Storytelling & community: Three Things

I’m thinking of three things. Here’s the first one: I remember a conversation some years ago with Scott Bronson. Having danced around as sort of an art-hobbyist for years, I was contemplating what I described in conversation with Scott as a kind of mystical leap into greater loyalty to artful pursuits – a new covenant to follow the muse.  My tone was getting pretty lofty, and I was getting kind of worked up. Scott listened patiently, and then brought me back down to earth by saying something like, “Relax, Sam. It’s not like we’re talking about curing cancer.” The comment was made more potent, perhaps, by the fact that Scott was, at that time, battling cancer. Anyway, that’s the first thing.

Here’s the second thing:  There’s a tale that gets told about Tricia Storey (it’s a true one), who was working on an album that was important to her – an album with which she hoped to serve the Lord. If you know Tricia and her work, you know about the sensitivity, talent, and craft that would have been brought to bear on such a project. Anyway, albums are often hell to make, and in the middle of this one, Tricia turned to the Lord himself. Her question for the Lord was “what about the album?” Tricia describes the Lord’s answer: “What album?” Incidentally, I should probably point out that the Lord cared enough for Tricia and her music to provide her with a salaried, benefitted position as the regular jukebox at Sundance’s tree room; emphasis on salaried, emphasis on benefitted. Talk about that among most musicians I know, and their eyes pop.

Here’s the third thing: Brian Kershisnik speaks sometimes of a kind of personal mythology that includes discussions between the Lord and his counselors in the pre-earth life. In one version of Brian’s mythology, a motion comes to the cosmic table that art be part be included in the human experience.  The motion passes – but only barely. In another version of Brian’s mythology, the motion fails – but art somehow leaks in spite of the failed motion.

The three things I’m thinking about are all things that serve to sort of knock art back into perspective when I need it (I often need it). Don’t misunderstand: I’m not down on the importance of artful endeavor. And heaven knows Scott’s not, nor is Tricia. Nor, certainly, Brian. I’m a believer. We’re all believers. But to be straight about it, there’s something about characterizing art as the finest-thing-to-which-humans-can-be-true that kind of gives me the willies. (Perhaps it’s merely the blessed decade-and-a-half I spent working for CES; home, unfortunately, to a degree of “one true employment” thinking). Would it be strange to say that the three things I’m thinking about (and things like them) have provided me with more capacity for confidence, dedication, pleasure, and craftsmanship than any affirmations of art’s preeminence on earth and in heaven? It certainly feels that way. When I remember that I’m not curing cancer, and that the Lord likes my faithfulness better than he likes my art; when I imagine that my work as an artist is, in the heavens, not so much celebrated as tolerated, it somehow leaves me more inclined to be thankful and careful, and less likely to be arrogant and indulgent. And heaven knows I need that.

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14 Responses to Storytelling & community: Three Things

  1. Thanks, Sam. Some days I really need this. Other times, I desperately need to believe that God cares. In the end, I suppose what I really believe is that God cares about it as much as I do–no more or no less.

    Let me explain. Sometimes I find myself begging God to grant me great success in my writing–either by having some reward for what I’ve already done enter my life ("please let me get an agent!") or by getting from Him some fantastic idea that will lead to an all-encompassing Great Work coming out of me in the future. I find myself, for example, thinking of old Mahonri (Moriancumr, that is, not Mahonri the playwright), placing his stones in front of God as the best idea he could come up with, and begging God to touch them so that they are an even better idea. I set my work in front of God and beg Him to make it better.

    But why? Because I need to cross an ocean in the dark? No. Because I want to be the one who Has Written Something Marvelous. (But it wouldn’t really be all my doing at that point, would it? Still, I’d happily bask in the glory and even proudly declare that it "wasn’t me, it was God," which, by the way, is often used as an excuse by beginning writers when I ask them to rewrite their inspirational poems.) Even the wanting to Be of Service has pride at its root, most of the time, when it involves using my talents.

    IF, on the other hand, I find that the work of wrighting (I didn’t mis-spell that on purpose; I meant it as in creating something that is wrought, wrenched out of me) is good soul-work for me, and that I (and, possibly others around me, but that is and should be secondary) am improved in my soul because of the struggle of my work, I should do it, and God is pleased. But only because I am doing it out of love for the work and how it affects me, not because I want the glory either of great success or of Being The One Who Changed Lives With My Art.

    He is the great Creator and expects me to be creating–but only for the joy of it, and for the joy of experiencing an aspect of godliness. Not because I’m going to save the world with it.

  2. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Lovely thoughts, Sam.
    Me, I think it doesn’t matter what I do for a living as I work out my salvation in fear and trembling before the Lord. So there’s that. But my life also doesn’t make sense if I’m not doing theatre. So there’s that. Plus the consecration thing. So there’s that.
    The one thing that bugs me is when people say ‘if the Lord were sitting in the front row, would you feel comfortable with actors saying that language you wrote, or doing that scene you wrote?’ And my answer is, well, isn’t He?

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Sam writes: "when I imagine that my work as an artist is, in the heavens, not so much celebrated as tolerated, it somehow leaves me more inclined to be thankful and careful, and less likely to be arrogant and indulgent."

    These are touching sentiments and well-stated. I’m pretty darn sure my comment won’t be as eloquent:

    My only point (and its absolutely heartless and crass) is this: What makes us think that curing cancer is what God wants? Or that a cure for cancer is more valuable (bear with me) than creating art ? We all must die. That is a part of the plan of salvation. He wants us to die. So what makes us think He cares if we die of cancer or car accident? Or that He’s rooting for a scientist to cure cancer, but is on the fence about the artist who shines a light on His creation?

