Reconciling Fiction and Truth: Phyllis Barber’s Keynote Address at the 2017 AML Conference


by Phyllis Barber

Keynote Address for the Association of Mormon Letters, April 21, 2017, at Writ & Vision,  Provo, Utah

Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story. -Ursula K. LeGuin

A note of warning: there will be many questions in this paper. Most are questions I’ve asked myself, but hopefully, some will resonate with you. But be prepared for questions!  The main one that comes to mind when thinking about this paper—“Reconciling Fiction and Truth”—is this:  There are history books galore, more published every day. There are lesson manuals. There are Sunday School discussions every week. Mormons give careful, unremitting attention to Truth with a capital T, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” it seems, discussing scriptures endlessly, but is our culture, and are we, comfortable with the creation of art?

Yes, of course, most of us would say. There’s the Harris Fine Arts Center. The Springville Art Museum. The Church History Museum with its vast collection of Mormon art. And look at LDS Authors on the Internet—our best-selling writers. Most would say the Mormon culture is in good shape, nothing to worry or think about. However, I’m always one to ask questions, chief among them:  (1) What is the role of fiction and truth? and (2) Do we believe that art has value?

First let’s look at fact, which can be called truth. “A piece of information presented as having objective reality.” The word “reality” is important here and a word which many, including myself, consider carefully. I need to be right. I need to have a leg to stand on, and I find that firm stance in fact, especially in historical fact. But then, how close to objective reality can written history ever be? Many historians would say they sometimes have to choose among facts. They take leaps and make judgments about what is more important to record, and this involves intuition and imagination. The line between fiction and objective reality might be very thin when considered in this light, but then let’s consider ART and how it’s made.

My friend, Steve Ferris, says he knows art when he sees it though, admittedly, he’s influenced by a cultured and literary background. A few quotes from the greats may help in our understanding of art.

Henry James says in his short story, The Middle Years: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. And Frederich Nietzsche says, “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.” Whatever the best definition of art, and there are many, our imagination is a most useful tool. But we need to remember we come from a religious culture, one that affects how we write:

A quote from William James, in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, may help. He says that “Churches, when once established, live at second-hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owe(d) their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine…so personal religion should still seem the primordial thing, even to those who continue to esteem it incomplete.”

The quote by James got me thinking. Would “personal religion” be similar to the act of creativity, seeing things with new eyes, a response to individual guidance? Do we write out of first-hand experience, or is our work based on a second-hand experience of what our beliefs are all about? Can we see clearly? And does this have anything to do with us as writers born and/or versed in our culture?

I recently participated in a Ward Talent Show. My Jewish husband loved it, and I enjoyed everyone who participated—immensely. I laughed. I sang. I danced. I played the piano with gusto and even got a standing ovation. A roar even! The Ward Talent Show is alive and well, and everyone let loose and had a great time. But I get a very different impression of the people in that audience when I see them on Sunday morning. Good people, no doubt, no question, but maybe it’s the clothes they wear? A sobriety? A Sunday morning profile? And do I give an impression like this, as well, I have to ask?

This observation, of course, made me ask how much of the creative is left in the Sunday-morning-Mormon culture today with correlation, our lessons of the male prophets, our emphasis on getting the story right with our teachings and our faith? Granted, I have been affected by the desire to do what’s best, but then, one must ask: does art suffer when used to illustrate a point or teach a lesson? Are we programmed to write out of a particular agenda? Out of our way of interpreting the world? Do we believe in art-in-service-of-the-good most of all? Does art transcend, reveal, illuminate, or stretch one’s vistas? And, biggest question of all: has our literature achieved a lasting substance, let alone greatness?

A paraphrase from Nietzsche:  “Virtue is not a matter of the courage of one’s convictions, but the courage to attack (or challenge) one’s convictions.”

How bold are we as writers? Are we artists working from inspiration and a connection with the Muse? Are we tackling the messy, real, and open-ended world head-on—writing about the real lives of people and their dilemmas? Or do we write stories with predictable narratives that feel safe, where good conquers evil, the pure heart prevails, and the Gospel is the only arena worthy of fighting in? Are we re-enforcing the narrative we’ve been taught about how life should be lived? Are we trying to understand human to human in this chaotic society we like to think we don’t live in? Our common humanity? Are we opening our minds to different thought, new perceptions, ideas, and imagination? What about building from the ground up? Trying to tell a story in a new way? What about language telling a story rather than the use of a template or predictable narrative? Many questions!

