Harrell, “Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism” (reviewed by Tyler Chadwick) (revised review)

[Sadly, a few errors were not detected the first time. Here’s an update. Thanks to Tyler Chadwick for pointing these out. JN]


JHarrell_-_Writing_Ourselves_desk_cover_largeTitle: Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism
Author: Jack Harrell
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books, Draper, UT
Genre: Writing and Style Guide, Literary Criticism
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 185
Binding: Paper
ISBN10: 1589587545
ISBN13: 978-158958-754-0
Price: $18.95 (Kindle: $9.99)

Reviewed by Tyler Chadwick for the Association for Mormon Letters

Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

“The universe,” writer Jack Harrell claims, “is fundamentally absurd.” [1] By nature, he argues, it’s out of tune and tends toward chaos. Enter God, an eternal personage who, by virtue of habits of being developed during an aeons-long process of development, seeks to call chaos to order, to resolve the discordant system. By Harrell’s estimation this makes God the ultimate Sense-Maker, the Source of meaning in a place that doesn’t of itself make sense. Addressing Mormonism’s “Creator-God” in an essay titled “Making Meaning as a Mormon Writer,” which is included in Harrell’s recent essay collection, Writing Ourselves, Harrell asserts that “God enters that corner” of the universe where “perilous chaos” reigns “and creates something from the raw materials there. This is what God does; this is who he is.” Then Harrell distills his claims about God-as-Creative-Being to a five word statement: “God is literally logos, meaning.” [2] Drawn from the figure of God presented in the Johannine Gospel—”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [3], where Word translates the Greek term Logos—Harrell’s portrayal casts deity as the Supreme Rational Being whose creative power emerges from the significance inscribed on his being. Which is to say that meaning is in his eternal DNA. By this line of reasoning, which undergirds the main ideas Harrell pursues in Writing Ourselves, without meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated, God is naught and existence is absurd.

If God is meaning-embodied, to emulate God—as Mormons believe we’re made to do—is to privilege (above all things) meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated. Harrell suggests that Mormon writers should take this work seriously, as a matter of devotion to craft and to Christ, who as the Logos is, in Harrell’s words, “language and reason itself, making communication and meaning possible.” [4] His parallel clauses suggest that, for Harrell, language is the province of communication and reason the province of meaning. It follows from my latter statement that to make meaning as a Mormon writer I must reason as God reasons. I must look “at unorganized matter,” at the absurdity and chaos of existence, and envision ways of bringing such foolishness to order, of shaping something logical from things illogical. [5] We do this work every time we tell stories. Whether we compose them in writing or aloud, whether we’re working writers or relating events to a friend, we have a tendency to seek meaning in and to impose meaning on the happenings, the flow, and the structure of our lives. We may take this tendency as a given aspect of our being, as a characteristic developed during premortal aeons spent in God’s presence then carried into mortality. But must this be the case? What if we aren’t born predisposed to seek or to make meaning but we grow into the tendency? What if in terms of being as such—especially on the scale of eternal existence—meaning-making and reason are corollaries to more vital work? What if making meaning isn’t God’s—and by extension our—only or even highest purpose?

“Reason” is just one translation of logos and Harrell puts a lot of weight on it in Writing Ourselves. He opens by framing his project with the language of logic: “The reasoning in this book assumes the validity of Mormonism.” [6] And he closes with the proposition that “[t]rue creativity [. . .] is synonymous with God’s definition of truth: ‘a knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come’ (D&C 93:24).” Then he asks (and answers) a question that takes reason and meaning-making as granted aspects of everyday thinking: “Isn’t that what we’re looking for every day—the truth? (If it isn’t, it should be.) We read and write, live and act, trying to understand it all. It’s a big job trying to figure things out. But you have to start somewhere.” [7] In between these first and last pages, he poses an ordered list for the creative process and offers rules for writing and reading, for putting meaning into narratives and drawing meaning from narratives. He gives a series of “must” and “would [verb]” statements for defining the aesthetic and ethical functions of literature—e.g., “what violence in literature must teach us” [8], a “Mormon literary theory would draw unabashedly from. . . . would seek and value. . . . would champion” and so on. [9] He presents the Thirteenth Article of Faith as “the best standard available to Mormons” for judging literature, suggesting that the Article models a predetermined set of rules and principles after which to formulate our response to texts. [10] He speaks to the fiction writer’s responsibility to use words to create orderly worlds and to convey meaning. He tells Mormon writers and readers that we should “privilege meaning and reason.” [11] And he repeatedly addresses Mormonism’s Creator-God as a being of reason who seeks to create order and meaning from chaos.

