Creative Writing in the Church: A Challenge to Young Writers


Two years ago last spring I was caught in the middle of a very heated controversy. A group of creative writing and art students at Brigham Young University, where I am one of the deans, published an issue of the school’s literary magazine which some members of the administration, faculty, and student body felt contained spots of questionable language and photography that should not be permitted to circulate. I was asked as Dean of the College of Humanities to withdraw the publication. Feelings were strong on both sides, and I was painfully squeezed between.

In the confrontations that followed, some teachers and students urged me to really clamp down on those students and their advisors who were responsible for the publication. It was suggested by some that I ought to exercise tighter controls in supervising students and their creative activities. Meanwhile, other teachers and students were pressing me even more strongly to stand up with vigor in defense of academic and creative freedom. Each side stressed the important “principles” involved.

The whole situation was intensely awkward for me because I felt that both sides were, to some extent, right. Surely morality, refinement, and good taste are standards to be defended and practiced, especially by members of the Church and in all Church publications. Equally, however, academic and creative freedom is also surely an ideal to be championed; and its opposite, censorship or suppression, inevitably contains elements that are not only inherently repugnant but also most difficult to control. 1

This unpleasant incident of two years ago was particularly tense for a few weeks, but, rather than standing alone, it was merely one of many such incidents that have come to my door during the past twenty-five years in my responsibilities as a teacher and school administrator supervising creative writing classes, publications, and contests. The incident I have referred to happened at BYU, but it could have been in any high school or university. In fact, similar confrontations, often far more severe, have occurred and are occurring all over the world, wherever talented young people are writing, and that is everywhere. It is a problem that concerns all of us who are students and educators; and for those of us who are students and educators in the Church, it is a problem of special concern. The typical pattern is for some students and their teachers to press for increasing freedoms in writing and publishing while other students and educators press for tightening restrictions and controls.

What then is the answer? Is there some middle ground between unguided freedom and strict control that is better than either? I think there is, and this essay is an effort to outline what I feel should be our position on creative writing as students and teachers in the Church.

First, let me state what I assume everyone acknowledges: creativity in a broad and noble sense is a great eternal principle, both as an attribute of God and as an expression of man’s highest self. Surely God, in his exalted sphere, is the greatest creator of all, creating things that are endlessly variable, never exactly the same—flowers, trees, blades of grass, mountains, snowflakes, animals, people, planets, galaxies, and the whole universe, with all its myriad forms of life and matter. Indeed, one of the main differences between celestial life and mortal life may be the vast creative powers that characterize celestiality. But mortal people, too, in our humbler sphere, can also be creative, should be creative—creative teaching, creative leadership, creative thinking, creative homemaking, creative human relationships, and creative art.

Teaching at its best is always creative, because every group of students is new and different. Leadership, too, at its best, whether in the Church, in the community, or in business, is creative, because each problem and each day’s challenge is new and different. As soon as we start teaching this year’s classes with last year’s notes unchanged, or start meeting today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions unmodified, we are in a rut and in danger of going deeper into unimaginative routine. We can draw upon the experiences of the past, and obviously should, but to learn from them and build upon them, not merely to repeat them like an insensitive, nonthinking machine. The power to think, feel, and create sets man apart from the animals and moves him toward deity. Therefore, as a basic approach to life in general we surely should do all that we can to encourage creativity, not discourage it.

I suppose most people in the Church, old or young, or people out of the Church for that matter, will agree with what I have just said in this long paragraph—and will add that I have over-generalized and drifted away from the controversial problem I started out to discuss: the question of artistic freedom in relation to controls and restrictions. I’ll come back, therefore, to that central issue.