I think we need to trust the evocative beauty of the incredible language in which we speak and think. We need to find a particular truth in language that swells on the page without our middle world guidance. Language that takes flight. Language that probes beneath the surface. Here is an example from my novel-in-progress where I feel I let language lead the way:

The water of the river—a preposterously huge arm wrestling the canyons as it makes its way south. Broad. Brackish. Mostly red with sands picked up along the way, red sand rolling, turning over and over, an integral part of the water. Bigger than life to Geoffrey Scott as he surveys the ferry Hardy’s built for those who want to cross here—the  hefty rope stretched across, the flat-bottomed boat waiting on one bank. He holds Adababa’s well-used rope attached to the halter over its head and looks at the narrowing of the canyon above the landing, the never-ending tumultuous water. The Colorado is larger than anything he’s seen before. Humbling. Domineering in a land of mountains looking like piles of stacked, dried mud and valleys of rock and dirt—a barren place for any body of water. On the surface silent, but deadly below. There is a subterranean roar of water over rocks, the conflict submerged by the river. Unseeable forces beneath the surface. Powerful river. Arbitrary. How has it come to be? Why is it here, and yet it is.

I only wish I could call up language continually from the mysterious depths of what artistry I have, but with this novel project, I’ve been stymied by the relationship between fact and art, between a factual narrative and a creative one, between history and fiction. In researching this novel from which I’ve quoted, I’ve been fascinated by the facts I’ve discovered—an exciting adventure, no doubt. But I’ve also felt the necessity of a fiction intertwined with and woven into the skeletal structure of facts. To somehow bring air and breath to these dusty facts, to imagine the frail humans buffeted by the particular comings and goings of a particular time and place. In the writing of this novel, I have often found myself shrinking from the enormous task of creating a shimmering tapestry of facts and imagination. I was startled to discover that I trust facts and may be more comfortable with them than I am with my own engagement with the material. But why not just write history then? Or just present facts. They’re safer, you know

I can’t speak for you, and you can’t speak for me, even though we share some common beliefs. We all have our own challenges, demons, and enigmas. But I think it’s important to think about fact and art and how they need to be balanced in the act of writing fiction.

My questions began while writing a historical novel about the years 1858 to 1870 in the Southwest. ADABABA AND THE THIRD WIFE, the book’s title, begins with a camel’s name, in case you’re curious, and yes, 75 camels were brought to the United States in 1858 as an experiment in building a road to California across the 35th parallel—the original Route 66. Trouble with the camel experiment was (1) the building of the railroad, which changed the ball game altogether—the first transcontinental railroad being completed in 1869, and (2) Jefferson Davis, a proponent of the project, the Secretary of War for the U.S. Government before the Civil War, and eager to see what the camels could do, left this position to serve as President of the Confederacy before the expedition began. Thus, many were unwilling to cooperate with anything proposed by someone they perceived as a traitor.

In this novel I wanted to include the national happenings during the time the Mormon pioneers and handcart companies were traversing the plains, basically the story of the Abolitionists from New England, the Border Ruffians in Missouri and Kansas, the building of the roads toward California, the treatment of the Native Americans, etc.. There are thousands of stories to tell, and the myth of the American West has evolved from this time period. But, because I’d been told many Mormon pioneer stories as an impressionable young child, I confess I thought of them as the only thing happening from 1847 to 1870—this, the religious experiment in Utah Territory. Therefore, to make amends, my novel is an attempt to weave the national happenings of the time with pioneer stories, a book that encompasses more than a singularly Mormon narrative.

A peek into the book would be: Geoffrey Scott is from Kansas, the son of an Abolitionist mother who is shot and killed by pro-slavery raiders from Missouri. He is sent away by his raging father and eventually helps build a road for the U.S. Government. He becomes enamored of camels in the process and befriends the Syrian who has been brought with the animals to care for them. During their trek West, he’s confused about the thoughtless treatment of the Syrian and the impoverishment of the native tribes, all because of the needs of the white travelers to California’s Gold Rush. After a midnight encounter with a camel, which he believes is Fate taking part in his destiny, he travels North with a Mojave Indian whom he has befriended, meets Sophia Hughes, the third wife of a polygamist, and falls in love with her. She is a convert from Doncaster, England, and has just lost a baby girl to the barren elements in St. Thomas—a pioneer settlement whose founders were called by Brigham Young.

