In 1939, at the urging of her sister and as a break from writing a biography of art critic Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf started drafting her memoir, which she later titled “A Sketch of the Past.” It begins with a simple moment:
It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.
Simple, but also profound: a moment of being—of awareness, of feeling, of knowledge, of clarity. Such moments, Woolf acknowledges, are rare: “Every day includes much more non-being than being.” But every so often there is a shock that lifts us out of what she calls the “nondescript cotton wool” of daily life.
In fiction, especially in short stories, we’re used to these moments of clarity rendered as epiphanies. James Joyce is famous for them: when Gabriel at the end of “The Dead” feels a shift in his relationship with his wife; when the narrator of “Araby” recognizes his lack of self-knowledge: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
The word epiphany, from the Greek for “manifestation,” originally described the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi—in the Christian tradition, the turning point of all things, a light shining in the darkness, a moment of the utmost being.
That kind of revelation is a lot for a short story to contain, and even more for a whole tradition of short stories to contain. As Charles Baxter argues, “To adapt this solemn moment for literary purposes . . . was a Promethean gesture: It was an attempt to steal the fires of religion and place them, still burning, in literature.” This is a powerful move for a writer to make, and Baxter is suspicious of it.
The title of the 1997 essay in which Baxter makes this argument is, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Against Epiphanies.” He worries about their prevalence, that there are too many of them. “Some of the most beautiful stories ever written, at least in the last 150 years, follow this pattern” of epiphanies, he observes, but “the mass production of insight, in fiction or elsewhere, is a dubious phenomenon.”
As in fiction, so too in nonfiction. When I teach essay writing— whether creative or academic—I veer away from the term thesis because it all too often forces the writer to conclude with an epiphany: “Therefore I have learned . . .”; “From this experience I realized . . .” (Can you imagine Gabriel Conroy thinking a sentence like this at the end of “The Dead”?) Yes, of course, in an essay you can (try to) prove a thesis; you can argue a point; you can make claims and back them up with evidence. But an essay can also muse, warn, wonder, wander, teach, play, lilt, explore, or, in the words of Jane Alison, meander, spiral, explode.
In fact, when Woolf writes of her epiphanies in “A Sketch of the Past,” they aren’t conclusions, but rather invitations to more thought. The first, she writes, happened when she and her brother were fighting. “Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? . . . I remember the feeling. . . . It was as if I be- came aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness.” Another is more positive: “I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; ‘That is the whole,’ I said. . . . It seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.”
Mary Ruefle has a similar moment of clarity in her essay “I Remember, I Remember”:
I remember—I must have been eight or nine—wandering out to the ungrassed backyard . . . and seeing that the earth was dry and cracked in irregular squares and other shapes and I felt I was looking at a map and I was completely overcome by this description, my first experience of making a metaphor, and I felt weird and shaky and went inside and wrote it down: the cracked earth is a map. Although it only takes a little time to tell it, and it is hardly interesting, it filled a big moment at the time, it was an enormous ever-expanding room of a moment, a chunk of time that has expanded ever since and that my whole life keeps fitting into.
In such moments, as Baxter writes, “the truth of things is so overpowering that one simply has nothing to do and nowhere to move.” They’re like the dolly-zoom effect in film, where, at a climactic moment, we are drawn into a character’s (usually stunned) face as the background seems to recede away.
But later, in writing, these moments can be revisited and examined. “As one gets older,” Woolf writes, “one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and . . . this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. . . . [I] suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.”
To write these experiences takes a deft touch. One way to stay light handed is to reveal the experience—the sound of waves, the needless fight, the wholeness of a flower, the cracked earth map—but to allow the epiphany, as Sarah Einstein has put it, to happen “off the page and in the reader’s mind.” Dinty W. Moore shows us why this is such a powerful move in his essay “Rivering.” Searching for a way to express and teach “the intuitive vapor of emotion, metaphor, image, and idea that makes a piece of creative nonfiction—an essay, a memoir—more than just a collection of scenes or observations, something greater than the sum of its many parts,” he explains, he chose the term “invisible magnetic river.” Why invisible?
Because thesis sentences are dull, flat, and awkward.
Because once you say a thing out loud it will often become less potent.
Because a truth you discover for yourself will always be more powerful than a truth someone else tries to impose upon you.
Because in an essay . . . the truth is sometimes not in the words, but between them, in the permeable tissue that runs from moment to moment.
This permeable tissue—all those linked moments of being—shows us who we are, what we think, and how we feel. Woolf believed that “behind the cotton wool [of everyday life] is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art. . . . We are the music; we are the thing itself.” We can’t feel that enormity all the time. We can’t always be lit by Promethean fire.
But every so often, a shock reveals that hidden pattern. In life, it’s out of our control; it comes when it wills. But in writing, with skill and attention, we can sometimes evoke a singular moment of clarity—a manifestation, a shining forth of pure being, a transcendence of life’s nondescript cotton wool—for our readers.