And I’ll start out by stating that I think we must acknowledge as a basic premise that everyone pretty much has the freedom, indeed the “right,” to say almost anything he wants to say, and to write it too, so long as he avoids legal slander, treason, and outright obscenity. I think we have to acknowledge this fundamental human freedom, and we would be on shaky ground if we took any other stand. A person also, I suppose, has the freedom to publish almost anything he writes if he can find a publisher. But by the same logic, a publisher has the freedom either to publish or to reject any material that comes to him, according to his editorial policy—and a reader either to like what is printed or not like it, or not read it or even have it in his house if he chooses. Freedom is a two-sided coin.

Let us accept, then, that writers, young or old, in or out of the Church, in Utah or wherever they may be, pretty much have the freedom to think, speak, write, and publish whatever they desire. Creative freedom, academic freedom, the right to publish—these are not in question. What is in question is the appropriateness, the good taste, the good judgment. Do we at LDS schools and in the Church generally want to do all the things we have the freedom to do? And does it make any difference for us that other people may be doing them?

For that matter, people everywhere have to exercise some self-discipline if civilization is to survive. One sure way to bring havoc would be for all people to do all the things they have a “right” to do without any self-restraint or moderation. And if this is true for the world, surely … but you finish the sentence according to your own conscience.

I don’t think I am particularly old-fashioned, naive, Victorian, prudish, or narrow in my tastes, but I am always a little shocked when I see what some young writers submit in creative writing contests and for publication in high school and college creative arts magazines. For the past ten years I have supervised the Vera Hinckley Mayhew Short Story Contest. This is a very prestigious writing contest for college students, and each year extraordinarily gifted students compete for the awards. Many of these students are ingeniously talented in their abilities with language. Their promise as writers is impressive. But the things some of them choose to write about unsettle me. I am never quite prepared. We have tried to allow the students full freedom to submit whatever story they wished to enter in the contest because we have felt that it would be wrong to place restrictions upon them, or even guidelines, that might cause the students to feel inhibited. I truly believe with the late President John F. Kennedy that “if art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him” (speech at Amherst College). And so each year we invite students to submit the finest stories they are capable of writing, each year I hope that the best of the stories will be dominantly affirmative as well as artistically excellent, and each year I am disappointed because so many of them are raw and negative, or at least lean in those directions. Perhaps we need to give students more guidelines. It is fashionable these days to be crude, harsh, negative, cynical, flippant, and artily obscure in writing, and apparently the students, at least a good many of them, don’t want to be out of fashion.

A few years ago a girl I knew well submitted a story in the Mayhew Contest. Like many of the other stories submitted that year, hers featured raw “realism”—sex, violence, etc. I was puzzled because I was this girl’s campus bishop, and I had heard her several times in sacrament meetings bear testimony of the gospel and otherwise express her feelings. She seemed an unusually spiritual, refined, sensitive girl, and I could not understand why she would write such a story. So I called her to my office.

“Why did you write this story?” I asked. “Is this the real you coming out, the inner self that just had to be expressed?”

“Oh, no!” she answered. “I’m not at all like that, Bishop.”

“Then why did you write that way?”

“Because I thought I had to write that way to be published,” she said.

Right then I determined to do something so that students might know that they don’t have to write “that way” to be published. And this essay is one of my efforts. Young writers, and old ones too, should have freedom to write any way they want, for an artist must be true to himself—no matter what the truth. But writers who want to resist the popular fashions of our times and write in harmony with convictions and ideals that may be out of fashion also need reassurance that this is their privilege and that there may be an audience larger than they realize who will rejoice in their affirmation, integrity, and courage.

This is not to say that writers should not deal honestly with the world’s evils and problems. Hypocrisy, bigotry, superficiality, sentimentality, pomposity, apathy—wherever such attitudes are found they should be exposed. It is not only a writer’s privilege but also his duty to expose them, and you can’t expose evil or solve problems by turning your back on them or pretending they don’t exist. Moreover, a writer’s realm is the whole of reality, and it is his privilege to explore whatever aspect of it he desires.