Sophia is often left alone—her husband being the mail carrier to outlying settlements—and on a fine day, Geoffrey Scott whisks her away into the red rocks on Adababa. For one time only, they have intimate relations. However, Mormon meets non-Mormon, and never the twain shall meet again. A child is born nine months later in Willard, Utah, where Sophia has sought refuge with Mary Anne, the first wife, in a more temperate climate. Her husband Charles, who has delivered her to Willard, returns to St. Thomas, taking the second wife, Sybil, who has been living in Willard to care for Mary Anne. Sophia wants to deny anything ever happened between her and Geoffrey Scott, being she is committed to the LDS church and, as a matter of salvation, to polygamy. When she returns to St. Thomas a year later, she tells Charles he is the father, no doubt, but there is growing suspicion on his second wife’s part, who is vocal about her concerns, when the child is so physically different from Charles. Geoffrey Scott, in the meantime, uninformed as to where Sophia has gone or that she is pregnant with his child, waits months for her return. But when she is away for a year, he leaves St. Thomas to seek his fortune elsewhere. The settlement has its own troubles—bad water, terrible heat, native interference, a desert where everything wilts and little grows. The Muddy Mission is finally disbanded by the  settlers of St. Thomas who, after a letter of permission is received from Salt Lake City, vote to leave. Sophia joins Mary Anne in Willard, ultimately having to decide on her relationship to polygamy which has been clouded by her interaction with Sybil, the second wife. Meanwhile, Adababa, the camel, wanders untethered—a symbol of no allegiance to ideas or creeds. Thus, a skeleton plot.

Before and during writing, I did massive amounts of research and found myself wanting to be true to the facts, to history, but then I had to remind myself I was writing a story to find out what MIGHT happen behind these facts. I wanted to pull readers in, make them want to read more, and explore the truth of what could have happened without a formulaic ending. Stories are fiction, not fact, all said and done. Storytellers embellish. The best novels are made of action, dialogue, and happenings that add up to more than the sum of those parts.

However, my tug of war between fact and fiction still shows in this novel I’m polishing. There are times when my writing is creative, original, and fresh; there are other times when I have tried too hard to write a good report, as if I’m in school. I’ve struggled with my fascination with historical facts and my desire to relate them versus leaping with both feet into the creative unknown.

What are my origins, my relationship to the questions that make me ask if there is a place for a writer of fiction in the Mormon culture? While how something is written is essential in this discussion, do most writers from the culture rely too heavily on a predictable story with a predictable shape (not that there are that many stories to tell, to be honest), but a story where trouble is resolved by acceptance of true principles as we’ve been taught? For example: teen boy has messed with drugs. He sees the light and struggles to do right for those who care about him. He’s off and on again and has some big troubles, but ultimately, he is reborn to a true testimony of the church. Not a bad story, but an expected story. One most of us want because that is how the world is supposed to work. How something is written plays a large part in its worth, but what about fitting in to a way of writing because everyone wants to hear something that will redouble their efforts to be good? To compose music everyone will love because then they can cry, be moved, and feel kinder to themselves? Or do I challenge myself to write something that will cause others to think and reassess their stance about how to live life? Can Mormon fiction be tagged as genre fiction, or do I challenge myself to transcend genre fiction? Big dilemma, but then I remember I used to teach Relief Society from several volumes of a beautiful, big book called OUT OF THE BEST BOOKS, and yes, there is an appreciation for good writing and something besides formula. A yearning for good writing lives among us. Many people belong to book clubs reading substantive, quality writing, and they can accept all of what humanity entails. And there are those who thirst after quality Mormon fiction, historical and otherwise. As my friend, Steve says, “The soil of Mormon letters may not be as fertile as we would like, but . . . it’s not entirely barren or without promise.”

What about letting the richness of language lead the way instead of fact or predictability? Beautiful language that stretches, that reaches into the ether, can teach us something. Maybe we are caught in the web of obligation, of formula, of the RIGHT story, but being lost and found in language born in the vastness of space can be a way to finding a pearl of great luster, something beautiful. It can lead the writer to that extra element that informs, that is beyond a pre-conceived sense of truth, that is basically beyond speech.

I have thought long and hard about the question of whether or not to be called a Mormon writer or simply a writer. I was not involved with the church for about twenty years, though I’ve returned in my own way. But I found myself in many conversations during that time (both before and after) where both Mormons and non-Mormons have made interesting comments.

First Conversation: “Mormons are literal-minded, studying the scriptures assiduously in Sunday School, Primary, and Relief Society, familiarizing themselves with the history of their church, writing journals of day-to-day activities, etc. They are at home with procedure, rules, and a set of beliefs.” Therefore, there seems to be an unspoken belief that there is a struggle between imagination and literal-mindedness. One thing I recently heard at Relief Society was: “Here are the answers given at General Conference, now all you have to do is to be obedient.” This literal-mindedness may be related to the Mormon attempt of being honest in every way and trying to do everything to perfection, and I have been influenced by this thinking, no doubt. I’m affected by this scripture: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” But that’s a tall, unspecific order and might get in the way of our writing about our humanness. Does art suffer when the writer tries too hard to fit into a perceived scheme of things?

