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)

41 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn from the Prodigal Son Story

  1. Great post.  Loved how you worded this…”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.”  I will be following.

    1. Thanks, Eileen. I love the name of your blog, “The Scenic Route.” This snipet from one of your more recent posts resonated with me:

       I graduated with an English degree and then stopped writing. The idea of putting words down on paper scared me. 

      That’s my story too. Thanks for jumping in.

      1. I’m beginning to realize many people share this story of fear and writing.  Thanks so much for stopping by my blog.  I appreciate it.    Look forward to reading more from you.

        1. Hello, Eileen and Jeff!  Normally I don’t comment, but I couldn’t resist this time.  I have the same story!  I was an English major in college, so I wrote a ton of essays critiquing books, and even some fictional pieces for a creative writing class.  Once I left college, though, and entered the real world, my writing dried up.  Just like you said, I was scared to death of having it torn to shreds by unsympathetic outsiders. 

          I finally had the courage to join a writer’s group last month, but it didn’t do much for my courage.  One lady  had written three novels, but (in response to a question from another member), spent several minutes talking about the endless rejection notices she had gotten, even from literary agents, let alone publishers.  She had given trying to write professionally, she told us sadly.  Wow.  Something like that scares the heck out of a newby writer like me.

          1. Lolly,

            Thanks for your response to my response. 🙂  Since I started writing again I’ve learned the joy of writing just for the sake of writing.  Sure, I would love to get to the point where someday something I write could be published.  But, more than anything, I write because I love to do it.  So thankful I finally faced my fear and started again.  Glad you are discovering this too!  It’s worth it. 🙂

          2. Lolly, 

            I highly recommend @michaelhyatt:disqus  ‘s blog.  As the former CEO of Thomas Nelson books, he is a bottomless well of publishing insights. Just a few months reading his blog has infused me with new passion.

            Also, I wrote a few follow up posts to my guest post over at my blog:

            5 Skills for Writers https://wp.me/p1EcMh-bd

            Prodigal Writer: The Wisdom of Waste https://wp.me/p1EcMh-dd

            Hope that helps. Thanks again for chiming in.

    2. PS: I just published a follow-up post to this one on my blog entitled, Prodigal Writer: The Wisdom of Waste. You’d probably dig it. https://wp.me/p1EcMh-dd

  2. I like the writing advice here…seems solid.

    As a lover of Scripture, however, I’m not a big fan of the hijacking of the Prodigal Son to arrive at this point.  Whatever weight it might lend to your overall point, and however good that point might be, the end result is a cheapening of Scripture.  Such is the only end to the allegorizing of the Biblical narrative, extracting general life principles which can be applied in this situation or that: writing or work or parenting or vacationing.

    I like the way Matt Chandler critiqued this method of approaching Scripture: “David and Goliath is not about you conquering your giants.  That’s stupid.  David and Goliath is about one man conquering the unconquerable giant; a foreshadowing for Jesus’ own conquering of sin and death.” (That’s my paraphrase)

    Alternatively, perhaps writing that emerges from a place of having been shown extravagant love – which we each have by Christ – will be that which is best.  Writing which is not afraid to waste it all because that is the natural thing to do when you have been given everything, that kind of writing inspires.

    And, even better, it points readers to source of such excellent writing, which is Christ.

      1. Hey Jeff,

        I’m not denying the existence of eternal principles outright.  I think Scripture lays out a number of principles which find all kinds of application in our daily lives.

        The question is whether that is the goal of stories like the Prodigal Son or David and Goliath.  Are they meant to be a sort of spiritual fable from which we glean an overarching principle about how to live our lives, like the Tortoise and the Hare?  

        What do you think?

          1. Some stories, sure.  But who assigns that meaning?  And on what basis? And at what point does allegorizing do an injustice to the literal, historical value of the story being told?

    1. Jesse,

      Thanks for jumping in. I’m going to ask that we refrain from a theological discussion per se since that is beyond the scope of Jeff’s blog, suffice to say that I adore your Christ-exalting hermeneutic. Let’s take it up via email?

      I’d instead like to emphasize an undercurrent in my post, that Jesus, by telling this simple story, has so captivated the hearts and hopes of all people that the image of the “Prodigal Son” is retold all throughout western society.  The story of extravagant redemption finds no other source apart from the Christian tradition, yet it is utterly pervasive in western thought. I find that astounding.  My hope is that the story of undeserved, expensive redemption would be echoed in ten thousand stories for this current generation.

      1. Hi Bret,

        Thanks for a thoughtful response and I respect your request to not have the theological discussion here.  I’d love to continue the conversation, though!

        My email address is medinajg3@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing from you!

  3. Bret, first of all, this is great. Second, anyone who quotes Annie Dillard is a friend of mine! I just two weekends ago read through “The Writing Life” which you quote here and underlined this part. There is a temptation to save up the best, and your description of reckless writing is fitting. For me to write, I need to be consumed by an idea, not copywriting and calculating for blog hits. 

    1. You know what’s funny? Just prior to posting this I deleted not one but two apps from my iPhone that gave me instant analytics stats. Talk about consumed. It’s time to just write and engage. 

  4. Great post, Bret. From reading some of the comments below, I resist the urge to think too hard about it. The Prodigal Son is such a great parable that certainly had an applicable point that Jesus made. To take a story of any kind and come away with something that helps, not at the expense of negating the original intent, is fine. Good, in fact.

    Thanks for sharing some solid insight on something you took away from a great story.

  5. Really solid points, Bret.  If I’m not writing my very best every time I write…what am I doing it for?  Saving a bullet in the chamber for later when the wolf is bearing down on you isn’t wise; it’s stupid.  Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. I have been guilty of holding back, afraid that the effort may not have the desired outcome, instead of leaving the outcome where it belongs (in God’s hands). That is, until about 6 weeks ago when I surrendered to what numerous “successful” writers had told me over and over again. “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day.” When would I write? I thought. My days are already full. So I started getting up at 4:30am so I could write from 5-7am. It’s amazing what happens when you listen and act on good counsel!

    I think Steven Pressfield (in The War of Art) said something like, “Writing isn’t hard; it’s sitting down to write that’s hard.”

    Thanks for the post.

    1. I absolutely love that Steve Pressfield quote. Thanks for sharing, Richard.
      So, what we’re dying to know: what are you sitting down exactly to write every morning? Novel? Magazine article? Do tell.

  7. Love this, Bret. Thank you to Jeff for hosting this great guest post (just started following Bret on Twitter!) When I begin a blog post, I liken it to “throwing up on the page”… a not so nice way of saying: I write down everything I’m hoping to communicate about the topic at hand, saving editing and wordsmithing for later. I blog about The You Evolution™, challenging you to be the best YOU you can be in and through your relationships. I blog here: https://www.donnasmaldone.com/

  8. Thank you Bret for making me think – and thank you Jeff for your inspired posts and inspirational guests.  I only write when it comes rushing out of me. I have 3 very young children, so the times that I write they are often throwing food like confetti and I am tearing at the keys and (shame-on-me) not present. And so, because my time is borrowed, I only leave everything I have on the page. It is my outpouring. *I need it* as much as I want my message to reach those who don’t feel they have a voice.
    If I can, I also want to say that although I am no one in this intimidating world of authors, I love reading the comments on your posts. I feel close to the language spoken here, and I’m so glad I’ve found this place.

  9. I like the prodigal dad…the giving fool:) To spend it all when I’m writing…is something I need to learn to do…lavishly!  Thanks for the inspiring post  🙂

Comments are closed.