Faith and Inspiration

I have taught some unimaginably good writers—though I’ll probably have to revise that modifier (“unimaginably”) at the end of this essay. I have taught poets who had far greater gifts than I, essayists who invited me into new paradigms or experiences, and fiction writers who took me on unanticipated journeys.

This past semester, I taught a young man who I also knew as a missionary. He was in the MTC branch my husband and I served in two years ago. He went to Africa, and I wrote to him (and to several others) while he served.

Though my letters to the other missionaries were primarily faith-building, my letters to him were often pure fiction. He knew that every fictional claim I made required him to match or beat it—and it made p-day extra fun for him. (That was my intent, of course). We had an ongoing story about his chimpanzee companion, Mr. Stompsalot, and I reported on the missionary project which was abandoned in 1973. The MMP (Monkey Missionary Program) trained chimps in the various discussions, which were scripted and memorized at the time. However, if the investigator gave an off-script answer, the monkeys reacted unpredictably, and sometimes violently. Of course, the program was dropped—immediately after one of the chimps threw a pitcher of water at an Argentine ambassador who said, “What’s in it for me?” rather than “You mean there was a pre-existence?”

And thus we played with elements of IMAGINATION throughout his mission.

Of course, my letters to him were not exclusively fiction. There were some serious, maternal ones as he faced the challenges most missionaries face, and some challenges unique to those serving in Africa. In these exchanges, I soon saw that this imaginative young man also had remarkable spiritual gifts: faith and healing. He reported some miracles I’ll allude to only vaguely here, and described them as “cool.” I contemplated his spiritual gifts as extensions of his imagination—meaning that because he was capable of imagining all sorts of possibilities, he did not limit his faith to what might be “reasonably expected.” Could he lay his hands on somebody’s head and, by virtue of the priesthood and faith, heal him when the doctors had pronounced the case hopeless?

Yes. He could. He did.

In 1 Nephi 11, Nephi wants to understand his father’s dream, and is provided the ultimate instructor: the Spirit of the Lord. Before any teaching can happen, however, Nephi must declare his “willing suspension of disbelief.” (That’s Coleridge. The scriptures [1 Nephi 11: 4-5] state that Nephi is asked if he believes his father’s words, and answers “Thou knowest I believe…”). No unfolding of the plot can happen unless the seeker (or reader) first believes.

We can come up with all sorts of scriptural examples of disbelief stopping the plot of a miracle, and of belief unfolding wonders.

Peter, do you believe you can walk on water?
Blind man, wilt thou be made whole?
Peter, whom say ye that I am?

As this young man became my student, I trained him in some of the elements of fiction, all of which require a fertile imagination and a generous, loving heart. Yes, I believe that love is a part of good writing just as it is the FOUNDATION of faith. (Faith, says Paul in Galatians 5:6, “worketh by love.”)

A good writer must love her characters and honor their complexity and quirks. She must love words and images, her tools. She must love writing itself, because she will be required to re-write and re-write if she is ever to become good.

I demanded a lot of my RM student. I had FAITH in his ability to create excellent writing. I insisted on revisions and never let him get away with coasting through an assignment. I believed in him far too much to do him such a disservice.

By the end of the semester, I knew not only this young man, but all of my students pretty well. I loved them, and I wanted them to love each other. I wanted them to feel that we were a family, exploring a brave new world and reporting our findings, continually surprised by joy. I demanded that they look at their surroundings more carefully, and often opened class with the question, “What have you seen with your poetic eyes?”

I wanted them to find mentors among the fine writers in the established canon and in contemporary literature. I also frequently asked, “Who have you fallen in love with lately?”—referring to the authors just waiting to be given a chance, a first date, maybe even a little NCMO session (which is only a problem if you leave lipstick stains on the pages).

In the fiction unit, I asked relentlessly “Why should I care?” as I urged my students to deepen their characters and plots.

All three of these questions have spiritual elements and urge the imagination to “enlarge thy borders forever” (Moroni 10:31).

What have I seen with my poetic eyes? Have I let metaphor move me from the mundane to the magnificent? Have I marveled at something and given thanks? (Jesus gave thanks for the seemingly paltry offering of five loaves and two fishes, before the miracle multiplied them.)

Who have I fallen in love with lately? Well, in the literary world, I am having a fictional affair with Ethan Canin. In my literal life, I fell in love with my husband again yesterday when he took me on a romantic getaway to Homestead, Utah, and we sat in our pajamas in a dimly lit gazebo just after dusk. Tufts of daffodils surrounded us, and we simply held hands.

