A Writer’s Lent: Vain Speaking

(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

I said last time that we writers have one power: the power to write a good story. Now let us consider what a great and serious power that is. A good story will inspire or terrify; it will teach you truth and beauty; it will make you recognize lies; it will change your life. I dare say that those of us who want to write have embarked on this vocation because we’ve been transformed by the books that we’ve read, so we know firsthand the power of a story well-told. How should we approach our calling, if not with fear and trembling?

When I speak this way, I have to quickly disavow two common misconceptions. The first is the notion that stories must have a Message. This is a terrible mistake. Stories which are deliberately written with a Message tend to be terrible, and even when they’re good they often succeed in spite of their Message, and not because of it. The writer has a responsibility to avoid vain, empty talk, but she does not have any duty to give a sermon. On the contrary, sermonizing usually undermines the writer’s real efforts.

The other misconception is to think that writing must be Serious, and must absolutely not be Fun. After all, if writing is a serious business, then surely we have to write about serious things. But come on: I’m a genre writer, so I will take a story about dragons and spaceships and explosions over a self-serious, “literary” work any day. Let us banish all shame in writing a pulpy adventure story or a steamy romance. However, we must recognize that even the most gonzo space opera contains within it a vision of goodness. You have a hero: what are his heroic qualities, and what will your readers learn to imitate from him? Or maybe you have merely a collection of antiheroes: what does this choice say about the world?

As writers, we have to tell the truth in our fictions. When the zombies attack, when you find the Ring of Power, when Mr. Darcy comes with a proposal, what will you do? What will your characters do? And what will these choices say about the good, the true, and the beautiful? Is your story telling the truth in what it says?

Let us put aside vain speaking, which entrenches prejudice, ugliness, and despair. We have better things to do.

Next time: This is the last of the vices in the Prayer of St. Ephraim, so we move on to the second stanza of the prayer and begin with the virtues.

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