How to Stop Writing Like a Mormon Using this One Weird Trick

By: Stephen Carter
November 12, 2013

Writing is tough.

In a recent New York Times article, Mark Oppenheimer writes about how Mormons are pretty awesome at penning sci-fi, fantasy, and YA novels, but how they can never seem to write “great” fiction. Why is this?

Shannon Hale is quoted as saying that the “great” books she read for her master’s degree “treated ‘decline and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit’ as necessary ingredients for an honest portrayal of life.”

“I think Mormons tend to have hope and believe in goodness and triumph, and those portrayals can ring false in a literary world,” she theorizes.

When I read this quote, my mind flashed back to a 500-page tome I’ve been wrestling with for a while now.

Let me just spoil the ending right now and tell you that it portrays the decline and ultimate destruction of hundreds of thousands of human spirits. Their dying sorrow isn’t the sorrow of the repentant, but the sorrow of the ungodly whose days of sinful indulgence are finally being wrested from them. Their slaughtered bodies soon lie as dung upon the face of the earth.

Goodness and triumph do not show up to save the day.

Here are a few other choice moments from this book.

• A large group of converts follows their prophet into the wilderness and almost immediately becomes enslaved for 24 years.

• Two missionaries watch as the women and children they helped convert are thrown into a pit of fire.

• All the people in a converted city repent of their murders by burying their weapons. Then an army comes along and decimates them. Twice.

Mormons good at sci-fi, but why?

Sometimes things go better. But inevitably, the majority of the people in this book fall into decline and ultimate destruction over and over and over again.

Admittedly, the last chapter ends on an optimistic note (though a hypothetical one: “If you do this, then you’ll be saved”—instead of “Yay, the people did this, so they were saved!”), but there is no denying that a goodly portion of the Book of Mormon (Whoops. Gave it away.) deals directly and at length with suffering, decline, and destruction.

Possibly the reason modern Mormon readers don’t dwell on this aspect of the narrative is because it goes by so quickly. The Book of Mormon is a flying tour of hundreds of years of history; nothing gets dwelt upon for long. So we don’t tend to delve into the stories of those who suffered, or the stories of those who declined and were destroyed, even though they riddle the narrative.

I only got pulled into these kinds of stories because I helped adapt a few chapters from the Book of Mormon into a graphic novel (a.k.a. a long comic book) called iPlates. The graphic novel form specializes in dealing with moment-to-moment stories, so as we approached the Book of Mormon chapters we were covering, Jett and I felt pulled toward focusing on the stories of individuals.  How did Alma gather his converts? What dangers did he face? What decisions did he have to make? How did he deal with accidentally landing his people in slavery for 24 years?

We even looked deeply into King Noah’s story. I’ve only ever heard him being portrayed as a coward, but if you look at what he accomplished, the man had to have leadership skills. And he must have been using them when he led the men away from their wives and children as the Lamanites attacked the city. How did he convince them? What were his motives? The man should be reckoned with, even though (especially because?) his soul was declining into ultimate destruction.

This experience of delving into individual stories in the Book of Mormon has made me very aware of how much human tragedy, suffering, and destruction there is to mine in our founding narrative. And it makes me wonder, is taking the Book of Mormon narrative more seriously the way we will finally get our Miltons and Shakespeares?

 

(P.S. I’m running a Kickstarter for the above-mentioned Book of Mormon graphic novel. Come take a look.)

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19 Responses to How to Stop Writing Like a Mormon Using this One Weird Trick

  1. Kullervo on November 12, 2013 at 1:07 PM

    It’s not about tragedy; its about moralizing. Didacticism is a characteristic feature of genre literature.

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  2. Stephen Marsh on November 12, 2013 at 7:57 PM

    I like the point of taking our religion seriously.

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  3. Daniel Pout on November 12, 2013 at 8:08 PM

    I wonder if it’s because we don’t think destruction will visit us. After all, we’re all doing everything we are supposed to be, right?

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  4. Stephen Carter on November 12, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    Kullervo. I agree with you that didacticism abounds in the Book of Mormon and tends to blunt the suffering and tragedy that goes on. It’s been seeming to me lately that the didacticism and the stories in the BofM dwell in a strange tension with one another. The stories invite sympathy and a probing of the human condition, but the didacticism seems to direct us to treat the suffering as an example to prove an argument; it seems to encourage us to “skip to the end” to see how things turn out instead of journeying with the sufferers and feeling what they felt. But an ending without a journey has little power. I think that delving into these stories without skipping to the moral will help us develop a weightier literary imagination.

