The Mormon fiction writer and self-censorship

Back in July I made the claim that most Mormon writers shouldn’t worry about the spectre of excommunication (and then complicated that with several caveats). Not everyone agrees with that assertion. And, to be sure, the climate for Mormon fiction writers is unevenly distributed and could change (and please note again: I’m talking about fiction writers — nonfiction is a different thing entirely). But assuming I’m right about that, does that mean the Mormon fiction writer is completely free to write what they want to write? Or will be they be tempted (or perhaps even coerced) into self-censorship? And is self-censorship always a very bad thing to do? What follows may be obvious, but I hope that by structuring my thought this way, it’ll be of some use in teasing out notions of self-censorship and Mormon fiction writing.

Writing is Communication

Writing fiction is an act of communication. But it’s a special act of communication: it’s one in which the author is demanding (or at least suggesting) attention. It’s saying: this is something I have created that is worth spending time (and money) on. It is an act of one-way communication, and the author sets the terms of the communication. Granted, especially in the age of the internet, readers can react to the work directly or indirectly with the author, but that’s not the same act of communication as what the novel or story or poem demands. There’s a level of formality in presenting a completed creative work. But the very nature of that process, that one-way act of ego means that the author has ultimate control of what goes in and what doesn’t go into a work. What doesn’t go in is self-censorship. It also may simply be good communication and good artistic creation.

All Writers Are Part of Communities

That writing is communication is especially true because very few writers create (or publish) in a vacuum. For all their introvertedness (a cliche, but one that so often fits), fiction writers are part of various communities and usually want community approval (or at least attention) for their creative work. Otherwise they’d write only for the drawer. Certainly, it’s complicated for writers in that they may prefer certain communities pay a certain kind of attention to their work over other communities (and other kinds of attention). And some communities you are born into and some you fall into and some you consciously choose. We all have family members, friends, peers, agents, editors, critics, community members, fellow fans/enthusiasts, neighbors, etc. It’s a complex melange that is constantly in flux. But being situated in communities means that there’s no such thing as a pure creative work-to-reader transaction. The creation, contents, packaging and distribution of creative work all happen within a welter of community concerns, attitudes, histories and relationships.

Mormon Writers & Community

I have mixed feelings about claims of Mormon exceptionalism. But I do think that in some ways Mormons may present a special case (or at least a different case) when it comes to self-censorship and community. It’s possible that issues of self-censorship might be more difficult for some Mormon writers to navigate. But I don’t know about that. While it’s true that Mormon writers may have to worry about busybody ward members and concerned bishops and inflexible stake presidents, it’s also true that very few writers are not part of a community (or communities) that have certain ideologies, sacred cows, discourse boundaries, etc. plus those who formally or informally boundary police the community. Very few writers have relationships only with people who think exactly like them. In very few instances is art going to not lead to the potential for friction. This is especially true of minority literatures where, like in Mormonism, you have communities that because of their minority status are concerned with how they are being presented outside of their community.

The big exception, of course, is that while other communities may shun or ignore writers who offend them, because Mormonism as a culture is interwoven so deeply with the LDS Church, the act of excommunication is somewhat more draconian than the way other communities police their boundaries. Although as I wrote in my previous post, it’s not clear that it’s something to be actively feared. And, of course, how draconian it feels as a threat is dependent on the fiction writer’s interest in remaining in good standing with the Church.

All Writers Self-Censor

Because writing is an act of communication and all writers are parts of communities, I believe that all writers self-censor. Self-censorship happens along many lines. Sometimes it’s self-censorship driven by fear of how people  will react to their work if it is published un-self-censored. Sometimes it’s self-censorship where the author realizes that they don’t actually want to communicate what they originally had thought they wanted to communicate or they need to do it in a different way because by doing so they will be able to better communicate with their audience (sometimes that comes because of feedback from a good editor). Sometimes it’s not a matter of fear of how people will react, but the realization that what your art may be pushing you towards isn’t going to lead to a fruitful ongoing relationship with people (or with the field as a whole or with your personal artistic legacy). And beyond that, I also believe that writers self-censor in what experiences they intake that fuel their creativity, and what projects they choose to focus on, and what forms they pour their creative energies into, and what world views (ideologies) they have active in their brain. All creative endeavor comes down to individual acts of selection that create a unique work. While there are times when that process is more self-conscious than others, and I do think that the initial act of writing fiction is usually better when it isn’t quite so self-conscious, the fact remains that all writers self-censor.

But What About Artistic Integrity?

