Creativity and the Latter-day Saint


Taken from an address delivered at BYU Education Week on June 10, 1965.

One premise that we Latter-day Saints live by is that by membership in the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ we have the gift of the Holy Ghost conferred upon us. We try to improve ourselves to the point that we can be constantly worthy of this companionship. And if we accept as a true premise that this gift is a real gift, then it should do something to us. Joseph Smith affirmed on an occasion that this was one of the unique features of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and his church—the presence of this gift to his people. But what does it do to us? How does it make us different?

May I suggest that one of the ways the Holy Spirit helps us is that it makes us more creative? Now the word creativity is merely a word, but it symbolizes some realities.

Here are some questions I would like to have us ask ourselves: In what ways am I creative? Does the gift of the Holy Ghost provide me with an additional measure of creativity? And, if so, in what ways does this manifest itself? For the homemaker: How does this make me a better wife and mother? For the brother: How does this make me a better holder of the priesthood? For the student: How does this make me more successful in my studies? For the person who is building a home or is cultivating a garden, or is engaged in any of a thousand other activities: How does the facet of creativity improve these activities and make them more meaningful or more beautiful? These are the questions. What are our responses?

As I relate three brief stories, may I invite you to adapt their messages to the areas of creativity in your own lives. Perhaps you feel that you are not creative enough. Each of us can examine our own areas of creativity as they relate to the gifts of the Spirit and see if we can enlarge them and make them more meaningful.

The first story is one from our Church history. You may recall that during the period of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery desired to translate. We can imagine, if we place ourselves in Oliver Cowdery’s shoes for a moment, how he must have felt. Picture in your mind the second floor of a remote little house in the eastern part of the United States in the late 1820s. Oliver’s associate, Joseph Smith, may have said, “Oliver, you’re going to spend many hours each day as my scribe. I am going to translate and you are going to write down the words. You cannot see the plates as I am translating from them. I will draw a curtain and you are going to be seated behind it. Take your quill and manuscript paper and you write as the words are spoken.” Can you imagine how you would have felt if you were Oliver Cowdery as you wrote down these dictated words—as you heard the Prophet’s voice on the other side of the curtain? What creative act must have been taking place across the curtain? Oliver was like any normal person. His desire was, “Let me try to translate.”

You recall that the Prophet Joseph inquired of the Lord whether this procedure would be approved, and you recall that the Lord advised against it. But Oliver was persistent, and the Lord finally gave him permission to translate. We do not know the details of how this occurred, but we do know the aftermath of it, as recorded in section 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 9]. The revelation is through the Prophet Joseph to Oliver Cowdery, and therein are a few verses which I think are very significant to creativity.

The Lord outlines why Oliver was unsuccessful in translation. He says, “You took no thought save it was to ask me. [And the Lord indicated this was not right.]

“But … you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings” (D&C 9:7–9.)

Here is probably a key point of creativity the Lord illuminated to Oliver and indirectly to us. We do not know the details of how this translation process physically took place since the Prophet didn’t illuminate its essence. But we do learn from this account some of its important characteristics. Oliver likely said, “Lord, give me the answer.” The Lord said, “You must study it out in your mind.” And what is He saying to us in this passage? In our own activities we must analyze what the results would be if we pursued this direction and what the results would be if we pursued another direction. We should examine the alternatives to any problem. We have to examine the alternatives and analyze the possible results of each of the potential paths of activity. The Lord said to then ask and he will “cause that your bosom shall burn within you.” He will give a revelatory experience by which we can have a confirmation of which direction is correct.

That message suggests to us at least one method by which we can increase our creativity, a method in which creativity is, in a sense, complementary to the inspiration that we need for our lives, and which creativity comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit to each of us—not only to the prophets, but to each Latter-day Saint who has this priceless gift.

Now the second story, if I might delve back into a personal experience of my own as a child. I was baptized at the age of eight; and shortly after my baptism and my confirmation I started taking piano lessons. It was at the early part of the Depression, and shortly after I had completed my first year of lessons the Depression had its full impact on our family and we could not afford the lessons any longer. But that didn’t stop my activity in music, and I continued to practice. Like many of you who have taken first-year piano lessons and studied such an illustrious author of children’s books as John Thompson, I continued my work. Over at school they provided violin lessons free, and since the price was right I started taking violin lessons. After about six months or a year the teacher needed a violist in a student string quartet, and since I had a longer arm than the next fellow, I was transformed into a viola player—not a very good one, but there I was on the viola.