My second husband, who is Jewish, says that Mormons “take life too seriously. Achievers are not typically funny,” though he would say the same thing of Jews. Irony and humor—elements of the best literature—require not taking oneself too seriously [which is] not one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths. Maybe I have been influenced by this literal-mindedness myself. Maybe it’s true I don’t have much of a sense of humor, even though I’m good at joshing and teasing and shining at skits. But I’m very serious about most everything, much to my chagrin. I fondly remember when, during stake conference in Las Vegas, the visiting speakers told jokes and folksy stories. I listened carefully to the doctrine because I knew a joke or a folk story was forthcoming—good strategy for a public speaker. But then, someone decided that conference speakers needed to “sober up” so the Church wouldn’t be misinterpreted by those not of the faith who might be watching the proceedings on television. Thank you, TV! But I feel as though I grew up in a less serious religion, one not so focused on getting everything right. We laughed at ourselves. We heard some say that the church was a vehicle to God, not THE VEHICLE or THE TRUTH. There seemed to be more room when I was young, though I grant you, that may be the province of the young.

When I taught writing for twenty years in the Vermont College Writing Program, I found most of the Southerners to be great story tellers. Being raised on “tall tales” and “swapped stories,” they seemed to be more casual and easy-going. They didn’t seem to be caught up with perfection, and what they wanted to accomplish was to entertain. The Southerners could tell a story that would make you laugh and cry and even hoot, and I often wished I had their ability and didn’t try to be too much more than that. But my cross to bear was perfectionism, whatever that is, and I thought it was somewhere if I tried hard enough.

Second Conversation:  Another reason we struggle between what we perceive as truth and a fictive approach is that Mormons are affected by wanting to do what’s right—CTR, some say. The Capital T Truth loomed large when I was writing this book. There were times when I asked myself: “Am I doing what’s right? Am I doing what God wants me to do? Can I serve in this way?” Maybe taking the time to write is very selfish because I’m not baking a casserole or running to the hardware store for my neighbor. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we are afraid of breathing and dancing with our imaginations because maybe we’re afraid of being led away from “what’s right.” I have found myself asking myself, Am I in the service of others by writing? Is my imagination a futile path to follow when The Truth is supposedly so solid? If my characters swear or take God’s name in vain, does that blot out my efforts? What if the answer for that character is not to repent but maybe to think differently about a problem? Will that character be considered a lost cause to my Mormon readers? A bad character?  Do I need to follow a Mormon narrative if I am identified as a Mormon writer?

Third Conversation:  A fictive character—one born of the stuff of real life—may not be a follower of any kind. Is it immoral to write about someone like this? Can Mormons create characters who would break the rules or do something one is not supposed to do if one is Mormon—both creator and created? Can a character use vile language or have an illicit affair, or is a Mormon writer not supposed to go in that direction or even acknowledge such things happen.

Mary Bradford writes in her Foreword to Virginia Sorensen’s book, A LITTLE LOWER THAN THE ANGELS:  “In 1947, Ray West, a Utah critic and historian, said that ‘the popular Mormon story is unavailable to the writer of fiction because it does not admit human error. The perceptive mind, which is the creative mind, is caught always between man’s aspiration and his achievement. The imaginative writer . . . may depict the tragic fact, the actual achievement. The unimaginative writer reproduces the myth . . . and the result . . . is cliche’ ”(xi).

Something that once happened with my first novel, AND THE DESERT SHALL BLOSSOM, can illustrate this point. The novel won first prize from the annual Utah Fine Arts Literary Competition, and after its publication, it was included in the library reading series sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council to be read as a monthly offering in libraries throughout Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. I wrote a scene where there was masturbation by the husband of the main character. This was not meant to be titillating or salacious. The moment was short, but reflected the condition of who this character was and where he was in his understanding of life. It seemed appropriate to the story, and I didn’t think it was an egregious miscalculation. But some people were outraged and asked to have the book rescinded by the Council and taken out of the library discussion series. Which they felt forced to do. This incident reinforced my desire not to be considered as a Mormon writer, but a writer, period.

So, I repeat the question. Is a Mormon writer bound by the church’s or a region’s rules of behavior?

Fourth Conversation: Can a Mormon writer use a wide rage of imagination? You could say that Stephanie Meyer and Shannon Hale are imaginative with their zombies and princesses, but is there an close-up literature about real people doing everyday things and stumbling at times? Is there a literary approach to these characters, the writer versed in literature and learning that transcends the boundaries of Mormon rules? Is there an equal validity of different, but co-existing patterns of life? Are the characters’ range of behavior limited by a code of morality?