What about artists being true to themselves? By giving into self-censorship aren’t they violating artistic integrity? Maybe. Like most things, it’s a matter of degrees. Some self-censorship could be a rather damaging violation of artistic integrity. But I think that’s less likely a problem than we might think*. Besides: I don’t believe in artistic integrity. I believe that art comes from struggle and conflict and that means it inherently doesn’t have integrity—it’s not a gestalt, a whole. It’s a process, a dialogue. And there might be formal or ideological or poetic or psychological concerns or models that work themselves into the struggle of creation that are actually leading your work in the wrong direction. Sometimes the ingredients in the alchemical process aren’t the right ones (or the right amounts). Changing up those ingredients might not be self-censorship. They might just be self-correcting.

And the problem with creating art is that it’s so easy to be dramatic and self-indulgent about it. To feel like what you have to say needs to be not only said but heard and only in a way that is true to your particular vision (at that particular point in time). The problem with that is that all of us who write fiction** are damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills using a set of vocabularies, syntaxes, narrative shapes, etc. That are also limited. And the problem with that is that our fiction goes out to damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills to interpret it. That’s what’s so scary about it and also what’s beautiful about it. It’s good to have a well-wrought final product. But I doubt that any final creative products are works of pure integrity.

And note that I haven’t touched yet on market concerns and how those impact fiction writing. That’s another seit of concerns that warps works of fiction (although very often not as much as one would think and sometimes in ways that are just fine). Note also that this post is only about self-censorship. Actual censorship is a different topic albeit one that can cause writers to self-censor***.

There Will Be Offense Taken

All of the above means both that whatever you do, you’re going to offend someone somewhere. And that whatever your artistic vision, there’s no shame in being mindful of your relationships, of your communities. If you care about people, take care not to offend them (or to make sure that the relationship is such that you’ll be able to work through the offense). Or: don’t worry about other people. Unless you want to. The choice is yours.

For me the question of self-censorship is an insidious one because it lures the artist too much into self-indulgent romantic notions about authorship and creativity that needlessly create friction between the artist and those around them. Presenting fictional narratives is a fraught, hubristic act. Things could (will) get messy. Do the best you can to make sure what you’re presenting communicates what you’re trying to communicate in the best (most beautiful, most rhetorically effective, most formally interesting) way possible and don’t worry about the rest. Until you need to worry. And then either dismiss the criticism or take it in and learn from it. Either heal and nurture the relationship or let it go. Self-censorship is not this one-time thing that violates a potentially perfect work of fiction. It’s editing. It’s an act of communication and community negotiation. It’s doing the work.

Self Censorship & Inspiration

So that’s where I’m at on the the issue of self-censorship. But I have a specifically Mormon wrinkle to add (although this may also be useful other people of faith): Let me first acknowledge that I have an instinctive distrust of writers who talk about inspiration. Not that I don’t think that it doesn’t happen (I believe that it does), but because I think it’s too often used as a label to short-circuit criticism of work that is amateurish, sentimental and/or didactic. It sets up the readers. How can you argue against inspiration? (Incidentally, the same is true of self-expression. How can you argue against expression of self?). Heck, even if it isn’t couched in terms of inspiration, I have a distrust of any special claims (this is for the good of, this accomplishes, every person like this/who is this must read this…) made on behalf of ideological work that a story is supposed to do.

But while I have an instinctive distrust of talking about it, I also believe in seeking it. It seems to me that Mormon fiction writers shouldn’t worry about self-censorship during the initial act of creation. They should create what they feel compelled to create. However, it also seems to me that they should seek inspiration before/as they create, and they should (as we’re asked to do with other choices in life) test the final work against inspiration. If that process then causes you to go back and edit the work, then do it. In other words: revelation is a way to short-circuit worry over self-censorship. If one feels good about the work as is, then it is what it should be. If one doesn’t, then changing/editing it isn’t self-censorship—it’s acting on inspiration. But here’s the trick: you must be brutally honest with yourself in the process and you have to be worthy (and, yes, that’s a loaded word; I leave what that should mean up to the individual author). You have to strive to be humble about and a skeptic of your own work. Not an easy thing to do. But I believe that it’s worth doing (even though I fail to do so over and over again and too often feel buffeted by various ideological and aesthetic winds).

But Wait: One More Thing

I’m not going to end on such a sappy (although valid and sincere) point. I have one more thought for Mormon fiction writers: self-censorship is only a problem if you have an interesting point of view. It’s only a problem if you’re suppressing or marring work that is unique and truly interesting. It’s only important if something valuable is lost when you self-censor. Most fiction writers aren’t that interesting. Before you worry about self-censorship, worry about that. I’ll expand on that harsh-seeming pronouncement in my next post: Mormon writers and courage.

