Thursday, May 1, 2014

That Keynote Address

LDS JPEGS-406
Photo by Erin Summerill
- a post by Jeanna Mason Stay


(And yes, this post is long, but not as long as the keynote itself.)

If you attended the LDStorymakers conference last weekend, follow the hashtag #Storymakers14, or are just friends with someone from Storymakers, you probably already heard about Orson Scott Card’s keynote address. If not, let’s just call it “controversial.” The variety of reactions to his address was interesting—some people were amused, some massively offended, and some scratching their heads. Me, I was mostly amused and found plenty of food for thought. So let me share some food.

First of all, Card and his writing: His fiction is wonderful. That is not to say that I love all his books (I don’t). But I love the complexity of his stories and his characters. Many of his books are what I consider highly moral (not “clean”—just books that make me want to be better).

In his other writing, he is not someone you could call diplomatic. I often read his Uncle Orson Reviews Everything column. His opinions are . . . strong, shall we say? He tends to offend. With gusto. I don’t know why, and I don’t find it useful to my life to waste time and energy in judging his personality. Plus, I don’t think he’d care. I usually just say, “Hey, that’s his decision. My judgment is irrelevant.”

So, knowing his tendencies, I knew we were in for a ride with his keynote address. I was curious to see how much—or if—he would tone it down for this audience (he didn’t). And I decided to be amused, not to be offended, and to learn whatever he had to share, no matter how impolitely he couched it.


Inspiration

Card is strongly against claiming inspiration from God for your writing. As with most of his views in the address, I both partially agreed and partially disagreed. On the one hand, there have been some occasions when I felt strongly that I needed to try to write a specific thing, and there have been times when I found my mind opened up better than it I could have imagined on my own. On the other hand, I am imperfect, and no matter how inspired I feel, my writing will fall short of perfection. So Card says this: Don’t be the reason someone questions their faith. Don’t give people room to say, “Is that story the best God can do?”

Card stated, and I tend to agree, that when writing is truly inspired, you don’t have to preface it with, “I felt inspired to write this.” It comes through.


Our Relationship to the Church

This is going to sound ridiculous, but it had never really occurred to me until Card talked about it: the reason I didn’t fit in as a youth in the Church was that I was highly intellectual (academic, thought-focused rather than action-focused), quite verbal, and introverted. I always just thought it was because I was shy, spazzy, not girly, and poor (relative to my much richer neighborhood). Somehow I like Card’s description better. :) And essentially he claimed that the Church doesn’t know what to do with people like this. From my personal experience and the experiences of youth I have worked with, I think this might often be true.

This is not a critique of the gospel, by the way (although, admittedly, when Card said it, it felt attacking—but so did everything else; get over it). I do not doubt that God has a place (in heaven) for the introverts of the world, the terrible leaders, those who hate making phone calls and struggle with visiting teaching. But I do think that place is much harder to find (on earth) in a sea of tasks that really fit the extroverts. That is why he said to come set up chairs, take them down, do the jobs that no one wants—because even though they’re not glamorous, they’re important too (plus, you don’t have to talk as much!). That way, you have a place.

While many of the night’s tweets complained that Card was being a snob in this portion of the address, considering himself above the nonintellectual folk of the Church, I think they really missed the point. (Sorry, ladies and gents.) He wasn’t saying that the “intellectual” members are better than the physical folk, the extroverts, the less educated—simply that they are different. I think he honestly meant it when he said to treasure your friendships with them. It’s important not to isolate yourself in a world (i.e., your head) that doesn’t look like the rest of humanity.


Decorum

Okay, people, how is it not funny that in an address about decorum, Card used the words “defecation” and “urination” repeatedly? Come on, that was funny, admit it. Partially because it was so very indecorous, partially because I sometimes have the sense of humor of a sixth grader, and partially because—honestly—they’re just scientific words for things we all do. Why is that offensive?

But the point was, of course, that just as you don’t have to write those events into your book even though they surely happen, you don’t have to write in the sex and swearing. You choose the level you think you need to write in, and that’s what you do. (Note, of course, that Card’s level of comfort with writing some of these things is different from mine, or from yours, or from anyone else’s.)

Finally: the amusement of Card telling an audience (the bulk of whom are Mormons he has just offended) that no matter what you write or how you write, you will at some point offend a Mormon. Well played, Card. Well played.

Failure and Success

Now we come to the portion of the address that almost everybody was on board with—what it means to be a failure or a success. Your marriage, your kids, your relationship with God—these are more important than being a good writer. Being a good Mormon is more important than being a good writer. He quoted President McKay, “No success can compensate for failure in the home,” saying that failure is not being there, not being part of your family’s lives. It made me look forward to flying home and giving them all a big hug and doing better.

