The Mormon Literary Proletariat (What are YOU writing?)

Kent’s and Jonathon’s recent posts about Road Shows have me reminiscing. Well, that and the fact that I’ve spent a fair amount of time the last month writing/organizing our ward’s sacrament meeting Primary program and pondering a poem/essay request for our upcoming Enrichment meeting in December. (I know we’re supposed to just refer to it as a Relief Society meeting, but I have to say I find it useful to have a term that designates it as the quarterly weeknight meeting and not the Sunday one. Old habits die hard, I guess. Anyway. . .) See, as a kid I was in a few road shows which was fun, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that I began to realize how much time non-writers in the Church spend writing.

Besides the fact that we all give talks and lessons, which require writerly-type skills, many, many people are asked to write not only road shows, but reader’s theaters, Primary programs, Christmas programs, Relief Society birthday programs–and the list goes on. Over the past 7ish years that I’ve technically counted as an adult (you know, married and living in a family ward) I’ve written several poems for Relief Society Enrichments, a monologue for a Relief Society birthday event, a reader’s theater about gratitude, another reader’s theater about metaphorical and metaphysical connections between light and Christ’s forgiveness, a road show entitled “The Legend of Johnny Gringo” (the concept was assigned to me by our ward’s activity chair and reeks of that pun-ny brand of tacky Mormon humor that thrives in road shows), a more serious play that chronicles the real-life story of a convert in California during WWII, a Christmas program, 3 Primary programs, and even a faux news program detailing the Book of Mormon account of the destruction of Ammonihah (for our ward Seminary class). That’s a lot of hours in front of my computer and my scriptures!

Looking over that list, I have to admit that it all sounds a little crazy–especially the Johnny Gringo. But what surprises me most is how happy my memories of those writing assignments are. Writing them brought out what is best about the writing process for me: getting the chance to ponder what the world looks like from different perspectives–including the perspectives of my characters and my audiences; getting a chance to immerse myself in scripture and applying it to myself; getting a chance to share a real part of myself that otherwise wouldn’t get noticed; getting the chance to struggle with language and meaning and symbols and come away invigorated. I don’t know that any of the pieces I created are great literature or would hold up under any kind of editing process, but I’m still proud of them. I like them for what they meant to the performers and listeners. I’m like them for the community effort they represent. Most of all, I’m proud of the closeness they brought with the Spirit and the moments of consecration writing those pieces allowed.

I find that I actually crave those experiences now. Every fall I find myself hoping that someone will ask me to write another Christmas program. In the Spring, when I know the Relief Society birthday is coming up, I wonder and wonder if they’ll ask me to contribute something. Pioneer day often provides good opportunities too. . . and the year keeps turning and I keep hoping.

Our ward Relief Society used to have a yearly garden party and poetry reading. I’ll admit I was behind it every year it happened. I loved writing something for the sisters to hear but even more than that I loved hearing what all the other writers–especially the ones I didn’t know were writers, the writers who had no training or airs–were writing. They were a sort of literary proletariat and their work had such honesty and fervor that seeing them read their works aloud (usually for the first and only time) always fired me up.

This year’s Primary program is one of my best (I like to think, anyway) and a beautiful, sensitive, intelligent friend of mine is putting together the Christmas program and my breath is fully baited with waiting. Now if only we could get another road show or open mic night on the ward calendar, because, wow, there is such an essential creativity in the Mormon experience. It begs to be shared.

Tell me, what have you written for a Church assignment? How was the experience for you? And most importantly, do you ever cringe at Mormon road show titles?

24 thoughts on “The Mormon Literary Proletariat (What are YOU writing?)”

  1. Oh that I lived in a ward that cared about such things, and encouraged this kind of work. As it is, I live in a culturally desolate wasteland on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley.

  2. And I live in a Mission Field stake/ward that sticks to the CES like glue, and to the conference talks for sacrament meeting fodder. No proletariat writing going on here.

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who calls it Enrichment. I’m (relatively) new to the Church, the name was changed away from Enrichment about a month after my baptism, and I completely agree that it helps to have a different name for those extra events.

    The flip side of being so new is that I haven’t yet *knocks on wood* been asked to give a talk or a lesson.

  4. Over the past 7ish years that I’ve technically counted as an adult (you know, married and living in a family ward) . . .

    Psst! Single people are adults, too!

    ~This friendly reminder has been brought to you by The Committee to Make Life a Little Less Hellish for Thirty-Something (and Older) Single Mormons.~

  5. Katya–Sorry! I knew when I wrote that it came out wrong, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I meant that while I was technically an adult for awhile it wasn’t until I got married and went to a family ward that I gained a clue. I know there are so, so many of you out there who don’t have to be married to have a clue. Apparently *I’m* still working on it. . .Sorry, again.

    Brad–maybe you just need to volunteer πŸ™‚ I’m sorta kidding, but I did volunteer for a couple of those assignments because I wanted people to know I was willing to do them. And, um, Legend of Johnny Gringo. I’m convinced there are very few things that are less arty than that!