* I speak mainly about U.S. Fiction writers here. The United States has lax libel laws, fairly strong freedom of speech laws, and diverse marketplaces for distributing creative work. The situation may be very different for Mormon fiction writers of other nationalities.

** And really all of us who tell stories (which means all of us).

*** Censorship and Mormon fiction is an interesting topic and were it pervasive, I could see how it could lead to widespread self-censorship among Mormon writers. We’d need verifiable data points to determine that. All those I’m aware of only pertain to employees of the Church (including CES/BYU). Andrew Hall’s comment on the post on excommunication provides a few data points. I have heard of a couple of others. But the boundaries on those aren’t clear and times change, and it’s also not clear what bearing that should have on Mormons who aren’t employees of the Church. I’d also note that employees of other major socio-cultural institutions often face some of the same issues.

17 thoughts on “The Mormon fiction writer and self-censorship”

  1. Great post William.

    The last panel I did for the recent SLCC was just that = Writing the Sins, of the five of us on the panel at least four are LDS (I can’t speak for the other _ I don’t know but I suspect not)

    It was quite a thing to talk about with a crowd of about sixty on how we present our work. I mentioned pretty early on, that I wrote my first book, Heroes of the Fallen -a Book of Mormon historical, as something I wanted to read because I thought what was out there was lacking. Its a first novel, plagued with first novel problems etc, but its still something I’m proud of and would change content wise. Deseret Book refused to carry it.
    I think all of us on the panel agreed we had something to say and would say it to the point of our own comfort. Self censorship is present but we don’t leave in fear of it.

    Thanks for all you do here. If I’m not completely coherent, I am high on percocet at the moment for non-writing related injuries.

  2. .

    My favorite part is your But Wait, but I’ll wait for the full essay to comment.

    In the meantime, I have one clarification question:

    At times, your descriptions of self-censorship are hard to distinguish from simple editing (a distinction many high-school writers can’t make), and I suspect there’s a spectrum here and no clear line between the two. But my question is, if you can, where do we draw a line between publishing every tidbit we’ve ever put to paper and no longer self-censoring. Is it just a matter of artistic purpose rather than fearing-others purpose?

  3. David:

    That’s good to hear. The thing with Deseret Book is that they’re so cautious with what titles that they carry, that I think it’s clear to many Mormon readers that they are drawing the lines in the wrong places, which opens up other Mormon presses and self-publishers to fill in the space opened up by the over-conservative-ness while still being within what most modern Mormons would find acceptable.


    There’s definitely a spectrum. But it also depend on what you mean by editing and how you approach editing. Editing can just be about making a story tighter and more effective and cleaning up pacing and sentence-level mistakes. But there’s also an aspect to editing that can (should) be partly about artistic purpose, but also partly about rhetoric. It’s about being aware of and intentional about how you are communicating to your intended audiences. That can happen on a conscious level, but my (radical) notion above suggests that it can also happen on the level of inspiration.

  4. .

    And that notion I like. The problem with the inspired-genius motif is it seems to suggest editing is inherently untrue to the self. Which is nonsense, obviously.

  5. Do you think there is any gendered aspect to this?

    This isn’t meant as a “gotcha” question. I mean it sincerely. There are some women who feel silenced by the church, in one form or another, or that they are socialized into not speaking up for themselves. On the other hand, it seems that Mormon women have been producing literature across a range of experience since the beginning of the church.

  6. I don’t know, Sarah. I don’t know because I’m not a Mormon woman writer of fiction, but also because I don’t know that we have a whole lot of data/experience on all this. Almost all the circumstances of guidance/interference that could lead to self-censorship by fiction writers that I’m aware of are confined to church employees. And while that concerns me, I also am aware that the Church isn’t the only employer that is a cultural entity that has an impact on the fiction produced by its employees.

    Seeing as how for the past 2-3 decades the LDS Church hasn’t published fiction (and before that didn’t publish very much), one of my starting points is that fiction is adjacent to the power structure of the Church and not very bound up with it in (except in very few cases). That is: fiction seems to me to be a field of culture that may be influenced by the Church, but generally has been an area that of less concern to the institutional Church. Part of that may be because it’s simply not popular enough to be a threat (or asset worth co-opting). Part of that may be because fiction by its very nature resists simplistic narratives and also has the built-in advantage of the distance between the work and the author.