Why should I care about any of this? Because I believe in THE WORD as a transformative power. I believe that a young man or woman can speak certain words with faith and love and begin a miracle—whether those words command sightless eyes to see, or whether they open someone’s mind to a new world , or a previously uncontemplated paradigm. Our words can instruct, delight, and heal. They can enlarge the soul.

Can we have faith without imagination?

I don’t think we can. In the LDS religion, we imagine ourselves as priests, priestesses, even gods. We imagine ourselves in a garden, and in a wilderness. We imagine ourselves entering Heaven. If we are living the gospel as we should, we imagine everyone else as limitless, and we refrain from boxing them into a finite identity which would shrink their possibilities.

I have seen my children reveal themselves as resplendant beings, and I imagine that there is more revelation to come. I have faith in that. I am glad to be associated with LDS writers and film makers who imagine amazing things and learn how to share them vividly. I am honored that I get to teach a few of them—those I have known in other contexts, and those who I meet on the first day of class. Their gifts are ALMOST unimaginable.

Comments

  1. Beautiful. Thank you.

  2. This is unimaginably fabulous. I wish I could be in your class, what a privilege and adventure it must be.

  3. Margaret Young says:

    Thanks Bee and MCQ. I’m just dropping in to BCC for a visit. I had forgotten how much I enjoy it. I don’t know Bee, but it’s really nice to see your blog name, MCQ. Missed you!
    Btw, another of the missionaries I wrote to discovered BCC and put a link to a blog post on his FB status. I emailed him immediately and asked how he had discovered BCC. He had done a blog search. Way cool. I admitted that several of the letters he had received from me when he was a missionary were originally blog posts for BCC.
    But, alas, this is only a visit.

  4. Samuel L. Midgley says:

    Very inspiring. Thanks.

  5. “I contemplated his spiritual gifts as extensions of his imagination—meaning that because he was capable of imagining all sorts of possibilities, he did not limit his faith to what might be “reasonably expected.”’

    Amen. Imagination is one of the foundational characteristics of revolutionary revelation, imo.

    Thank you for this post, Margaret. Along with Tracy, you are one of my favorite writers in the entire Bloggernacle. It’s good to read your poetic prose again.

  6. Margaret, Wow, I want to hang this on my wall and remember it well. This may change everything I’ve been feeling lately: ‘he did not limit his faith to what might be “reasonably expected.” Keep coming here, you have a magic about you that just shines.

  7. I think I had become disillusioned with the concept of the ‘eye of faith’ because of those who equated it with visualisation and positive-thinking but here is a perspective that resonates with me. Especially important for me is the way in which you connect empathy, imagination and faith.

  8. Margaret Young says:

    So fun to be back for a bit. (And SteveP, I do come back to BCC frequently; I just don’t blog much anymore. I read your stuff whenever I find it.)
    About the love thing: I really do believe it’s fundamental to creativity and foundational to faith, in fact the catalyst to faith. My male friends tell me that in giving blessings, they find themselves filled with love for the one whose head they touch, that love precedes the blessing and is magnified throughout. As a temple ordinance worker, I get to do some beautiful things, repeat miraculous promises, and I find that love is a vital component of what I do there. It heals my own heart when I’m hurting over something, and renews my faith in the future. And imagination: Just as those in the BoM spoke of Christ as though He had already come, I speak backwards in time while I’m in the temple, blessing representatives of deceased women as though the dead were still living, still embodied, still progressing. There are no borders between then and now, or between this life and the next.

  9. Elouise says:

    I check BCC almost every day; it’s interesting and enlightening almost every day (even when the boys get plowing and sweating into Deep History 401); and most of all, there’s the chance that on a given day, you’ll post something, Margaret. Thank you for today’s gift.

  10. Thank you for such a beautiful post!

  11. Elouise, you were my first creative writing teacher, and you continue to inspire me. I still use exercises with my students which I learned from you. And you always believed in me. That is a gift.

    There is, of course, a darker possibility to imagination: when it becomes governed by fear rather than by love. Then we get conspiracy theories, racism, sexism, etc. Faith empowered by love and liberated by a boundless imagination opens particular doors, which lead to other doors. Doubt, cynicism, and skepticism laced with fear lead to other places entirely.

  12. “If we are living the gospel as we should, we imagine everyone else as limitless, and we refrain from boxing them into a finite identity which would shrink their possibilities.”
    If only we could all do that. Thank you so much for that thought.

  13. “If we are living the gospel as we should, we imagine everyone else as limitless, and we refrain from boxing them into a finite identity which would shrink their possibilities.”

    I absolutely believe this. Each individual hides infinite possibilities for good because all are infinite beings.