At home I started to do what many of us do who learn a little at the keyboard—I started to improvise. My hands wandered over the keys. Who hasn’t sat down at the family piano and struck a chord or made up a tune? It is a very common experience.

But I was persistent with the improvising idea, and finally after a month or two had improvised a little piece of music. I was elated with this and, in fact, took the trouble to write it down. I didn’t know that you could go to the music store and buy music manuscript paper with lines already printed that you could write your own notes on. So I took a ruler and barred my own five-line staffs. The lines weren’t very parallel and the result was pretty amateurish. It took a long time for me to figure out whether, in a given place in the music, it was a quarter note or a half note, whether it was G or F#, whether it was in 4/4 or 3/4 time, and whether I was playing in the key of C or G. But during the long laborious process, I finally arrived at notating this first “Opus 1, No. 1.”

I called my mother to the piano and I said, “Mother, I have composed a piece!” And what mother wouldn’t be happy at that announcement? She patted me on the head and said, “Well, how nice. Why don’t you play it for your teacher at school?” Well, my classroom teacher at school didn’t know very much about music, so she said, “Why don’t you play it for the class?” All of a sudden I became very famous in the third grade as a composer of a piano piece which I entitled “Brownie’s Ponies,” which shows my level of maturity at that time.

As a result of the recognition that had come from my third-grade class I decided, “Well, I’ll write another piece.” So I improvised for a few days or a week and took the trouble to notate the second piece. Then one after another of these things rolled off over a period of four years, until I had collected about ten of them. At age 12, I had ten pieces that I had written down, all for the piano.

Then it was that I made a startling discovery. I still hadn’t taken any more piano lessons, but I had worked on the violin and viola and continued to practice my piano to the degree one can as a 12-year-old without a teacher. I went back over my old piano books, and I made this horrifying discovery—that my “Opus 1, No. 1” wasn’t really mine after all, but it was page 25 of John Thompson’s children’s piano book, We’re in the Navy. I had subconsciously absorbed this page and thought it to be my own when I started to improvise. I went into the same patterns that my fingers had already been trained to follow. And without recognizing this relationship, I had assumed that this was my own work.

This is a horrifying discovery to a 12-year-old. It would be disturbing for anyone, but it was particularly devastating to me at that time. I thought my career as a composer was going to end in fraud. Did I dare reveal to anybody that I was a fake? I could have copied the piece directly from the page of John Thompson. Instead, it had taken me three months to write it down. I could have gone back to page 25 and copied it out in half a day! However, I did transpose it. There was one thing unique in my version—I changed it to a different key. But even that isn’t very difficult. So I went back and thought, “Where did the other nine pieces come from?”

So for the next hour or so I went through all the pieces I could possibly find. I found that “No. 2” had a little snatch of “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” in it, and “No. 3” had a little bit from somewhere else. As I got a little further along I found there was a snatch here, a touch there, and a fragment there, but I couldn’t find that any of the other nine were actually lifted totally from another source as “No. 1” was.

Rather than going back and blurting out my confession to my class, I started to think, “Well, what does it really mean to be original after all? Certainly ‘Opus 1, No. 1’ isn’t original and a lot of the others don’t seem to be too original. How do you become original as a composer?” After all, there are only 12 notes in a scale, and there must be a hundred million pieces that have been written in the last thousand years. If you actually made a computer analysis of the pieces that have been written you would find just about every possible combination has been used! How, then, do you become creative as a composer with the same 12 notes that everyone else is using?

I’m not sure that I have the answer to that question, but I would like to suggest that a similar question exists for us all in any of a thousand other fields. How does my contribution to the world mean anything or have any uniqueness? As I said, I don’t have the answer to that, but I would like to give just one thought which may approach a solution.

It seems to me that part of the genius of our creation is the fact that each one of us is different from the next one—that the Lord didn’t make two leaves exactly the same way, or two of anything. Even identical twins really have some significant differences in them. Each of us is a little universe all of our own. And after the stamp of our particular creation was made, the unique cast was discarded. Of course, we all have a pancreas, big toenails, eyelashes—but even here the stamp is different for each one. One of the tasks of this life is to find that difference and to express it—meaningfully. If we do that, then in some way our contribution to the world, to the Church, to the community, to our families, and to everyone else, is unique and original.