However, it is also a writer’s privilege to be discriminating and selective, and it is his responsibility not only to reflect the world honestly but also to reflect himself honestly. Hundreds of young writers today, and old ones too, on college campuses and otherwise all over the world are competing to see who dares to go the furthest into profanity, vulgarity, crudity, obscenity, blasphemy, brutality, cynicism, negativism, and sex. We can’t possibly compete as young writers in the Church, and why should we want to? To defend our mild excursions in these directions by saying that anything we have written, and worse, can be found in certain books and magazines in most bookstores, and even in some school textbooks, is to miss the point. Granted, this may be the trend of the times among some writers. But should this be our direction in creative writing among young writers in the Church? Or can we somehow be different—the creative pioneers of late-twentieth-century America?

Let me put the questions even more bluntly as a challenge to LDS college students and gifted young Church writers everywhere. Why don’t you be courageously different in your stories and poems? Why don’t you be boldly affirmative, championing the fundamental ideals, standards, principles, and doctrines of our great heritage and rich philosophy? And at the same time be excitingly creative, as artistically innovative as you want? This isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to resist popular trends, writing out of fashion in subject matter and tone, and still matching the best of writers outside the Church in articulateness and brilliant technique. But it can be done. Gerard Manley Hopkins in his day was both affirmative and freshly creative, and, to get closer to home, my talented colleague Clinton Larson (probably the foremost poet in the Church today) is so in our day. And you young writers can be too if you accept the challenge so that your Sunday testimonies and weekday writings are not in conflict.

Lest I be misunderstood, however, let me say again plainly that I am not asking for any Pollyannaish outpouring of prettiness and pretense. Certainly Hopkins and Larson do not write this way, nor should anyone. The world is filled with problems and frustrations that need to be met with frontal honesty, and there is no honest way to paint ugliness as prettiness or to pretend that it doesn’t exist. A writer must face problems squarely and describe them honestly, but in doing so there should be no question where the author’s values are.

No writer ever explored the complexities of evil more incisively than Shakespeare in Othello, Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet, yet there is never a question whether Shakespeare is on the side of evil or of decency. All the great writers of the past who have survived the passage of time have been fundamentally affirmative in their values, no matter what their style of writing may have been. (I say all. Are there exceptions? I can think of none.) The writers of our century who survive will also, I am convinced, be those who have basically affirmed and not betrayed man’s heritage of values, and I would include such diverse writers as Joseph Conrad, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, and William Faulkner as examples of brilliant affirming critics who merit an enduring audience.

I also want it clearly understood that this essay is not to be interpreted as an attack on modern literature. All my life I have studied and for a quarter century have taught modern poetry, the modern short story, and the modern novel; and I have found in them brilliance, excellence, and power of a quality to match the greatness of the past. I am criticizing not modern literature, nor literature of any particular time, but instead the flotsam and jetsam of literature which surfaces junkily in any and every age—the kind of writing which features crudeness, violence, sensationalism, and clever flippancy for their own sake and which intentionally mocks, ridicules, and negates spiritual values and human dignity.

I have just spent several hours looking through old copies of the Wye Magazine, our student literary publication at BYU, back through almost thirty years. Many excellent things have been printed in these many volumes, and almost all issues impress me as being attractively artistic and in good taste. I compliment the faculty advisors and student editors for the quality of what has been done. Even so, when I think of what might have been, I am excited with the possibilities for the future. Sometimes in the past it appears that BYU students in a half-hearted way have tried to pattern their magazine after literary magazines at other universities, which often try to outdo each other in being artily experimental, daringly uncensored, and boldly “modern.” Such magazines can be found by the dozens in colleges all across the land. We haven’t gone very far in these directions, and I’m sure we couldn’t match the others even if we wanted to. It isn’t in us. Therefore, why don’t we be experimental and bold in an entirely different way? Since we can’t compete and win in a direction we don’t want to go, why don’t we accept the challenge to write the things we really believe, combining artistry and affirmation as students of no other university have done—difficult but surely not impossible—and reflect in our literary magazine that BYU is a unique and “peculiar” university. The result just might be so stimulatingly different among college magazines that we would win readers and admiration beyond any recognitions of the past.