While Harrell’s heavy emphasis on reason and order yields some insight on creativity, the craft of writing, language use, and Mormonism, the stress he’s placed on God-as-Logos-as-reason wasn’t enough to break open the concept of “the Word” for me. In fact, it seemed to pin God and Mormon cosmology down and to restrict any in-text development toward a Mormon theology of the Word, which is where it feels like Harrell’s overall critical project could be reaching. One sentence from Writing Ourselves seems apropos in this regard. When exploring how the virtues listed in the Thirteenth Article of Faith should frame the way Mormons interact with literature and “determin[e] literary and artistic value,” Harrell says, “That topic deserves more discussion than I’m giving it here.” [12] By his own admission, then, the book’s work is unfinished.

In one sense the work of Writing Ourselves is unfinished because no book’s work is complete until a reader takes it in hand and to mind and converses with the text. The notion that a text can open a conversation between a writer and a reader jibes with other translations of logos. For instance, the OED, to which Harrell turns when defining the term, lists four translations: “word, speech, discourse, reason.” [13] Each opens different interpretive possibilities, but the first three speak to the concept’s grounding in orality, positioning it as a relationship between a speaker and listeners. Harrell admits at least once in the book that he hopes others will build upon and expand his thinking. [14] And in a live discussion of his book held June 28, 2016 at Writ & Vision, a fine arts gallery and rare books store in Provo, Utah, he said that he hoped his ideas would open a conversation about what Mormon theology could offer readers of literature, specifically in terms of articulating a theoretical framework for examining literary works. [15] So: he wants to get readers—especially the literary critics in the crowd—talking about what it means to use Mormonism, in his words, as “a lens [. . .] through which texts can be read, interpreted, judged, and valued.” [16]

While it’s commendable for Harrell to recognize a) that he won’t be the last word on the topics he takes up in Writing Ourselves and b) that he’s part of a larger, ongoing conversation about Mormonism and literature, in another sense the book feels unfinished 1) because many of the ideas he pursues are never fleshed out and 2) because the manuscript seems to have escaped a round of proofreading. Re: 2): I understand that grammatical missteps can remain in even the most closely-edited text. But I become less understanding when those missteps accumulate over the course of a manuscript and when the repeated missteps seem to be noticeable stumbles. Such missteps include (among other grammatical indiscretions) misused words: “let the Misfit do what the Misfit inevitability will do” [17]; homonym problems: “God [. . .] organizes materials into discreet elements” [18], Mormons are “a foreword-looking people” [19]; and misspelled names: Lance Larsen, Utah’s Poet Laureate (2012–17) and nationally-recognized writer, becomes “Lance Larson” [20], a faux pas more understandable (especially when coming from a fictionist) than calling Hemingway “Hemmingway.” [21] I don’t want to give the impression that Harrell’s book is riddled with such missteps; it isn’t, but they occur often enough to be noticeable, at least to my own nit-picky editorial eye. At several points during my reading I was bothered enough by what I saw as a developing trend to comment on it or to correct the missteps in the margins. My last annotation to that effect was a question: “What’s up with these little mistakes?”