    Moriah–I will readily admit that none of what I wrote strays very far from CES or conference talk content. The ward really isn’t the appropriate venue for a lot of the stuff I do/would write. For a lot of that stuff I was given really direct instructions from the people asking for the work. The point, for me, wasn’t the entirely the content. Rather it was the opportunity to work with others in an artistic way and hear what kind of art non-artists are creating. There’s something very satisfying as an artist to know that what you are writing will be heard.

    Goody–You know that if you say that out loud the powers that be will find you and make you speak!! I’m sure when your time comes you will excel πŸ™‚

  6. Laura – No worries.

    To get back to the substance of your post, I wrote a couple of skits (one was a spoof of ER) for Young Women in Excellence when I was a Laurel, but I don’t think I’ve written anything since, besides talks.

  7. During all the Joseph Smith memorial celebration stuff I wrote our ward’s play. It was a great experience, the first time I had really written anything since I had kids. After that the Stake Music chairperson asked me to write our stake’s Christmas Choir script. That was an amazing thing–I felt very guided by the Spirit, and the end result was a perfect wedding of text and song. We had a fantastic choir director and great support from the stake. I loved it. A couple of years passed, and then last year I was asked to write a Nativity program for our youth to perform. Again, I felt guided as I wrote, and the end result was excellent. Many people were involved with costume and set production, the youth did a great job, we involved a few people we don’t see too often, and it was a good thing.

    What I like most about this kind of writing is the way the Spirit directs what I write, more than anything else I’ve ever done. I can write a story on my own time, and sometimes I do feel inspiration to help me say what I want to say, but it’s a sweet and humbling experience to be writing for the Lord.

  8. Good post. This is what it made me think:

    One of the problems with art of all kinds in our culture, I think, is the conceptual barrier we put up between art and life. If amateurs aren’t creating art, then it’s not really serving its purpose as part of human culture, in my opinion.

    That’s a sobering thought for me, since I’m one of those who often cringes both at road show titles and at road shows themselves, and other similarly amateur and often low-quality artistic offerings. This is clearly a case where I need to somehow bring my knee-jerk reactions into more harmony with what I believe is true. While it’s important to push for quality in some contexts, encouragement (as I’m trying to remind myself writing this) is much more likely to get people feeling more invested in art and literature in general.

  9. .

    When I was a teenager I wrote a crazyweird puppet show on the 2000 stripling warriors for the Primary. Good times.

    And, Goody, congratulations!

  10. Katya–an ER spoof is an auspicious beginning! I bet your RS needs you to write more πŸ™‚

    Emily M–This is what I’m talking about! It’s an amazing experience and one I’m grateful to have when it comes my way.

    Jonathon–I think you’re right on both counts. If amateurs aren’t involved then art isn’t serving its purpose and we need to push for quality. Which is one reason why I love being involved! I don’t know that I’m much more than an amateur, but at least I love language and like to play with it and push myself for quality.

    Th.–I bet you saved your puppet show. I look forward to seeing it on your blog or thvlog πŸ™‚

  11. Thanks for the post and comments. I too have been grateful when ward leaders asked me to write programs for Christmas and Relief Society birthday parties.

    In one instance, I was struggling to know what I could offer a ward sisterhood that seemed to prefer crafts over culture. The Enrichment leader didn’t know that I write but she asked me to create a reader’s theater about Mary for the Relief Society Christmas party. I felt vulnerable when I passed out the script to people I saw on a weekly basis. (It’s much easier to send manuscripts to editors in distant cities.) Although the result was not a professional production, I’ll never forget the spiritual guidance I felt or the willingness of other ward members who participated.

    As Laura said these “moments of consecration” make the hard work of writing worthwhile.

  12. Great post, Laura. I was unaware of the use of reader’s theater. I’m pleased to hear that that’s something that some wards do.

    I have only written copy for ward bulletins and fliers related to events or service projects.

  13. Nani–It is SO hard to hand out something you wrote to people who don’t know for anything but what you might say in Sunday school. But I think opening ourselves up that way can be rewarding. I love that you understood what I meant πŸ™‚

    Wm–Reader’s theaters are big where I am. We’ve used them in Sunday school, in Sunday R.S. meetings, in Primary, um, pretty much everywhere. They’re great because they don’t require more than 1 or 2 rehearsals (if even that!) and people don’t have to memorize stuff. They are a lot less time consuming and intimidating than a fun blown road show. Give your folks a script, a prop or costume piece, and a stool to sit on and good times are ahead!

