(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.
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.
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.