Re: 1): The work Harrell begins in Writing Ourselves intends, yes, to open conversations about Mormonism and the acts of language; but overall the book’s textual body feels anemic. In addition to his confession (referenced above) that his exploration of the Thirteenth Article of Faith as a standard for literature “deserves more discussion than I’m giving it here” [22], the rhetorical moves he makes in two other essays characterize the manuscript’s underdevelopment. In his short essay “The Episodic and Epiphanic in Contemporary Fiction,” which was originally delivered at the 2011 Associated Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C., he outlines a framework for discussing the function of two narrative structures used by contemporary writers. Just as his theory takes shape and his narrative begins moving toward a case study that could add flesh to his framework, though, he jumps to the conclusion by referring in passing to a story he once heard read on an episode of Selected Shorts, a Public Radio International-sponsored podcast. He recaps the story in two sentences, asks a rhetorical question about its structure (”Is the story epiphanic?,” meaning does it reveal something about the nature of the human soul?), then offers what feels like a lifeless response: “Subtly so, I think. But I’m not sure. I’d have to pick it apart to know—which I may do sometime. Perhaps that’s one strength of this particular story: it’s so meaningful and real and human that I don’t know, nor care at this point, whether or not it’s epiphanic.” [23] While he may not have cared (or had the time) at that given moment during his original presentation to develop his ideas by engaging with the nitty-gritty details of a text, his reiteration of that moment in the published essay left me wanting and separated me from his project—and even from him as a writer and thinker—to a degree. “Why not pick the story apart now?” I asked in the margins, the assumption being that a close reading of the story would make his theory more potent and vital.

Another rhetorical move that characterizes the underdevelopment of ideas in Writing Ourselves takes place in the collection’s longest essay, “Toward a Mormon Literary Theory.” The essay’s opening question asks, “Is there an approach to literature, or a criterion for judgment, that could function as a unique theoretical lens, that could be called Mormon, that could offer a new perspective, or even a fresh synthesis of previous theories, to add to the ongoing conversation about the evaluation and appreciation of literature?” [24] The ensuing discussion skims the field of Mormon letters as he reviews what’s been written on the topic of Mormon literary criticism and theory before proposing “a possible framework”: “a theory grounded in Mormon cosmology” that “accounts for the mythic proportions of Mormon thought; that seeks to build culture, specifically a Zion culture; that values language and ‘The Word’ and the redemptive power of art; that utilizes elements of ethical criticism as it assumes an inherently moral force in literature; and that aligns with the current movement called ‘Post-Postmodernism,’ or the ‘New Sincerity.’” [25] Again: he admits that his proposed theory isn’t “a once-and-for-all answer” [26], but that it’s “only the beginning of a conversation.” “[M]y own attempt to define this theory will not suffice,” he says. “More work should be done. Perhaps the next step should be one of application, an analysis of one or more literary works, whether Mormon or not, based on the tenets I’ve delineated above.” [27] Before making its way into Writing Ourselves, the essay appeared in a 2014 issue of BYU Studies Quarterly. [28] I point this out because it suggests to me that Harrell could possibly have taken his theory out for a spin after the essay was proofed for publication and before Writing Ourselves released by composing another essay for the collection that analyzed a (Mormon) literary work through the lens he describes.

Granted: Writing Ourselves is more a writing and creativity guide than a work of criticism or critical theory. And as much as it seems to keep itself separate from the (Mormon) literary works it mentions in passing—meaning that the book doesn’t dig in the soil of (Mormon) texts enough—it positions itself as a text concerned with applying Mormon thinking about God, godliness, and the acts of creation to the writing and reading of aesthetically- and ethically-sound texts. As such, it seems like the perfect place to include a case study in applied Mormon literary theory. In fact, as my working response to the book suggests, Writing Ourselves may itself represent a flawed yet forward-thinking attempt by Harrell to apply his theoretical framework to the texts he’s encountered as a writer, a writing teacher, a scholar, and a Mormon. In this sense, the book does more to explore the concept of the Word from a Mormon perspective than it explicitly argues. For instance, Harrell asserts outright that “the real goal” of language use is “communication”—transmitting information and meaning from one body to another [29]—and that Christ, as the Word, makes communication and meaning possible. [30] However, the way he draws together multiple voices from different contexts to compose his thoughts suggests that, consciously or not, he uses language for more expansive, vital purposes than just transmitting ideas or constructing meaning. He uses it, rather, for connecting bodies and fostering shared experience. He uses it as a mode of communion.