In the end, even if every other word of his address was offensive to someone who was listening (and that would be a shame, because that person would have missed out), this reminder should have overridden it all. Being a good writer is not success. Being a good person is.*

So what do you all think?

*I’m not particularly interested in quibbling over whether Card himself is a good example of this notion. I think he’s a wonderful writer and a complex person. And I think I will choose not to judge him as a person.

28 comments:

  1. Jeanna, I think you took a very wise approach to being an audience member! Sounds like he was very interesting. I have been fortunate to be around many very intelligent people in the church. As a youth, I was surrounded by others who, for the most part, were extremely creative and bright. I do know several people (mostly sisters) who have struggled with feeling like they had a place in the church because of their intellectualism. While I have faced some of that (I remember some remarkably disappointing Relief Society “book club” meetings in the past) when I encounter it I always try to focus on the things I can learn from those around me. I had one friend who was a great example to my sometimes paralyzingly perfectionist self that it’s okay to just shrug and let things go sometimes. Her house was always a mess but she didn’t stress over it- she would have much rather been outside playing with her kids. I’ve had other women teach me the power of a positive attitude, and still others bless me with their pure testimonies. I believe, just as you said, that judgment is not ours to make, and that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I have found that when I choose to focus on strengths, I am blessed with great friendships. :-)

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  2. Amen to the final sentence. WhatEVER we do in life, if we have no integrity, no kindess...nothing else matters.

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    1. Yes, a good thing to remember when goals and aspirations are not going the way we want them to. The bigger question is who are we as people.

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  3. OHh i liked this! It helped me understand what you were telling me about this address much better. And I honestly think I would have loved to sit in on this....sometimes I like seeing people get offended just because it's interesting. That's so rude of me!

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    1. Ha ha! I confess, I also sometimes find it interesting just to watch these reactions. :)

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  4. Thanks for sharing this, Jeanna. I found the tweets riveting, so it's nice to see another perspective. I've read many of Card's books and liked some and not others. I find his endings consistently unsatisfying, which is sort of a deal breaker for me, so I stopped reading him maybe six or seven years ago. I don't miss it. However, my dad and a few of my siblings are Card fanatics, and my dad forwards every single Uncle Orson review to the family. Every. One.

    What I find interesting about his anti-intellectual rant is that he assumes all intellectuals must share characteristics, like being introverted and having an aversion to the typical church/mutual activities. But that's simply untrue. Intellectuals--like members--come in all shapes and sizes. I know geniuses (admitted into high IQ societies one and two levels, respectively, above Mensa) who love the outdoors and have never missed a game of church ball. I wasn't there, so I'm undoubtedly focusing on the wrong point, but I would think an intellectual would know better than to include such a sweeping generalization... ;)

    I'm glad that you got so much out of his address. I think you had the right attitude in listening to him and it looks like you got a lot of great takeaways from which we can all benefit. Thanks for sharing them!

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    1. Okay, yikes. Getting every Uncle Orson review forwarded to you? ... Fun times! :)

      You're right, of course, about intellectuals not all coming in the same shape and size--good point. My experience from growing up is also undoubtedly very different from some, and I share a fair amount of blame in feeling out of place in my ward (because, hey, I don't like to admit it, but I really was pretty much a spaz). I was glad, though, to have other things that grounded me there (like, you know, the gospel), because the youth program wouldn't have done it by itself. And I think that was his concern--that there are others like me who will feel marginalized and may not have enough grounding in the gospel to stick around when they feel out of place.

      Thanks for giving me even more food for thought!

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  5. Thanks so much for writing about this! Well said, Jeanna. I was there, and I chose to kind of disassociate from it all and watch everyone else's reactions. That was fascinating. He definitely polarized the audience, whether or not that was his intent. I, for one, feel like I paid good money to hear him speak about writing, which he did only marginally. He did share one gem, though, that I will always remember, and I wish I could remember it word for word: it was something like: "As LDS writers, you can't just take out the sex and bad language and call it good. You have to write better than everyone else."

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    1. I believe his sentence was "Mormons need to be better writers because they can't rely on sex and bad words".
      His opinion about the present tense was right on.

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    2. I agree that's probably a fair critique about the keynote--that it didn't talk much about writing. I think I came into it not expecting it to be directly about writing, because most of my (limited) experience with keynotes at writing conferences has been that they're mostly motivational, not specifically about how to write better. And for me, there were at least a few things that made me think about my relationship to my writing, how I write, and such. But I do see why it would be disappointing to not hear more about writing itself. I hadn't looked at it that way, so thanks!

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    3. This is fascinating... I wasn't there and didn't realize it had been so controversial. What was his opinion on present tense?

