I’ve been wondering lately if we actually have the great Mormon writing we’re waiting for, but have missed it. I’d imagine that serious writers in Shakespeare’s day were waiting for the Great English Poet, not a playwright, and might not have appreciated the dramatic genius of the man they knew as a sonnet-writer with a time-consuming day job. What if our Mormon Shakespeares come in a field we don’t expect? Say, for example, the Primary Song.
Seriously. Think, for a moment, of a favorite primary song. Is it memorable? Does it connect with its audience intellectually and emotionally? Does it include powerful images? Does it teach you a different way to see the world?Is it aware of the complicated real life dynamics in which its audience exists? I’ve been reading the stories about the composition of various primary songs in a book called “Favorite Songs for LDS Children” my wife and I were given as a wedding present, and I’m increasingly convinced that the larger LDS writing community could learn from what these masters do.
This idea is still at an early stage of development for me, but I’d like to publicly wonder what we as writers in other forms can learn from primary song writers, the best of whom may be our community’s greatest artists.
A few thoughts:
1) Sparse can be strong.
-The song that has me thinking of this is Reid Nibley’s “I Know My Father Lives.” His writing process started with searching for a single word that moved him. He later recalled that after the first several draft, he found that his eraser was his best tool, and he cut the song down to the core we sing today.
Do our pieces often need what essayist Joni Tevis calls a “Shaker furniture” revision that aims to cut down to the core?
2) Remember your audience’s diversity.
-Ruth M. Gardner had been asked to write a song about temples and family when she started “Families Can Be Together Forever.” After writing the first verse, she grew concerned about children whose families were not sealed and wrote a second verse with them in mind: the first spoke of current blessings, the second emphasized future potential. When I shared this story with a friend of mine, he told me that growing up with one LDS parent, he had always connected strongly with that second verse.
Do we stop to consider the life situations and existing cultural tensions or audiences face as we write? Can we be aware enough of the specific sensitivities of subgroups in our audience to provide content that helps them in their particular struggles?
3) Believe that the audience needs writing.
In 1987, a new Primary Songbook was ready to go to press–or was it? A member of the Primary General Board called Caroll Lynn Pearson and said they felt strongly that they needed a song that would encourage integration of special needs children. She accepted the request to write one as quickly as possible, penned “I’ll Walk With You,” and the Songbook was complete. It’s a great song that has changed lives, and it did so because the Board and Sister Pearson were willing to believe so absolutely in the necessity of writing.
Do we believe we’re needed? Do we think about who needs us and how we can reach them in affirming ways?
What do you think? What else can we learn from Primary Song writers?