Heavenly Parents? — and then add that this line continues to resonate with me: “let me haunt the corners of your mind”

 “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” by Rose Green: Transient ward members are such a pain. The ones who live in a place too long to be visitors but not long enough to settle in. The ones who you have to reorganize home and visiting teaching around. Who you want to get to know, but not too well because, well, it’s painful when people you love leave. Read that third to last paragraph again. What a perfectly observed metaphor with a multitude of meanings.

 “The Gift of Tongues“ by Annaliese Lemmon: I love, love, love that Annaliese takes this initial (very interesting and unique) conceit and then complicates it in a way that is so very Mormon.

 “Branch 9 ¾” by Kaki Olsen: I have a thing about the personal essay form. I so often find it frustrating. Too crafted. Too earnest. Not fiction. But here Kaki takes one of the major themes that preoccupies me on an abstract level — that of the interaction between Mormonism and the broader culture — and presents us with something very real and meaningful.

“Golden Contact” by Lee Allred: Lee’s story is a joke. I mean that literally not as a commentary on the story. But I like that even in a story that is a joke Lee can include lines like “There’s sort of a unnatural sharkskin texture to them that almost glows.” He’s one of our best at expressing the uniqueness of Mormonism in a unique way.

“The Back Row” by Kelli Swofford Nielsen: Kelli’s essay does for me some of the same things that “Branch 9 3/4” and “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” did but with the added bonus that because I’m a back row sitter (who underwent a similar process to that described in the essay), I can very much identify with her observations.

“Rumors of Wars” by Zachary Lunn: An impactful poem because it connects the wars of today with the Church of today with the Church and wars of before and does so with some simple, powerful imagery.  

 “Last Tuesday” by William Morris: I hope other readers find that it balances the things I wanted to balance; otherwise, it’s kind of ridiculous. But what am I if not a leading Mormon purveyor of the ridiculous and the sublime?

 “From the East” by Merrijane Rice: While up until this year Steve Peck might have some claim to the crown, I think it’s now obvious that Merrijane owns the Mormon Lit Blitz contest. This poem is another proof why. Pay especial attention to the rhythm of it and the use of alliteration which seems profligate in its abundance until you read it out loud and then it seems perfect.

We have a name for the Mormon alternate history mini-anthology (plus submissions update)

I have two updates in relation to the Mormon alternate history anthology I’m editing.

A name!

With Monsters & Mormons the name came first and the commitment to doing the actual anthology later so it was clear what to call it. With this one, I’ve been bouncing various ideas off of Theric and none have really worked until now (that’s why in the call for submissions, there’s no title stated). But I think I finally have it: States of Deseret will be the name of the anthology (unless I change my name between now and publication [but I don’t think I will–I like this one]).

Submissions!

I am reading them. Thanks again to all those who submitted. I hope to have my initial read through completed by the end of the month and then responses to everyone in the latter part of May. Thanks for your patience. I know it’s not fun to wait.

Submissions due Saturday for Mormon alternate history anthology

NOTE: the deadline has passed and submissions are now closed.

Just a reminder that submissions for the Mormon alternate history mini-anthology I’m editing are due by end of the day Saturday, March 19. End of the day = midnight Pacific Daylight Time. Although I won’t be up then so if it’s in my inbox when I check my email Sunday morning, it’ll be okay. Be warned, though, that I have to get up for church meetings, and I’m on Central Time so it’ll be early Sunday morning (plus, it’s the Sabbath, then: Saturday is a special day — it’s the day we finish stories that feature Mormons in alternate historical timelines).

If you haven’t even started writing yet, don’t despair. There’s still time! A 1,500 words flash piece or even a 3-4k short story can easily be written in a day or two or four. So get to it!

Short on ideas? Here’s where you can get some:

Good luck! I eagerly await your submissions.

