I earn my living by making up stories — which means making up people, relationships, families, communities, cultures, worlds and universes that don't exist.
This requires me to look at every aspect of the world around me with a continuous questioning attitude. Why do we do it this way? How else might it be done?
Fiction writers aren't the only people who benefit from thinking that way. Those very questions have led to wonderful inventions like flush toilets, traffic signals, guacamole and the income tax.
As I tell my writing students, the first answer you come up with isn't necessarily the right answer, or even a good answer. You may not even be asking the right question.
There are usually a hundred solutions that will work perfectly well. Unfortunately, there are probably a thousand that won't work at all. The hard part is telling the difference. But you're more likely to find one of the hundred if you don't settle for the first idea that comes along.
This applies even to our work in the church. I've heard some people talk as if God always has one perfect answer in mind, and our job is to pray until he tells it to us.
Sometimes, sure. Most of the time, though, there might be lots of good choices. We're expected to study things out in our mind (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8).
If the job at hand happens not to be translating the Book of Mormon, the Spirit doesn't always tell us whether our idea is right.
Sometimes we have to try out the best idea we thought of, and the moment of "revelation" comes afterward, when we look at each other and say, "Next time let's not do that."
Such moments don't imply that you made a mistake or were not inspired. Maybe the Lord wanted you to have the experience. Maybe the Lord wanted you to do it that way, but only for a while. Maybe there were important benefits that you simply didn't have the wisdom to see.
"It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant" (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26).
As Latter-day Saints, we might hold all kinds of different callings during our lives. So it makes perfect sense to look at choices made by a particular leader or teacher and think, "How else might that have been done?"
You might have that calling someday, and it's wise to learn from the actions of people you observe doing those callings today.
Problems only arise when you think that just because you thought of a course of action you like better, that means that the person who actually has the calling is doing it wrong.
For one thing, you almost never have the same set of information they have.
But yes, they can and do make mistakes. So what? It's their calling right now, and so their mistakes are the authorized ones. When you have the calling, you can make your own mistakes. And believe me, you will. We all do.
When it's not your responsibility, it's easy to come up with reams of ideas that sound really cool.
All it takes is seeing the unintended consequences that flow from implementing one of those "cool" ideas. If you're wise, you become very humble about insisting that people in authority ought to do things your way.
That same humility will make you grateful when somebody else suggests an answer you didn't think of. Even if you don't use their exact suggestion, it often starts you thinking about possibilities that lead you to a good solution.
Sometimes inspiration consists of having a solution come into your mind as the direct answer to prayer.
Sometimes, though, inspiration consists of recognizing a good idea when somebody else says it.
Where does it say that being a righteous person and a wise steward means you shouldn't listen to anybody else?
Since the Lord likes us to learn humility, he doesn't always send us good ideas through the mouths of people we already respect because of their high office or their reputation for wisdom.
Sometimes he puts good ideas in the mouths of people that we didn't think were all that wise. You know, people like me.
Here are Brother Orson's Rules about Good Ideas in the Church:
1. Just because you thought of it doesn't mean it's inspired.
2. Just because somebody else thought of it doesn't mean that it isn't inspired.
3. Telling your suggestion to the person who has the calling is part of supporting them.
4. Criticizing them for not using your suggestion is backbiting. Backbiting is the opposite of supporting people in their callings.
5. Nobody in this life ever has enough information to make perfect decisions. It's called "the veil." It's part of God's plan that we have to muddle through in partial ignorance.
6. Today's good idea may be tomorrow's terrible mistake, and vice versa.
I believe in these rules so much that next time, I may spend my whole column telling you some really cool ideas I thought of to benefit the kingdom of God.
Then you can be grateful that inspiration has kept church leaders from giving me the authority to implement a single one of them.
Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. Leave feedback for Card at www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.