Ethical Responsibilities of the Mormon Author

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this month. It’s a fabulous activity; I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone who has even the slightest interest in doing some creative writing. The concept of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. You just write, write, write. Editing is eschewed; that’s what the rest of the year is for. Sure, you’ll write a lot of crap that way, but that’s okay. To quote from the NaNoWriMo website, “By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.” It’s an exercise in simply writing. It’s really rather enjoyable.

This leads me to my contemplations and quandaries this morning. My story has taken a very dark turn. I’m rather enjoying where it’s going, but still, very dark. And I’m a sweet, gentle Mormon girl (with a side of snark). If this were to ever be published, would I be able to recommend this be read in a book club of LDS women? That, of course, is just a specific way of asking if I represent my faith well if I publish something dark and violent. This is not, at all, LDS fiction. It is in the mainstream area. One character is identified as Mormon, but it’s in passing and not integral to the story. Is it fair to say that it is just a story and the fact that I’m a Mormon shouldn’t constrain my art? Or am I covenanted to remain out of the darkness, not contribute to it?

A few years ago I was in a book club with a group of women from church. It was a good group and I was quite sad when it drifted apart. Because they subjected me to LDS fiction (not my thing), I felt it was only fair to subject them to science fiction (not their thing). I selected Ender’s Game because it’s a fabulous story and also because I thought it contained nothing that anyone in the group would object to. In the discussion, one woman said she was surprised by all the swearing considering the author was LDS. My response was, “There was swearing? I didn’t even notice.” And I didn’t. So you can’t make everyone happy.

I make a living as a technical writer. Thus, most of my daily prose consists of exciting phrases like, “Remember to click ‘Save’ before leaving the page,” and, “Fundamental to this approach is the capability to rapidly install interchangeable mission packages into the seaframe.” There is no ethical quandary beyond accurately filling out my timecard each day. One could reasonably argue the ethical quandary lies with the choice to write for the military in the first place, but I’ve obviously already made my choice there. But fiction is different. It’s not just a statement of reality. It creates possibilities. Do I represent the church in my writing simply because I’m LDS? Must I? Or if my story goes down a dark path, is that okay? Mortality is, after all, sometimes a very dark place.

20 thoughts on “Ethical Responsibilities of the Mormon Author

  1. Tanya, I wrote a novel that was published. About 100 books sold so far. That’s why I have a day job. I avoided all swearing, and it was difficult at first because I have characters who would swear in real life, and I ended up finding other words for them to say. It was really tough at first, and then it became easier. Watch the movie “Invincible,” which is PG, set in a working class bar with all working class characters who would be swearing the entire time in real life, but has no swearing. It is possible to create art that is realistic but “clean.”

    My novel was written to help “build up” the Church. It will never make anybody’s list of top 10 books, including mine. (Probably not even top 1000). But I can hand it out to people at Church and not be concerned about how they will respond.

    I think you need to write things that you are comfortable with. If you are going down dark paths, then that’s what you are feeling. But how do you feel about what you have written a few days later? Does it make you uncomfortable? Could you ever give the book to your 12-year-old kid?

    Btw, the best way to write a novel is to do what you are doing — just let things pour out, find a way to write every day, even if it’s just 100 words. I have heard many, many writers say something to the effect of: “if you want to write fiction, just write, but write every day and have discipline.” I really find that to be true.

  2. Thoughtful post Tanya. You have given me a lot to think about. My husband Mike and i had a similar conversation once about your post. A book needs a conflict in order for it to be a good story. This can be difficult if you are telling a story in a LDS setting. Can you imagine if there was a LDS version of “The Chosen” by Chiam Potak. A very popular book loved by LDS people. What if, we set The Chosen in a mainstream LDS setting? For example, what if, a character rebels against his strict LDS father. Over the course of the novel he comes to terms with his culture and his family’s beliefs. The compromise is he joins the Community of Christ. Some people might get uncomfortable with this type of story plot. We don’t mind if others have crisis of faith as long as it is not a Latter-day Saint.

    Mike also said, “Life is not always G or PG. SOmetimes it is rated R”. You just need to decide if you are writing the dark stuff to get it out of your mind or if you are writing for others. If the world will see it, can you live with it?

  3. Swearing is easy for me to avoid in storytelling, for some reason. Violence, though… I watch way too much TV.

    I must confess, the story doesn’t make me uncomfortable, though where it is going is much darker than I originally intended. And though I have no 12-year-old to test it out on, I would have read this sort of thing when I was 12, and my parents would have let me (though possibly because they let me read anything).

    Your question about it making me uncomfortable brought a memory to the front, though. Years ago I wrote a vampire story (doesn’t everyone at some point?). It was the start of a novel that I never finished. I have to admit, I was uncomfortable with where I took that one, which is one reason I dropped it and never went back (that, and it was some dreadful storytelling).

  4. We don’t mind if others have crisis of faith as long as it is not a Latter-day Saint.

    I am not a fan of LDS fiction because for the most part it just isn’t good. However, something I usually don’t fess up to is that I also feel conflicted by the stories. They’re either fluff that is too unrealistic, or they have a crisis of faith that I feel (absurdly, I readily admit) threatened by. It’s crazy to feel threatened by fiction, and yet… there I am. I drive myself nuts sometimes!