Dark Watch and other Mormon-American stories on sale

To celebrate it being one of three AML Awards finalists for short story collection, I have dropped the price of Dark Watch and other Mormon-American stories to $2.99. Buy it from your online store of choice: Amazon | Kobo | Nook | iBooks

I’m also hoping to bring in a few more sales to plump up the pool of funds for contributors to my upcoming Mormon alternate history anthology. We’re currently at $165. I will supplement that total out of my own pocket to get to what we need to in order to pay the contributors to the anthology (likely somewhere $225-275). But it’d be nice to be able to fund some or all the rest of it from book sales.

If you bought the story collection at the higher price, you’re the best and a true patron of Mormon arts. Please consider nudging other people in your life to buy it. Or gift it to someone who might enjoy it.

If you haven’t bought it, I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it — but I can say that it’ll be one of the most interesting bits of Mormon culture you’ve ever spent $3 on.

Mormon alternate history anthology: background reading

Interested in contributing to (or reading) the Mormon alternate history anthology I am editing (deadline for submissions is March 19!)? Curious about what alternate historical fiction is all about? Here are some works to consider reading:

Mormon Alternate History

For the Strength of the Hills” by Lee Allred. This novella is one of the most re-printed stories in Mormon literature and one of the earliest (if not the earliest) iterations of the sub-sub-genre.  

“Traitors and Tyrants” by John Nakamura Remy and Galen Dara in Monsters & MormonsThis short comic mixes pulp adventure tropes with steampunk and features Erasmus Snow and his plural wives on a trip to Japan.

City of the Saints by D.J. Butler is also a Mormon alternate history steampunk story. It features such characters as Orson Pratt, inventor of the airship, Sam Clemens and his steam truck, and Egyptian antiquities exhibitor Edgar Allen Poe.

Note: Orson Scott Card’s The Tales of Alvin Maker is considered to be alternate history, but it doesn’t really fit with what I’m asking for because it involves the use of magic. Alternate technologies are okay with me (e.g. steampunk/dieselpunk) but magic isn’t something I’m interested in for this particular anthology.

Other Alternate History Works/Resources

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. A key text in alternate history, the novel takes place in a 1962 America that has been partitioned in two by the Axis powers Japan and Germany. All the more remarkable in that it is also a meta-narrative about alternate history.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by American Michael Chabon is a key influence on my own alternate history story “The Darkest Abyss in America”. It take place 60 years after a (in our actual timeline rejected) proposal to temporary settle WWII-era Jewish refugees in Sitka, Alaska is passed.

Uchronia is the go-to online database of alternate history works.

The Sideways Award is the major aware in the genre.

There is a lot more out there, but this is a good start. Anybody have other reading suggestions?

Call for Submissions: Mormon Alternate History Anthology

NOTE: Submissions are now closed! Many thanks to all those who submitted stories.

Submissions are now open for the Mormon alternate history anthology I am editing and publishing with the help of Theric Jepson of Peculiar Pages . Details are below but the gist is: submit flash fiction (<2500 words) and short stories (3000-6000 words) that fit the theme by March 19, 2016. Payment will be a token amount ($15 for the short pieces; $25 for the longer ones), but it will be actual payment for Mormon short fiction, which is, sadly, all too rare a thing.

Before we get to all the mechanics, though, let me explain why I want to put together this particular anthology at this time:

1. It’s been 4 years since we published Monsters & Mormons. It’s time for me to put the editor of Mormon fiction hat on again.

2. About 40 of you very nice people purchased a copy of my Mormon short story collection, which means I have a little over $150 to re-invest in the Mormon lit community (and by the time I’m ready to pay contributors sales may even cover the entire $225-250 budget I have for the anthology).

3. While there is lovely Mormon fiction and poetry being published, history remains the dominant narrative form in Mormon Studies. I want to put Mormon fiction writers in dialogue with that (and mess with it a bit too, of course). And I also like that alternate history is a place where I think both genre and literary fiction writers can do good, interesting work.

