I’ve spent a lot of my recent spiritual wandering thinking about the idea of creativity and what role it can play in a spiritual life, and how I can better implicate it into my everyday practices. It’s a not a quandary with a quick answer, but one that is answered in endless and varied ways. After watching a recently released series of short films, The Adam and Eve Series, I was inspired by the quality of the production, moved by the humor and realness of the characters, and reaffirmed in my notion that creativity within spirituality is most definitely worth pursuing. I could say a lot about what I love about the Adam and Eve Series, but I would rather you spend your time reading through the well-articulated and thoughtful responses of its creators, Davey and Bianca Morrison Dillard. This is the first in a series of spotlights and interviews with people who are pursuing creativity within their mormonhood. The interview questions are in italics and I’ve bolded some of my favorite lines from Davey and Bianca, but the entire interview is most definitely worth your time.
The Adam and Eve series you’ve both created is clearly based on some speculation, tell us more about that process. Did you find it to be a spiritual process to really try to spend time with Adam and Eve in a way that you probably had not before?
D: I’m not sure I’d ever really given a lot of thought to Adam and Eve before I wrote this first script, but, since that first question that seemed to come out of nowhere (what would it be like “dating” the only other person in the world?), the Adam and Eve story has become central to my personal and spiritual growth. Speculating on all that the text doesn’t provide us became a kind of spiritual meditation, and actually writing the scripts was kind of like writing midrash in screenplay format. For me, the Adam and Eve story seems to have more packed into it per word count than maybe any other story in scripture. In addition to all that, the story has taken on a cultural life of its own, to the point that this story no longer just about what’s in Genesis, but also all of the baggage that’s been added to it over millennia. It’s a story about the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, innocence and knowledge, sex and relationships, the idea of paradise, and the realization that one day you are going to die. At the heart of it is the question we, as Mormons, rightly ask a lot: Why did Eve eat the fruit? Was it curiosity? Courage? Naivete? A desire to grow and experience new things even if they’re hard? A recognition that virtue is about more than easy obedience? Or was it maybe some combination of all of it? Those are all questions and ideas we explore more as the series goes on. This all makes it sound pretty solemn and serious, and I think they’re important ideas, but they’re also born from a place of playfulness. It’s a comedy.
B: Speculative and imaginative looks at the scriptures, especially in the performance arts, feels sort of second nature to me. Perhaps it comes from years of producing Mormon plays, many of which were successfully speculative in nature about the scriptures. Perhaps it’s because, as a Mormon, I come from a tradition that holds most dear a ritual that is a performance of scripture itself–scripture that expands on what we find in the Bible, scripture that we believe is for a new audience, a latter-day audience. So it feels appropriate that, as artists, the possibility is open for us to do something similar–of course, on much less sacred level. We aren’t claiming that Adam and Eve is scripture, of course, but it is something that is deeply personal to us and a reflection of our experiences with each other and with the divine.
More personally, as I’ve worked on this project, and, at the same time, spent a good deal of my time working with the LGBT and Mormon community, I have been acutely aware of how religious stories can be weaponized. I’ve had to work through some discomfort with telling yet another heteronormative story–perhaps the most heteronormative story of all, on its face. It felt important to tell this story, to tell a story that on every level is pretty intensely personal, but it also felt scary to put something out there that was based on a story that is so often used as a weapon of do’s and don’t–not only for the LGBT community, but for women and for men (especially those women and men that, like Davey and I, may not always fit into the tidy gender normative boxes).
I guess what I came to, and it felt like an answer to prayer, was that the only way we can hope to disarm stories that may be used as a weapon is to tell them from our unique perspective, infused with our own very real and sometimes untidy experiences. That telling a story from a unique perspective might open the door for others to do the same (whether it be through retellings, not-retellings, or any other kinds of stories). That the antidote for stories that are used to harm is not to shy away from storytelling because of a fear that your story will be used for harm. The answer is not less storytelling–it’s more storytelling. It’s honest storytelling. (Of course, that may be tooting my own horn to say that our story is honest, but it feels honest to us–maybe a little too honest.) It’s a recognition that my story is not necessarily your story, and that’s okay. You should tell your story too–even if it’s not my story.