  5. If I ever get enough time, I think I would enjoy writing a book. Making the book enjoyable to read is quite a different matter, to be sure. You raise some interesting questions about what content is acceptable for an LDS author.

    If it makes you feel any better about profanity in literature, someone told me that The Work and the Glory series contains the word “shit” in one of the books. *shock*

    I knew there was a good reason to avoid reading that series. 🙂

  6. Very interesting post, and thank you for writing it.

    Last year when the end of the Twilight series was published, I heard from many LDS women, in person and online, that Stephanie Meyer should be ashamed of herself for not making her book more “LDS friendly”. Sadly these ladies assumed since the books were sold at Deseret Book and being talked bout ad infinitum in RS meetings, they somehow had the Church’s approval. Needless to say they had no problem throwing her under the bus about it.

    To them I say, just because it’s sold at DB, does not mean it’s going to be full of sunshine, lollypops, have LDS themes and be made into a movie starting Kirby Heybourne. Angela’s Ashes was being sold at DB for a time, and there is nothing good, lovely, vitous or of good report in that book. If you don’t like a book, put it down, give it away, tell your friends that you don’t like it, but don’t throw the author under the bus because it was not Mormon enough for you.

    So, for me, no an LDS author does not have to stick with LDS themes for me to read their book. Most LDS fiction is sub-par at best, and having read many a Jack Weyland novel in my youth, cheezy, cheezy, cheezy. I actually avoid LDS fiction and books most of the time and acutally avoid shopping at Deseret Book as well.

    Where books are concerened, I look for a good plot, good charachter developement, rich language and correct grammar. I want a book to engage me and make me feel sad when it’s over. With that said, however, I don’t care for swearing and have been known to cross out many a bad word in a library book or two. However, I will read a book with swear words in it, just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story. For example, The Devil Wears Prada, was a bad word every other sentence, and I tossed it out, the swearing got in the way of my enjoyment of the book.

    So you keep on with the Ender’s Game if that’s what you like, and keep writing. Oh, and by the way, just thinking about doing NaNo makes my head hurt. I want to know if you finish.

  7. Amen Joyce! I agree with everything you said. However, I was not fond of Twilight, and not because it was not “Mormony enough”. I had other reasons. Having said that, I do applaud Stephanie Meyer for her success.

  8. I was no fan of Twilight either…but when I was 8 months preggo last year and had read everything else in the house, I was not picky about what people were kind enough to bring me — anything but daytime TV and you can only watch the news so long before you need to stick your head in the oven. I did enjoy The Host though, that was a good one.

  9. I think if I tried to do a NaNo right now it would be the equivalent to hiking without a compass; I would be walking around in circles.

    Joyce: You mock Jack Weyland??? 😉 When I was younger, I read his book “Charly” and loved it. My tastes are much improved. Oh, and I usually avoid Deserted Book as well.

  10. Brian, clearly that is evidence that The Work and the Glory is EVIL! 😉

    Joyce, I am an anti-Twilight person (the writing! the dreadfully horrible writing!), but I agree with you that the complaint that her books aren’t “LDS-enough” is a bizarre one. You make excellent points in your comment. (Also, I’ll likely finish NaNo. I’m currently a bit ahead of schedule so, barring disaster, I’ll reach 50,000 words :-).)

    JA, I haven’t read The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, but it is on my wishlist. That’s one I want to read.

  11. I actually think historical fiction like “The Work and the Glory” serves a very important purpose in helping people who would not read history books understand a bit of Mormon history. Given a choice between Bushman and Nibley and Lund and Hughes, I would definitely choose the two former authors, but I actually like all four in different circumstances. I also consider Lund and Hughes’ writing far superior and more nuanced than Meyers’. I will say that she learned something because “New Moon” was better than “Twilight.” Haven’t been able to bring myself to read the last two in the Twilight series yet. I can only take it in small doses.

  12. “Haven’t been able to bring myself to read the last two in the Twilight series yet. I can only take it in small doses.”
    You’re a braver man than me, I didn’t even finish Twilight and that was enough for me to not give the other books a chance. My wife says each one was a little better, but there’s only so much time in the day to read.

  13. To be fair to Ms. Meyer, “New Moon” actually has some surprising twists in it, and her whole concept of a “vegetarian vampire” is pretty imaginative. I’ve read worse books.

  14. Brian, I mock Jack Weyland (nee-ner-nee-ner)….Charley made me want to vomit.

    And for me Twilight was just too much like the high schoolers I used to teach. A person can only take so much whining and teenaged angst before insanity sets in. I thought the writing was ok, and there are better books and authors out there that I’d read before I read those books again. With that said, however, I am looking forward to the next movie…I liked the movie.

  15. I’ve heard the same and my dad has the same unrighteous judgement towards LDS authors that write swearing in their books. If you don’t like it, just don’t read it! Don’t judge them! God will do that on his own! Oh, and I also agree with another person’s comment. Not every LDS person’s situation in life is a G or PG-rated. Especially the ancient saints that fought in wars.

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