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In our culture, vice is sexier than virtue. The Seven Deadly Sins are the fun guys. Greed, lust, gluttony; who wouldn’t want to be at that party? Virtues, not so much. We somehow think of virtue as the quiet cousin, the one lurking in the corner of the party, tutting away at everything. What if, though, the holy virtues are the set of conditions which can help us really enjoy the party? Let me be clear here: when I say ‘holy’ I mean creative. For me, the nature of creativity is the nature of the divine. For the Ancient Greeks (who weren’t perfect but did have a few things to say about virtue), aretē – virtue – was less about moral good, the modern cliché, than about practical excellence. Those qualities which will bring us closer, not to heaven, but to our creative muses: what are they?

The American novelist Dani Shapiro (Still Writing), claims:
“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime… It requires endurability.”

Shapiro’s list could read easily enough as a list of the writing virtues. My own list of writerly virtues might include:

Any creative act involves the unknown – the blank page, the empty canvas, the labour ward – and the unknown inevitably involves fear. In my experience these interferences, though no doubt genuine and pressing, are not the main obstacle. Somewhere behind them lies the secret, hidden fear, which gets dressed up. The fear that you won’t succeed – the mortification – or that you will. Or the fear that you’ll touch something, once you start to write, which might open you up so terribly that you’ll never be put together again. Without courage, how is it possible for a writer to face the truth? And truth is the cornerstone of good writing.

Even among the chaos and requirements of everyday living, a desperate desire to write will outweigh the restrictions on time or space or money. Writers who overcome their fear of the unknown (or whose curiosity is stronger than the fear) wake up before their children do, write on the train, throw out the television, live in messy houses – do whatever it takes, in other words, to write the story that they are marked out to tell.

The willingness to attend to the moment, to be present: how else would we make art? The alternative is to endlessly regurgitate what we have already seen, already noticed, already said. The ability to be silent, to be present, to be attentive. That’s creative.

There are other virtues, of course, some we’ve already spoken of: curiosity, commitment, connectedness. What about compassion, humility, bloody-minded determination, hope.

For me, there are four virtues – courage, desperation, attention, curiosity – which form the pillars of my writing life. But these are mine. What are yours? Take some time today to reflect, to think on your own writerly values. Form your own virtuous pillars and let them hold the weight of your own writerly life.

Your prompt for today…