Creative Honesty: Lies and Truth in LDS Storytelling

Recently, I have been working on a fictional story that is very personal. It involves some things from my past that are traumatic and hard for me to bring up. Finishing was difficult. It left me razed and empty. What’s more, is that I know that I will never be able to publish it or release it to the general public, although it may be one of the best stories I’ve written thus far.

In speaking with a few close family members about this predicament, I realized that creative honesty is not a value that everyone holds sacred. While it matters to me that a story, any story, resounds as truth and includes the real-life elements of darkness and light, there are many who would rather not read anything that is challenging.

More than that, they are uninterested in reading an overly honest story from someone they know. This kind of honesty is dangerous. It puts the perception readers have of the writer at risk. It is impossible for some to distinguish the writer from the story.

Arthur Miller said:

“The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”

But, Mr. Miller, what if the person who is in danger of embarrassment is a brother, sister, or wife? What if the shame of a story will touch the real world and ripple through the future? Is it fair to humiliate family and friends by association (not through libel), by writing a story that is too honest or does not espouse the desired worldview?

I consider specifically the issues present in the Latter-day Saint church. Recently, a woman was excommunicated for having a website that actively promoted women taking on priesthood duties. While I was not surprised at this outcome, not do I support her cause, it makes me wonder how much freedom is present to tell the truth. I recall a similar situation in the 90s, when BYU student Julie Stoffer was cast on a season of The Real World. She was reprimanded for breaking BYU student rules because she was living with members of the opposite sex. According to school officials, this cohabitation did not represent the appropriate school-approved young woman image for the world viewing audience.

So, do I, as a Mormon writer, truly have the freedom to write honestly?

Recently, I read an article in the now-defunct “Dark Horizons” magazine that discussed Mormon horror writers. The author stated that Mormon writers shy away from literary fiction, as there are no clear rights and wrongs present there. Literary fiction doesn’t mesh with the worldview of the LDS church. Not all people who make mistakes get punished. Not all good people end up as winners. And real-life problems are discussed, often in ways that don’t reflect the standards of the gospel. Swearing, drugs, sex – Although these are real parts of life that even LDS members deal with on a daily basis, our stories don’t reflect them.

“I don’t want to put that stuff in my mind,” the average church member states. “I’d rather focus on more positive media.”

I understand. You don’t want to actively seek media that would require you to reevaluate what you believe or your preconceived notions of right and wrong. And, I suppose, some Mormon writers don’t want to write that stuff for the exact same reason: It doesn’t make them feel like they’re contributing to a happy, God-centered worldview.

But, you know what I think? I think that a lot of these writers are scared like me. Scared that they will embarrass the church, their family and their friends with stories that aren’t necessarily uplifting or of “good report.”

In the Thirteenth Article of Faith, a key document that guides the LDS church, it states:

“Indeed we say that we follow the admonition of Paul. If there is anything good, lovely, praiseworthy, or of good report, we seek after these things.”

Does that necessitate that we refuse to see the other side of the world? That might explain some of our inherent problems as a church culture to ignore things that are too ugly to admit exist. We don’t watch it, we don’t think about it, we don’t acknowledge it. It shows in the way the church handles controversial subject matter. Is there something that is not of good report or praiseworthy in the church history? Let’s not talk about it.

And yet, perhaps this tactic of ignoring the unpleasant is changing in the LDS church. Recently, the church produced a video discussing temple garments and explaining clearly what they are, what they’re for, and what we believe about them. Another intriguing series of apologetic posts on the LDS.org official website for the church discussed hot-button topics like Blacks and the priesthood and polygamy. In fact, in the October 2013 Priesthood Session of General Conference, President Deiter F. Uchtdorf said that past leaders had “made mistakes” which had resulted in loss of faith from some members. (Laurie Goodstein, “A Top Mormon Leader Acknowledges the Church ‘Made Mistakes,’” New York Times)

Despite this change towards transparency, I’m still not sure I truly have freedom to write whatever I want. Perhaps I am alone, but I believe that LDS authors are constantly considering whether they are offending or embarrassing their church, family, and friends. There are some genres that we simply cannot touch. There are some subjects that we fear will call scrutiny to ourselves and perhaps may lead to church discipline and excommunication.

The question is, is it worth it? After all, they are just stories. Why choose a story that challenges the way you think or perceive or act when you can easily read (or write) a story that makes you feel grateful and happy that God loves you?

Or, is there a way to do both?

Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game and Pathfinder, is perhaps the most notable LDS writer in the world. And, despite how many non-LDS readers see him (“A devout Mormon, he is squeaky clean but adorably perverse,” Salon) many LDS readers barrage him with questions about his chosen content.

Scott said in a 1980 BYU lecture:

“Over the years, some people whose judgment I respect have asked me a question that you might think is naive, but it is not. “Why do you have to write such depressing stuff? Why can’t you show the good things in life? Why do all your characters have to suffer?”

He went on to explain that he’d published a smoking cessation article in a well-known LDS magazine, The Ensign, accompanied with a picture of a pipe. Despite the article’s tone, many Mormons wrote in to complain that his article had actually shown what they considered to be a pernicious evil.

“What they completely missed was our purpose in showing that evil-to attract the attention of people who might have that problem so we could help them solve it. Showing evil is not necessarily advocating it.”

Is it any wonder that many Mormon authors shy away from portraying real evil? Instead, they are drawn to YA fantasy so that they can avoid issues that people deal with on a daily basis. Controversies like gender confusion, abuse, sex, and racial differences are limited and saccharine-sweet in conclusion. And there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism now and then. Not everyone wants to spend their free time thinking critically about the world’s injustices.

On the other hand, why are we so focused on turning away from the truth? Every day, terrible things happen to people. These people fight the terrible things, overcome them, and bring hope and faith into the lives of others. How can we possibly tell a true story if we are afraid of looking that truth in the face? If we are unable to look at the ugliness, we are unable to see it. And if we refuse to see ugliness, we will never be able to see God’s hand in the lives of those it touches.

So, I believe that this is a time we can have more faith instead of less. It means that, as writers, artists, and creators, we have the courage to look at the raw ugliness of the world and see it as a part of the greater plan. Instead of shying away from things that might damage our sensitivities, we must be strong enough to recognize that even the darkest part of the human soul is designed by God to build us into a child of light.

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