What role do you think speculation or other types of creative processes can play in our spiritual unfoldings? Are they experiences we should seek out and if so, why?
B: In our religious experience, we are admonished to liken the scriptures unto ourselves. In our artistic training, we are likewise taught to get personal–to tell the story that we have within us, that in the gritty specifics of our own lives we find a window into a kind of universal connection with each other. So it makes sense that Adam & Eve is what would come out of that, first with Davey’s script, then with the rest of the scripts in the series, and finally in the making of the thing. I think there is a lot of value in thinking of religious figures as human beings. To me, it feels like doing the work to understand them is the same work as honoring them. And, similarly, I think embodying a framework or an archetype that we are all familiar with through the lens of our own story is a helpful way of exploring it ourselves and sharing it with others. I think, at its core, our version of Adam & Eve is a story about people making their way in a world that no longer seems as certain as it once did. The idea that God may not be in our physical presence carrying on a conversation with us, but that we can find other ways to find Him, to feel His presence. And that relationships (especially, but not limited to new relationships) can feel uncertain in very specific ways–they are scary and exciting and filled with discovery. So what better way to get at all of that than by raising the stakes, making it the first new relationship, the relationship on which every other possible relationship is predicated? The first people to feel the acute distance from their Heavenly Parents. I think the framework of a shared story, a shared jumping off point, allows us to get at those things in ways that we couldn’t quite do, in the same way, any other way. And, I mean, of course, we aren’t the first to do it–re-tellings of these foundational stories have been a tool used since the first story was told and then some other wise guy thought he had something to add. An insight to contribute.
It feels particularly rewarding to be exploring a story in this way that has such deep spiritual ties. Bottom line for me is that spirituality and creativity are quite linked. In examining these stories, in examining myself, I feel as though I’m drawing closer to the divine. In sharing these stories, in sharing myself in these stories, it feels like a bearing of my testimony, a baring of my soul in a way that feels like it can only be accomplished through embodied story telling–and it feels scary and it feels essential to my progression as artist, as person, as spirit. (If that feels too dramatic, listen, my degree is in theatre.)
D: I think creativity is a form of spirituality and I think spirituality is a form of creativity. Both are about trying to tap into another, unseen world, probing the mystery, searching for truth and beauty. In a sense, they’re both about us leaving Eden and also longing for it–venturing out on our own and trying to discover, rediscover, recapture, recover an idea of paradise, transformed through the lens of experience, maturity, and hopefully some wisdom. This idea of speculation, specifically speculation on scripture (or “likening” them), is, I think, a process of asking questions. Recognizing that we don’t know everything, that we’ll never know everything. And art and religion are really just different sets of tools to probe those questions–different objects and processes for our meditation. One thing I love about Mormon theology is the conception of perfection as a process as opposed to a destination. I find this particularly comforting as someone who likes to make things. The thing never quite seems to end up just the way you imagined it, and that can be frustrating if you give in to perfectionism, or it can be liberating, a fun, unexpected surprise that focuses you on the process rather than just the end product. Asking questions, remaining open, playing, prodding, exploring–those are all inextricably bound up for me with both creativity and spirituality.
You say that the first script came about in a couple of hours back in 2009, but surely there must have been a lot of time wondering about the story and perhaps religion in general, tell us about the impetus for the project.
D: It was really the question that opened up the Adam & Eve story to me when I first had the idea and started writing, at least on the first script (which became the first three episodes of the web series). In that way, writing was the process of exploration, rather than the result of it. I had definitely been thinking and wondering and asking questions about religion more broadly for a long time, however. These first stories come very directly from the experience of navigating romance and sexuality from a very Mormon (and, as a result, very sexually repressed) place. I think Mormons tend to have a very Adam and Eve-like experience with sex–we tend to live in a state of total innocence, and literally overnight the rules change completely. When I first wrote this script, I was single, just about to start dating Bianca, and I think the story came from realizing that Adam and Eve were a fun and interesting jumping off point for asking these questions. What is it like when everything changes? How does that change a relationship? In what ways might that be good, in what ways might that be bad? How is the faith necessary to make the leap into a relationship like the faith necessary to have a relationship with God, especially in a world where so many things seem uncertain? I was 19 when I wrote the original version of the script, and I had only recently come to the prayerful realization that serving a mission probably wouldn’t be the best fit for me. That was also weighing on my mind. Suddenly the world of easy answers and simple obedience that I had lived in for the past two decades was changing. Suddenly I realized that I was having to figure things out for myself. So I was either in the middle or on the threshold of all these questions myself. And I was realizing that, at least for me, spirituality isn’t about staying in Eden. It’s about navigating the lone and dreary world. And maybe that’s what paradise really is–finding God when you thought God had left you.