4. For all that Mormonism has changed vastly since the end of WWII — becoming more international, more diverse, higher profile, and larger in scale — its basic form and status hasn’t actually changed all that much. We are still very much in the correlated/internationalized/North America-centered/middle-class-centered mode. Certainly technology and society has changed quite a bit, but the Boomer, GenX and Millennial* Mormon experience is not as dramatically different as the earlier periods of our history are from each other. This concerns me because I suspect that we are moving into an era where Mormonism will be more different from the current now than the current now is from the past four decades. I believe that Mormon alternate history is a genre that can (and should) be of interest right now among the Mormon audience because it helps us realize that our beliefs and policies, our ways of worship and community, our formal and informal social and economic structures are not set in stone for all time. If transitions are coming then it might be useful to understand that how current Mormonism exists in the world isn’t how it always has been or needed to be. It also helps us experience other ways of being Mormons and of being Mormons in relation to the rest of society.

5. Most importantly, alternate history is simply an interesting way of exploring the Mormon experience. There’s a vast storehouse of events, characters, documents, decisions, doctrines, and experiences that make up the past 195 years of Mormonism. Let’s use that storehouse to increase the small but important storehouse of Mormon fiction.

SUBMISSIONS INSTRUCTIONS

Email submissions as an attachment in .rtf, .doc or .docx format to submissions AT motleyvision DOT org. In the subject line put either [FLASH] TITLE OF STORY or [SHORT STORY] TITLE OF STORY. See below for word counts for flash and short story submissions.

In the body of the email include your name, mailing address** and any biographical info or writing credits that relate to the story and/or Mormon fiction and/or your career as a writer. If available, include a link to a blog, website, online resume/works published page, twitter account — anything that will provide some context to your work. A brief note on the key historical events, facts, books, journal articles or other sources that informed the story is welcome but not required.

Pseudonyms are discouraged, but will be allowed for special circumstances — please include that consideration in your e-mail if you would like it.

Deadline: March 19, 2016 (at midnight Pacific Time)

WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR   

SHORT STORIES: Must be between 3,000 and 6,000 words. And I will be enforcing those parameters (although I will give a wee bit of latitude because different programs can produce slightly different word counts). I realize that it’s hard to conjure up an alternate fiction world in such a short amount of space. It’s also a delicious, fun challenge.

FLASH PIECES: Must be 2,500 words or less. While a well-crafted piece of flash fiction is always welcome, for these I highly recommend choosing a non-short story form. By that I mean creating a text that reveals the alternate condition of Mormonism in your timeline by masquerading as being from that timeline. This could mean a: newspaper or magazine article, letter(s), telegram(s), trial transcript, hymn/popular song, excerpt from a play or opera libretto, government report, deposition, journal entry, feuilleton, field notes, sermon, lecture, review, bibliography/table of contents, ship manifest, menu, gossip column, news reel or silent film transcript, etc.     

ALSO: No reprints. No chapters from novels. You may have something already written that would be a good fit, but I think it’s quite likely that you’ll better your chances of catching my eye by writing something specifically for the anthology.

Text only. No graphic novels this time (sorry — love them, but they’re not the right fit for this project).

I plan on selecting 5 or 6 short stories and 7 or 8 pieces of flash fiction for the anthology.  Submissions should be of interest to the Mormon audience. Just like with Monsters & Mormons, content should not exceed PG-13 in terms of violence, language and sexuality.

Work from writers who are non-LDS, women, international Mormons and Mormons from diverse backgrounds are highly encouraged. New writers are also welcome.

While Monsters & Mormon slanted more pulp, I expect this anthology to slant more literary, although, of course, the most important thing is that you write an excellent story with well-crafted prose that has an interesting Mormon alternate history concept and as rich world building and characterization as can be accomplished within the space limitations.

About that concept: for this anthology the alternate history must be post-1800 (no Book of Mormon stuff) and pre-2020 (so no alternate history science fiction) and Mormonism must be central to the story even if it is dealt with in a subtle or oblique manner. Restoration and Pioneer era stories are very welcome, but I’m also very interested in stories from alternate 20th centuries.