At this point I have said most of the things I intended to say when I started this essay, but several other thoughts have been stirred up in the process of writing that I now want to add.

The first is to state what I believe is the basic attitude of Church leaders toward creative writing by Church members. A few months ago a young college sophomore came to my office very frustrated and upset. He was troubled, he said, because his keenest desire in life was to write, but he was convinced that the Church discourages free creative writing, and therefore he was wondering whether he should suppress his desire to write and channel his creative energy in other directions—or possibly even pull away from the Church. I told him what I now say here: undoubtedly there are many leaders in the Church who are distressed, as I am, by the rawness and negativism of some things that are currently being published; but, even so, creativity in the Church is strongly encouraged, not discouraged, and creativity with a great deal of freedom. A writer must feel free, and Church leaders know this, to explore subject matter and technique without restrictions or apprehensions that would smother or discourage artistic creativity. Young people in the Church today may well be the finest, the most promising the world has ever known; and the desire of all Church leaders is to have you talented young people grow up strong in the faith, including those, of you who are creatively gifted. The Church needs you just as much as you need the Church. And there is a marvelous opportunity to tell the story of the restored gospel to the world in a way that it has never been told—likewise, and equally important, to explore contemporary problems and issues with insights that are special to membership in the church of Jesus Christ.

There are basically four types of “Mormon writers,” with considerable overlapping among the types, of course. First, there are writers outside the Church who use the Church and its history for the materials of their fiction—frequently (at least in the past) distorting, misrepresenting, and caricaturing in a very unflattering way. No doubt we would just as soon not have some of these writers, but we can tolerate them. And a few—I think of Wallace Stegner as an example—have written some of the most dramatic tributes ever published about the Mormon people. Second, there are writers in the Church, often fringe members but sometimes some who were once in full fellowship who have grown sour or bitter, who exploit the Church for notoriety or commercial gain, or malign it to vent their bitterness, “exposing the truth” as they see it. We probably wish we didn’t have these also, but they too are part of the total reality, and we can survive them, and maybe they are even good for us, goading us to self-examination under the hot glare of criticism. Third, there are an increasing number of gifted writers who are members of the Church but don’t particularly write about the Church except in an incidental way or as background; instead they write about things that are common to people everywhere, linking the Church with the world. Obviously, we should be grateful for these writers and encourage them as they break down barriers of provincialism, contribute to the world’s quality literature, and bring honor to the Church by their accomplishments. Fourth, there are those writers in the Church who want to share the history, beliefs, faith, and special insights and perspectives of the Church with other Church members or with people outside the Church. We don’t need all Church writers to write this way, but we do need some—and more of our truly gifted writers—who will see this as a challenge and commitment. Excellence in writing of any and all kinds is, of course, to be encouraged, especially as it deals with the universals of human nature and experience. But writers outside the Church, as well as in, can do these things, and we need at least some of our most gifted writers in the Church to dedicate their talents to doing the things that can be done only by someone who knows the Church from the inside and has a testimony of its truth.

As already made clear, I am not asking for overt didacticism or moralizing; these can be ruinous to creativity. Nor does a person even need to write openly about religion or the Church. For one who sincerely believes, the insights of the gospel will permeate all that he writes. In fact, as I think about them, types three and four described above overlap so much for the gifted writer faithful in the Church that they are probably inseparable. You don’t have to be preachy or solemn, and certainly not finger-shaking. Just write honestly, and humorously too if you want, about the things you know—and your Mormon attitudes and faith will show through. Nor should you feel obligated to spell out answers to questions and resolutions to problems every time you write. Sometimes it is sufficient just to explore the questions and illuminate the problems. All these are materials for writers in the Church, and when they are written by one who is honest and sincere and has faith and testimony, these qualities will shine through without the need for overt didacticism. For literature can be positive without being prudish.