Offering advice to writers from the grounds of his own experience, Harrell shares four tips: “Make time to write, be authentic, strive for the philosophical, and
embrace the difficulties.” [31] He infers another tip in passing as he addresses different motivations for writing, under the rubric of making time to write. Some writers, he says (holding up the straw man he intends to tear down), “are wholly certain of themselves and the rightness of their position on any number of matters.” Such writers, he continues, “need a soapbox instead of a pen” because they don’t really want an audience, whose presence always influences a performance; they just want a body “to lecture at” not one to “commune with. [32] So, tip #5: Write to seek communion. And the corollary: Don’t write to give a lecture on right living or to assert the primacy and ultimate coherence of your personal system of meaning—or said differently: Avoid self-aggrandizing propaganda. Elsewhere in the book he speaks to the function of language and narrative as communal acts. In his exploration of literature as an ethical act intended to foster moral goodness, he encourages writers to create narrative worlds and persons that feel as real as the space we inhabit and the people we encounter in real life. So doing, he observes, a writer will yield the story’s field of experience to its characters and foster “moments of communion” that connect “readers to [. . .] characters” on a level of intimacy that approaches the attachments possible among living, breathing bodies. [33] Such devotion to craft, he argues in another essay that likewise addresses the moral function of literature, will compel a writer to invest “hours and hours in the solitary practice of writing, working toward the goal of greater communion with others.” [34]

As a poet, essayist, and scholar, I resonate with Harrell’s claim that writing is a “solitary practice.” I often write late at night when the world has gone dark and silent, when I can sift through my thoughts and compose without distraction and the external friction inherent in living among other bodies. Having said that, I also cringe a little at Harrell’s claim. The notion of the writer as a solitary genius who remains aloof from the world and its messiness does the acts of language a disservice. It situates the writer as an isolated being who broods over the world’s chaos and writes to impose order on disorder, to find respite from the world’s many problems. And it situates narrative-making as a counterpoint to living and acting. I’ve often heard people praised from the Mormon pulpit for being “a person of action, not words”—often enough, anyway, that I suspect a segment of the LDS community is wary of people eagerly and deeply engaged in acts of language and reflection. If people aren’t “anxiously engaged,” visibly doing “many things” to show their commitment to God’s “good cause,” they must be thinking too much and, so forestalled in their eternal progress, not “bring[ing] to pass much righteousness,” if they’re bringing it to pass at all. [35] To keep them in good graces with the community and with God, they must, I’ve heard it said, just need more to do.

I’m not saying that Harrell buys into the writer-as-solitary-genius caricature or that he’s experienced the effects of this caricature and its corollaries (e.g., “You think too much,” etc.) in his interactions with other Mormons. In fact, he goes out of his way to disabuse readers of the notion that writers are geniuses or even necessarily “interesting people”and that being a writer requires distancing ourselves from the world. [36] In “Advice for Writers” he opens by describing a summer afternoon he spent with his daughter and granddaughter at a local splash pad. The scene set, he observes: “Taking in [. . .] the clamor and color and movement of it all, I wondered why anyone would want to take an hour away from such a glorious day to write. Why choose to lose a moment, I wondered, sitting alone in a quiet room at a computer, just to lay down a few rows of words and sentences? How could writing time ever compete with living time?” He responds: “And yet it does. For many of us, writing is one of the things we do to keep our souls humming. I’m proud to say that I write and I take my granddaughter to the splash park. For me, writing is part of the balance of my life.” [37] In light of this drive to write well but not at the cost of living well (which I imagine resonates with many Mormon writers), perhaps a more vital way of considering writing would be, not as a solitary practice undertaken in a place removed from real living, but as part of a writer’s reflective participation in life’s givenness. Harrell’s project in Writing Ourselves and his writing practice, as he describes it, jibe better with the concept of the writer as reflective participant than the writer as solitary practitioner. In this regard (as in others I’ve discussed), his choice of words works against the hope and desire he expresses by reaching out with language.