The first three episodes are rife with the intersection of tension and tenderness, they seem to be crossing paths every minute or so, why was it important to include emotions like annoyance, immaturity, and pettiness, along with kindness, understanding and patience? How did those emotions change your relationship to the Adam and eve story that we all grew up knowing?
D: That’s a great observation. On a very basic level, that tension in the relationship is the conflict necessary to drive the story forward. The central dramatic question is whether these two people who are stuck together, who don’t really know exactly how to interact without hurting each other’s feelings, are ever going to really come together (and stay together) or not. And those kinds of conflicts are worked through and resolved through things like kindness, understanding, and patience. And grace. The fact that any relationship ever works out always feels like a miracle to me–especially when you’re right at the beginning of that relationship and a lot of things still feel uncertain. Which I think gets at another answer to the question, which is that a big part of the premise of this story was considering the fact that maybe Adam and Eve were moody, confused teenagers like me, thrust into a cosmically confusing situation and having to make the best of it–or at least maybe there’s something we can gain from the story by thinking of them in that way. Going back to Mormonism, I’ve always admired the audacity of Joseph Smith literally claiming the Adam and Eve story as an American story. I guess, in a way, I was claiming a story that had always felt kind of distant and removed from me as my own. As a story about adolescent fumbling and romantic yearning and spiritual longing–and also a story that would appeal to a kid who was really into Woody Allen movies and 1930s screwball comedies.
B: I think we are used to depictions of biblical figures that are more like statues, than living, breathing human beings. They are either all good or all bad–or all good one moment and all bad the next. And I think those depictions are often lovely and important. But if those are the only depictions, I think we miss something. We may miss an opportunity.
I’ve often had conversations with friends where they said that Mormonism didn’t get real, or really personal for them until they found out that Joseph Smith was a real, breathing, flawed, complicated human being, that he didn’t just do impossible heroic and saintly and prophetic things, that he also did some questionable things, some weird things, some really incomprehensible things. That he made mistakes. That he had a sense of humor.
It feels like, if the saintly can, at the same time, be complicated, flawed human beings, and I’m a complicated, flawed human being, then perhaps I can at the same time also be saintly–that’s not out of my reach.
How has being a mormon influenced your need for creativity?
B: In every way. Many of my strengths and weaknesses as a creator and a collaborator are directly tied to the way that I’ve internalized Mormonism. My need to create comes from a deeply spiritual, and, I think, uniquely Mormon place. As does my self-doubt and my insecurities about the fact that I’ve chosen the path of creativity, and about the things I create.
In the case of Adam & Eve, specifically, Mormonism has certainly influenced the way we’re telling this story. Eve is the central figure. She is not the epitome of all evil and sin, but a follower of God, a trailblazer–the original trailblazer that made it possible for the rest of us to blaze our own trails. Eve is all of those things in the Mormon tradition, and it was important for us to honor that here.
D: The need to create is at the heart of Mormonism in a very fundamental way. Our ideas about eternal progression and our aspirations to become like God are all, on some level, a divine extension our creative potential as human beings. I think Mormonism has been one of the greatest influences in my need to create, just as I think my need to create has been one of my greatest influences in my being a Mormon. To me, they feel like the same thing–a way of approaching life as a journey towards mystery, meaning, beauty, truth, understanding, transcendence, and deification.
How do you use creativity in your personal spiritual life?
