Here’s the thing about fiction: whether you are reading it or writing it, it blasts you out of this world into another one, and you can’t remain convinced, once you’ve encountered that, that any world is the one true thing. I wonder, incidentally, what “the thing about music” is, or “the thing about dance.” They have to do respectively with time and movement, I know that, but because I don’t compose either of those art forms, I’m not sure they do what fiction (reading or writing) does to me, which is this: It makes me pretty sure there’s no “one true” anything.
Now, I’m also convinced that dream and memory are related. Both sets of images occur in the same deep crevices of my mind and brain, where they draw on input from my senses as well as from my emotional states to manifest experiences unlike anything I’ve ever done in waking life but that feel like truth. When I was studying energy and consciousness for personal growth, I was told, “you co-create your own reality.” It meant, nothing that happens to you comes solely from outside. As within, so without. You are certainly not a merely internal flux. Not while you’re on this planet, not while you’re in this sphere of existence. The outside and the inside together constitute “the real.”
Owen Barfield, a lesser-known but hardly lesser-brilliant Inkling whose influence on C.S. Lewis is only beginning to be acknowledged (see, for example, Thorson), writes in his illuminating philosophical novel Unancestral Voice that “the interior is anterior” (p. 11 and throughout). Now, Barfield’s signature concept is the evolution of consciousness. A student of Rudolf Steiner, Barfield wrote extensively and beautifully that the unfolding of human history, including our language, demonstrates an arc away from what he called “participation,” by which he meant a unified state of reciprocal being and doing taking place always and at once between humans and nature, each other, matter, and the immaterial. All that is in earth once “participated” together, but the history of language itself shows how starkly it has separated, and how profoundly we are reaching, reaching, toward what Barfield terms “final participation,” that is, consciously-chosen reciprocal doing and being — in short, redemption.
I have translated Barfield’s rich philosophy into Mormon notions of the Fall, and have traced similarities between his joyful discussions of the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation and Mormon concepts of “godbodiedness” and atonement. I bring all this up only to suggest that when Barfield says “the interior is anterior,” he means (as I do) that dreams and memory are not separate from, but anterior — previous, in both space and time — to our commonly experienced, scientifically quantified, “separated” reality. In “real” reality, what is in our minds and what is outside them have a delicate reciprocal relationship. Wisdom acknowledges, cultivates, seeks to nurture this relationship, to reap good fruit from and with it. “Participation” is as much the fiction writer’s aim as “co-creation.” Memory, dream, and reality co-create each other. Literature — fiction — has an indispensable place in this process.
In case it’s not obvious where I’m going with this, let me try to say it plainly: fiction is a manifestation, and a furthering, of mind. It both reflects and hastens the evolution of consciousness. Everyone knows John Gardner’s equation: a novel is a vivid and continuous dream. Whatever interrupts that dream is best edited out of the novel’s drafts. (The power of editing to create both a better draft and a better writer is a truth universally acknowledged, I know. Maybe I’ll write more about that here in the future.) Jonathan Langford said at A Motley Vision in a comment to Sarah Dunster that “the way [to fiction that is unapologetically LDS, yet available to a general audience] will be shown less by manifesto and more by individual Mormon artists doing what comes naturally to them as they honor both their art and their Mormonism” (August 1, 2016). Now, occasionally in my fiction workshops (and nonfiction too) I require students to compose their personal writing manifestos, because I think becoming conscious of their motives and first principles can directly positively affect their work. But I like Langford’s point. Manifesto is not mandate, or shouldn’t be. And fiction by or about Mormons that expands human consciousness will not come about by mandate but by our manifesting, through language, the possibilities in our dreams and memories, the realities of our minds.
I need others’ minds in my life: Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which embeds me in a family of artists I want to know, siblings and parents who love each other and judge the world wryly against their own ironic visions as I’d like to think I could do, given the company. Alan Garner’s Red Shift, in which I have to piece together retroactively, from fragmented scenes of mystery, loss, and desire, the connections between three wildly various worlds, just as I must piece together fragments of my own. Harry Potter — who hasn’t marveled at Rowling’s world, as complete in its astonishing way as Middle Earth? Steven Peck’s wild alternative Mormon futures. Yours.
Well, and while we’re talking like this, let’s admit it’s not just fiction that performs this magic. Leaving poetry aside for the moment, let’s consider such nonfiction as Walter Wink’s interpretations of Jesus’s teachings, which enlarge my sense of what Jesus was all about as much as, and in some cases more than, Deseret Book homilies. My teacher Lansing Barrett Gresham’s reality, where energy is palpable through muscle and movement, so that mental states and physical wellness can be traced and changed in and through each other, makes as much sense to me as any pharmaceutical explanation of human health. Why not? Their saying so is not a mandate. You don’t have to believe it. To say a book is “true” is an odd comment, imho. You and I know: “truth” isn’t “fact.” The song says it’s “the sum of existence,” and you who read and write fiction know, by your dreams and memories, that that sum has hardly been reached. What we read, and also, at its best, what we write, swells the world, swells the bounds of evolving human consciousness, swells the capacities of the brain and mind. “Reality” is co-created. Enlarged. Made more true.
Because Mormon culture makes an idol of “the truth,” “the one true thing,” “the most true book,” I think those of us who write fiction do need to manifest our conviction of its limitless value in the ever-expanding evolution of human consciousness, even if we don’t make manifestos about it. I confess I’ve never had much trouble with the thought that the scriptures are human-made. The idea doesn’t threaten me in the least. They were (are) written, by someone(s) who knew language devices: ellipsis and image, syntax and symbol, juxtaposition and plot. Language is our gift, one of the (if not the) most astonishing gifts to humans, a medium in which to embody realities behind and beneath the “real.” There’s enormous value, imho, in thinking of scripture in the same way I think of all literature, whether as reader or writer: consciously composed, linguistically-aware stories that blast apart the potential complacency of this separated, scientific world. If I let scripture or fiction work on me with an open heart, my reality can be changed. I want this — I need it — in my ever-evolving life.
So maybe this is a bit of a manifesto for today: It is needed that we makers of Mormon fiction manifest the widest possible range of potentiality in this, our astonishing anterior-interior world. Our participation is needed in the activity of crafting novels, plays, stories, performances on the stage or in the mind. It is needed that we co-create: New wisdoms. New experiences. Knowledge. Truth.
Let’s all keep writing.