The Mystery of Theory to Practice

For this month’s installment of Mysterious Doings, I’ve invited Braden Bell as a guest. I think his viewpoint is wonderful and I hope you enjoy what he has to share with us.

Braden Bell

I’ve always been intrigued by the apostle Peter—particularly the episode when he walked on the water, at least for a few miraculous steps.

Leaving all the theological implications aside, I’m fascinated by the human dimension of this moment—Peter’s experience. Something must have made him believe he could do this. He was spontaneous and rash, but he was also a fisherman who had spent his life on the sea. Surely he would have known as well as anyone that people couldn’t walk on water—and was likely conversant with how quickly and easily people could drown.

And yet, understanding both the impossible nature of this feat, and the consequences, something convinced Peter that he could do this. At some level, he felt enough confidence in the Lord or his own faith or some combination to overcome what I assume would have been a healthy respect for the water.

I speculate that the initial exuberance must have grown even greater as he took those first steps. It must have been exhilarating beyond anything he’d experienced. And then, at some point, Peter must have realized what he was doing. He found himself out of the safety of the boat and with nothing between him and waves. I assume that his perspective changed and the whole venture suddenly looked far more complex than it had only moments before. In essence, Peter found himself against the difference between theory and practice.

As I studied theatre in graduate programs at BYU and then NYU, I became fascinated with Mormon art and what it could be. I read theory and criticism written by others and developed some of my own ideas. I analyzed the problems with what had been done before me and thought about how it could be done better. I was very comfortable in the boat, convinced I understood how to skip across those waves.

With years of thinking about this and a freshly minted Ph.D., I jumped out of the boat and wrote a book, applying all those theories, confident in my ability to walk on artistic waters.

People were generous in their response. No one was unkind or gratuitous. But I was shocked when some critics found it to be inspirational, but lacking artistic or literary merit. When I looked at my work dispassionately, I found they were right. How could that happen? I had all those theories–I knew how to do it right.

The difference, I think, is the difference, or interplay, between theory and practice—a great mystery that everyone who wants to do art has to try to solve. The difference between being in the boat and walking on the water. It’s a difference that every Mormon who aspires to do art in any form learns. The difference between our aspirations and our execution is often significant.

The question is what do we do with that gap? As artists, we keep going. Skill doesn’t burst out in our first works, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Most of us won’t be very good without considerable practice—which means we have to start somewhere. Our ability to apply theory to our practice demands, well, practice. We learn from our mistakes. We reach out for the Savior’s hand and keep walking. We learn not to use so many adverbs. We learn to avoid clichés. We become more self-critical and learn from what the critics say. And we try again and do better. Being a good Mormon artist is no different than being a good Mormon–it’s not natural for most of us. It takes time and effort and practice.

Critics and theorists have an important role to play in helping us solve this mystery. Critics serve an invaluable function by pushing for quality art that doesn’t make excuses, that meets high standards. But it seems to me that we can be honest in our reviews and critiques, but also charitable in the true sense of the word. Giving pure love and appreciation to those who have jumped out of the boat and are trying to walk on the water. We can laud motives even when we can’t laud the mastery of their craft. We can point out elements of work that are well done, even if there are flaws. And, we can encourage those on the water to keep trying.

Over the years, I’ve become a little annoyed when I hear people talk about Peter’s lack of faith, demonstrated in his inability to walk on the water. Did Peter demonstrate a lack of faith because he started to sink? Or, did he manifest extraordinary faith by running those few steps?

In my opinion Mormon art will never be all it can be until we solve the mystery between theory and practice, between criticism and execution. But that will have to be done for the most part and in the final analysis on an individual basis. I also think that Mormon art will not be all it can be until as many people as possible are willing to jump out of the boat and confront the moment—both thrilling and terrifying, when we realize that walking on the artistic water is not quite as simple as it looked. But that doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort. Some of us might sink after a few steps—but those steps are exhilarating! And maybe—just maybe—one of these days, someone will run the distance and create something exceptional.

Braden Bell grew up in Farmington, Utah and graduated from Davis High School. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theatre from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in educational theatre from New York University. He and his family live on a wooded lot outside of Nashville where he teaches theatre and music at a private school. His first book, The Road Show, was released in 2010  . His second book, The Kindling will be released in July of 2012. Braden blogs about all of the above at www.bradenbell.com

About Rachelle Christensen

I’m a mom of four cute kids—two girls and two boys. I have an amazing husband, three cats, and five chickens. My first novel was awarded Outstanding Book of the Year from the League of Utah Writers and was also a 2010 Whitney Finalist. My second suspense novel, CALLER ID, was released March 2012. I was born and raised in the rural farmlands of southern Idaho and I like to work over my tiny piece of field AKA garden each year. I love reading, running, singing and playing the piano. After graduating from Utah State University, my husband and I moved our family to Utah County. Visit my blog at www.rachellewrites.blogspot.com to learn more about upcoming books.
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13 Responses to The Mystery of Theory to Practice

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Cheering on people for what they do well is something I sometimes don’t do as well as I should.