Our contribution may have some superficial similarities or even some significant similarities to the contributions of others. Much of our daily work is similar to the next person’s. Our food is similar; we all wear apparel that is similar to the next person’s; we drive similar kinds of cars; we live in similar kinds of homes. But may I suggest that because each of us is significantly different that that difference has meaning, and that meaning can be translated into some kind of service that is meaningful to those around us. Herein lies an element of creativity and originality that is meaningful.

Now the third story, if I might skip another four years. At age 16 it became necessary for me to make a decision as to what I was going to spend my life doing. I lived within six blocks of Stanford University, and I was influenced by this university. Two of my friends had fathers who taught there. One of them, for instance, was a polio research scientist. He was trying to find, like many others, the way to prevent polio. He didn’t discover it—others did—but he made a contribution. One of the physicists helped direct my thinking. “Do I want to become a physicist? Do I want to become a research bacteriologist? Do I want to become this? Do I want to become that?” This is a common experience to teenagers.

I was active in music but I thought, “I don’t want to become a musician. Who wants to become a musician?” My view of a musician was that he was a drunken dance band bum or else that he was a long-hair who starved in a garret. So I dismissed, for a period, the idea of becoming a professional musician. I determined that very few of them ever made any money. Many of them, I thought, starved half to death, and that aspect didn’t attract me particularly.

During this period in which I investigated a number of other professional areas, and after thought and prayer, I finally came to a decision. I studied it out in my own mind. I finally came to a conviction within my heart—a burning within my bosom—that regardless of my previous views of what a musician was, how much money he would or would not make, or any of these other factors, my conviction was in this direction; this is how I was to make my contribution to the world; this is how I would make my professional life a reality.

That came like many of our decisions come. I studied it out in my mind, trying to perceive what would be the results if I went in any of several different directions, and then I asked the Lord to guide me in receiving a confirmation through his Spirit concerning the correct direction.

When I had made that decision, I told my father and my mother that I had arrived at a decision. They, of course, were cognizant that this churning process was going on. We communicated many times during the process. I still have this little slip of paper in one of my scrapbooks: “Today I know what I want.” My father, who was a businessman, couldn’t carry a tune in the bathtub. He had not much sympathy for music as a career. When I said, “I want to go into music,” he said, “All right, son [these words have come back to me many times], but don’t be a second-rater.”

Now that is a hard challenge. I do not believe that we need necessarily to compete with the great ones of the world. We need to compete with our own best selves. And isn’t that the challenge we all have? Isn’t it hard to be a first-rate John Jones or Mary Smith? It is easy to be a second-rate John Jones or Mary Smith. I find myself qualifying, frequently, for a second-rate Crawford Gates. And I am sorry that I qualify so frequently.

It is hard for us to measure up to our own potential. I find it very difficult to be equal to the Lord’s blessings. Don’t we all have that same problem in our lives—the necessity to creatively measure up to our own potential?

And so those words of my good father have rung in my ears many times since then, and they have spurred me to try to jump one step higher in the creative act of becoming better in any number of different individual achievements.

I went to the College of the Pacific my freshman year. They had a good music school there and it was close by my home. At the beginning of that first year there was a sign out on the bulletin board of the music department, and it said, “Composition Contest,” and I said, “That’s for me!” It had a huge prize for the one who won—twenty-five dollars! That would take you almost through a whole semester of school in those days. But more important than the financial prize was the fact that the winning composition would be played by the Stockton Symphony Orchestra.

So as a young freshman—it was still before my 17th birthday and I looked much younger than that—I started to brag to my colleagues that I was not only going to enter this composition contest, but I was going to win it. I became very unpopular. In fact there was a master’s degree candidate who played cello in the symphony orchestra of the school—he was very old, about 22 or so—who would come by on campus, look at me, pat me on the head, and say, “How is your tune coming, Buster?” He was referring to my masterpiece for symphony orchestra—and he called it a “tune”; that was very insulting to me.

In the course of time the “tune” was finished and submitted to the necessary authorities in the Stockton Symphony Orchestra. The conductor was one of the judges, and soon the word got back that I had won first prize. But there was a note on the front of the score, and the note said, “This composition is written for much too large an orchestra. Please have the student composer reduce it for the size of the Stockton Symphony.” Now that was one detail I had overlooked. I had read in Life magazine that the Boston Symphony had 104 pieces, so I had written for a 104-piece symphony. I didn’t take time to check that the Stockton Symphony Orchestra had only 52 pieces in it. The reduction of a score intended for 104 players down to 52 is a very unpleasant task, so I said, “Well, I hear it in my head this way.” This is the brashness of a freshman mind. I said, “Nuts to the Stockton Symphony Orchestra. I’ll find an orchestra that is big enough to play this tune.”

