Review of Jack Harrell, Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things…come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. – Norman Maclean 
Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It (and the Robert Redford film inspired by it) is a fine example of uncovering the sacred in the mundane and the profundity of a craft or task. Though there is much more to the memoir than this, the idea that one’s craft can become pregnant with such meaning is an important takeaway. Early on, Maclean explains the tedious labor of learning the purely functional elements of fly fishing: “So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome.” It was a craft that must be done with great care. “If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” It was part of the Maclean boys’ “religious training” to never be late for “church, work, and fishing.” These three all operated under the same metaphysical assumptions, the same religious framework. It was through fly fishing that Maclean’s alcoholic and gambler brother Paul (played by Brad Pitt in the film) became his best self. While witnessing “the last fish we would ever see Paul catch,” the Maclean brothers’ father simply states, “He is beautiful.” The struggle with the enormous trout transformed Paul. He was the very messiness of humanity endowed with divinity; “a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter.” He was, in the words of his father, “a fine fisherman.” Through his art, grace was made manifest.
Art takes time, patience, discipline, and practice. According to Maclean’s father, fishing is “an art performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.” While Maclean’s father may not have “believed God was a mathematician…he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty.” These rhythms seemingly pulsate throughout all of Creation, indicating that the creative process of “Let there be…” is still ongoing. As young boys, the Maclean brothers often had to cite the first question in The Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” In the Maclean family, art (specifically fishing) was the means of “gloriy[ing] God” and “enjoy[ing] Him.” And sometimes, it was even the portal through which they witnessed perfection.
Maclean’s ability to see and experience divinity within the craft left a lasting impression on me. The vulnerability, the familial love (and its accompanying grief), the elevation of the ordinary, and the subtle immanence in Maclean’s writing resonated with me as a Mormon who embraces eternal families along with what Terryl Givens calls “the collapse of sacred distance.” I had similar stirrings reading one of the latest releases from Greg Kofford Books: Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism by Jack Harrell. As one who does not consider himself a creative writer (at least not a fiction writer), I was a bit hesitant to attempt a review of a book almost entirely dedicated to the art of writing. Yet, as I made my way from essay to essay, it became clear to me that Harrell was not merely talking about writing, but was describing the essence of Creation itself. In short, Harrell is discussing what has become known as the “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1 to become co-creators with God. And this in turn is about transformation and new creation; the first steps of eternal progression (at least from a Mormon perspective). As Harrell explains in the touching first essay, “…I’ve learned that God is with us in every desire to improve. Anyplace can be a starting place with him…Whatever we make of ourselves, whatever circumstances we come to, God can turn it to good.” He imagines God saying, “Now is a good time…This is a good place to begin” (pg. 5). For me, the essays are connected by two major strands of thought: a Mormon theology of creativity and the meaning and morals of the work itself.
Part of understanding what it is to be both created and a creator requires knowing what the creative process looks like. Harrell tackles this subject in a simple, but illuminating way by laying out five steps: (1) conception (the idea), (2) complication, (3) the wall, (4) the breakthrough, and (5) the final product. The “idea comes in its beautiful robes of possibility, rich with potential, free of disappointment.” This is an “intoxicating and enthralling” stage of development (pg. 9). But things become complicated when we become aware of “our limited capabilities and resources. Ideals mingle with the world and things get messy” (pg. 10). When we hit a wall, it seems like “giving up seems like the only option. If the complication stage is like the shift from sweet infant to headstrong two-year-old, the wall is like having a teenager” (pg. 11). But as we have a breakthrough and make our way to the final product, we realize that “this stage is better because it’s real. It’s idea mingled with reality, and if the work is really good, it’s ideal in reality” (pg. 13). Implicit in this description is the notion that—to borrow from the musical Hamilton—“every action’s an act of creation.” As new ideas come so do new connections, new problems, new solutions, new outcomes, and, eventually, a new world. Creativity wades into the unknown because the creative act “is not duplication or repetition” according to Harrell. “Creativity is about doing things that haven’t been done before. The best creative work is awash with uncertainty. The creative person does not know if, when, or how the solutions will come, but must seek and believe nonetheless. Thus the creative endeavor is an act of faith. The only alternative to this faith is giving up…Ironically, it’s giving up that is the path of certainty. If you give up, you turn your back on possibilities; you accept the certainty of failure. Belief, on the other hand, brings the uncertainty of possibility” (pg. 12-13). This view of creativity–vulnerability, risk, faith, “wonder, not certainty” (pg. 53)–breathes new life into the following from the Lectures on Faith:
[T]he principle of power, which existed in the bosom of God, by which the worlds were framed, was faith…Had it not been for the principle of faith the worlds would never have been framed…it is the principle by which Jehovah works, and through which he exercises power over all temporal, as well as eternal things. Take this principle or attribute, (for it is an attribute) from the Deity and he would cease to exist.