Bottom line, does the Mormon community really want fiction written by a Mormon about the Mormon past or present unless that writer adheres to the teachings and factually to the happenings? Fiction is an imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality, but in our culture, is it one long Sunday School lesson illustrating a point and teaching a moral? When a culture is founded on “the truth,” can there be any room for invention? Ironically, the reading of fiction seems to be respected, but does the writing of a writer coming from Mormon heritage fare as well? Is certain behavior not allowed? There are selective book clubs where books are considered “evil” if they break the code or “unwise to read” if the recorded values differ from those of the religion. Do books loved by the popular culture seem to be based on pre-ordained values more than on the beauty of the writing or the flight of the imagination?

Case in point would be Virginia Sorenson, who published her first book in 1942, and to look briefly at two of her six novels, A LITTLE LOWER THAN THE ANGELS and THE EVENING AND THE MORNING. In her first book, she tells of the exodus in Nauvoo accompanied by the confusion surrounding the revelation of polygamy. Her main character, Mercy Baker, does not want polygamy to interfere with her marriage at all, but when her husband takes another wife as he’s been told to do, she climbs in the wagon, very ill, to follow the Saints across the Great Plains, only to die in the process. Sorensen fictionalizes beautifully and writes well, though she has been accused of sentimentality, especially in this book. But I think she’s worried about missteps in this book, about not being well-received by the Mormon community. There is a list of thirty-eight notes in the Foreword of the book, and she seems concerned about factual verity. This book was not well-received in Utah (though it might be found on the shelves of Deseret Book today), and she was accused of writing “unsavory” scenes. Her reply was that she “didn’t think they were unsavory . . . I saw what was around me.” Something I, too, might say of my own writing. But in a later book of Sorensen’s, THE EVENING AND THE MORNING, the main character of Kate is much more complex and there is more reliance on the fictive elements of characterization and language than there is on plot—better writing in my estimation. More real, exploratory, and aesthetic, but not as accessible. Her later books were never as well-received as the first book about Nauvoo.

I’m glad I grew up in Las Vegas and was surrounded by many religions and many ways of living life. I loved the diversity, the having to live with “the truth” and make it larger to fit my surroundings. But how free am I to write with all of these questions I’m asking? Is my purpose to be a servant of the church in all I do, this culture that now encourages the reading of church books over others, the listening to church music so we won’t be tainted by “the world”? I would ask how can we love all of humankind if we are restricted to a particular response? Is my purpose to be a sister of Christ who taught us to love one another even when we aren’t the same? Didn’t Christ reach out to all? I think it takes a lifetime-plus to learn what Christ was teaching us.

But to the point of this paper: If we believe we must stick to the facts and that there is no need for the imagination, then I think we limit ourselves before we get started and diminish ourselves and our reasons for being. Joseph Smith said in D & C 58:26: “It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.”

We need to trust ourselves, our imaginations, our originality, even if we are a natural man and woman. We live in a world with natural men and women, and we are one of them, like it or not. That said, we need to believe in our own inspiration. We must follow our own directives. We may stumble, but we find our own way, and that is the beauty of it all. Do we serve anyone if stick to formula? If we take no risks? If we are jacks of all trades and masters of none?

In closing, I would say if we, as Mormons, want to write, it’s first of all important not to be afraid of our imagination. As Pablo Picasso said: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” We know where we’re supposed to end up, but don’t be afraid of your imagination, your intuition, your gut response about the journey along the way. Secondly, learn the craft as well as you can. Don’t skimp on this or think it doesn’t matter because it does. Good writing is the plum, end item, and if values are expressed too literally or without subtlety or respect for a reader’s intelligence, your writing can fail artistically. And thirdly, know that moral and ethical values can and should be expressed in art. They appeal to our common humanity, and the more universal they are, the more we share them with Mormons and non-Mormons alike. I once asked Chaim Potok, author of My Name is Asher Lev, how one could write great Mormon literature as I thought he’d written fine literature dealing with Jewishness and its challenges. He replied simply: “Go for the universals.”

Using fiction as well as fact, we need to explore our ideas of how the world works. It takes a lifetime to learn something well, and then we don’t know enough. We are creatures with cataracts, with motes in our eyes. So why get stuck in being perfect when we don’t even know what perfection is? Writing is a tremendous way to figure out what matters to us, and writing well, even artistically, serves us best of all. A last quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Art is essentially the affirmation, the blessing, and the deification of existence.”

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