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  5. mollz on November 13, 2013 at 11:48 AM

    I heard a really interesting piece of insight recently that I think well explains the difficulty of capturing the depth of individual, human experience. Mormons often struggle with writing believable or substantial fiction because they feel the need to constantly either reward or punish their characters. Rather than allowing characters to develop in a realistic, natural way–regardless of the just outcome of their morality–the author instead turns characters into marionettes, essentially moving from the viewpoint of the character to the viewpoint of an all-knowing being watching from above.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on November 13, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    Kullervo and Stephen – I agree that General Moroni’s moralizing abridgement of the war chapters in the BOM drain the story of any realism or subtlety. It’s one of the key reasons that the BOM is not great literature. It’s one of the “weaknesses of men.” Likewise, 1st and 2nd Nephi read like Nephi’s defense of his sometimes questionable actions. The problem in both cases is something called the unreliable narrator. There are some similar issues with the Bible, clerics and religious leaders who reinterpreted the religion to suit their needs or to create a morality tale using questionable material.

    When we do that in real life, that’s where the danger comes in. You need look no further than our manuals’ treatment of historical information to see the same flaw, “narrators” turning gray ambiguous events into black and white morality tales.

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  7. hawkgrrrl on November 13, 2013 at 1:24 PM

    A really great response to the NYT article: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/fisking-the-nyt-it-isnt-just-me-my-whole-religion-cant-be-real-writers/

    To wit: “most real writers understand that accolades are fundamentally crap. Accolades don’t pay the bills. Prestigious literary awards mean absolutely nothing except that your book appealed to a one small awards jury, and since most awards juries are circle jerks of like-minded individuals patting themselves on the back about how brilliant they are, who cares?”

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  8. Jettboy on November 13, 2013 at 3:51 PM

    To all those who lament Mormons don’t write very good books, I say this: write your own and what you would like to read about. I second hawkgrrrl about that blog post. Mormons are writing really great stories filled with suffering, but they just aren’t approved by the “in” group.

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  9. Jettboy on November 13, 2013 at 3:53 PM
  10. Brad on November 14, 2013 at 1:54 PM

    It isn’t just literature but any creative art. There are no great authors, singers, artists, etc. in Mormon culture.

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  11. Noelle Campbell on November 14, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    This is the same thing that people were saying about Pilgrims in the 17th century, Americans in the 19th century, and Evangelicals in the 20th century. Now Mormons in the 21st. Twain, Poe, Tolkein, Lewis, even Einstein, were not considered ‘great’ in their century. It was looking back that made them ‘great’–until then they were just ‘contemporary’ and everyone thought it was a ‘fad’ like everyone being panned here as ‘not great.’

    We call ourselves a ‘peculiar people.’ We aren’t going to be offended that you don’t think our Mormon Centric writing isn’t “great.” Orson Scott Card is so not offended, he won’t even worry about keeping his royalties.

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  12. Toni on November 14, 2013 at 5:05 PM

    Brad on November 14, 2013 at 1:54 PM

    “It isn’t just literature but any creative art. There are no great authors, singers, artists, etc. in Mormon culture.”

    Like Gary Allen, right? Like Gladys Knight, right?

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  13. Jack Hughes on November 14, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    Toni–
    I don’t know who Gary Allen is, which means he is not a “great” Mormon artist. Also Gladys Knight is certainly great, but her greatest fame and success came decades before she joined the Church, and thus was not a product of Mormon culture.

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  14. brad on November 15, 2013 at 7:42 AM

    I think the problem is that Mormons artists pander to their own religion rather than try to express their true inner self and feelings. You see it in another Provo a capella group singing church hymns, another Mormon author writing about Mormon things (Work and Glory, Tennis Shoes, etc), another artist painting GQ Jesus and GQ Joseph pictures. No one outside the Mormon culture is buying this stuff and it Deseret Book knows it can have a monopoly selling this crap because only Mormons are shopping there.

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  15. Jeff Spector on November 15, 2013 at 9:39 AM

    How is greatness actually measured? To many Stephanie Myers is great and she does have success to back it up.

    Look at music, no one thought Beethoven, Bach, Mozart were all that great at the time. And certainly, Chris Brown ain’t great….

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