Something that’s given comes unbidden. “Breath, rest, words [and language], food, excrement, handiwork, sensations, ideas, bodies, and intentions—each of them, the very stuff of life,” Adam Miller observes, “are given and each of them are received. Life is this giving.” [38] The idea that writing is reflective participation in this giving—in life’s perpetual unfolding and generosity and messiness—asks the writer to remain susceptible to the world and those beings and things with whom she shares it. It asks her to receive the stuff of life with an open palm, to give place for its generosity and implications in the ground of her being via acts of hope and imagination, to tend to those seeds with patience and the earnestness of love, and—as they burst forth into her being and begin to shape her desires, her perceptions, her relationships, and her encounters with the world and with others—to make narrative worlds that can propagate such goodness. [39] To begin, though, she needs to receive what Swiss painter Paul Klee calls “the right to be chaos,” to let go of reason and the pursuit of meaning in favor of being with the universe and recognizing how entangled she is in its absurdity. After all, Klee says in a diary entry describing his pursuit of a new project, chaos is “logically” the place to begin creating; “it is the most natural start.” [40] How else might she imagine new worlds and persuade them into being, how else might she bear witness of their truthiness and generosity and convince others to be with her as she speaks these worlds into being, bringing their substance together via acts of language, than by—as is the manner of Nature, even, it seems, on an eternal scale—first sitting with the stuff of life and mulling over its character, its potential, and the relationships it may manifest and sustain and inspire even in its messiness?

Writing tip #6: Give yourself the right to be chaos.

Harrell bookends Writing Ourselves with personal reflections that demonstrate the messiness of living with others and the value of crafting verbal experience that sits with and seeks to bring together and responsibly enact the stuff of life. He opens with a personal essay about finding love and safety, renewal and grace in unconventional family circumstances. And he closes with a series of three personal essays: one about making a place for himself in his high school community by making music, one that depicts the messy “mixture of divinity and flesh” he observes in his grandparents’ life history and that he finds “worthy of redemption” by shaping it into a new narrative [41], and one that correlates his childhood fascination with the Apollo 14 moon landing and the mythic narrative structure of the journey there and back again (to borrow from a wandering Shire-dweller). In his collection-ending essay Harrell speaks to the way we impose meaning on life’s chronology, which he defines as “the logic of time.” [42] Such logic emerges only in retrospect as we reflect on the sequence of events that inform the present moment. In this view, logic—as sequence and order—provides the basis for meaning. But the term “chronology” extends beyond these lexical limits. Derived from Greek khrono– (a combining form of khronos meaning time, a defined time, a lifetime, a season, a while [43]) + logy (a combining form of logos), it more broadly refers to the discursive construction of time: to the ways we process and participate in life’s unfolding by narrating events and sharing those stories with others. Hence, chronology—as discourse that accounts for and seeks to represent temporal happenings—provides a means of creating and recreating, receiving and giving the stuff of life as it’s perpetually offered to us across life’s seasons. In this view, language isn’t primarily for making meaning via processes of reason and logic. It’s for creating an environment in which we can commune together, in which we can openly and deeply experience each other, be with each other, become with each other, and speak each into the other’s being.

In the radically material universe asserted by Mormon theology, in which God is embodied and “all spirit is matter,” everything is particular and subject to time. [44] To be eternal, then, is not to exist outside of time or just to exist for a really long time but to participate in Life’s perpetual unfolding in a particular way. And what is that way? Is it to impose logic, order, and meaning on the stuff of life through exalted acts of reason? Maybe. But I’m not convinced that meaning-making and the pursuit of order constitute the ends or even the highest means of existence. Rather, Being on an eternal scale may entail taking up creative work for the purpose of exalting and sustaining relationships.

