A long time ago, when I was 21, Tobias Wolff asked me a question. "Do you feel like you have to be an ambassador for your faith in your writing?"
This was at Syracuse University, and we were in his office in the Hall of Languages, an ornate stone castle of a building that stood at the top of a hill I climbed every day like a pilgrim. Toby's office, on the fifth floor, was fittingly grand, full of wooden bookcases that whispered things about what it meant to be a real writer. All of Syracuse lay outside the window, as foreign and picturesque to me as France. I had come from a tiny town on the edge of the Great Salt Lake--no stop lights, no stores, no post office, just corn fields, churches, and houses--and I was still amazed that I had traveled so far.
I was a candidate for an MA in fiction writing, and on that wintry day of my first semester, Toby was giving me his comments on a short story I'd written. ("Toby" was what everyone, even the students, called him, but even now I feel I'm overstating how close we were.) I was puzzling over the suggestions he'd scribbled in the margins and trying to decide what they meant about the story and my future. What I principally wondered was, Did he think I belonged there? That I deserved to be at Syracuse? That I would ever write anything worthwhile and true? Is that why he was asking if I felt I had to be an ambassador for my faith?
It should have been a simple question. I was writing fiction, so my task was to create characters who were not me speaking as me.
"No," I said, but I wasn't sure. At the Mormon summer camp I used to attend in the Wasatch mountains, I’d learned a song that was supposed to be a sincere anthem but which I'd recently learned could make non-Mormons laugh:
I'm a Mor-mon, yes, I am!
So if you want to study a Mormon
I'm a living spec-i-men
The irony of being asked this question! When I'd applied to Syracuse after four years at BYU and three years of high school in rural Utah, my father had not wanted me to get a Master's degree in fiction writing. He'd wanted me to "put in my papers" to be a bona fide ambassador--a Mormon missionary--for 18 months. If I had done that, a destination would have been selected for me by church administrators--we didn't call them that, though. We called them the prophet and the twelve apostles. The prophet, i.e. the mouthpiece of God, would have selected, via revelation, a place for me to go. Instructors at the Missionary Training Center would have given me gospel lessons to memorize, language instructors would have taught me the rudiments of a foreign language (had I been called to another country), and every few months I would have been assigned a new companion--another Mormon woman called to the same mission. Dressed in modest long skirts and name tags, the two of us would have been sent out to preach.
My father had been a missionary. So had my brother, most of my uncles, every man I had ever dated, and the man who, a century earlier, had baptized my ancestors in Saint Helier, Jersey, in the Channel Islands. But when my father suggested it as the next step for me, I knew I couldn't do it. I was still a true believer at that time, but I couldn't go up to people and testify that I knew the truth about God and our mortal existence, and it was to be found in this one way, this one mode of dressing, speaking, and living. I was more interested then, and always had been, in the transfiguration that reading offered, where you became someone else for a brief, illuminating time, expanding the number of ways and places that the same beauty and truth could be experienced.
Sitting across from Toby Wolff in the Hall of Languages, I felt the way I felt when I sat cross-legged on the wooden floor of my Syracuse apartment, dreading workshop, when eight other fiction-writing students would read my story and try to tell me what was wrong with it. The floor of that apartment had been hastily covered with varnish, trapping grit and hair underneath. My stories felt like that--varnished before they were ready, displayed with horrible flaws. I was sitting in the office of the Hall of Languages with a writer I had come so far to see, as if he were a mystic at the top of a holy mountain, and I had made him read something that was embarrassingly unfinished.
I told Toby Wolff, "Of course not! No, not at all." He was glad to hear it. Because I shouldn't be an ambassador, he said. I should write the truth.
No lessons to memorize, no guide. no map. Forget the past, or remember it. Write the truth, whatever it is.
I didn't write a single thing that year that featured a Mormon character. I was too disoriented. I couldn't even mention my faith at a party and feel that people understood how it could come to pass that a person with even moderate intelligence would believe such things. I was a freak, and all those years, living my life, I hadn't known it. And yet I could not undo or rebuke the past, be anything other than myself, a living spec-i-men.
Not long after I graduated, I returned to Utah to teach school, and in passing back over the continental divide, I lost my faith. I lost it the way you might lose a diamond ring in a storm drain. The ring was the idea of living forever in bodily form, transmitted to me in songs and scriptures as literal resurrection and eternal life. One autumn afternoon as my car rounded a particular corner in my neighborhood in Salt Lake City, near a bakery with a neon sign for custom-made cakes, I saw the earth not as a continuum in which my soul and every soul would go on existing and improving and becoming, but as a planet that would eventually be lifeless, and in place of all the beautiful things humans had carved and built and painted and wrapped in tissue or stored in archives--the baby shoes and locks of hair and photographs and novels and tombstones and churches and cake recipes--would be nothing but a dead rock in outer space. There would eventually be no mementoes to save, and no one to save them, no words to speak, and no one to speak them.
How had I not see it before? is what I thought.
With the loss of that faith, every other belief and ritual lost its force, and I started to see faults in my religion the way you will see the faults of a person you no longer trust. I stopped going to church, little by little, so very sad at the loss of it, and yet I couldn't love it any more. Fourteen years after that conversation with Toby Wolff, I started writing a novel that began with two missionaries knocking on a door in Scotland in 1929. The missionaries were the thousands of missionaries I had seen and known, folded up in my mind like a vast chain of paper dolls--but they were also just themselves, Elder Cooper and Elder Lance. They were True Believers, and even though I wasn't one any more, I still loved that quality in them, faith that is so strong you call it knowledge, and it compels you to give up everything and go where you're a stranger, where you bear witness over and over again to something most people don't want to hear. Perhaps the fiction writer is always the one who cannot be an ambassador, who sees the gap between belief and fact, between the inner self and the way one is perceived by others. The True Believers never doubt, and they are thus the strongest forces in the world, beautiful when they save lives, ugly when they kill. The fiction writer sits quietly at home, writing about doubt for the other doubters.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal