The Writer’s Desk: What if I Don’t Like it?

Last month my latest play, Brothers, ran for three weeks at the Brinton Black Box Theater in the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, Utah. It went pretty well–only one sell-out crowd of twelve performances (which isn’t really as impressive as it sounds since the theater sells out at sixty)–but most importantly to me was that the show was an artistic success. At least, as far as I’m concerned, it was. Elwon and Dave worked hard to grasp the subtleties in the roles. Along with them and Paige–my itinerant stage manager–staff at the Covey Center helped me create just the right atmosphere for the play’s premier production.

The brothers in question here are Lucifer and Jehovah, though, nowhere in the script do those names appear. Like its predecessor, Stones, the identity of the characters is pretty obvious from the dialogue, or becomes pretty obvious as the situations unfold. There were two reasons for leaving the names out.  One: The names carry weight. Pretty much anyone who hears those names has preconceived notions about the people who wear them and how they should be worn. I wanted to keep those preconceptions at bay as much as possible, which is–let’s face it–completely impossible. Still, we do what we can. Two: I want audience members to keep in mind that these characters are members of a family before they are characters in a play or in a great big book of scripture. Or in history. The hope then is to make the characters a bit more approachable since most audience members will know what it’s like to be a mother, a father, a sister or a brother. Or a son or daughter. I suppose there’s also a third reason; hopefully it will soften the blow when those who would be inclined to cry “Blasphemy!” suddenly realize that I have had the audacity to place a divine figure on stage with words to say that cannot be attributed directly to scripture.

All this is merely background to the idea that I really want to present. After every performance of Brothers, we invited any audience members who wished to remain after for a few minutes to join in a question and answer/discussion of the play. By and large, the questions asked were of the actors and their feelings about creating the roles of a god and a devil. There were a few about the symbolism of the set and its dressings, the rehearsal process, and whether or not the performing or writing of the play had changed us in any way. Then came the question that I was both prepared, and unprepared for: “Did the spirit guide you in writing this play?”

That’s a loaded question, and the answer could be just as loaded, if not more so. Still, I did my best to take the powder out of it. And here’s why–

Twenty-some-odd years ago, when I was working at the MTC, I read an article in some local paper about some local singer/songwriter who had written some kind of musical production that he (or she) claimed was inspired by the Lord and practically written by the Spirit. Well, who am I to argue with that? Nobody, really. I can’t, and I won’t argue with a claim like that. However, I will reserve the right to dislike the work in question. Even if the Lord was involved. There were a few of us in the particular office I worked in who were also writers of plays, and we all read the article and all had the same question pop into our minds (and quickly spew from our mouths), “What if I don’t like it?” Would that make us out of tune with the spirit? Of course not. Here is an excerpt from the author’s note in the program that we handed out to the Brothers audience that addresses that point:

This play is not scripture.

It really is just a play; nothing more, nothing less.

… Let’s face it, the scriptures are rather thin on character development. And it helps me to get more out of the scriptures if I can find a way to make the people in them seem more like real people to me. Most of the time this is nothing more than a mental exercise, but sometimes, as I said, I’ve just got to write it down. Now, let me make something perfectly clear (pay close attention); I am not a prophet. Once more with feeling; I am NOT a prophet. And these plays are not prophecies–not even in my own thinking. They’re ruminations, explorations, fantasies (in the musical sense). At the same time, however, they are accurate depictions of how I think and feel about religious matters that are very dear to me. In a sense, then, they are testimony. Not the kind of testimony that says, “I know for a certainty that these people did and said these things,” but the kind of testimony that says, “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if these people actually felt these things and thought these things. In fact, I really hope that they really did, because that would make them understandable to me–approachable even.”

I told the woman who asked about the Spirit’s involvement with my play that I would not answer her question on two grounds. First: It’s a very personal question, and anything that can be called testimony connected to the play should be found in the play itself, not in any ancillary claims. Second: This allows you–or anybody else–the privilege to hate my play. Even if the Spirit did work through me, it may work through you differently than it does through me, and that must be allowed. I don’t think artists should try to manipulate an audience’s devotion that way.

Listen, at least one reviewer didn’t like Brothers very much at all. Davey Morrison Dillard blogged about the show somewhere (sorry, I’m working off line and can’t remember the name of the site) and expressed his distaste for the writing. (In actuality, I think his problem with the play had less to do with the actual writing and more to do with my take on the doctrine. He disagrees with my premises.) I’ve got no problem with that; Davey doesn’t have to like it. Nobody has to like it.

Although, I don’t mind it at all when people do.

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15 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: What if I Don’t Like it?

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    Excellent. Excellent post.

  2. Katya says:

    Davey reviewed it for the Utah Theater Bloggers Association: http://www.utahtheaterbloggers.com/1127/brothers-doesnt-quite-live-up-to-the-source-material

    Were there any other published reviews?

  3. Th. says:

    .

    I like how you handled the question. It seems the appropriate response to me. I’ll have to remember to quote you.

  4. J.Scott Bronson says:

    Moriah–Thank you very much.

    Katya–Cheryl Bruno reviewed it…somewhere. I’m sorry, I really don’t spend much time online. Mormon Matters? Something like that.

    Th.–No attribution required. ;-)

  5. Ed Snow says:

    I like this and it fits into my hazy ideas about art, artists, fans and critics:

    A fan may judge a work of art by the perceived motivation, intent and inspiration of an artist.

    An artist may judge a work of criticism by the perceived motivation, intent and inspiration of critic.