In Enoch’s ascension narrative, Enoch, standing beside God, watches generations of human civilization unfold. When he sees patterns of misery, suffering, and injustice emerge in human interactions, he turns to observe God’s response and finds that God has begun to weep. [45] Surprised by God’s reaction, Enoch asks three times, “How can you weep?” That Enoch asks how God can weep and not why he weeps suggests that Enoch is less concerned with the reasons compelling God’s tears than with the idea that God—a “holy” being engaged in the ongoing work of Creation and whom Enoch assumed was far removed from human passions [46]—could “be moved to the point of distress” by human misery and suffering. As Terryl Givens notes, “The answer, it turns out, is that God is not exempt from emotional pain.” Indeed, Givens continues, this weeping God “is in no way immune to the vicissitudes entailed by his immersion within a web of human relationships [. . .]. He participates in rather than transcends the ebb and flow of human history, human tragedy, and human grief.” [47] Through his encounter with a deeply-engaged, vulnerable deity, Enoch learns that the God he worships is no disaffected Being whose knowledge and power set him at cosmos-length from his creations. No, this is a God who refuses to turn his back on human weakness, suffering, and misery—things we might consider as being among the absurd elements of existence. Rather, when he sees humans behaving destructively, rejecting each other and dissolving communal bonds, he mourns, he weeps, he extends his hands to embrace them. He refuses to withhold love or to withdraw his arm. His compassion and empathy compel him to be with others no matter the cost. Stirred by the disruptive response of this tragic eternal Being, Enoch is moved in kind: he weeps and extends his arms to embrace and lift all creation. His being expands to make room for God’s suffering and he longs to reach out to others with greater mercy and compassion. [48]

Just as Enoch’s encounter with God moves Enoch to deeper empathy for and engagement with others, depictions of God’s intimate relationship with and radical obligation to humanity and the stuff of life—like those offered in Enoch’s ascension narrative and, elsewhere, in the symbol of God’s extended hand, which he offers in perpetual hope that others will reach back—seem intended to draw readers into more empathic ways of being in and responding to the world and of being with others. Such stories call observers not to turn their backs on the absurd elements of our existence but to face our shared crises together and to work with others to alleviate them. Wounded God narratives thus challenge us to take up what theologian David F. Ford calls the “endless process of learning to live with each other” in a universe in which nothing—including deity—is invulnerable. [49] By so doing these narratives also challenge the adequacy of observers’ ultimate concerns. In his exploration of the dynamics of religious experience, philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich uses the concept of “ultimate concern” to describe the things to which people devote their sustained, unconditional attention. [50] Although these things can be religious in nature, they don’t have to be; for instance, many of us neglect other concerns and give ourselves to the unmitigated pursuit and worship of money, careers, hobbies, status, celebrity, physical fitness, national interests, ideologies, institutions, social justice, and so on—all in hopes of finding “ultimate fulfillment.” [51] However, the singular focus often diverts resources away from more vital relationships: from the reciprocal connections and ecologies that will sustain us in our walk through the world and our encounters with the stuff of life. These relationships include those we should seek to maintain with our deepest selves, with others, and with the communities and environments we inhabit together. We neglect these relationships to the detriment of our selves, others, and the world; in the process, we may exacerbate the crises and the wounds we could otherwise ameliorate. Depictions of a vulnerable deity who foregoes other possible preoccupations and offers himself to other beings again and again—notwithstanding their potential rejection of his reaching—seem intended (among their other functions) to reorient observers’ energies away from inadequate ultimate concerns and toward productive, meaningful ways of responding to our shared vulnerability and of engaging with a world in crisis and a fundamentally absurd universe.

