Mere Artists
By Marvin Payne

I have, on a number of occasions, written Backstage Graffiti to you in various accents, like during “Jane Eyre,” when I wrote in a very high-toned British accent that practically peered down its nose at you. But you didn’t know because I didn’t tell you, and I think it’s time I apologized. I apologize because highly experienced writers always let their readers know what their characters sound like. From the get-go.

One gig actors get is to read books into microphones for people to listen to in their cars and during this last year’s BYU football games and if they ever get called to jury duty. I was once reading a really long book with a really snaky wicked Jewish high priest slithering all the way through it like a snaky wicked Jewish high priest. On page three hundred-something he spun around and told one of his lieutenants (this was before Executive Secretaries) some very important evil thing “in his high rasping voice.” Okay, where did that come from?

In the fifth (count ‘em: five) gargantuan volume of an epic Civil War saga, the young lady whose dad is from France and whose mom is from Massachusetts, hears from her would-be seducer that she has a really beguiling “soft southern drawl.” Book Five wasn’t even a twinkle in the author’s eye way back when this lady began dancing out of my mouth in Book One sounding a lot more like a cross between Ted Kennedy and Inspector Clouseau than Gomer Pyle.

So I will tell you now what you are hearing. This column is being written in a high, whiny voice squeezed through a “Dudley Do-Right” enhancer that’s turned up to about 9 (out of 10). Also, it’s
eighty-five years old. The way this is achieved is through a slight slurring of sibilants overlaid upon some otherwise very precise enunciation, particularly final “t”s.

I sound this way because right now it’s intermission in the closing performance of “J. Golden” at the Alpine Playhouse (off-Broadway, or,  well, off-Main Street, but only by a block) and my hair is white and my cheeks are sunken and my nose is thinned and I’m twenty pounds lighter and three inches taller than I was an hour ago, and I have full faith in the singing and baseball skills of the living prophet, Heber J. Grant, and in the accuracy of my pocket watch, which someone who hath no music in themselves might observe is not even running, and in this condition I cannot sound like Marvin. Sounding like Marvin right now would feel like jogging in wingtips, or playing Moses in shades. So I sound like J. Golden Kimball, except I promise I will not employ any of that old cowboy vocabulary.

It’s fun playing an (my college graduate wife insisted I change “a” to “an”) historical character, because your job is purely to tell the truth well. Artists, particularly writers (Steve Perry ((this would be the one with “Kapp” in the middle, which is something of a boost for anyone wanting to compose the only true and living LDS music)) gave me a cool baseball hat that says “writer” on it ((except not in “Arial,” which is probably what you’re reading now, but in “Courier,” which is
what playwrights use (((except that I’ve taken to using “Papyrus,” which feels pretty danged authentic to me!))) )) – only I don’t wear it much ((the hat, remember?)) in public because it makes me feel like a smarty-pants) like to feel like they’re thinkers as well as artists, and sometimes get bored with just reproducing something somebody else already thought, or did. Or REVEALED.

(Did I tell this story before? There was once a painter named Dale Fletcher who I got to know when I was hauling some paintings and sculpture down to a mini-Mormon Art Festival ((the festival, not the Mormon, was mini)) in Arizona, because I was the only friend of the artists who had a van, being a musician and all, and Dale hitched a ride. He’d been a pretty fair painter in the abstract style, made quite a study of it and was a regular disciple. Then one day he was laboring
away on an abstract painting and every time he got frustrated with some element he’d worked into the composition, he painted it out with black paint. One element after another disappeared under the black. Finally the whole canvas was black. Bummer.

He had in those days been painfully hungry for some inkling that there might be a place for artists in the Lord’s work, and he stumbled across a passage in Exodus where the Lord told Moses to consecrate a couple of “wise-hearted” artists to execute the Lord’s plan for the tabernacle.  They were called Bezaleel and Aholiab. Dale went back to his black canvas and painted a white strip along the bottom, and wrote in it the simple word, “Aholiab.” Then he got some really tiny brushes and set up his easel in people’s backyards and began copying the trees, leaf by leaf. He had realized that none of his ideas are as good as the Lord’s ideas.)

Speaking of smarty-pants (see “hat” paragraph above), there’s an organization called The Association For Mormon Letters, which has nothing (or very little) to do with anything postal, and everything (or very much) to do with literature – by, for, or about Mormons, which would include Eliza R. Snow, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elder Gerald Lund, and Napoleon Dynamite. I know practically nothing about this association, but the association has an email list, about which I know everything, and of which I am a member, in spite of the fact that nothing from Backstage Graffiti has ever been mentioned there, critically or otherwise. This is about to change.

