A Writer’s Lent: Wholeness

(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.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of meekness,
of patience,
and of love.

With this post, we have finished up with the first stanza and its four vices, and move to the second stanza with its description of the virtues. The line which is bolded above calls the first virtue “chastity, and if I were actually going to write about chastity here, I would be in for a rough time. The nearest relation to writing that I could think of was the notion of finishing what you start (aka “Stick with your wife”). However, Fr. Alexander Schmemmann has an illuminating discussion of this word in his book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha:

If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness.

If wholeness is the opposite of sloth, then it’s the virtue that I most lack as a writer. I don’t think I’m alone in this. A great many writers find it very difficult to finish anything, while others, like me, finish things but just do it veeeeery slowly. The problem that I have is not that I get distracted by other stories, but mostly that I find it difficult to focus single-mindedly on one story. I do finish everything that I write, but it takes me so long that my total output is very low. The notion of whole-mindedness implies a concentration and a focus that I often lack.

The other element of whole-mindedness which Fr. Schmemmann’s quote illuminates is the idea of seeing the whole. Being able to see the entirety of a work of fiction, including the plot, character arc, setting, etc., especially a longer work, is a skill which I am still developing. This is arguably a matter of craft more than discipline, yet I’d say that it’s still the least developed skill in my writing repertoire. And it is ultimately linked to the problem of writing discipline which I raised above, since inability to take in the whole work is related to the slowness with which I work, and my unwillingness to focus.

Next time: Meekness

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