Vulnerable to the progression of time, to circumstance, and to the agency of other bodies, Mormonism’s passible God is not, as Harrell asserts, “literally [. . .] meaning.” [52] More fundamentally, God is constituted by deep, sustainable relationships cultivated with other beings and things across aeons through acts of discourse. In this light, God is a gathering; a recounting; a reiteration of goodness, light, and truth; a fresh iteration and a perpetually unfolding performance of something very old. The Creation account narrated in the book of Abraham exemplifies this work. “[A]t the beginning,” the narrative goes, the Gods “counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth,” considering together the character of the raw materials before them and deciding how they could organize those materials (as has been done before) for the greatest communal benefit; then they “came down and formed” things “[a]ccording to all that which they [the Gods] had said.” [53] From this account it follows that, on an eternal scale, the nature of creative work is communal, collaborative, contingent, discursive, distributed, performative. By this I mean that the work of Creation emerges from the deep somatic interactions—the utterance, the dialogue, the verbal giving and receiving—shared among the eternal bodies that constitute and sustain an expansive community of Makers. It doesn’t entail a single Being extracting something from nothing, speaking reason and order into chaos, or determining meaning and the course to meaning for other beings and things. Rather it involves a coterie of Creative Beings entangled in an ancient, perpetually-unfolding discussion with the stuff of life and regarding the stuff of life and performing in concert as a somatic ecology to reclaim that stuff from a state of decomposition by (re)composing it, by persuading it—again, as has been done before—to reach for the full potential of being.

Fiona Givens observes in her discussion of Joseph Smith’s theological project that Joseph’s “creative energies” consisted of “a profound commitment to an ideal of cosmic as well as human collaboration.” [54] By this conception, humans, as children of Gods—of an Eternal Mother and Father—can shape our creative work after the acts of creative “reclamation and collaboration” performed by our Parents. [55] As I read those acts in this working response to Harrell, Creative Beings participate in Life’s perpetual unfolding in particular ways. Because their mode of being is constituted by discursive acts, like dialogue and narrative—which is to say, borrowing from Eugene England, that they’re “creature[s] of language” [56]—eternal persons privilege discursive acts as ways of being-with and fostering transformation and growth in others over the concept of logos-as-reason-as-meaning-making-instrument. They recognize that meaning and experience are distributed among bodies, things, and events and that they (meaning and experience) are therefore contingent, performative, always multiple, and open to revision. Such beings also participate fully and deeply in a dynamic, undetermined ecology of bodies, stories, things, and ideas—one that opens toward and seeks to circumscribe “things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” [57] The Gods may not participate in this communal work in pursuit of a transcendental signified: the One True Meaning that transcends all meanings and toward which all systems of knowledge aspire—an idea that for me begs the questions: in a community of Gods, do all beings yield the same meaning? If not, whose meaning matters most? Whatever the case, the Gods seem to participate in the cosmos’ dynamic, undetermined ecology as an effort to receive, to experience, and to share the truths—the integrity and givenness—of Being as it unfolds and reiterates itself in creative cycle after creative cycle in an eternal round of creation.

In the Book of Mormon narrative, when Jesus appears to the multitude gathered at the Nephite temple after days of geological upheaval, his first act upon descending is to extend his hand and speak. [58] As the Logos, his utterance reiterates the Gods’ creative posture as they reach, via discursive acts, to transfigure the stuff of Life into communal experience and to, in the process, exalt the web of relationships in which they’re entangled. Harrell mutes this more expansive God-concept and its implications for language use within (and even beyond) our faith community by leaning into the concept of God-as-Logos-as-reason. So doing, he typifies what seems to me a dominant mode of thinking in the Mormon literary community as well as in Mormon discourse and rhetoric more broadly. This mode positions God as the singular Being from whom language and reason, communication and meaning flow. As such, it privileges language as a tool for knowledge transmission, meaning-making, and reaching for the Transcendental Signified. Further, it mutes the collaborative, performative nature of godliness and the vital functions of language as communion and experience. Considering these things, I wonder: What would our faith community’s rhetoric and discourse look like if we conceived of God-as-Logos-as-a-perpetually-unfolding-dialogue among all things regarding the truths of being? Or if we more fully and consistently framed Godhood as “eternal lives” [59]—as participation in a collaborative coterie of beings perpetually reaching for, constructing, and performing acts of communion and shared experience? Or if we considered the truth less as something to possess and more as a process of experiencing the unfolding relationship of all things as they’re given in the present moment, were given in past moments, and will be given in future moments? Or if we were less concerned with putting on perfection and gave ourselves the right to be chaos? Or if we viewed existence and the acts of language as being less about making meaning than reaching to be with each other in meaningful, productive, redemptive ways?