    I do believe that feeling silenced has an outsized–perhaps even warping–effect in some cases, on Mormon non-fiction. And more so for women than men. But for this series I’m focusing on fiction. Personal essay, memoir, reportage, devotional writing, polemic, etc. are all a very different, much more complicated and fraught thing.

  7. Wm, good post.

    Quick thought because I haven’t “had my coffee” yet…

    On reading your last comment,

    Seeing as how for the past 2-3 decades the LDS Church hasn’t published fiction (and before that didn’t publish very much), one of my starting points is that fiction is adjacent to the power structure of the Church and not very bound up with it in (except in very few cases).

    I’m now wondering if this timeframe correlates with (heh) Correlation. In reediting The Proviso, I took a (very) obscure swipe at it, so it’s been on my mind, as the lesson manuals also don’t leave much room for imagination in preparing one’s lessons. Going off script is highly discouraged.

  8. “I’m now wondering if this timeframe correlates with (heh) Correlation.”

    It most definitely does. On the other hand, the rise of Mormon literary fiction* and genre fiction corresponds with that time period as well.

    *With the exception of the Lost Generation writers

  9. I like the concept of a continuum between self-censorship and self-editing. Like Theric I’ll await the next essay before fully responding, because courage to write something you need to despite the inclination to censor it is the logical next topic in looking at this whole process of honest self-expression. I’ll say this, though, that to me editing feels more along the lines of “Oh, this isn’t working here” or “This isn’t what I want to say” or even “I like this part but it’s weighing the whole piece down”–killing the darlings type of stuff which every writer must do. On the other hand self-censorship, for me, feels more like “I love this-” or “I think this is really important for me to say-” or “Now it’s all really working- BUT am I going to get in trouble with my family or my bishop because of it?” I think it’s the threat of ecclesiastical censure, mostly, that makes authors decide they’d rather not say something even though the piece is working and it’s something that they feel they want to say. It’s a cost-benefit analysis that has only a little to do with the work in question and lots to do with one’s position (and desires) vis-a-vis the Church. So, yes, Sarah’s right that someone who’s already disempowered will be even more hesitant to say something unorthodox than someone who feels secure or confident in their place within the Church. Maybe fiction flies more under the radar than blog posts, activism, films, and even Facebook comments, but the same mental calculus takes place, and I’m not sure that that usually improves a writer’s work–or the culture of the broader community.

  10. .

    Which is why I think the previous post on debunking the threat of excommunication is important. I see that threat as much greater in perception than reality, but the perception is what matters when it comes to self- (preemptive-) censorship.

  11. I’m curious to know where this perception comes from. But I suppose that it might vary so much from individual to individual that it might be impossible to pinpoint.

    I’ll note again that while not foolproof in terms of reception, inspiration may be a way to change the variables in the mental calculus.

  12. I enjoyed this post, William, and yet I find myself feeling like a fish out of water. I don’t think I really think much about getting in trouble for something I write. At least not seriously think about it. I joke about it. Often. That must mean I think about it but I don’t worry enough to limit myself.

    In the process of writing, my concern tends to be less about how I express some great point or moral lesson, some inspiration or insight, as it is how can I manipulate the reader into having that experience, on their own, through the words i write. This more outward, or out-facing, approach distracts me from self-censoring due to some concern I might have for my personal standing with my LDS community. I self-edit of course; I rewrite, rethink, and often cry myself to sleep over my numerous inadequacies, but I figure when I made the choice to write, I made the choice to think in terms of representing others through my art, and on focusing on how others respond when the come across my art, as opposed to representing through my art how I feel or function. That’s weird and I really hadn’t thought about it much until I read this. I always hated that high school English teacher question, “what is the author trying to say?” I didn’t care then so I figure my reader doesn’t care what I think either. Maybe this allows me a feeling of detachment from my work. I don’t know. All interesting things for me to think about.

    With all that said, it’s very true that people often ask me if I get in trouble for what I write. So far, no. But, in truth, I do feel marginalized in my day-to-day functioning in the church, and that’s largely because of, as I perceive, my writing. No, not the fiction so much, but the cultural blog. And as you say, fiction and nonfiction Are different animals. But I have to admit, some days feeling marginalized feels like a blessing. Some writers take themselves out of the church to feel freed from it. No need. If you write freely, the “church” will distance itself from you on its own. 😉 and I don’t mean excommunication.

    As far as women fiction writers self-editing more than their male counterparts, I think this may be A salient observation. The self-editing though, seems to me to come in subject matter. We women writers still tend to craft fictional world’s that are often limited to a rather narrow sphere.