Mormon cosmology can and should mean that “Mormons see the world differently than others” (particularly other Christians) and therefore “read…differently as well” (pg. 112). This means that their approach to and interpretation of creation might be slightly different as well. “The Mormon Creator-God is no magician pulling rabbits out of empty hats,” declares Harrell. “Instead, he takes unorganized matter, which pre-exists his status as a God, and organizes it into worlds.” This means that for the Mormon, to create is to follow God into a “corner of perilous chaos and creat[e] something from raw materials there. This is what God does; this is who he is. God is literally logos, meaning” (pg. 69). It is not an attempt to match a material crudity with its Platonic form. It is the organization and reorganization of chaos into something that is literally new. The paradoxes of the Mormon universe seem to buck against the idea of the immutable state of Being in classical theism. This leads Harrell to ask, “What if existence—raw, unorganized, elemental existence—is existentially absurd just as the postmodernists have said? What if the native condition of all things is devoid of meaning? What if the bowels of hell—the center of each black hole—contain only chaos?” (pg. 70.) The work of the Mormon writer is to order this chaos; to give it function and meaning. Yet, too often Mormon writers (and likely Mormons in general) “tend to slip into the universe of traditional Christianity”: a “perfectly-ordered and pre-determined universe, ruled by an absolute and omniscient God…” But “what kind of epiphanies are available” in such a universe? “Only revelations of what already is or will be—what is already known by someone, even if that someone is God. There are no surprises for an absolute and omniscient God. Nothing can be new” (pg. 66). For Harrell, this “resembles Lucifer in the pre-mortal council where he presented his plan: the way to salvation would be made clear and mandatory; none would be lost. But God knew better, understanding that great souls cannot be forged without adversity and risk. Art is the same way. Where is it without risk? Where is literature without uncertainty? Where is the meaningful when all things are sure?” (pg. 67.) This is why Harrell calls for a Mormon literary theory that is “grounded in Mormon cosmology; a theory 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…” (pg. 112). Yet, this list can be broadened to include all forms of creativity, which brings me to my next point.
The Work Itself
In his review of the creative process mentioned above, Harrell refers not to writing, but the designing and building of a stereo cabinet. This recognition of creativity in all forms of endeavors is important. By doing so he doesn’t privilege his own craft as the One True Art, but instead invites all to be creative in their respective fields while focusing on his own. In an excellent insight, he notes that “the “magic” of good writing is probably no different than the magic of good quilting or running a small business; and that sometimes meeting just one writer is enough to disabuse a person of the notion that writers are interesting people” (pg. 48). His advice to writers is largely applicable to those who are not: (1) make time to write, (2) be authentic, (3) strive for the philosophical, and (4) embrace the difficulties. One must practice and make diligent efforts. Harrell points to research that finds successful creators are the ones with the most attempts. One should pour themselves into the work, leaving a personal imprint on it. One should think deeply about the meaning and nature of their work and the impact it has on themselves and others. Finally, difficulties provide opportunities to learn, to expand, to seek revelation, and create new avenues. They invite us to “humble ourselves before God, the universe, and others to ask the best questions we can, seeking the best answers” (pg. 43).