Before closing I want also to say a few words about technique in creative writing. A time or two I have alluded to the danger of cultivating obscurity for its own sake or as a smokescreen for triviality. (Some writers—and readers too—apparently function under the supposition that if a work can’t be understood, it must be good.) Now surely it is a mistake to cultivate obscurity as an end in itself, and I suppose I have made an issue of this as often as anyone. However, it is an even more serious mistake to take the position that any piece of writing that isn’t openly explicit in meaning and purpose is suspect and to be avoided. All experienced readers recognize that explicit exposition or narration is not the only or even the best means of communication, and literature would be stifled if writers were not free to use the indirect techniques that for centuries have made words communicate with subtlety and power. Metaphor, imagery, symbolism, satire, irony, oblique analogy, deliberate ambiguity, subtle connotation, honest realism, even shock treatment to some extent if that seems the most effective way to get a message across—all such are legitimate and necessary tools of the writer and should not be looked on with suspicion. The important question is not so much what writing methods are used as what the author’s underlying purpose and attitude are. Prophets as well as poets (indeed, prophets often are poets, as almost any book of ancient or modern scripture will evidence) have used all sorts of writing styles with skill and power, and it is at least as much the responsibility of the reader to rise to the technique of the writer as of the writer to lower to the capacity of the reader.

Next, I want to give a few suggestions to beginning writers, poets in particular first. Most poetry, especially that done by amateurs, is transient—here today, forgotten tomorrow. Generally it is transient for one of two reasons: it is either technically skillful but trivial in substance, or it is weighty in substance but artistically inept. Beginning poets tend either to glorify obscurity and arty technique or to be sentimental, didactic, melodramatic, and “solemn.” For all who would write good poetry, three simple yet fundamental things are needed: first is a concern for artistry of language and form; second is some significance in the content; 2 and third is a controlled harmony between language and content—the synthesis that makes art. Inexperienced writers tend either to concentrate too much on diction, neglecting thought, or to concentrate too much on thought, ignoring style. The better way, of course, is to be equally concerned about matter and manner, substance and style, what is said and how it is said. The danger of thinking only about what is said is that everything may come out trite and obvious, and the danger of concentrating too much on stylistics is that sincerity may be lost and self-conscious artiness may take over. Balance in writing, as in most things, is the key, and the successful poet will equally control words, ideas, and emotions—in fact, will recognize their inseparableness.

Sentimentality, melodrama, didacticism, and technical cuteness are pitfalls also for the beginning short story writer. There is another pitfall, however, that attracts the inexperienced writer of short stories even more—the desire to write about things far off or long ago or way into the future. Why is it that the immature short story writer somehow thinks he can do a better story on things unfamiliar to him than on things he knows? My advice to most young writers is that you write about real problems, real issues, real experiences, and real people in the here and now world you know. And I think this is the right advice for most of you who want to write “Mormon stories” too. If you are too conscious of making them “Mormon,” you may have problems, but if you will just write honestly about feelings, experiences, and situations you yourself know, you will inevitably write a Mormon story, colored by your temperament and enriched by your faith. This is what talented current story writers in the Church such as Douglas Thayer, Eileen Kump, and Donald Marshall are doing. They write about everyday things in the lives of people they know, but because people are people, they write about universals too, but universals seen through Mormon eyes and hence with Mormon perspectives and values. There are so many themes in the issues of the present that you don’t have to write about the pioneers to write a Mormon story or a story filled with faith. Of course the heritage of the past is still a great theme too if this is your preference.

I have been talking primarily to those of you who want to write poems and stories for publication. Perhaps a word should be said to those who want to write principally for your own pleasure and growth. There is a magic about creativity that justifies the effort even when the result may be mostly for personal joy and not for public sharing. A wise man once said that the only sources of lasting joy are creativity and service. All who have created artistically know that the joys and values of creativity, however intangible, are nevertheless very real. There are frustrations in creativity, even despair and failure sometimes. But there is also a wonder, a joy of accomplishment in the process of creating that can be achieved in few other ways. This is true even though what is created may not be of any particular significance to the world. It is significant to the one who has created it, and that gives it immeasurable value. The creative process, especially as it involves a piece of art, sharpens sensitivity, refines responses, and enriches insight and understanding. When one gives artistic form to miscellany, whether in colors, sounds, visual patterns, or words, the process not only creates beauty but also enriches the one who creates, awakening latent gifts of creativity that every person possesses in some measure.