    I assert that it is people who care about cancer cures because we desperately want our loved ones to stay with us and because we want to hang around ourselves. But to Heavenly Father? Our relationships don’t end at death any more than our lives. What’s the big deal from his POV? So I’m not buying the premise that, because art isn’t the cure for cancer, it will benefit mankind less and, therefore, God will care less about it. [b]Art adds flourish to the moments we have. That is a divine thing. That is a form of the joy He plans for us to experience. [/b]

    Now lest anyone assume that cancer has not touched my life, let me assure all it has. I’ve had close family die from it, survive it, and currently my younger brother is fighting a virulent form of skin cancer from which no one has survived. So pls don’t go there. We must, as a consequence of our faith, feel that death, and even suffering, are provided because God loves us. As is art.

  4. Wm Morris says:

    I think Lisa has a point (and my condolences and best wishes). The beauty of Mormonism is that is both insistent on the value of the nitty gritty of physicality and mortality and the importance of narrative, poetry and creation.

    I do think, though, that Sam’s overall point still stands: I think all of us, no matter what we cured or created, will just be tolerated but will also be celebrated.

  5. Sam Payne says:

    I love and concur with all that I’m reading here. Thanks so much for the thoughtful responses (none of them in any way heartless or crass, Lisa). Be clear that in my post, I wasn’t in any way trying to set up a hierarchy of endeavor that puts curing cancer above creating art. They’re both super cool. It’s just that I’m suspicious of any attitude among artists that suggests with any sort of authority that it’s the other way ’round. Perhaps "tolerated" is to incendiary a word. Let’s just say that I’m much more comfortable with the phrase "God digs art" than with the phrase "God is art."

  6. Ed Snow says:

    God is a creative being–"let there be light." Made in God’s image, it’s no surprise we are too–we’re merely trying to become like God in our efforts to create the way a child mimics its parent. On another level, our creative efforts are a form of worship–this completely resonates with me. But when we start thinking our creative efforts are specifically heaven-sent and inspired by God, or we think we have some kind of joint venture going with God, or we even speak for God through our art, that’s when it borders on … this is too harsh but it’s the best I can do right now … blasphemy.

    Jesus was a very creative person. Why create parables if you could just give people rules?

    So, I think there’s sufficient evidence of unnecessary beauty in the world and in the teachings of Jesus to demonstrate that to create artistically is to follow a divine impulse. And if this isn’t art, I don’t know art.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Ed, I think you are correct in using the expression "it borders on…blasphemy." I’m never comfortable when people assert they know what God is thinking or desiring, since I know full well they are simply making extrapolations based largely on their own limited understanding and quite possibly on their own desires. Hence my reaction to what seemed the implication that God wants cancer cured more than he wants art created. Perhaps I stared at a tree when I should’ve been looking at the forest. Sam, I did get your point and actually agree. Artists can get mighty puffed up, but then again, so can people in any profession.

  8. Angela H. says:

    I’ve loved reading this post and the comments. Great thoughts.

    I often remind myself that what God wants me to care about most is my relationships with other people. I think anyone who’s committed to doing anything well–be it racing bicycles or practicing medicine or designing houses or writing poetry–needs to be occasionally reminded that it’s how we take care of our fellow brothers and sisters that really matters. Sometimes creating art can be a type of care-taking, of course, and art offers many other benefits, from allowing us to practice the act creation to offering a person a place to learn important truths about him or herself.

    But none of this is as valuable (both in God’s eyes, I think, as well as in our own lives) as establishing and maintaining loving relationships with those around us. And it can be easy for artists–or anyone pursuing excellence of any kind–to forget this.

  9. Wm Morris says:

    Art has opened up (and kept alive) more relationships for me than it has closed off. But looking at the history of art and artists, that’s certainly not a gimme status.

  10. Jonathan Langford says:

    Both an excellent initial post, and an excellent set of comments. I think Lisa’s point is well-taken, which I’d extend as follows: that none of our earthly endeavors is so holy that it automatically gives us privileged status before God. On the other hand, any form of honest work *can* be a medium for serving both God and fellowmen.

    I also like Eric Samuelsen’s triple "there’s that" statements.

  11. Melinda W. says:

    That was a thought-provoking post. I also appreciated Angela H’s comment about the importance of relationships. It took me many years to learn that. But now, as I make relationships more of a priority, I find that my creative output has actually increased.

  12. Th. says:


    The law of sacrifice comes into play here. Just what we are meant to sacrifice [i]today[/i] is, I suspect, the important question.

    Being willing to accept a different answer [i]each[/i] day is the hard part. (For me, at least.)

  13. Katya says:

    I recently read an article on how graphic designers in New York reacted to the events of 9/11, and one part of the article seems pertinent to this discussion:

    [quote]New York designer Stefan Sagmeister questioned the relevancy of design, but also the logic of abandoning design altogether. "Right after the 11th, like many other designers, I felt sort of silly to be a designer," he says. . . . [T]he first reaction is, ‘Maybe we should all become rescue workers.’ But I know I would make a terrible rescue worker. I am ten times more effective as a designer. So with the little we can do as designers, I think it’s still smarter to stay a designer than just to throw everything down and enter a different profession."[/quote]

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