Several months ago I wrote something on the list that I was certain would stir the peanut butter up from the bottom of the jar. Two kind members of the list (most members are kind) wrote me personally telling me they themselves had been stirred, and I thought we were off to the intellectual races. And at that precise moment, the list went dead. For about six months. (I think maybe the moderator became a Muslim. Or a columnist.) When the list was resurrected, about four days ago, the primary thread of discussion was the post-modernist theological implications of “The Revenge of the Sith,” the peanut butter was settled pretty adamantly at the bottom of the jar, and the top third was just the more lightweight oil (up high, maybe so you could get it out and into your lamp more handily). So here’s what I wrote:

“I came away recently from a rich conversation with my old friend Kristen Randle (we’d been at a meeting planning a ‘Mormon Artists’ Retreat,’ which would never have become a recurring phenomena without the seminal influence of Dale Fletcher thirty years earlier) with these questions percolating in my mind.

“Why are our discussions as writers often focused so intensely on what we think? ‘Thinker’ and ‘writer’ are not synonymous terms. Sometimes the ‘thinker’ circle happily (and always partially) overlaps the ‘writer’ circle. But isn’t an artist’s raison d’etre merely to interpret thought beautifully, and isn’t it just a lucky bonus when the thought itself seems new?

“I will have ‘new’ thoughts from time to time and eagerly write them down. Then for a few moments I will regard myself as an interesting thinker. But if I ever presume to publish them, it’s not because I expect those thoughts to be rich enough or new enough to be worth anyone buying – it’s because I wrote them down well enough (richly enough, ‘new’ly enough) for others to enjoy them, to be ‘entertained’ by them. (‘Entertained’ here meaning ‘sustained,’ ‘captured,’ ‘engaged.’)”

Brief but urgent REMINDER INTERRUPTION in the AML-list post here quoted: If any columnreaders are disinclined to take this stuff seriously, please be reminded that you are listening to the voice of a General Authority (!) and if that doesn’t persuade you, then you can
darn well ____________ (insert cowboy epithet).

“Is there anything wrong with a Mormon artist simply celebrating what all the Mormons are supposed to know? Could, say, even a Mormon romance (happy ending and all) be written so elegantly and/or boldly and/or goofily that it has lingering value, and the only ‘escape’ it provides is into the kind of courageous place we all ought frequently to ‘escape’ to (like ‘escaping’ Babylon, which is widely thought to be a good idea)? Are we too often after the response, ‘Dude! I never thought of that before!’

“What about a guy like Girard Manley Hopkins, who, as a Catholic Priest/Poet, takes something widely cherished, like resurrection, and thunders and trumpets and dances and shouts it? Awfully old idea, resurrection.

“Are we afraid that our art is so weak that it has to be propped up by what will appear to be an original idea?

“Haven’t both God the Father and the Prophet Joseph said quite clearly that a ‘happy ending’ is the conclusion to which our personal stories should move? Isn’t true love supposed to triumph after upset and turmoil? Is it possible that fairy tales endure because they resonate with divine scenarios?

“Does ‘Thy will, not mine, be done’ suggest ‘Thy thoughts, not mine, be painted, rhymed, filmed, danced’?

“Isn’t there a wealth of personal expression available in simply making art out of:

‘This is how I learned [a particular truth],’
‘This is how I defended [a particular truth],’
‘This is how I betrayed [a particular truth],’
‘This is how I was brought to repent?’

(Replace ‘I’ above with ‘my protagonist.’)

“Julie deAzevedo recently made me mad (but also delighted me) by beating me to writing ‘Window To His Love.’ I’d been talking publicly for decades about the artist’s responsibility to be transparent and to place himself somewhere convenient to a beauty he loves, so that people can see through the gray walls of their mortality into what’s real and infinite and godly.

“Just some questions, respectfully posed.”
End of post.

“Well,” once again as the Emperor of Austria said to Mozart, “there you are.” The last time I got this serious (or maybe, this less goof-offy) in Meridian Magazine, the editor titled my column “Marvin Gets Serious.” To that notion I would retort, turning from my General Conference pulpit to address the President of the Church, “C’mon Heber, just who in thunder is this ‘Marvin’ fellow, anyway?”
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Visit marvinpayne.com!

“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)