So I looked around California and found that San Jose State, which was also near my home, had a large symphony orchestra of over 100 pieces in their school, and in my sophomore year I changed from the College of the Pacific to San Jose State on the sole motivation that they had a big enough symphony orchestra to play my piece.

The first day after I had arrived there I went to the office of the director of the symphony orchestra; his name was Adolf Otterstein. I said, “Professor Otterstein, I have a composition I would like to have the college symphony orchestra play.” He took a dim view of a new brash young sophomore, but he was kind and said, “Leave it here; I am busy right now, but come back next week.” So I came back the next week and, sure enough, he had taken a moment or two to glance through it, and he said, “Well, it isn’t too bad.” He asked, “Have you copied the parts?” And I indicated that I had.

When you write a piece for an orchestra, it isn’t like writing a hymn for the hymnbook, where you write the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass so that you can play the result with the right hand and left hand or sing it with a congregation; you have to write the music on a score sheet that may be 18 to 20 inches high and 12 to 15 inches wide, and has many music score lines on it. And you have to write a note or a line for every instrument of the entire orchestra.

Orchestration is, in a sense, the coloring of a musical line, so you have to write that out to complete the reality of the musical thought. Maybe you have three or four or five or six hundred sheets of paper. You can’t gather the orchestra around the package of sheets and expect them to all play or blow at the same time. You obviously have to do something with the score, or someone else has to. If you’re fortunate, you can get someone else to do it or hire someone else to do it; or if you aren’t, you do it yourself.

You get a stack of blank manuscript paper and you label one page “first flute,” and then you copy off every note from the “full score” onto the new blank sheet—every sharp, every accent, every dot. And finally you get through with the whole book for the first flute part and you put it to one side. Then you start again with a new blank set of sheets and do the second flute part, and thereafter you start over again, using the same procedure. Well, by the time you get through a 104-piece orchestra, you wish you were working for a ten-piece combo. It is a very laborious task.

I had spent all summer at a Boy Scout camp as a director. I would tuck my Scouts in every night and then go down to my little tent and light the oil lamp and copy my parts. I had 25 pounds of parts for this piece.

So when Professor Otterstein asked me, “Do you have the parts copied?” I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “We rehearse on Monday nights in the Morris Dailey Auditorium, and next Monday you come with your parts, and after the intermission we will let the orchestra read through it.”

Then he asked me a strange question. He said, “Would you like to conduct it?”

Now, if he had said, “Can you conduct it?” I would have had to answer differently, but he said, “Would you like to conduct it?” Well, who wouldn’t like to conduct a 100-piece orchestra playing his own piece? The fact that I had only conducted “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” in my Sunday School class wasn’t much preparation to conduct a 104-piece symphony orchestra. But he phrased the question the way he did and I answered the way I did, “Of course I’d like to conduct.”

I went home and the whole next week I checked my orchestral parts over trying to see if it really would sound right, and I felt squeamish inside because I had imagined this piece but I had never heard it played. I thought that I had checked everything; I felt that it ought to sound all right.

Although it was actually a Monday, and though the previous day had been a fast Sunday, this was a fast Monday to me—I couldn’t eat at all, I was so excited. I wheeled a wheelbarrow full of parts out to the car—I had borrowed my father’s car—and put them in the rumble seat and then drove down to San Jose.

All day long I fidgeted through my classes. I couldn’t eat my lunch. That night I placed the parts in the seats in the front row of the Morris Dailey Auditorium and waited while the symphony orchestra rehearsed the Beethoven Fourth Symphony or some other obscure work.

Finally Otterstein turned around and said, “Where’s Gates?”

There I was, hidden behind this stack of parts, and I said, “Here I am, sir.”

He said, “Do you have your parts with you?” What a ridiculous question! Here they were.

He said, “Well, pass the things out.”

I went up there during the intermission and I passed the cello parts out this way and the violin parts out that way and the heavy artillery out here—the “garbage can” section in the back, with the timpani, bass drum, cymbals, etc. The parts were all passed out when Professor Otterstein came up after the intermission.