And perhaps this is the appropriate moment to comment on the great potential for creativity in the Church. I suppose it is obvious that as a people we have not yet fully reached maturity in the creative arts. Probably our greatest achievements thus far have been in the performing arts, especially music. The Tabernacle Choir, supported by that marvelous organ, is surely one of the great musical organizations of the world, and we have dozens of other excellent choirs and choral groups throughout the Church. In musical composition, literature, painting, and sculpture we have achieved on a more limited basis. Yet the materials for great art in many forms are imbedded in our heritage and in the philosophy of the gospel. The highest goal for all Church members should be in some way to build and beautify the kingdom, yet we have hardly begun artistically. But the future is ahead, and hopefully great things will be achieved in the arts by members of our church that are scarcely even dreamed of now. As Elder Spencer W. Kimball and others have said, the greatest novels, stories, poems, and dramas are still to be written, the greatest music still to be composed, and the greatest paintings and statues yet to be painted and sculpted. Probably there is more creative talent among the gifted young members of the Church spread all over the world right now than we have ever before had, and we wait in anticipation to see what they will accomplish, building upon and excelling the achievements of their elders. Every year I meet young people as talented as I wish I could have been when I was young, or even now, and I thrill at the possibilities of the future through them. Our challenge as teachers and Church leaders is to encourage and inspire these gifted young people so that they will create freely and abundantly but will stay faithful in the Church and will create in harmony with the ideals, standards, and principles of the gospel.

And now, finally, in summary, I restate what I have tried to develop as the central points of this essay: (1) Every person has the freedom to pretty much say, write, and publish whatever he wants (with a few legal restrictions). (2) But as members of the Church we betray integrity and flirt with hypocrisy if we indulge that freedom without control, restraint, and self-discipline. (3) However, all who have had experience are aware that suppression, censorship, and external restrictions are ineffective at best, and dangerous too, often provoking more problems than they solve, including ill-will, hostility, rebellion, and the attractiveness of the forbidden. (4) A better solution, therefore, especially for members of the Church, and specifically for young creative writers within the Church, is to have inner controls—limitations of conscience, good taste, and good judgment; a sensitivity to what is appropriate and what is right; a sincere desire to write in harmony with one’s faith, ideals, and integrity. (5) As parents, teachers, and leaders in the Church we need to reassure young people that it is good to be creative and that their full creative talents are needed and wanted within the Church. (6) As creative writers, young and old, who love the principles and ideals of the gospel, we have before us an exciting challenge to create, affirming these principles and values, and thus counter the trend of our times that too often sees man as a pitiable, problem-burdened victim of his hostile environment. The challenge is admittedly difficult, requiring both talent and courage beyond the ordinary, but the best of our young writers in the Church will be equal to it. Are you one of them?

[photo] Photo by Jim Harris (contest winner)

[photo] Photo by James Loveless (contest winner)

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    Notes

  1.   1.

    One of the special difficulties of censorship is that as soon as a work is placed off limits it becomes immediately attractive, and the effort to suppress may then explode. Censored books and censored movies often become big moneymakers, drawing the largest audiences, including all sorts of people who ought not to react that way but do. Another difficulty is that it is very risky for one person to sit in judgment on what another person should see or read. Practically everything would be censored by somebody. Indeed, there are those who would even make the Bible and the Book of Mormon forbidden reading if they had the power.

  2.   2.

    By “significant” I do not mean “heavy,” for who can measure the loveliness of a lyric, or who can weigh the delights and insights of comedy?