Writing (or any type of work) also has a moral component. In describing writers of the 20th century, Harrell laments their responses “to technology, urbanization, and the modern bent toward world war” and their turn “to absurdity and alienation, abstraction and distortion, questioning the most basic elements of fiction—including the relationship between the reader and the story” (pg. 19). Yet, as critics of modern art such as philosopher Roger Scruton have observed, the “cult of ugliness” and “cult of utility” unite beyond the arts. Scruton explains,
At the turn of the 20th century architects, like artists, began to be impatient with beauty and to put utility in its place. The American architect Louis Sullivan expressed the credo of the modernists when he said that form follows function. In other words, stop thinking about the way a building looks and think instead about what it does. Sullivan’s doctrine has been used to justify the greatest crime against beauty that the world has yet seen and that is the crime of modern architecture…Here in the centre [of Reading] the homely streets were demolished to make way for office blocks, a bus station and car parks – all designed without consideration for beauty. And the result proves, as clearly as can be, that if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless…This building is boarded up because no one has a use for it. Nobody has a use for it because nobody wants to be in it. Nobody wants to be in it because the thing is so damned ugly.
This indicates that craftsmanship beyond the arts is in need of redemption. To perform one’s craft well is to choose not wallow in the ugliness, but to also be willing to confront it. For example, Harrell writes against the “dehumanizing effect” of gratuitous violence in modern horror films in which “human life has been reduced to its most materialistic level” (pg. 20). Yet, he knows that when one writes, one is “capturing those beautiful and tragic moments that make life meaningful” (pg. 45). These tragic moments sometimes involve ugliness. But in writing Harrell seeks to redeem these moments:
This is not just a smoothing over, a cleaning up of ugly reality–the way we write obituaries or the way some people keep journals, telling only the good stuff. This is redemption–fall and atonement. When such stories resonate with readers, they find catharsis, redemption. What was once base and toxic in experience comes to serve a higher purpose: the weight of the conflict brings gravity to the subsequent redemption. In Mormonism, the Atonement of Christ is the central act of our existence, an act that offers salvation and exaltation to the entire human family. In small ways, then, literature can also atone, can close the emptiness between us.
This is why “good literature,” in Harrell’s words, “is truthful about the nature of existence and the complexities of human relationships; good literature requires skillful and artistic uses of language, beyond the mere utilitarian; and good literature involves conflict, tension, evidence of the push and pull between individuals and human entities. By contrast, propaganda—material that advocates a particular doctrine or cause—is one-sided and, therefore, can lack the necessary conflict inherent in good literature” (pg. 59). Ultimately, the goal of writing–and arguably of any craft–is “communication, connection, and maybe even a bit of documentation” (pg. 46). As C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) says at the end of the film Shadowlands, “We read to know we’re not alone.” Perhaps we write to let others know they’re not. Perhaps we work, in part, to connect.
There is much more in Jack Harrell’s book that I have not touched on: the place of violence in literature, authenticity, the agenticity of imaginary characters, the euphoria of peak performance, etc. But the themes above struck me the most. Harrell’s way of weaving together tales from his childhood, reflections on Mormon theology, and writing insights as an expert craftsman calls for contemplation. It is a meditation on ordinary life; an invitation to construct meaning out of life’s chaos and disorder and put it into words. It encourages readers to be creative in their ventures, to become co-creators with God, and to transform this world for the better. It encourages them, much like the Maclean boys, to “glorify God, and to enjoy him” in their craft. But most of all, it encourages them to write about it. Readers will find themselves exploring old feelings and new thoughts. Even better, they may find themselves putting pen to paper soon after.
- Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, 25th Anniversary Edition(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 4.
- Ibid., 2-3.
- Ibid., 34.
- Ibid., 100. According to Maclean, his father, “unlike many Presbyterians…often used the word “beautiful”” (pg. 2).
- Ibid., 101.
- Ibid., 2.
- See an extended discussion of this concept (even though the phrase itself is absent) in J. Richard Middleton, “Image of God,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, 2, ed. by Samuel E. Ballentine et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6-8 (online version).
- Science writer Matt Ridley refers to this as “ideas having sex.” See The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
- This is actually how the intended audience of Genesis would have understood the opening chapter. See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009).
- For a more thorough exploration of Scruton’s thoughts on this matter, see his Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Management legend Peter Drucker described “the work bond” as “the most powerful human bond” next to “the tie of family.” Quoted in Karen E. Linkletter, Joseph A. Maciariello, “Genealogy of a Social Ecologist,” Journal of Management History 15:4 (2009): 339.
- You’ll get the Euphoria reference when you read his essay “A Hicksville Success.”