Mormon LitCrit: Great Mormon Art

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?

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9 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Great Mormon Art

  1. Th. says:

    .

    We can learn to get ‘em while they’re young?

  2. Emily M. says:

    I love this post–my mother-in-law wrote "When I Am Baptized" (first line "I like to look for rainbows…") and there is much to be learned from her creative process. She suffered from very complicated diabetes and often composed music in the middle of the night because she could not sleep. She revised and revised her work, tweaking words and notes until she was satisfied. "When I Am Baptized" is the only one of her songs that ever became well-known; however, she also won other Church music contests and had a couple of songs published in the Friend (another post for another day: why doesn’t the Church make a website of all the past song winners so that people can use their music and enjoy it?).

    The thing that strikes me about this is that thousands of children have enjoyed singing her song at their baptisms, but I bet none of them know her name or anything about her, and I know she did not mind this or seek any recognition. Sometimes I wonder if the quest to write the Great Mormon Novel or become a Mormon Shakespeare is more about getting that name recognition, having people call you great, than actually producing something classic and enduring. Which is why the comparison to Primary composers is so apt: for them, it’s all about the message and the audience. You don’t write Primary songs so you can be called the next Milton. You write them to teach truth.

  3. Melinda W. says:

    Very thought-provoking post. Another thing Primary songs do is teach a concrete gospel principle. Just running through a list of song titles is one statement after another of Mormon belief. The Primary songs take a gospel principle and make it memorable by setting it to music. I see some similarities between that approach and taking a gospel principle and illustrating it with a parable.

  4. I absolutely agree that some of our best writing can be found in primary songs. (And anyone who has tried to write one knows the great degree of skill it requires.)Great observation, James.

  5. Emily M.,

    Your comment is absolutely beautiful. I just pulled it up a second time to read out loud to my wife.

    I will try to remember and live up to your last two lines in my own writing.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    Amen.

    In Elder Maxwell’s novel newly retitled [i]The Enoch Letters[/i] he shows artists in Zion operating under that principle: a complete lack of interest in popular recognition.

    Which I honor but, frankly, ain’t ready for yet.

  7. Wm Morris says:

    I think what it also points to, Emily, is the notion that Mormon artists don’t need to necessarily follow the world’s ideas of what it means to have an artistic career and Be An Artist. I know someone who thinks that everyone has one good story in them. By that, he means that most people have one narrative that they can bring enough passion and life experience too to create a work that’s pretty good or even great (with a bit of craft, too, of course). He usually mentions this in connection with the fact that someone’s second film or novel isn’t very good.

    Perhaps one thing we should be doing is help foster an environment where that one film, novel, song, etc. can happen, can receive editorial feedback, can be disseminated, and can be cataloged so it doesn’t disappear.

  8. A fascinating idea, William. There seem to be some assumptions about how art *ought* to be created that often don’t align that well to how it actually does get created, in many cases. There are some thoughts I’ve been mulling over for a possible post here or over at AMV related to this…

  9. Sudden thought! My wife and I were discussing the disaster of a time when my stake had the youth memorize songs like Janice Kapp Perry’s "Sixteen, it’s a Magical Age"–we speculated that songs like that actively distanced some teenagers from the church because for culture-driven teens, they made the church sound like super-shallow cheese.
    Our thought: the church community has done very well with cultural production for young children, most of whom end up having a very positive experience with church. The church community has struggled much more on credible cultural production for teenagers, especially bright or culture-conscious teenagers, and struggles more with YA demographics as a result.
    QUESTION: would it be easier for some teenagers to stay faithful if they had better Mormon books or culture around?
    I think I will make a follow-up blog post out of this, but wanted to make a note of it here for now.

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