If the Gods’ hands are extended, palms eternally supine, what might it look like for a Mormon writer to reach back?



[1] Harrell 72.
[2] 71.
[3] .
[4] Harrell 116.
[5] 71.
[6] ix; emphasis added.
[7] 146; emphasis added.
[8] 17; emphasis added.
[9] 113, 114, 116; emphasis added.
[10] 57; emphasis added.
[11] 116.
[12] 61.
[13] “Logos.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. See also Harrell 116.
[14] Harrell 126.
[15] Jack Harrell, Boyd Peterson, Eric Samuelson, and Darlene Young (perfs). “Authorcast #29: Writing Ourselves Live Event at Writ & Vision.” Greg Kofford Books–Authorcast. 15 July 2016. Accessed via iTunes.
[16] Harrell 108.
[17] 22.
[18] 70.
[19] 87.
[20] 104.
[21] 142.
[22] 61.
[23] 32.
[24] 97.
[25] 112; emphasis in original.
[26] 112.
[27] 126.
[28] BYU Studies Quarterly (2014): 7–35.
[29] Harrell 46.
[30] 116.
[31] 34.
[32] 35–6; emphasis added.
[33] 18.
[34] 90.
[35] D&.
[36] Harrell 48.
[37] 33.
[38] Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), (Kindle file) loc 193.
[39] See Alma .
[40] The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918. Ed. Felix Klee (Berkeley: U of California P, 1964), 176.
[41] Harrell 140.
[42] 144.
[43] “chrono-,” Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com.
[44] See D&; D&; Abraham .
[45] Moses .
[46] Moses .
[47] Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford UP, 2015), 87.
[48] Moses .
[49] David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 35.
[50] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 1957), 1.
[51] 2.
[52] Harrell 71.
[53] Moses , .
[54] Fiona Givens, “‘The Perfect Union of Man and Woman’: Reclamation and Collaboration in Joseph Smith’s Theology Making,” Dialogue (2016): 2.
[55] 1.
[56] Eugene England, “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” eugeneengland.org, Eugene England Foundation (2010), (PDF) 6.
[57] D&.
[58] 3 Nephi .
[59] D&.

2 Thoughts on “Harrell, “Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism” (reviewed by Tyler Chadwick) (revised review)

  1. Colin Douglas on August 9, 2016 at 7:35 pm said:

    I think that this
    and this
    and this
    are relevant to this conversation. I don’t know yet how to “prove” it rationally, but language—symbolism, symbolic process both holistic and analytic—I think must be an inherent aspect of the radically free, eternally self-creating Absolute (I think Joseph Smith called it “That which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth” in D&C 93) of which God and the lesser intelligences are manifestations; that Schelling and Coleridge were onto something in identifying the human creative process, which is a symbolic process, with the Divine creative process; that from different directions, using different vocabularies, we are approaching something very important here–the metaphysical grounding of a comprehensive Restorationist philosophy of art and a practical criticism based on it. I must say that I am uncomfortable with language to the effect that God “imposes” order; I would say rather that he “calls forth” order from what is radically, inherently free (as Coleridge puts it, freedom [agency] is not the conclusion of philosophy, it is the beginning).

  2. Brilliant essay, Tyler, and beautiful response, Colin. I’ve kind of gently avoided Harrell’s book–resisted it–because I feared any “Mormon theory of creativity” would be prescriptive rather than provide the “metaphysical grounding” Colin describes. Thanks for responding so fully to Harrell, and thanks for articulating so beautifully what we need.

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