I had written my name very big on all the parts—CRAWFORD GATES—and it was terrible. I should never have done it because the players thought, “Well, who is Crawford Gates?” Otterstein apologized vaguely to the players concerning the experience he was about to subject them to, suggesting it would perhaps have some value for them or for me.

Players don’t like to play from handwritten music manuscript, and my manuscript was horrible. Otterstein said, “This is Crawford Gates. He is from the College of the Pacific!” Well, that would be like saying at BYU, “He is from the University of Utah!”

He then said, “I’m going to let Mr. Gates conduct.” He boosted me up on the podium and gave me the baton, and the coward went out of the auditorium into the safety of the darkness—there was no audience; this was a rehearsal.

I held the baton up very shakily. I remember there was a cello player just like the one at the College of the Pacific. He was down to my right and he was older. He had his finger on the string, on the first note of the cello part. As I held my hand up there, shaking like a leaf for this first note, he said something to this effect: “Just drop the baton, Buster, and we’ll play the notes.” So I dropped the baton, and the cellos and basses came out on the pianissimo and it didn’t sound too bad. (Anyone can write that, cellos and basses in unison; that is not very hard.)

I knew that it was 3/4 time, so I conducted 1—2—3, so the music moved along. A few minutes later the French horns came in. I knew that you were supposed to point to them, so I gave a signal to the French horn section, and they came in much like a cow taking its foot out of the mud—it was a terrible sound.

The conductor at the back of the hall called out, “It isn’t that modern, is it, Gates?”

I said, “No, sir, something is wrong.” I was turning red and purple as I went to the back of the horn section, and everyone was fidgeting. I found that I had left all the sharps off the French horn parts, which I corrected in a moment or two, and then I came back. Well, this experience was excruciating. The orchestra droned and grunted along and the players were saying, or looking like, “Oh how can we bear this terrible stuff?” It was a frightful experience.

Well, something happened. I suppose that if it hadn’t happened at the end of that 40- or 45-minute period, whatever it took to grind through the thing, I would have probably decided that my conviction of a few years earlier had been in the wrong direction. I would have gone back into physics or something else. But what happened in the last moment of that piece was the fact that somehow there was a tune. It had been orchestrated to some degree with natural instinct from the orchestra, and it soared up to a climax and relaxed away from it in a pattern that changed the whole spirit of the orchestra. The feeling changed immediately during the last few minutes of the piece. Instead of saying, or looking, “How can we bear this?” I saw their expressions, as though they were saying, “Not bad! Not bad!”

At the end they started to applaud, and the conductor came running down the aisle, saying, “Well, the first part was pretty terrible but the last part wasn’t so bad!”

I recall all the way home that night I could hear that wonderful big sound of the ending and I forgot the terror of the first part. I remembered that for the last few moments I was raised about a foot off the podium—I conducted sort of instinctively, feeling that “This is why I’m alive! This is my contribution to the world!” I felt that “men are that they might have joy” is no longer just a statement in the Book of Mormon (2 Ne. 2:25), but it is a reality for me right here, right now!

I thought, this is how the Lord must have felt when he said that “it was good” (see Gen. 1:4). What a remarkable understatement the Lord made about his own work. And one reason God exists is because he has joy, and what does he have joy in? In the creative act—in the act of creating a galaxy or in creating a human soul.

Brothers and sisters, may I invite you to translate this story into your own lives. The thing that is meaningful to us creatively occurs when something that we do from our own individual selves—from that part of us which makes us different—is recognized to some small degree as being valuable to someone else. When each of us applies this in our families, in school, at work, or at play, that which we give to others becomes of even greater value to ourselves.

I express to you my conviction of the divinity of the gospel of Christ. I have a desire to live close to the Lord so that the gifts of the Holy Spirit do manifest themselves creatively in practical situations in my life. I am sure that if we all endeavor to achieve success in this creative process, our lives will become richer and closer to the Lord. I pray that each of us may continue to enjoy the rich companionship of the Holy Spirit; that its presence may assist us in finding that which is truly unique within us; and may help us to use this uniqueness in creative ways of service and value to those around us. May we also enjoy the happy result of finding some out there who respond to our gifts of service and love, and who say back to us with their eyes and hearts, “Not bad, not bad!”

[photos] Photography by Marty Mayo