D: I doodle at church, for one thing. Really, though, I kind of see my creative life and my spiritual life as the same thing. Both are about seeking out and studying beautiful texts that uplift and inspire. Both are about quiet moments of contemplation, introspection, meditation, and trying to align yourself with a higher power. Both are about taking inspiration and converting it into action. And, in the case of a collaborative art form like film, both are about learning to serve and operate as a member of a community. So I feel like if there is a distinction, that it’s between two parts of my life that operate in symbiosis. To me, the relationship is so close that I don’t know how to extricate the one from the other. Working with people I love and care about to express ourselves through the creation of beautiful things, inspired by so many other beautiful things, feels to me like a way of doing God’s work.
B: Similar to Davey, I feel like my spiritual life and my creative life are most fulfilling when the creativity feels spiritual and when the spirituality feels creative. Not that I feel the need to create things that are explicitly religious in content–that’s frequently not the case. But much of my study at BYU was about how the two go hand in hand, and that’s the way I’ve always felt about it. I’m grateful to have had an education that helped me to see those correlations on a deeper, more personal level, and I’m grateful to have been able to practice my discipline in an environment that often encouraged that overlap instead of pitting the one against the other.
How would you encourage others to be more creative?
D: Make something! Fear is usually what keeps us back from most things. Fear that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we’ll fail, that we’ll look stupid, whatever. That critical voice in your head is important, but you can’t use it to shape and refine something that doesn’t exist yet. So to be more creative, you really just have to create. Make it a practice–a spiritual practice like prayer, scripture study, or meditation, something that you do every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Journals are a marvelous creative outlet, and you can fill them with all kinds of things–not just what you did that day, but also what you thought, questions you’ve had, interesting things you read or saw, doodles, poems, ideas for stories, whatever. However you create, do it in the way that makes sense to you, that’s exciting to you, and that’s fulfilling for you. And, if you’re a creator in a collaborative field (like film or theater), try to find ways to be creative that you have some control over. Those collaborative disciplines are tricky because you often feel like your ability to work is at the mercy of others–of being cast in something, of getting money, of people donating their time. Find projects you can do for little or no money by yourself or with a small group of friends. Also find other creative outlets that aren’t dependent on coordinating the mutual enthusiasms of a lot of busy things–solitary things like writing, drawing, painting, sculpture, or playing an instrument allow you a creative outlet that you can do whenever you have a few minutes. Other than that, learn to ask questions. Creativity feeds on curiosity, and also nourishes it.
You write that you used as your mantra for the project: “It’s not going to be perfect. So let it be fun instead.” Can you talk more about that? How did letting go of perfection influence the project? Was it fun? If so, what is the value of “fun” in spiritual endeavors?
D: It was incredibly fun. And I don’t know if it would have been if I hadn’t gone in trying to focus on that mindset. Film, more than any other process I know, can be unbelievably taxing, frustrating, stressful, and disappointing. You never have the time or money you wish you did, and there are a million technical, logistical, creative, and other ways for something to go wrong or to just not quite turn out the way it should. We tried to design our schedule with this in mind so that we weren’t constantly rushing ourselves, but it’s still important to go in knowing that things aren’t always going to go according to plan so you’re not discouraged when they inevitably don’t. I‘ve been discouraged by projects in the past as a result of my perfectionism, and this time I wanted to focus on embracing the chaos and uncertainty as an exciting and exhilarating part of the process, rather than seeing it as an enemy. I found that consciously trying to focus on this attitude transformed the stress into something fun rather than something draining, an adventure with friends and loved ones rather than a grueling shooting schedule to be endured more than enjoyed. As a result, this shoot was the most fun I’ve had in years. And, paradoxically, in letting go of perfection, I felt like we were able to wind up making something of which I’ve felt more proud than almost anything else I’ve worked on. There are always a lot of things I wish I could personally go back and do differently–but the difference this time was that I came to accept that inevitability going in, and not let it prevent us from taking chances together. And you can more or less take that same mindset and apply it to almost anything else in life. We all have a tendency to look forward to how things are eventually going to work themselves out, and it’s easy to be disappointed with that mindset. Things usually work out for the best when you focus on finding value in the present moment.
Thank you, Davey and Bianca, for such thoughtful and useful responses to these questions. If you haven’t yet, head over to the Adam and Eve Series to see the first three episodes.