  13. A very good conversation to have.

    While I agree with most of what you have to say, I think I would agree with Randy that we might usefully limit the definition of self-censorship to a point where it changes what we would include in a story if our only criterion were how the story works as a story. Which, as you point out, is complicated, because we tend to dwell in communities that also include our readers, so how do we separate the two?

    Thinking about how I might formulate this, I arrived at the idea that self-censorship applies when we change something we otherwise would include in a story out of fear of consequences that go beyond the reader’s reaction to a story. This can include something as simple as the fear of family members or friends thinking less of us as individuals. And to be honest, I suspect that kind of self-censorship is much more common than fear of formal ecclesiastical action — and possibly much more justified. Such fears might not be for consequences we would bring on ourselves, but on others — or even on the community as a whole.

    So here’s an interesting test case: inclusion of profanity in No Going Back. Yes, there was some, and some of it was stronger in the original draft, to an extent that would probably have more strongly put off potential Mormon readers (who were in fact my main intended audience for the book). My editor Chris Bigelow and I found ways of toning those down. Was this self-censorship? I think not, because the calculus in this case really was internal to the reaction of potential readers to the book and who I might gain as sympathetic readers. On the other hand, the fears that led to me seriously considering publishing under a pseudonym (largely fear of the hassle I might get from extended family members) was clearly a question of self-censorship.

    I also would agree with Randy that it’s a cost-benefit analysis. Implicit in that is that sometimes, the cost really is too high, and self-censorship is totally the way to go.

    Also implicit in this is that one might self-censor for many reasons apart from one’s Mormon identity. Self-censorship for reasons related to Mormonism is more likely if (a) your work is one that deals explicitly with Mormon topics, or (b) your work is one that transgresses what some members of the Church think of as appropriate behavior for Mormons. But I suppose there could be other fears as well. Fears are, more or less by definition, often not fully rational.

  14. “Revelation is a way to short-circuit worry over self-censorship.”

    That’s an interesting suggestion. I just can’t imagine myself unworried. The LDS audience is an odd creature. You mention Deseret Books drawing “drawing the lines in the wrong places.” Our audience contains a critical mass of people who are hyper-worried about getting it right, and welcome those narrow lines.

    And it can be a rough go repairing relationships with offended Mormons who are taught to “turn it off, rip it up, throw it out, and slam the door.”

    Lisa, I know what you mean about the church distancing itself from a writer. Just frees up more time to write, in my opinion.

  15. “The constant tension between my views and my community’s views augments my aesthetics, but I think that my being called upon repeatedly in Mormon culture to defend my writing has been a hindrance. The biggest mistake I made was to allow a Mormon hierarchy ignorant of literary fiction to define the terms of the argument over the validity of my fiction. I have been too much on the defensive, trying to justify my work in their terms, but I wouldn’t read it that way and I have very little sympathy for those who would. But at the time of the controversy I was at risk of losing my job at the Mormon-controlled Brigham Young University if I chose not to answer in their terms. Now that I’ve left BYU, I can choose to answer differently. Though of course I still run the risk of excommunication.
    As a writer, I gather a useful tension from the fact that I am a believer, but that belief becomes imperceptible in my prose. I don’t know why. I don’t think that writing, real writing, has much to do with affirming belief-if anything it causes rifts and gaps in belief which make belief more complex and more textured, more real. Good writing unsettles, destroys both the author and the reader. From my perspective, there always has to be a tension between the writer and the monolithic elements of the culture, such as religion.”

    Brian Evenson interview with Ben Marcus in Storyquarterly #31

  16. I think the perceived threat of excommunication comes in part because it fits in so nicely with a romantic notion of writer as inspired rebel. The idea that your words would be so potent that a major institution in your community would take unusual measures to reject them is, I think, oddly appealing. Being excommunicated for one’s writings would be so dramatic and impressive, it hardly matters that this doesn’t really happen to fiction writers.

    I remember one participant on the old AML List expressing his certainty that the Church would one day excommunicate him for his writings–which puzzled me, since he was already in middle age and had never actually been published. I decided that maybe his fear of excommunication was actually a fantasy about being noticed and taken seriously.

    There are real community pressures, of course, like the readers and Deseret News reviewers who might try to measure an author’s faithfulness to the gospel by the general aesthetic choices of the work. It’s largely up to the writer, though, whether to frame those voices as one edge of the spectrum of readers response or as the forces of ignorance and oppression the great romantic writer must defeat.

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