  14. Being older than the average bear, and having been raised in a theatrical family, I have had many opportunities to write Church (read: non-paying) projects. My sister calls me from 250 miles away for a Cub Scout skit on outer space…did it. My ward wants a one-act or two for a program: “The Bounds of Haskerville and Is There a Princess in the House?” The ward Christmas program needs a fully-staged puppet production of “A Christmas Carol” that runs at least 30 minutes–Give me some helpers, and people to tape the script, and you’ve got it. Mom tells me that, for a living-theatre missionary open house, we need monologues of people who saw Jesus–How about the innkeeper in Bethlehem and the Tenth Leper?
    [I’m sorry I’m going on so long, but there are a lot of these in my background.]
    Road shows? “Snow White and the Fourteen-Divided-by-Two Clones” (written after the alpha Laurel was voted for over a really good script of “Trial of the Big Bad Wolf,” and her idea was “We should do Snow White and, like, make it funny,” but she and her friends couldn’t be bothered to write a script…so I had to come up with something else by the next MIA) and “Up in My Family Tree.”
    It’s Mother’s Day–how about some poems for the special mothers we’re honoring…and could you put them on scrolls?
    A fellow librarian’s husband wonders if I could do a one-man show as Orrin Porter Rockwell for his High Priests group; I was great. A few months later, he needs it in an expanded version that includes Rockwell’s last 24 years; I was even better.
    Primary sacrament meetings–written them. Verse Christmas presentations for sacrament meeting? Yeah. Relief Society skits for wife…storytelling program for date night…Primary sharing time class presentations…Sharing time on choices that included a Choose-Your-Own Adventure with sixteen possible endings…Of course; happy to help.

    As we use our consecrate our talents, it does strengthen them…but I wish editors would accept “Pioneers in Space” as previous publication credit.

  15. TV Mc Arthur–That’s an awesome list! You should get them all printed up or make them available in e-format online. Maybe post them over at Sugar Doodle or Mormonshare? It’s would be a shame to see so much effort just disappear. Especially that Choose Your Own Adventure. . . I can totally see a Mormon publishing house getting into that! I bet that Rockwell play could find a home somewhere too.

  16. When I was 17 I was asked to write the screenplay for our ward’s “Stake Film” (to take the place of roadshows that year). I worked very hard on it, involving several local locations and even writing roles for some of the youth I knew would work well in them. Unfortunately, organization for the project fizzled and none of the screenplays were ever filmed. I still look back on it as a great experience.

    http://michaelknudsenauthor.com/

  17. The thing that immediately comes to mind was a Christmas skit on my mission, in which the missionaries spoke only in the then-current format for door approaches of asking a meaningful question, teaching a principle in response to the answer ending with a mini-testimony, and then having the companion bear a mini-follow-up testimony to launch into the next question.

    Also on my mission: while teaching a family who operated a small press, I’d write a little newsletter with spiritual questions and stories to take around to contacts and hand out to people on the street. Only lasted three issues, as I recall, but wasn’t a bad way to keep in touch.

  18. Roadshows are responsible for the short LDS attention span. Mormon audiences want happy stuff, musicals, comedy, fluff. However, for the sake of variety, occasionally we should accept an evening of dramatic catharsis. Where we used to live I wrote three Book of Mormon plays that our stake produced and they were very well received. It wasn’t an assignment from anyone; it was a compulsion from within. I wrote a patriotic program once. Right now I have an assignment to write a 20-minute readers theater for a stake women’s conference in the spring. I also have an idea (outline, characters, even a lyric or two) for a pioneer musical based around the old Salt Lake theater and the Nauvoo Brass Band, but I’m in over my head and need a collaborator to help me get it going again. Its theme is the place of the arts/artists in LDS culture.

  19. Michael–That’s too bad it fizzled out, but it sounds like what you wrote was great.

    James–Missionaries and Christmas skits! I swear it’s a right of passage. Even my husband, who served in Taiwan, had to do one. Someone should put together a compilation πŸ™‚

    Pam–Good for you for writing something from the heart! I think there is definitely a strong demand for the innocuous, but there is also a time and place for the more serious stuff. I hope you find a collaborator for new show; it sounds really interesting.

  20. Is there any way to get ahold of 14. TV Mc Arthur to see if he would be willing to send me a copy of his one man show as Porter Rockwell? Thanks

  21. J:

    I appreciate your plight, but this is a blog that focuses discussion about Mormon arts and culture. You’re best bet is to recruit someone within your own ward or stake to help. Good luck!

  22. J Johnson, I saw your comment a couple days ago and have been mulling it over. Here are two pieces of advice.

    First, Christmas programs are all about the music. Use only as much text as is necessary to give the choir a break between numbers. Also, make sure you aren’t asking them to learn to many numbers–remember the audience loves to sing along with some of it too!

    Second, Luke chapter two is a staple. . . sometimes overdone but missed if it is left out. Start there for text ideas.

    Also, having the text be written as a FHE discussion amongst a family with little kids really amps up the cuteness/entertainment factor without being distracting and doesn’t offend the Spirit. Remember: Keep it simple.

    If you need music check out defordmusic.com. Also, trying looking on Sugardoodle.net or Mormonshare.com. I bet those places have ready to use Christmas programs. And, definitely do as Wm says: find someone in your ward and get their ideas. Bishops usually have a pretty firm idea of what they want to see.

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