A Writer’s Lent: Humility

(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 humility,
of patience,
and of love.

Aside from idleness, this is probably the line of St. Ephraim’s prayer which is the easiest to apply to writing. The ways in which a writer must be humble are both numerous and obvious.

A writer must accept criticism, and he has to accept it with a smile. He must accept it from a multitude of sources: from beta readers, from fellow writers, from agents, from editors, from reviewers. He must accept it gladly, because all of this criticism will almost always make his work better. If you don’t have humility before you begin this process, you’ll certainly have it afterwards.

The tricky part is realizing that humility doesn’t require you to unconditionally agree with your critics. The writer has to disentangle his ego from his work—this is what humility means, after all—and he has to be able to recognize when his critics are telling him something true, and when they’re wrong. He also has to recognized when they have correctly identified a problem, but are mistaken about the solution. And he has to do all of this without falling into the trap of discouragement and despair, which is one of the vices mentioned earlier in the prayer.

In fact, if we take the four virtues of this prayer as corresponding to the vices, we see that humility is the counterpoint to discouragement. That’s an interesting correlation, because it reminds us that humility doesn’t just protect us from the over-large ego, but from the overly fragile one as well. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that a truly humble artist simply doesn’t care where he ranks, because he is simply trying to create the best art that he is capable of. I can’t think of any better way to apply humility to the writer’s life. If we tie our sense of self-worth and validity as an artist to our commercial or critical success, we will always ricochet between the extremes of hubris and despair. The only way to write and maintain your sanity is to approach your craft with humility and honesty.

I honestly feel like I do well in this department. I have the confidence to send my work out without fear, but I don’t hesitate to listen to my critiquers and beta readers when they tell me about flaws. (Look at how humble I am! Whee!)

Next time: Patience.

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