Any fantastical elements must be within the realm of Mormon worldview/doctrine/folk doctrine and of alt-history science, physics and engineering. The use of well-known figures from Mormon and world history is fine. It can also get a bit gimmicky if you’re not careful.

And while it may be tempting to get a little didactic with the concept or the characters, stories that are overtly Utopian/Dystopian or have political or theological axes to grind probably won’t land well with me. So if you’re trying to make a point, make sure the art and craft of the story complicates it. Or even better: let the extrapolation of your alternate timeline jumping off point be the primary driver of your thinking and writing.

OTHER INFORMATION

Title: TBD
Publisher: Peculiar Pages (just like Monsters & Mormons)
Editor: William Morris
Length: 30,000 to 60,000 words
Publication: Fall 2016 (likely September or October)
Format: ebook only (we are considering crowd funding an expanded print version but a lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen)
Booksellers: Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Nook (Barnes & Noble); we’ll also consider other online vendors and direct sales

Rights & Payment: Worldwide English exclusive for 10 months from date of publication. We’ll be using a modified version of the SFWA contract. As mentioned above payment will be $15 for flash fiction and $25 for short stories. Should net profits from sales of the anthology exceed my and Theric’s monetary investment in it, there is the potential for royalty payments for the authors (but that’s a small potential — based on our knowledge of the Mormon market for short fiction this anthology will likely come in at a loss or [cross your fingers] as a break-even venture). All of this will be spelled out in the contract. The crowd funded, expanded print anthology will be a separate contract and payment should it come to pass.

That’s all I have. There will be more posts in the future with potential ideas and resources and further reading. Now: what questions do you have for me? If you prefer not to post them in the comments below, contact me at the submissions email listed above or on Twitter @motleyvision.

*Heh

**This is so if you are selected for the anthology, I don’t have to send out a batch of emails asking where to send the check and a signed copy of the contact. If you don’t feel comfortable with me having your mailing address then include an additional, reliable way of contacting you (as in: an alternate email address, a number you can be texted at, a twitter handle, etc.).

The Mormon fiction writer and self-censorship

Back in July I made the claim that most Mormon writers shouldn’t worry about the spectre of excommunication (and then complicated that with several caveats). Not everyone agrees with that assertion. And, to be sure, the climate for Mormon fiction writers is unevenly distributed and could change (and please note again: I’m talking about fiction writers — nonfiction is a different thing entirely). But assuming I’m right about that, does that mean the Mormon fiction writer is completely free to write what they want to write? Or will be they be tempted (or perhaps even coerced) into self-censorship? And is self-censorship always a very bad thing to do? What follows may be obvious, but I hope that by structuring my thought this way, it’ll be of some use in teasing out notions of self-censorship and Mormon fiction writing.

Writing is Communication

Writing fiction is an act of communication. But it’s a special act of communication: it’s one in which the author is demanding (or at least suggesting) attention. It’s saying: this is something I have created that is worth spending time (and money) on. It is an act of one-way communication, and the author sets the terms of the communication. Granted, especially in the age of the internet, readers can react to the work directly or indirectly with the author, but that’s not the same act of communication as what the novel or story or poem demands. There’s a level of formality in presenting a completed creative work. But the very nature of that process, that one-way act of ego means that the author has ultimate control of what goes in and what doesn’t go into a work. What doesn’t go in is self-censorship. It also may simply be good communication and good artistic creation.

All Writers Are Part of Communities

That writing is communication is especially true because very few writers create (or publish) in a vacuum. For all their introvertedness (a cliche, but one that so often fits), fiction writers are part of various communities and usually want community approval (or at least attention) for their creative work. Otherwise they’d write only for the drawer. Certainly, it’s complicated for writers in that they may prefer certain communities pay a certain kind of attention to their work over other communities (and other kinds of attention). And some communities you are born into and some you fall into and some you consciously choose. We all have family members, friends, peers, agents, editors, critics, community members, fellow fans/enthusiasts, neighbors, etc. It’s a complex melange that is constantly in flux. But being situated in communities means that there’s no such thing as a pure creative work-to-reader transaction. The creation, contents, packaging and distribution of creative work all happen within a welter of community concerns, attitudes, histories and relationships.

