Q&A with Jack Harrell, author of Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism May 30 2016
Can you name a few writers who have had the greatest influence on you? What draws you to their work?
My favorite writer is Flannery O’Connor. Her fiction is fantastic, and her essays and letters on writing are full of insight and humor. Back in 1994, at Illinois State University, I did my master’s thesis on her novel Wise Blood. Her work speaks to a lot of Mormons because she’s unapologetic about her Catholic faith. Though her writings are obviously religious, she doesn’t slip into oversimplification or didacticism. And plenty of readers who aren’t religious find satisfaction and meaning in her work. Her writing works on a number of levels. I also appreciate writers like Wallace Stegner, Raymond Carver, and Willa Cather.
Among Mormon writers, Levi Peterson is very important, I think—a must-read. And I think any Mormon interested in good writing should read Virginia Sorensen’s 1963 story collection Where Nothing is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood.
I’m drawn to small-town characters and settings in the contemporary West and the Midwest, probably because that’s the world I know best. That’s what I’m interested in writing about, too—telling the stories of ordinary folks in these small towns.
Lately I’ve been reading contemporary philosophers amenable to a religious viewpoint. John Polkinghorne is one I like. He’s an Anglican priest and theologian with two PhDs in physics. I’ve also learned a great deal from the writings of Roger Scruton, especially from his books The Face of God, The Soul of the World, and Beauty.
The last book I read was a Greg Kofford publication: Future Mormon, by Adam S. Miller. It’s great to see a tradition of thoughtful scholarship continue among Latter-day Saints like Miller.
Some label the religious seeker as being on a quest for an epiphany. Can you discuss how epiphany in a spiritual sense is related to epiphany in a creative sense?
Long before James Joyce made it a literary term, the word “epiphany” was a religious term referring to some profound insight from the divine. I believe most religious people, no matter what their faith, seek communion with the divine, or just a connection with something beyond themselves. I think very few people would see the human race as the greatest force or power in the universe; and even if they do, they’d still admit those times when we reach for something greater within us. Isn’t this the quest of most art? To reach for something higher?
Of course, there are a few who would say, “There’s nothing great within us, nothing great beyond us. Therefore, art should express that. Art should be against epiphanies, against transcendence. Art should be being emphatically ugly because ugliness and entropy is all we have.” But that’s a pretty rare position to take, and pretty cynical too.
It seems to me that the very act of creation is rooted in a desire to make something outside of ourselves that expresses what we see or feel within. Maybe every artist is just trying to meet himself or herself, trying to understand and recognize what’s there.
In the sixth chapter, you discuss teaching students to write. You mention the Mormon “struggle to tell the truth.” Why do Mormons struggle with superficiality in their writing?
It’s not just a Mormon struggle. It’s human nature to fall back on easy answers and struggle to tell the truth. We’re all guilty of horizontal thinking: worrying about what the person next door thinks rather than doing what we know to be true. Honesty with ourselves is a normal human struggle too. We all create fictions to justify the way we live and the way we see the world. Some of the lies we tell emerge from our good intentions. We just don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
It’s the same with Mormons. We don’t want to hurt people, we’re worried about what our neighbors think, and we want to keep things pleasant. But life isn’t always pleasant. Conflict is at the heart of meaningful stories. If we avoid conflict, we hamstring good stories. The scriptures are full of conflicts. Church history isn’t the simple story that some once thought it to be. There are all kinds of complex layers at work in the scriptures and in Church history and in all our lives.
I think, more and more, we’re going to see that easy answers don’t cut it. We need to face complexities, not avoid them. As the teachings of the Church grow more at odds with secular society, we’re going to have to embrace the complexities of our own position in order to survive. This involves telling the truth.
One of the central messages of Mormonism is that at the potential for redemption is at the center of our existence. The need for redemption assumes that some kind of fall or loss came first. That’s a level of complexity right there—much more than simply saying “the universe is essentially good.” Fall and redemption transcend superficiality every time.
Can you give your take on what makes literature virtuous or praiseworthy?
Yes, I talk about this in an essay on the 13th Article of Faith and how it can be a standard for judging literature.
