Writing for the Common Man

Frivolity has nothing to do with happiness. It plays upon the surface of things, and the surface is almost always rough and uneven. The frivolous person is the person who cannot fully appreciate the weight and value of anything. In practice he does not appreciate even the weight and value of the things commonly counted frivolous. He does not enjoy his cigars as the gutter boy enjoys his cigarette; he does not enjoy his ballet as the child enjoys “Punch and Judy”. But, in fairness to him, it must be admitted that he is not alone in being frivolous: other classes of men share the reproach.

Thus, for instance, bishops are generally frivolous, moral teachers are generally frivolous, statesmen are generally frivolous, conscientious objectors are generally frivolous. Philosophers and poets are often frivolous; politicians are always frivolous. For if frivolity signifies this lack of grasp of the fullness and the value of things, it must have a great many forms besides that of mere levity and pleasure-seeking.

From “The Frivolous Man,” published in G.K. Chesterton’s collection of essays titled The Common Man.

I felt myself accused of this last night, of giving too much weight to certain scenes or certain ideas in my writing. Of becoming frivolous in my use of language, using obscure references or words simply because I can, rather than because they were warranted. In this essay, Chesterton is really addressing the question of the third commandment, that “”you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” He argues that using God’s name frivolously, as if it means nothing, is much worse than using it to curse, or as an exclamation when you hurt yourself, or using it childishly. That to use the Lord’s name in vain is just that: to use it without meaning or consequence.

Beyond this issue of theology, I took Chesterton’s words to heart regarding my own writing, but in that arena it is less obvious where fault lies and what I can do to correct the matter. Is it truly frivolous to use larger and/or more specific words? If so, Chesterton was certainly a frivolous man, as his poetry would testify. Or is it, as we concluded at small group last night, the intent of the person that decides frivolity? Two people can say the same thing, one meaning nothing much by his words and the other whispering them as a matter of life and death.

When I cast around for an example of someone who is not frivolous, I think first of Joey Comeau, strangely enough. I’m not sure I could bring myself to even emulate his style, as it seems to me to stem from a lifestyle that, though I find it adventurous and exciting, I’m not terribly interested in. Nevertheless, I am prompted to examine my writing more (at least, when I start really writing again) to ensure it actually means something, that I’m writing for a purpose, and that I am achieving my goal of communicating rather than just spitting words onto a page.

In other news, I leave tomorrow for HELIX, a conference at Tan-Tar-A down at the Lake of the Ozarks. I’m speaking on the topic of Publications for Public Relations, which is a fancy (and alliterative!) way to label a speech about web design, newsletters, and getting people to pay attention to what you’re saying. It should be good times.

Be back on Friday. Until then.

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