Mormon Writers & Community

I have mixed feelings about claims of Mormon exceptionalism. But I do think that in some ways Mormons may present a special case (or at least a different case) when it comes to self-censorship and community. It’s possible that issues of self-censorship might be more difficult for some Mormon writers to navigate. But I don’t know about that. While it’s true that Mormon writers may have to worry about busybody ward members and concerned bishops and inflexible stake presidents, it’s also true that very few writers are not part of a community (or communities) that have certain ideologies, sacred cows, discourse boundaries, etc. plus those who formally or informally boundary police the community. Very few writers have relationships only with people who think exactly like them. In very few instances is art going to not lead to the potential for friction. This is especially true of minority literatures where, like in Mormonism, you have communities that because of their minority status are concerned with how they are being presented outside of their community.

The big exception, of course, is that while other communities may shun or ignore writers who offend them, because Mormonism as a culture is interwoven so deeply with the LDS Church, the act of excommunication is somewhat more draconian than the way other communities police their boundaries. Although as I wrote in my previous post, it’s not clear that it’s something to be actively feared. And, of course, how draconian it feels as a threat is dependent on the fiction writer’s interest in remaining in good standing with the Church.

All Writers Self-Censor

Because writing is an act of communication and all writers are parts of communities, I believe that all writers self-censor. Self-censorship happens along many lines. Sometimes it’s self-censorship driven by fear of how people  will react to their work if it is published un-self-censored. Sometimes it’s self-censorship where the author realizes that they don’t actually want to communicate what they originally had thought they wanted to communicate or they need to do it in a different way because by doing so they will be able to better communicate with their audience (sometimes that comes because of feedback from a good editor). Sometimes it’s not a matter of fear of how people will react, but the realization that what your art may be pushing you towards isn’t going to lead to a fruitful ongoing relationship with people (or with the field as a whole or with your personal artistic legacy). And beyond that, I also believe that writers self-censor in what experiences they intake that fuel their creativity, and what projects they choose to focus on, and what forms they pour their creative energies into, and what world views (ideologies) they have active in their brain. All creative endeavor comes down to individual acts of selection that create a unique work. While there are times when that process is more self-conscious than others, and I do think that the initial act of writing fiction is usually better when it isn’t quite so self-conscious, the fact remains that all writers self-censor.

But What About Artistic Integrity?

What about artists being true to themselves? By giving into self-censorship aren’t they violating artistic integrity? Maybe. Like most things, it’s a matter of degrees. Some self-censorship could be a rather damaging violation of artistic integrity. But I think that’s less likely a problem than we might think*. Besides: I don’t believe in artistic integrity. I believe that art comes from struggle and conflict and that means it inherently doesn’t have integrity—it’s not a gestalt, a whole. It’s a process, a dialogue. And there might be formal or ideological or poetic or psychological concerns or models that work themselves into the struggle of creation that are actually leading your work in the wrong direction. Sometimes the ingredients in the alchemical process aren’t the right ones (or the right amounts). Changing up those ingredients might not be self-censorship. They might just be self-correcting.

And the problem with creating art is that it’s so easy to be dramatic and self-indulgent about it. To feel like what you have to say needs to be not only said but heard and only in a way that is true to your particular vision (at that particular point in time). The problem with that is that all of us who write fiction** are damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills using a set of vocabularies, syntaxes, narrative shapes, etc. That are also limited. And the problem with that is that our fiction goes out to damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills to interpret it. That’s what’s so scary about it and also what’s beautiful about it. It’s good to have a well-wrought final product. But I doubt that any final creative products are works of pure integrity.

And note that I haven’t touched yet on market concerns and how those impact fiction writing. That’s another seit of concerns that warps works of fiction (although very often not as much as one would think and sometimes in ways that are just fine). Note also that this post is only about self-censorship. Actual censorship is a different topic albeit one that can cause writers to self-censor***.