  2. “Being a good Mormon artist is no different than being a good Mormon–it’s not natural for most of us.”

    That is a nice sentence. Love the way the “punchline” is at once surprising and obviously accurate.

  3. Braden says:

    Thank you both for stopping by. Jonathan, I suppose all of us could work on that specific aspect of criticism, but I have always found you to be honest and fair in your critique. In fact, I thought your critique of Road Show was exemplary in that regard. It didn’t pull punches, but it was not unkind and noted the things that worked.

    James: Thank you. I’m glad it resonates. It certainly expresses my experience at least. And I did like it a bit, myself.

  4. Great insights, Braden! Thank you.

  5. Excellent post, Braden. It’s true, we must constantly push ourselves to be better in all aspects of our lives.

    When I’ve thought about Peter’s experience, I didn’t think he had little faith. I thought he had tremendous faith to even take a few steps on the water. But, when he took his eyes off the Savior, he could no longer walk on the water. Perhaps, it is the same with our art, when we take our eyes off the Savior, we flounder and we sink. When we keep our eyes on Him we are better able to walk on that artistic water. Even if our works aren’t LDS in nature, if we keep our eyes on the Savior (making sure we are doing our duties, serving our families, reading our scriptures, praying, etc) He can help us navigate those artistic waters and reach out His hand when we begin to slip under the water.

  6. Jolene Perry says:

    WOW.
    Fab post.

    Agreed on all counts.

  7. Carole says:

    Nicely said. It’s interesting how sometimes knowledge about something makes it more difficult to get the flow just right. Some of my better writing comes when I manage to let some of the thinking go.

    And as far as the critics of Peter go–how many of them have walked on water?

  8. Wonderful article, Braden. Thank you! Writers are often sensitive people who find it hard to develop that tough skin necessary for survival – on water/computer. I think we could all benefit from pinning your words somewhere close by and reading daily.

  9. Braden says:

    Stephanie and Jolene, thank you for your affirmation. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Rebecca, I agree. One of the things I know I struggle with–and think most others do, is finding that balance–doing first things first–but still finding time to write (or whatever the art is).

    Carole, yes. Yes! Yes! I’m with you on that. Applying the technique can overpower the inspiration. And vice versa, I suppose. I once heard someone define art as equal parts craftsmanship and inspiration. I think that’s a cool idea to strive for. But for me, the right brain, inspiration is what’s most exciting.

    Anne, you are so right. The sensitivity to create is not generally connected to having a very thick skin. That’s why I wish we could figure out how to be Christ-like in our criticisms. He was honest and direct, not sugar coating or being deceptive, but positive and loving. That has been something I’ve been thinking about lately a great deal.

  10. Such great comments and inspiration. Thanks again, Braden for this great viewpoint!

  11. Here, here! I agree with your take on Peter and art. How come I feel like I’m sinking all the time? I got to ride on a boat in the Sea of Galilee last year and your post takes me back. I posted pictures and an old poem at Peter on my blog. I thought you might enjoy them.
    The pictures: http://caymansummer.blogspot.com/2011/12/we-danced-where-jesus-walked.html
    More pictures and poem: http://caymansummer.blogspot.com/2011/12/sermon-on-mount.html

  12. Susan Dayley says:

    Well said! thank you. Sadly, it seemes that sometimes criticism takes a lead over encouragement. I’ve wondered if some people feel that in their criticism they appear analytical and intelligent. Wouldn’t more steps across the water be possible if we were all cheering for each other?
    BTW, Peter is a favorite. He made mistakes, yet through faithful perserverence, he became all God needed him to be. Sometimes that road from the regrettable night of denials to the glorious day of Pentacost is discouraging; but he shows it is possible.

  13. Susan Denney says:

    Very thoughtful. I saw a wonderful example of how to criticize kindly in my first writer’s critique group. Berniece Rabe, a master writer who also happened to be LDS, founded it. She saw good in all our work but always nudged us to do better. She moved and I left Texas but I think about how she handled our group all the time.

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