    But an arts critic must judge a work of art according to the work itself and the tradition behind that work and the critics of that tradition.

  6. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    The thing that I think is the most interesting about the question of the Spirit’s involvement in the writing of your play, Scott, is the idea that the audience member felt the need to even ask it.

    After all, if God is in the details of our lives, and if we are trying to be faithful and dutiful servants in the exercise of the talents we have been blessed with, then the Spirit is most certainly going to be involved with any creative action on our parts as we exercise our talents–with any action at all, in fact, as we live our lives and strive to be receptive to the guidance of the Spirit.

    Why would someone need to know the answer to such a question? Or was the audience member being rhetorical?

    I submit that audience members who view any production should bring the Spirit with them, and then, whatever about the production is virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy will be clearly manifested by the Spirit to every audience member who is worthy and receptive to that kind of guidance and witness.

    I wonder what would happen if you responded to such a question with something like, "Well, what did the Spirit tell you as you watched it?"

    But I’m only asking rhetorically, of course.

  7. Katya says:

    Scott,

    Found it–thanks! (Here’s the link, if anyone is interested: http://mormonmatters.org/2010/03/21/brothers-a-review/ )

  8. Scott,

    I agree that this is an excellent post. My comments below aren’t intended to disagree with you (because I think the points you raised are all excellent), but rather to extend the conversation a little further.

    I think different answers are appropriate to different occasions. (Obviously, you think so too, or you wouldn’t have written this column.) Sometimes I think it’s appropriate to talk about the role that inspiration plays (or doesn’t) in the composition process, especially if you sense that it’s not a "trick question" but one that’s sincerely meant. We hear faith-inspiring stories about people being inspired in other kinds of work they do (though not, perhaps, as often as we should). I think it’s good to do that with respect to our artistic production as well, though I agree that it’s essential to emphasize that whatever we may have felt while writing or creating something doesn’t create any obligation on the part of the reader or listener or viewer to feel anything on the other end. Sometimes, it may be important to acknowledge the Holy Ghost as part of giving appropriate thanks to God.

    I also think that sometimes mentioning inspiration may reframe discussions in important ways. Sometimes it may act as a signal that the artist is approaching a sensitive topic from within a believing LDS perspective, which may change our view of the work in question–as it should, in my view. (The whole notion that a work of art should stand independent of the artist is really rather bizarre, if you look at art from a historical viewpoint or as a human phenomenon. It’s like saying that you should ignore the identity of the person talking to you in order to focus on what he or she is saying. Both bizarre and impossible.)

    With respect to the argument that any spiritual meaning should come from the work of art itself, and not from the declaration of the artist: I agree that there’s some truth to that, but no more than for anything else related to the artistic work. In other words: If you’re up there answering questions after the show, why answer questions about other things but not about this one? Note that I’m not saying there’s any obligation to answer such a question, and I think the answer you gave is a fine one. However, I think such questions shouldn’t be disqualified out of hand either. I’ve also found that talking *about* one’s work is often an effective and important way of raising interest *in* one’s work, which is often the greatest challenge within the marginal Mormon market…

  9. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    There’s an article about Merrill Jenson (composer for several Church films) in today’s MORMON TIMES http://www.mormontimes.com/mormon_voices/nicole_sheahan/?id=14391&preview=1 in which he talks about receiving inspiration in his work. (This starts about halfway down the webpage.) He makes it clear that there is a lot of work involved in inspiration–just as Oliver Cowdrey found, it isn’t just handed to anyone for the asking.

  10. J.Scott Bronson says:

    Jonathan, I agree with you on all counts. There are times and places when talking about inspiration in creativity is right and good. This is just my approach to it because I think I may not be all that good at being humble about it if I start. It must be carefully phrased and, honestly, I’m not that good at thinking through my own processes. Quite frankly, at one of the last talk-backs after Brothers, an audience member described what I had done quite eloquently, in very precise language that I would still not be able to duplicate even after having heard it. I’d like to have her on one side of me and Scott Parkin on the other side for every such occasion so that all I’d ever have to say is, "Exactly."

  11. Kathleen,

    I was asked once to look over a manuscript by a family member who felt she had been inspired in the writing of it. (Which is certainly possible; I’m not arguing with that part.) To counter her innate resistance to making any changes, I suggested that while she might have been inspired during the original writing process, there was no reason why she couldn’t be inspired during the editing/revision process as well…

  12. Kathleen Woodbury says:

    That’s a great answer, Jonathan. After all, it’s not meet that we should be commanded in all things (including how we write down what we’ve been inspired to write).

    Even Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon (which, I understand, he translated into his own relatively unschooled words) required a little editing.

  13. Moriah Jovan says:

    Possibly point out that it’s the WORK that’s important, not the workER, so that the inspiration is to get the WORK to be as good as possible, even if that means it needs refining.

  14. Kathleen Woodbury says:

    Amen, Moriah.

    As I tell people in the writers workshops I moderate (paraphrasing editor and author, Algis Budrys), the words on paper are a very poor attempt to convey to the reader the beautiful ideas that are in the author’s head.

    Therefore, the purpose of editing, workshopping, rewriting, critiquing, and so on is to help that poor attempt of finite, human words to be the best possible way for those words on paper to convey those beautiful ideas to the reader.

  15. debbie moncrief pond says:

    So, you are writer? Congratulations. Just received an email from a friend that you and John Munoa have a performance in Escondido. See what I can do to get there.

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