The root of the word “virtue,” means “manliness,” or, as we’d put it today, “strength.” Implied in that word are concepts like “integrity,” “vigor,” and “power.” In Mormon culture the word “virtue” has become nearly synonymous with “chastity.” Chastity is one aspect of virtue, but the meaning of that word is much broader. I’d say a virtuous book is one that’s powerful, meaningful, and truthful.
“Praiseworthy,” simply means worthy of praise. In that sense, literature that gets good reviews from those who really know what they’re talking about can be called praiseworthy. A reader has to think critically about the praise that comes from someone who simply wants to boost sales, regardless of the quality of the work. The 13th Article of Faith provides a great standard for measuring all these things.
You state that Mormon fiction tends to be “essentially positive in its outlook,” can you summarize why and how that might be a stumbling block towards greater authenticity?
Philosophically, I don’t think an essentially positive outlook is a stumbling block to authenticity. I’d say the same is true in a Mormon theological context as well. In the Mormon view of existence, there is always the potential for a positive outlook, and a positive outcome, because of the atonement. The catch comes when moral agency is introduced. Every child of God can potentially be saved and exalted, but not everyone will, because of agency, because of the way we each can use or misuse our agency.
Maybe it’s this business of agency that introduces a stumbling block to authenticity. When a writer forces a tidy resolution on a character or story, that’s a violation of the “agency,” if you will, of the characters in the story. Another stumbling block arises when a writer approaches the subject matter with a kind of oversimplified “all is well” outlook.
I think the Mormon writer who really understands the depths of Mormonism itself will take a more complex view on writing and of the world. That’s one of the recurring arguments I make in the book, that if we really understand a live our faith, we’ll solve a lot of the problems that lead to bad art.
Mormon writers seem to do well in science fiction and fantasy genres, but struggle in general fiction. Why do you think that is; and in what ways can Mormonism can add a unique voice to general fiction?
I think one factor has to do with language and content. Often a person can write (or read) a science fiction or fantasy novel without dealing with the challenges of vulgar language and sexual scenes. Certainly this isn’t true of all sci-fi/fantasy. But it’s easier to choose authors who don’t go there.
In the mainstream literary genre, sex and language have become pretty common. There’s a reason for this. In the twentieth century, literary fiction grew more transparent about representing the daily lives of ordinary people. People have sex, people swear, and contemporary fictions doesn’t shy away from that. I’m not saying this is a good thing. It’s just the way it is.
I do think that contemporary culture is more vulgar, more irreverent, less sensitive. The Greek root of the word “aesthetic” means “sensitive.” Contrast that word with the word “anesthetic,” which means “the loss of feeling.” Contemporary culture may want to boast that everything is “out there,” that nothing is taboo. And certainly there’s virtue in openness. But we have to be careful. People who go too far into irreverence and subversion might find that they lose something in the bargain.
The language and content factor may not be the reason Mormon writers shy away from general, literary fiction. That’s just a supposition on my part because I really don’t know the answer. I just know that I care more about the problems of a school bus driver living in Rigby, Idaho, than I care about the war between the Ledmendons and the Allickakakials on Zarnack 5.*
Honestly, I think general, literary fiction invites a more thoughtful and measured tone. No one listens to NPR because they want caustic, sensational commentary. Recently l read a great literary novel by Marilynne Robinson, a novel about a Midwestern pastor’s last words to his young son, whom he fathered late in life. The novel is very real about the lives it depicts, but there’s nothing there that would scandalize your grandmother. I’d love to see more novels by Mormons about real Mormons with the meaningful problems that I see every day in my own life and in the lives of those around me. The stories are there, waiting to be told.
And this may not be about writers at all. It may be a reflection of the readers. Could it be that Mormon writers gravitate toward speculative fiction primarily because that’s what sells?
It’s hard to fault writers who want to sell books and are willing to do what it takes to make that happen.
* Editorial note: Greg Kofford Books wishes to apologize to any residents of Zarnack 5 who may find offense in the author's disregard for the ongoing struggles between the Ledmendons and Allickakakials.