      Heidi

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  6. I agree with jmoesser. People who liked the keynote keep saying that people who didn't like it were offended. Like somehow Card hurt everyone's sensibilities but their's. Most people I spoke to weren't offended. They just thought it was an odd keynote for a writing conference. First, people paid money to hear an author speak about being an author. Second, the conference paid the author quite a bit of money to come speak about writing. You can be prickly, or opinionated. There is nothing wrong with that at all. Most writers do have pretty strong opinions. But if you're being paid to talk about writing, talk about writing.

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    1. I'm pleased to hear that most of the people you talked to weren't offended, actually. I didn't discuss it with lots of people, but many of them were, and so I'm glad to hear the other side of the story (even though it was also unsatisfactory to these people--just for other reasons). I replied to jmoesser above, and I appreciate the comments expressing that very reasonable frustration.

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    2. Yes, Jeff Savage, I agree completely! We wanted to be motivated as writers. Why the focus on Mormons, it was a writers conference. I'm sure the non-Mormons there were shaking their heads more than we were.

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    3. I wasn't offended in the least. I was, however, disappointed. Card had a golden opportunity to teach us something about writing, to motivate us, to inspire us. Instead, he was all over the place in an address he admitted he wrote not long before stepping up to the podium. That's not what we were hoping for. That's not what we are used to from the keynote at Storymakers. The cardinal rule of writing (and speaking) is "Know your audience." It's the one rule you can never, ever get away with breaking, or else the consequences will be akin to what we witnessed in the aftermath of Card's keynote. He was capable of so much better than what he gave us. And that's where I will leave it.

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  7. I wasn't offended just incredibly bored. Some of his tangents went on way too long. It also doesn't gel with my experience in the church. An introvert and intellectual are not the same thing and I think introverts would struggle in any group setting but many have found a way to flourish and reach those introverts.
    But intellectuals is a different debate. This is after all the church that created a Neal A Maxwell and a David A Bednar. We also have 3 universities which is a lot for a church of our size. I just don't see how we are discouraging boys from reading or being intellectual just because of scouts and basketball.
    Anyway, I had been in class for 12 hours and was tired. I just wanted to be entertained not challenged. I wanted to hear a pep talk and most of his speech was really boring. At least twitter was entertaining.
    That said, I tried to take some things away from it and it did not color my view of the conference.

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    1. Yes, this...EXACTLY! Why didn't he know his audience and know his setting??? If he needed to vent couldn't he just write a blog post or something?

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  8. I liked hearing your perspective on his talk. I think I was lucky as a youth that I was in a ward with several university professors, and all my friends were incredibly smart--so I never felt out of place because of that. I think the part of his talk I found most offensive (and one that, interestingly enough, you don't mention) was his charges against academics--that they are essentially out to poison the religious beliefs of our youth. And I probably found it offensive because it was so personal to me. As someone pretty deeply mired in academia (married to a professor, the child of a professor, and a PhD myself), that has not been my experience at all. I know there are professors out there like that, but most of my colleagues are respectful of students beliefs, and the vast majority of my graduate faculty, who knew I was LDS, were nothing but supportive of me. So there's that. :)

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    1. Thanks for your perspective. It's been so good to hear all the differing views on the speech. If nothing else, we can certainly say it was a conversation generator! :)

      I found that I was already getting very long winded, so I skipped the academic portion. In my personal life, I've been very supported in academic pursuits + religion, but in the world at large I have definitely felt more in line with what Card said--that much of academia doesn't support having religious beliefs. I'm glad the experience has been different for you.

      Thanks for popping in with your thoughts!

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  9. Loved hearing your take on this. I wasn't offended and I walked away with a lot of gems. I worried for the non-LDS in the group who had to have been thinking "what the heck?" But I did think it was funny that he talked about not going into the bathroom with your characters when in Lost Gate he did exactly that. But I enjoyed the keynote for what it was and enjoyed talking to Scott afterwards and the next day. I agree with him about being the person to put away the chairs. I work hard to instill that kind of service in my kids--to be the people who come early and stay late and who help things get done without complaint. Though I honestly will never join ward choir--I respect other people too much to torture them in such a way . . . :)

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    1. Funny about Lost Gate. I didn't remember that scene, but I don't remember much of that book (it was one that I didn't like particularly; the only part I really actively do remember is the part that turned me off of it). And I agree--putting away chairs! Win! :)

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  10. Great write up. I too chose to enjoy it and pull out the good things that I could use. It's a shame that we often forget no one really fits into the "molds" we try to lump people. I'm a writer and I'm also very social. I love both parts of my personality. And I still help set up chairs because it's the responsible thing to do. LOL.

    I've enjoyed Card's writing for most of my life and will continue to do so. In a way, the way he spoke was pretty much what I expected from him. Perhaps that's why I could enjoy it?

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    1. Yes, I agree. I think for some of us who knew a fair amount of Card's writing, we already knew to expect that he was going to offer unpopular opinions in unpopular ways. So we could just roll with it.

      And I think we should all set up a chair-setting-up club! :)

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