There Will Be Offense Taken

All of the above means both that whatever you do, you’re going to offend someone somewhere. And that whatever your artistic vision, there’s no shame in being mindful of your relationships, of your communities. If you care about people, take care not to offend them (or to make sure that the relationship is such that you’ll be able to work through the offense). Or: don’t worry about other people. Unless you want to. The choice is yours.

For me the question of self-censorship is an insidious one because it lures the artist too much into self-indulgent romantic notions about authorship and creativity that needlessly create friction between the artist and those around them. Presenting fictional narratives is a fraught, hubristic act. Things could (will) get messy. Do the best you can to make sure what you’re presenting communicates what you’re trying to communicate in the best (most beautiful, most rhetorically effective, most formally interesting) way possible and don’t worry about the rest. Until you need to worry. And then either dismiss the criticism or take it in and learn from it. Either heal and nurture the relationship or let it go. Self-censorship is not this one-time thing that violates a potentially perfect work of fiction. It’s editing. It’s an act of communication and community negotiation. It’s doing the work.

Self Censorship & Inspiration

So that’s where I’m at on the the issue of self-censorship. But I have a specifically Mormon wrinkle to add (although this may also be useful other people of faith): Let me first acknowledge that I have an instinctive distrust of writers who talk about inspiration. Not that I don’t think that it doesn’t happen (I believe that it does), but because I think it’s too often used as a label to short-circuit criticism of work that is amateurish, sentimental and/or didactic. It sets up the readers. How can you argue against inspiration? (Incidentally, the same is true of self-expression. How can you argue against expression of self?). Heck, even if it isn’t couched in terms of inspiration, I have a distrust of any special claims (this is for the good of, this accomplishes, every person like this/who is this must read this…) made on behalf of ideological work that a story is supposed to do.

But while I have an instinctive distrust of talking about it, I also believe in seeking it. It seems to me that Mormon fiction writers shouldn’t worry about self-censorship during the initial act of creation. They should create what they feel compelled to create. However, it also seems to me that they should seek inspiration before/as they create, and they should (as we’re asked to do with other choices in life) test the final work against inspiration. If that process then causes you to go back and edit the work, then do it. In other words: revelation is a way to short-circuit worry over self-censorship. If one feels good about the work as is, then it is what it should be. If one doesn’t, then changing/editing it isn’t self-censorship—it’s acting on inspiration. But here’s the trick: you must be brutally honest with yourself in the process and you have to be worthy (and, yes, that’s a loaded word; I leave what that should mean up to the individual author). You have to strive to be humble about and a skeptic of your own work. Not an easy thing to do. But I believe that it’s worth doing (even though I fail to do so over and over again and too often feel buffeted by various ideological and aesthetic winds).

But Wait: One More Thing

I’m not going to end on such a sappy (although valid and sincere) point. I have one more thought for Mormon fiction writers: self-censorship is only a problem if you have an interesting point of view. It’s only a problem if you’re suppressing or marring work that is unique and truly interesting. It’s only important if something valuable is lost when you self-censor. Most fiction writers aren’t that interesting. Before you worry about self-censorship, worry about that. I’ll expand on that harsh-seeming pronouncement in my next post: Mormon writers and courage.

* I speak mainly about U.S. Fiction writers here. The United States has lax libel laws, fairly strong freedom of speech laws, and diverse marketplaces for distributing creative work. The situation may be very different for Mormon fiction writers of other nationalities.

** And really all of us who tell stories (which means all of us).

*** Censorship and Mormon fiction is an interesting topic and were it pervasive, I could see how it could lead to widespread self-censorship among Mormon writers. We’d need verifiable data points to determine that. All those I’m aware of only pertain to employees of the Church (including CES/BYU). Andrew Hall’s comment on the post on excommunication provides a few data points. I have heard of a couple of others. But the boundaries on those aren’t clear and times change, and it’s also not clear what bearing that should have on Mormons who aren’t employees of the Church. I’d also note that employees of other major socio-cultural institutions often face some of the same issues.