    I once read an interview of Alan Moore by his fellow comic book writer Dave Sim. In the interview Moore described his exhaustive research by using the example of measuring England with a ruler that is a kilometer in length, and how doing so would give you a certain distance. But if you use a ruler that measures a meter, that distance would be far greater because you would be able to get into more corners of the shore than with the previous ruler. Thus, the smaller the ruler, the larger the number arrived at, and eventually on to infinity.

    Your story illustrates this same limitless quality about the human soul. Imagination is a godly technique for creation & invention. Remembering Ether 12:27 in this context reveals us even further.

  14. Wonderfully inspiring, Margaret. Thank you.

  15. prometheus says:

    Wish I could write like this – what a beautiful post!

  16. With a name like Prometheus, you should be able to do ANYTHING! :)
    Thank you.

  17. “A good writer must love her characters and honor their complexity and quirks. She must love words and images, her tools. She must love writing itself, because she will be required to re-write and re-write if she is ever to become good.”

    This struck home. A good engineer also loves her materials, and her components, and the creative fluid process of design. She loves her finished machines and the people who operate and maintain them.

    Maybe the key to every profession is love.

  18. Neal Kramer says:

    Simply beautiful.

  19. Thank you ever so much.

  20. Latter-day Guy says:

    Beautiful and insightful. I wonder how often we put blinders on our own ability to receive revelation. Can God reveal what we are not willing or able to first imagine?

  21. Thank you for sharing this. I really needed this today. Thank you for your uplifting words, Margaret Young.

  22. Margaret Young says:

    Latter-day Guy–the idea of having God illuminate stones (Book of Ether) came as a solution to a problem: no light in the barges. The Lord answered the request for light as many a good parent will: “What will ye that I should do?” Then (Ether 3) the Lord went on to list the challenges: no windows, etc. The solution was left to the asker’s imagination. Clearly, he had a good one.
    Yes, I agree. We imagine first. Could it be that Joseph Smith’s early treasure hunting was actually training for his imagination? JS’s journey to “unite a fractured world” as Phil Barlow phrased it, was then launched by a scripture about faith.

  23. Thankful says:

    “I believe in the word as a transformative power.”

    I want you to know that your words have been transformative to me, and I want to thank you for that. Many times your words have touched my soul and helped me find faith and healing.

    When my husband lost his faith, “Winds” was a balm to my soul. It helped just knowing others understood, and remembering that he was
    hurting too. When I saw loved ones dealing with illness, “Dear Stone” touched me. (Is that the name?). Many times your articles, and blogs, and short stories have helped me “suspend disbelief,” see the humanity in others, and find my way.

    No, I’ve never taken a class from you, can’t write at all, but do value faith, imagination, and the written word. I an truly thankful for your written words that have touched my life over the years.

  24. Thankful says:

    By the way, speaking of “winds,” is it posted online anywhere? I thought I’d like to post it at Faces’s East and see what they think, if that would not offend you.

  25. Margaret Young says:

    Believe me, Thankful, you and I are the only ones reading this who know what “Winds” refers to. (It’s a short story in my collection _Love Chains_.) I have no problem having you post it. That collection is still in print, and not online yet.
    _Dear Stone_ was the name of the play based on my novel _Heresies of Nature_. (That’s also still in print.) There’s a whole story to that one, since the person it was based on (my sister-in-law) passed away three hours before the curtain opened on opening night.
    What lovely compliments, Thankful! Thank you so much for taking the time to post them. They mean A LOT to me!

  26. Paul Bohman says:

    The idea of imaginative faith is a beautiful and fun one.

    I do wonder, though, at what point we have to admit that we just made it up? The “it” here can be any number of things. I can imagine myself King of England, for example, and yet I am not, nor can I ever become the King of England.

    To use an example in the post, when I was a child, I prayed to see the same vision that Nephi and Lehi saw. After all, Nephi prayed to see the same vision, and he did. I prayed to see it, and saw nothing. I can’t blame this failure on a lack of imagination or a lack of faith. Back then I was young and naive enough to believe that I might actually be granted my wish. I imagined it. I believed it. But I was wrong.

    Imagination may precede the miracle, but not everything I can imagine will come true, even if I believe it will.

    I have a friend with diabetes whose grandmother tells her that she wouldn’t need medication or treatment if she only had greater faith. Call me unimaginative, but I believe her grandmother is flat out wrong.

    For some reason, faith — even misplaced and counterproductive faith — is always praised in religious communities and is preferred over realism or pragmatism.

    I truly appreciate an active imagination. I do. And I know that creativity is the life force of invention and insight. But I also believe that we stand to gain a lot by looking behind the curtain of our imaginings. Most of the time, all we’ll find is a small man pretending to be a large wizard. And that’s ok. Because that’s what’s real.

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