What Writers Can Learn from the Prodigal Son Story

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Bret Mavrich. Bret is a writer and missionary living in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow him on Twitter @BretMavrich and on his blog.

Writing is an act of redemption, an effort to understand and make sense of chaos and difficulty, an exercise in connecting with the themes that run deep in every human heart.

A writer ought to meet every challenge with the same reckless extravagance that we see in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son. For those of you unfamiliar with it, here is the gist:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living…

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

Luke 15:11-13, 20

The word prodigal is commonly mistaken for a synonym of wayward, and thus is almost always applied to the son in the story. The correct definition, however, means “wastefully extravagant.”

Return of the Prodigal Son
Photo credit: Jorge Elias (Creative Commons)

The story ends happily only because the son’s costly mistakes are met with the lavish forgiveness of his father.

Understood rightly, this is the story of the Prodigal Dad, a man who is generous to a fault, a giving-fool who will spend everything in his power to set things right.

Had the father been tightfisted, stingy, and calloused, the story would have offered us little hope: we already know what it is like to turn our lives into a pigsty.

What we need is a vision that things can be fixed.

The surest way to inspire: Spend it all

Annie Dillard puts it this way:

One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.

Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.

Something more will arise for later, something better.

Reckless extravagance is the only way to write something of beauty and meaning

So why is it that nothing makes a miser out of me like a great idea for an article?

One of the greatest temptations any writer faces is the temptation to write something boring lest we show our hand and waste what might have been our book deal, masterpiece, or claim to fame.

It is as if we identify with the shame of the prodigal son, as if we had already spent what was best, and can now only offer our readers meager rations that are sure to be rejected.

We are so in touch with regret and past failures that we can sometimes hardly bring ourselves to do an about-face and look at the future, at what could be, at the redemption that might be possible if we could gaze long enough to put it down on paper.

Our hindsight kills our foresight

Writing is not for the calculated soul who might creep forward, weighing whether or not they will receive the appropriate amount of credit or praise, or wonder whether or not their failures disqualify them.

Instead, we must adopt the approach of the Prodigal Father, an exuberant spend-thrift who holds nothing back regardless of the cost or what may be tomorrow.

We writers must always spend, spend, spend our most vibrant metaphor, our fullest idom, our most daring prose, and  today’s fantastic and illuminating thoughts.

Nobody wants to suffer through frugal drivel

Wanton writing is the only writing that is read, for it is the only writing that echoes the lavish redemption we all hunger for. To be a writer is to be generous to a fault, foolhardy, the exact opposite of measured.

As agents of redemption, must learn to silence the voices of caution that antagonize our confidence, squelch the fear of never being recognized, and focus our heart and soul on the project at hand as though it we see in it the life we prize crawling back to us from a distance.

If we do that, we just might turn into the spend-thrift saints who, with a foolhardy disregard for fame and fortune, waste our best prose and say something that someone needs to hear, a written act of redemption full of daring, compassion, and insight.

This is the kind of writing we writers long to produce

And it just so happens to be the kind of writing the world needs to read.

Do you recklessly spend every word that you have to write, or do you hold back? Why? Join the discussion in the comments.

*Photo credit: Jorge Elias (Creative Commons)